Arima Kinen (The Grand Prix) (G1) - Preview
Nakayama Racecourse east of Tokyo hosts the year’s grand finale this Sunday on Christmas Eve. No longer the last day of racing, the day of the Grade 1 Arima Kinen (The Grand Prix) is still the year end’s biggest event, with much of its field chosen by fan ballot and a first-place prize that matches the Japan Cup’s – 300 million yen.
The 2,500-meter turf event has drawn only 16 nominees this year but three of the fans’ top 10 favorites have made the lineup, including Kitasan Black. For the second time straight, the six-time Grade 1 winner was the overwhelming favorite for the horse that fans most want to see run. Kitasan Black won nearly 125,000 votes that placed him far out in front of second-place favorite Satono Diamond, who won last year’s Arima Kinen and pulled just over 82,000 votes. Unfortunately, the latter will not be in the lineup, but the No. 3 favorite Satono Crown will be, as will Japan Cup champion Cheval Grand and Mikki Queen.
In all honesty, if this year the race were only run by one horse, the fans would still come out in droves, as long as that one horse was Kitasan Black, the big bay 5-year-old whose wild popularity contributed to 2017’s word of the year having been decided as the Chinese character for “north,” which is what “kita” means.
The 62nd running of the Arima Kinen will be Kitasan Black’s last run before retirement and the big question is whether he can scoop the race and place a final feather in his cap, an extremely coveted feather for owner Ono Shoji, Saburo Kitajima who has yet to win one of the most beloved races in Japan.
The Grade 2 Nikkei Sho and the Arima Kinen are the only two graded races held over the Nakayama 2,500, which is run over the inner “A” course with a circumference of nearly 1,700 meters. The race starts just off the third turn on part of what is the outer course. It passes before the grandstand and from some 200 meters before the finish line, the track climbs 2 meters in less than 150 meters. The race then circles around on the inner course and past the stands again to the finish line.
Zenno Rob Roy, who won the race as the fan ballot top pick in 2004, also holds the race record of 2 minutes 29.5 seconds.
The Arima Kinen is the 11th race on the Sunday Nakayama card of 12. Post time is 3:25 p.m.
Here’s a look at the expected top picks.
Kitasan Black – It’s Kitasan Black’s last chance at the title he has yet to win. He has six Grade 1 victories -- the Kikuka Sho (Japanese St. Leger), the Japan Cup, the Osaka Hai, the Tenno Sho (Autumn) and two Tenno Sho (Spring). And though he has tried it twice before, the Arima Kinen has eluded him. Third as a 3-year-old, second as a 4-year-old, he missed the Arima Kinen prize by a neck last year. Both previous bids saw him coming off a win. This year, however he finished third in the Japan Cup just 0.2 seconds behind the winner and 4 lengths ahead of the fourth-place Makahiki. This may be the year Kitasan Black has what it takes to hold the competition at bay all the way to the finish line. His usual morning work on the woodchip flat looks serious, certainly sufficient. Of his workout on Dec. 13, trainer Hisashi Shimizu says, “I gave instructions to push him hard and I think that was the most I ever saw Yu Kuroiwa push him. His responses were good. His overall time was good and he clocked 12.2 seconds over the last lap.” Shimizu says all is looking good and even though he wanted to maintain his cool, “I’m getting pretty excited. Kitasan Black won the most fan votes by a landslide and he hasn’t won this race yet. I so very much want him to get good results this time.” The pressure is incredible, but if anyone can ride out the pressure successfully it’s Mr. Cool himself -- Yutaka Take. And, Take has ridden two other giants to Arima Kinen glory on their last run – Oguri Cap in 1990 and Deep Impact in 2006. Winning the Arima Kinen would also Kitasan Black’s earnings over the current recordholder -- T.M.Opera O at over 1.83 billion yen.
Cheval Grand – Considered perhaps Kitasan Black’s top rival in this year’s Arima Kinen is Cheval Grand, with his new partner Hugh Bowman, who piloted the 5-year-old son of 2005 Arima Kinen champion Heart’s Cry to victory in the Japan Cup last month. After six previous bids at the Grade 1 level, including a third-place finish in last year’s Japan Cup, Cheval Grand finally landed his first top-level prize, and his first win since the Grade 2 2,500-meter Copa Republica Argentina in November 2016. That race, as well as a first and a second in the 3,000-meter Hanshin Daishoten are more than proof that the extra 100 meters on Sunday pose no problem. Last year, Cheval Grand drew the No. 14 gate and a gate further inside this year would likely help him secure a more forward position, much as he had in this year’s Japan Cup. Trainer Yasuo Tomomichi says, “In the shape he’s in now, he should be able to handle the tighter turns of Nakayama. And I’m counting on Bowman to do it again. ”Bowman, awarded 2017 World’s Best Jockey, will be in the saddle, but also riding on a win will be breeding farm Northern Farm’s record for most Grade 1 wins in a year. Northern Farm already holds the record of 11. The Arima Kinen would give them an even dozen.
Chevel Grand and Hugh Bowman winning the Group 1 Japan Cup (2400m) at Tokyo, picture Japan Racing Association
Suave Richard – Another son of Heart’s Cry in the Arima Kinen lineup is the 3-year-old Suave Richard. Sixth in the Satsuki Sho (Japanese 2000 Guineas), second in the Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby), Suave Richard captured his first Grade 2 with the Copa Republica Argentina at Tokyo on Nov. 5. It was his first time racing in six months and his first time competing against older horses, but the big chestnut impressed in topping the field of 16 by 2 1/2 lengths. Suave Richard has had an easier rotation than the others and should be fresh. Though his success has come at other venues, he should be able to improve on his Satsuki Sho run. The 2 kg allowance he’ll enjoy should also help. “He’s calmer now and his back and loins are stronger,” says trainer Yasushi Shono. “Nakayama calls for more agility than Tokyo does and the draw will be a factor, but the jockey should be able to cover for that.” Mirco Demuro is slated for the ride.
Satono Crown – Tenth in the Japan Cup under Mirco Demuro was Satono Crown, who is expected to be paired with Ryan Moore this time out. Satono Crown finished behind Kitasan Black in the Satsuki Sho, but beat him over the line in the Japanese Derby. Last year, Satono Crown went from his double-digit Tenno Sho (Autumn) run to a winning run in the 2,400-meter Grade 1 Hong Kong Vase, then sat out the Arima Kinen. This year, he won top honors at home with victory in the Takarazuka Kinen and followed that with a close second over the sloppy going in the Tenno Sho (Autumn). He has had only two runs at Nakayama, a win of the Grade 2 Yayoi Sho over 2,000 meters and a sixth in the Satsuki Sho. On Dec. 14, he was given a hard workout on the artificial surface at Miho, a change from his normal routine. The horse is known for his difficult nature and perhaps a partnership with Moore will make for a successful connection.
Rainbow Line – Like Cheval Grand prior to his last run, Rainbow Line has tried and tried again to notch a Grade 1 win. From eight tries in Grade 1 company he has brought home one second and two thirds. The 4-year-old by Stay Gold finished third in the Tenno Sho (Autumn) and sixth in the Japan Cup this year. This will be his first Arima bid but he has had experience over the Nakayama 2,500, having run fourth in the Nikkei Sho this March under Mirco Demuro. Yasunari Iwata, who has ridden his past three starts, is set to ride on Sunday.
Mikki Queen – One of four females in this year’s Arima Kinen lineup, two-time Grade 1 winner Mikki Queen finished fifth in the Arima Kinen last year after running third in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup. She was third in the Takarazuka Kinen this year and followed that with, again, a third in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup, which was her first race in over four months. Though not well-suited to Nakayama, she has every chance of at least improving on last year’s results. Trainer Yasutoshi Ikee, who fielded last year’s winner Satono Diamond, says, “Her condition before her last start was more stabilized and she came out of that race well. Her movement in morning work has been good.” The daughter of Deep Impact will be paired with her usual rider Suguru Hamanaka.