Hanshin Racecourse hosts the Takarazuka Kinen on Sunday, the grand finale to the heady heights of spring racing in Japan and the final Grade 1 event until the Sprinters Stakes kicks off the autumn campaign at the end of September.
Along with the Arima Kinen (The Grand Prix) at year-end, the Takarazuka Kinen is a bow to Japan’s racing fans, who cast votes for their favorite horses, those they most want to see in the lineup. A 2,200-meter turf event, the Takarazuka Kinen marks its 60th running this year and currently boasts a purse of JPY325 million and a winner’s prize of JPY150 million.
Coming at the end of a long season, the field of the Takarazuka Kinen tends to be small and, this year, 12 horses are expected to compete. Fan-ballot No. 1 pick Almond Eye is not among them, but the next three ballot favorites are – Rey de Oro, Kiseki and Al Ain. Three other Grade 1 champions will join them – Makahiki, Suave Richard and Lys Gracieux. Three of the six are taking on the Takarazuka Kinen directly after returning from racing overseas, a factor that considerably raises the bar for finding a winning wager.
Run over the right-handed Hanshin inner course, the race starts at the far right of the stands, with 530 meters to the first turn. Out of the gate, the track rises two meters from 200 meters before the finish line, and from early in the backstretch, the course slopes gently downward until hitting the stretch hill once again 200 meters out.
The Takarazuka Kinen is the 11th race on the Sunday card of 12 at Hanshin. Post time is 15:40 local time. Here’s a look at the likely popular horses.
Kiseki: The 5-year-old Rulership-sired Kiseki captured the 2017 classic Kikuka Sho (Japanese St. Leger) and is looking, after six Grade 1 bids both at home and abroad, to notch his second big win. Winless in his last eight starts since the Kikuka Sho, Kiseki has not been far off the top and has figured in winning wagers in half of those starts. In last year’s Japan Cup, he ran second to Almond Eye and last out in the Osaka Hai, he finished only a neck behind winner Al Ain. Kiseki’s strong points are not only his speed but his stamina, and since changing his racing style to a more forward position from five starts ago, he has missed the top three spots only once. Kiseki has also matured and powered up. He’s racing a good 10kg heavier than he was for last year’s Takarazuka Kinen, in which he finished eighth, 0.9 seconds off the winner. Yuga Kawada, who has ridden his past five starts, is scheduled for the ride on Sunday. Three Kikuka Sho winners have won this race over the past decade.
Rey de Oro: Also 5 years old is Rey de Oro, a son of King Kamehameha. Winner of two Grade 1s, the 2017 Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) and the 2018 Tenno Sho (Autumn), Rey de Oro is returning from Dubai, where he finished sixth in the Dubai Sheema Classic (2,410 meters, G1) at Meydan on March 30. Agitated on the day, Rey de Oro was unable to perform at his best, but back on home turf, racing in the daylight and at the track where he captured the Grade 2 Kobe Shimbun Hai (2,400 meters), he is likely to fare better. He has also won at the distance, albeit at Nakayama, in the Grade 2 Sankei Sho All Comers. Nonetheless, though the Miho-based Rey de Oro has been getting regular work and has handled the long trip west well before, his mindset on raceday will be key. Christophe Lemaire is set for the ride and is undoubtedly eager to make up for missed time. He will be gunning for his fourth JRA Grade 1 win of the year. Only three Japan-based jockeys have won four Grade 1 races in the first half of the year since the graded system was inaugurated in 1984 – Yutaka Take twice, Katsumi Ando and Yuichi Fukunaga once.
Suave Richard, picture Japan Racing Association
Suave Richard: The 5-year-old Heart’s Cry-sired Suave Richard is also returning from Dubai, where he beat Rey de Oro over the line in the Dubai Sheema Classic with his third-place finish. Though his most competitive racing has come racing to the left, Suave Richard aced the Osaka Hai (2,000 meters) last year at Hanshin. Though he has not made the winner’s circle in his five starts since, he has three thirds in Grade 1 company. Mirco Demuro is scheduled for the ride.
Al Ain: A son of Deep Impact, the 5-year-old was victorious in this year’s Osaka Hai, last out on March 31. Topping three other Takarazuka Kinen hopefuls, it was his first win in 11 starts, his first since winning the 2017 Satsuki Sho (Japanese 2000 Guineas). Those 11 starts (all in graded-stakes races) did include three seconds and two thirds, however. Al Ain did have the advantage of an inside draw in the Osaka Hai, but wearing blinkers since two races ago seems to have helped. Able to handle a mile, Al Ain has the power to do well on a heavy track, always a possibility during the rainy season. He finished fourth in his only previous start racing under 58kg, but is expected to still prove competitive Sunday.
Lys Gracieux: The only female in the lineup is the 5-year-old daughter of Heart’s Cry. She is just back from a third-place finish in Hong Kong’s Queen Elizabeth II Cup (2,000 meters, G1) at Sha Tin Racecourse on April 28, her second Hong Kong race in some five months after running second in the Hong Kong Vase. Before that, she captured her first Grade 1 with the Queen Elizabeth II Cup (2,200 meters, G1) at Kyoto, where she ran under 56kg, the same as she’ll carry in the Takarazuka Kinen. Sandwiched in between her overseas excursions was a second-place finish in the Grade 2 Kinko Sho over 2,000 meters. That’s three races competing against male horses where Lys Gracieux has finished in the money. A highly consistent runner, she has only figured out of the top three in three of her 19 career starts. That record, her late speed and weight advantage definitely call for a wager. Australian rider Damian Lane is expected to have the ride.
Etario: Of the Takarazuka Kinen entrants which have not yet captured a Grade 1 race, the 4-year-old colt Etario is attracting the most attention. He has only one win in 11 starts, but has, frustratingly, finished in second place seven times. The other three times he ran fourth. His last six starts have been in graded-stakes races, three of them Grade 1s and last out, he ran fourth in the 3,200-meter Tenno Sho (Spring) on April 28 while carrying 58kg. The colt has a tendency to quit running once away from the pack, but the shallower blinkers he wore last out are said to have helped him race more aggressively. Etario is sired by Stay Gold, whose progeny hold the record for most wins (five) in the Takarazuka Kinen. Paired with the colt for the first time is Norihiro Yokoyama, who has two wins of the Takarazuka, the last in 2014 aboard Gold Ship.
Another to watch is Makahiki, 2016 winner of the Japanese Derby. Sidelined for eight months with a fracture, he returned to finish second in the Grade 2 Sapporo Kinen in August 2018, but posted a lackluster 7-10 in his next two starts (both Grade 1s) through the end of the year. He started 2019 with a close third in Grade 2 company over 2,200 meters, then ran fourth in the Osaka Hai, only 0.2 seconds behind winner Al Ain. The extra distance this time should help this late closer.