There are no foreign invaders in this year’s lineup and that may be due to the strong local team headed by Japan’s 2018 Horse of the Year – Almond Eye.
The superstar filly is considered pretty near almighty and all eyes are on her, her trainer Sakae Kunieda and jockey Christophe Lemaire, as trackmen and fans search for indications that she may not be up to her best. The prevailing sentiment, however, is that she is good to go.
A daughter of sprint champion Lord Kanaloa, Almond Eye is currently seven for eight in her career and on a seven-race winning streak. Her past five victories have all been at the top level, including last year’s Japan Cup. She returns to the mile for the first time since the 2018 G1 Oka Sho, but is unbeaten in three races over the mile, including a win at Tokyo.
Lemaire rode her in fast work on Wednesday and said, “She moved very nicely. Her footwork was better than before the Japan Cup and that’s why she was able to accelerate so well. I’d said she’s pretty much at her best yet.”
Trainer Sakae Kunieda admits that she is not the best out of the starting gate, but did well in Dubai when dominating the G1 Dubai Turf (1800m) and has been getting gate practice every week.
Danon Premium, a four-year-old colt by Triple Crown champion Deep Impact, is considered to have the best chance of beating Almond Eye. The two have never met in a race before, but Danon Premium is the only other runner in the lineup that has lost only one of his starts thus far. He is six for seven, with his sole defeat being his sixth placing in the G1 Japanese Derby (2400m).
Following his Derby run, the Mitsumasa Nakauchida-trained colt was not seen at the races until March of this year. He has aced both his 2019 starts, both at G2 level, and his last start was over the mile at Kyoto. He won over the mile at Tokyo as a two-year-old, which would indicate the left-handed track is not going to pose a problem. Unlike Almond Eye, he is good out of the gate.
The grey mare Aerolithe was runner-up in last year’s Yasuda Kinen and won the G1 NHK Mile Cup for three-year-olds in 2017. Earlier this month, she returned to the track for the first time in three and a half months following a trip to the U.S. and managed to run fifth in the G1 Victoria Mile at Tokyo.
Trainer Takanori Kikuzawa, a former jockey who rode her fast work himself this week, said, “She has gotten lighter on her feet and feels the same as she did going in to the Yasuda Kinen last year. I think it’s a good sign.”
Like Almond Eye, Aerolithe is based at the Miho training centre, which means they will be spared the long haul to Tokyo that Ritto-based runnners must weather.
Stelvio won the G1 Mile Championship last year and, after two more starts, is back at 1600m again. Australian rider Damian Lane will be paired with Stelvio for the first time. Lane rode him in track work on Wednesday.
“It’s going to be quite a challenge to beat Almond Eye, but I’m very satisfied with Stelvio’s work and I’ll be able to ride a solid race with confidence,” Lane said.
Indy Champ is a Stay Gold four-year-old colt with five wins and only two races out of the top three spots. He completed three wins in a row when successful in February’s Tokyo Shimbun Hai, a G3 over the mile.
On 21 April, Indy Champ returned for a fourth-place finish in the G2 Milers Cup at Kyoto. On Sunday, Yuichi Fukunaga, who won the 2012 Yasuda Kinen, will be in the saddle.
Last week, Fukunaga took Indy Champ up the hill course. “He was very relaxed from his first lap up, mentally in a good place and his movement was good.”
No rain is predicted through Sunday in Tokyo. A lightning-fast track that has favoured Deep Impact progeny at Tokyo for the last two G1 events is expected again.