Almond Eye did not disappoint in her international debut on Dubai World Cup Day at Meydan Racecourse in the United Arab Emirates, as the Japan Racing Association’s reigning Horse of the Year turned heads with an effortless victory in the Grade 1 Dubai Turf on Saturday.
Almond Eye, the headline act among nine runners from Japan attending the world’s richest meet, picked up right where she left off last season, when the Sakae Kunieda-trained superstar became only the fifth horse ever to net the Japanese filly’s Triple Crown before smashing the world 2,400-meter record at the Japan Cup in November.
Making her 2019 debut in the first overseas race of her exploding career, the 4-year-old Almond Eye showed no signs of rust in the 1,800-meter Dubai Turf in holding off compatriot and the race’s 2017 champion, Vivlos, by a length and a quarter to pick up a winner’s check of US$ 3.6 million. A third Japanese horse in the field of 13, Deirdre, took fourth place as Japan just missed out on a podium sweep.
Kunieda failed to suppress a smile after his Lord Kanaloa filly, the betting favorite, lived up to top billing as she rattled off her fifth successive G1 win under Frenchman Christophe Lemaire. Almond Eye is the fifth Dubai Turf winner from Japan, following in the footsteps of Admire Moon (2007), Just a Way (2014), Real Steel (2016) and Vivlos.
“She traveled nice and easy,” Kunieda said. “She came out wide turning for home so we didn’t have to worry about her being boxed in. Felt good about her chances from start to finish.”
“I thought she’d have an easier time but what a horse Vivlos is; you just have to tip your hat to her. I was wondering myself what kind of a performance she’d turn in but I’d give her a 9 out of 10 tonight.”
Lemaire barely broke a sweat as he watched his mount win the race on virtual auto-pilot from the saddle. Doing most of the work, Almond Eyeleft her stall smoothly, traveled mid-pack before safely avoiding traffic on the final straight to go under the wire in 1 minute, 46.78 seconds.
Lemaire was comfortable enough and had the wiggling room to sneak a peak at the horses trailing behind him before cracking the whip a couple of times to ensure the win for his filly.
“She was calm like she always is after the start. She started going on her own as we came around the bend. She was very responsive and finished out the race in her usual style. I knew we had it won with 400 meter to go,” said Lemaire, who also rode Rey de Oro in the Dubai Sheema Classic (sixth) and Derma Louvre in the G2 UAE Derby (fourth).
Saturday’s performance further lifted the already high expectations for Almond Eye – out of the Sunday Silence mare Fusaichi Pandora - in this year’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Europe’s most prestigious race which Japanese racing covets more than any race on the planet, but has yet to capture. Japan has been runner-up four times in the Arc, El Condor Pasain 1999, Nakayama Festa in 2010 and Orfevre in 2012 and 2013.
“I want to take her to the Arc if everything works out so she’ll probably run somewhere in Europe before that, I think,” said Kunieda.
The Dubai Turf was also the swan song for 6-year-old mare Vivlos, who finished runner-up for the second straight year. Vivlos, trained by Yasuo Tomomichi and ridden by Mickael Barzalona, closed the race strong but came up short only because of the brilliance of Almond Eye.
“The jockey stuck to our plan and rode her perfectly – the positioning, the timing on the straight, everything went right,” Tomomichi recalled. “It was her third time in Dubai and she clearly seems to really like Dubai and we’re really grateful of all that she achieved at this place. She’s calling it a career now but I hope to be back in Dubai with her kid one day.”
Added Barzalona, “She ran a perfect race. She was struggling to settle early on but I managed to control her to move into a good position. We waited for our moment right behind Almond Eye and she was exceptional down the homestretch.”
* DUBAI WORLD CUP (G1, 2,000m Dirt, US$ 12 million, 20:40)
- K T Brave : Scratched
* UAE DERBY (G2, 1,900m Dirt, US$ 2.5 million, 18:05)
- Derma Louvre : 4th
* GODOLPHIN MILE (G2, 1,600m Dirt, US$ 1.5 million, 16:15)
- Nonkono Yume : 10th