Sunday, Dec. 22, marks the 64th running of the Grade 1 Arima Kinen (The Grand Prix), arguably Japan's most-beloved race and the year's second of two races that draw their fields in part from fan ballots.
A 2,500-meter turf event held over the inside track of the right-handed Nakayama Racecourse east of Tokyo, the Arima Kinen, now no longer the final Grade 1 of the year, is still the last big race of the year for ages 3 and up. The Arima Kinen carries a first-place prize of JPY300 million, Japan's top winning money, offered only in this race and the Japan Cup.
Often dubbed a "dream race," this year's lineup is living up to the name, with eight of the fans' top 10 choices (10 from the top 13) among the race's 19 nominees, 11 among them Grade 1 winners. Top in many ways, including fan votes, is Almond Eye, who won the Arima Kinen voting with nearly 110,000 ballots cast in her name. The filly's tally bested the voting's runnerup Lyx Gracieux by some 5,500 votes even though the original plans for Almond Eye were to sit out the Arima Kinen.
The Arima Kinen starts just off the third turn on part of what is the outer course. Runners pass once before the grandstand and circle around again. The stretch hill begins 200 meters before the finish line and rises two meters in less than 150 meters. A more forgiving course than Tokyo, skill, not strength alone, plays a much bigger role both in the saddle and under it.
Sunday's card at Nakayama features 12 races. The Arima Kinen is the 11th race with a post time of 15:25 local time. Horses over 3-years-old will carry 57kg. Fillies (mares) and 3-year-olds are given a 2kg allowance.
The current race record stands at 2 minutes, 29.5 seconds, set by Zenno Rob Roy in 2004. Here's a look at some of the expected top picks.
Almond Eye : Initially aimed for the Hong Kong Cup, an elevated temperature shortly before departure overseas resulted in cancellation of the 4-year-old filly's travel plans and sights moved to the Arima Kinen, Almond Eye's first. Quickly recovered, the daughter of Lord Kanaloa only missed one day of work and reports have it that she is well prepared heading in to the big finale. With never a finish out of the top three, Almond Eye has captured eight wins from her second start, six of them Grade 1 races, including her victory in the Dubai Turf at Meydan Racecourse this spring. Almond Eye also holds the current race record for the Grade 1 Japan Cup, set last year. This year, with an eye to Hong Kong, she passed on the Japan Cup, took on the 2,000-meter Grade 1 Tenno Sho (Autumn) instead and brought home top prize. It will be the first time at Nakayama for the Miho-based filly and the first time over 2,500 meters. With her record, however, and two top-level wins at 2,400 meters and three wins racing to the right, there is no reason not to believe this filly can't handle the Arima Kinen with characteristic aplomb.
Lys Gracieux : Sired by Heart's Cry (winner of the 2005 Arima Kinen), Lys Gracieux is a highly consistent 5-year-old mare that has finished in the top three in 18 of her 21 career starts. She ran second in the Hanshin Juvenile Fillies, the top race for 2-year-old fillies and posted a 2nd, 5th, 2nd in the filly classics the following year. After a second in the Victoria Mile last year and a win of the Queen Elizabeth II Cup, both top-level all-female events, she flew overseas for her first bid abroad. Following a second-place finish in the Hong Kong Vase last year, she started the new year with a second in the Kinko Sho (G2, 2,000m) at Chukyo. Then it was off to Sha Tin again for a third in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup at the end of April. She returned home to win the Grade 1 Takarazuka Kinen by three lengths in June and then returned in the fall with a win Down Under, in the Grade 1 Cox Plate over 2,040 meters and was back at her Ritto base on Dec. 3. Lys Gacieux has made the trip east several times, so there should be no concern there, but it will be her first time at Nakayama. It will also be the first time at Nakayama for Australian jockey Damian Lane, who rode her last two races and is expected to be in the saddle on Sunday.
Suave Richard : A 5-year-old son of Heart's Cry, Suave Richard returned for his fall campaign with a seventh-place finish in the Tenno Sho (Autumn) after a four-month layoff. He then went on to capture the Japan Cup last out on Nov. 24 giving him his second Grade 1 win following the 2018 Osaka Hai. Fourth in last year's Japan Cup, Suave Richard did not race again until spring, and has, from five outings, posted 3rd, 3rd, 7th, 1st in Grade 1 events this year. Those include a third in the Dubai Sheema Classic, run over 2,410 meters at Meydan. This will be his second Arima Kinen. He finished fourth only a neck behind Cheval Grand in the 2017 version despite lugging in, but has since gained experience racing to the right. Wins in both the Japan Cup and the Arima Kinen the same year are not easily had, however. If Suave Richard can make the winner's circle, he will be the first horse to do so since Deep Impact in 2006 and only the fifth horse in JRA history.
Saturnalia : Winner of last year's yearend Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes (2,000m, Nakayama), Saturnalia was 1st, 4th in the spring classics. He returned in the fall for a win of the Kobe Shimbun Hai (G2, 2,400m) and passed on the Kikuka Sho (Japanese St. Leger) to run in the Tenno Sho (Autumn), where he finished sixth, 0.9 seconds off winner Almond Eye. He will go to the gate well-primed and, with two wins at Nakayama (both over 2,000 meters), he will most likely be a popular pick and will race under only 55kg. Christophe Soumillon, who rode last out, is expected to have the ride.
Fierement : Returning from a bid in the Arc is the Deep Impact-sired 4-year-old Fierement. Hampered by the heavy going at Longchamp, his last-place finish was highly uncharacteristic. Last year, having passed on the spring 3-year-old classics, Fierement captured the triple crown final leg Kikuka Sho (G1, 3,200m) at Kyoto. Starting this year out with a second in the American Jockey Club Cup (G2, 2,200m) at Nakayama, he then made history by becoming the first horse to win the 3,200-meter Grade 1 Tenno Sho (Spring) on only the sixth start of his career. Kenichi Ikezoe, currently with the most wins of the Arima Kinen (four), is set to ride Fierement for the first time.
Two other up-and-coming youngsters attracting a considerable amount of attention are World Premiere and Velox. World Premiere, by Deep Impact, now has three wins and no finishes out of the top three in his six starts thus far. Having sat out the spring classics, he returned in the fall to capture the Kikuka Sho in his first top-level bid. He will be taking on older horses for the first time and has the fewest starts of any in the Arima Kinen lineup. He is expected to be partnered with Yutaka Take.
The Just a Way-sired Velox has only one start of nine in which he finished out of the top three spots. In the classics, he posted 2nd, 3rd, 3rd and, running closer to the pace, beat World Premiere to the line in the Kobe Shimbun Hai (G2, 2,400m) at Hanshin a month before the Kikuka Sho. Yuga Kawada, Japan's current No. 2 rider 10 wins behind Christophe Lemaire, is set for the ride.Other names not to be dismissed in this year's Arima Kinen include Cheval Grand, back from England and tough runs under 60kg. A veteran Arima participant with a 6th, 3rd, 3rd record, he could still easily make the money, as could Kiseki, returning from a seventh-place finish in the Arc, after finishing second in his two Grade 1 bids at home this spring.