The Takarazuka Kinen is a 2200m turf event that draws its field in part from votes by fans. This year, from over a million votes cast, Almond Eye received more than 78,000, with Rey do Oro coming in second with nearly 73,000.
Having raced in the G1 Yasuda Kinen (1600m) as recently as 2 June, Almond Eye is taking a pass on the Takarazuka, but the next three fan ballot favourites will be competing and comprise the expected top picks of the day.
The field is small but still interesting from a punter's viewpoint: Three runners are returning directly from overseas competition and early odds forecasts have six horses figuring at less than 10/1. In order of popularity, they are – Kiseki, Rey de Oro, Al Ain, Lys Gracieux, Etario and Suave Richard.
The five-year-old Kiseki raced in second and finished in that position last time out in the Osaka Hai (G1 2000m) at Hanshin on 31 March. It was his first race since December, and, despite another near three-month stretch between races, that Osaka Hai effort should have sharpened him up enough to be able to tackle the extra furlong successfully on Sunday.
Kiseki hails from the stable of Katsuhiko Sumii, who sent out a long-shot winner in this year's Japanese Derby.
Trainer's assistant Hiroaki Kiyoyama said of Kiseki: "He'll probably show a weight gain for Sunday's race but he has added muscle all around. He is still extremely athletic and he has also matured mentally from last year. Ideally, I'd like to see him take the lead."
Kiseki worked on 13 June at Ritto and clocked 1m 05.7s over five furlongs on the flat. Under urging, he shifted into top gear for an 11.7s final furlong. The following week he bettered that performance, clocking 1m 07.2s overall and shifting easily into high gear for an 11.7s final with no urging whatsoever.
Rey de Oro, also five years old, has two top-level wins to this name, the 2017 Japanese Derby (G1 2400m) and last year's autumn Tenno Sho (G1 2000m). He is just back from Dubai where he finished sixth in the G1 Dubai Sheema Classic (2410m) on 30 March. It was his first start of the year and early in the run he became agitated for the second year in a row and was unable to perform well.
Trainer Kazuo Fujisawa thinks he'll do much better on home turf and running in the daylight, unlike at Meydan. Christophe Lemaire rode Rey de Oro's fast work both this week and last.
"He felt good. He's settled, he was well in hand and his footwork was all perfect," Lemaire said. "The distance this time is just right but the main concern will be the right-handed track. This horse takes a bit of time to get up to speed so a good, strong pace will be necessary."
The Deep Impact five-year-old Al Ain claimed the 2017 G1 Satsuki Sho (2000m) at Nakayama, a right-handed track like Hanshin. Al Ain surprised plenty of people when he captured the Osaka Hai (2000m) at Hanshin last time out, his second G1. He beat seven G1 winners over the line, not only Kiseki, but also fellow Takarazuka hopefuls Makahiki and Stiffelio.
Lys Gracieux is well-known to Hong Kong fans, having just returned from a third in this year's QEII Cup (G1 2000m). She's the only female in the field and will enjoy an allowance.
Suave Richard is also just back from Dubai, where he finished third in the Sheema Classic ahead of Rey de Oro. A five-year-old by Heart's Cry, Suave Richard won the G1 Osaka Hai (2000m) in 2018 and finished third in both last year's G1 Yasuda Kinen (1600m) and G1 Japan Cup (2400m).
This will be Suave Richard's first race at 2200m. Trainer Yasushi Shono said: "After returning from Dubai, he is in good shape. He is well suited to Hanshin and I don't foresee any problem with the distance."
Horses who raced in the spring version of the G1 Tenno Sho (3200m) held at Kyoto Racecourse have often fared well in the Takarazuka Kinen. Last year's Takarazuka winner Mikki Rocket ran fourth in the Tenno Sho Spring and this year, Etario is also coming off a fourth-place finish in that race.
The Takarazuka Kinen, which starts far from the first turn, is not a race that shows bias, but coming at the end of the season as the Hanshin spring final meeting, it is not kind to those who hug the rail.