Almond Eye’s reputation on the line as she drops back in trip

Big danger: Danon Premium, Japan’s 2017 champion juvenile, winning April’s G2 Yomiuri Milers Cup at Kyoto last time out. Photo: Japan Racing Association

The Breeders’ Cup ‘Win and You’re In’ Challenge returns to Japan on Sunday with a fees-paid berth in the Breeders’ Cup Mile on the table for the winner of the prestigious Yasuda Kinen at Tokyo racecourse.

All eyes will be on the nation’s latest equine superstar, Almond Eye, as she cuts back to a mile for the first time in more than 12 months in the $2 million G1, named in honour of the Izaemon Yasuda, the founding chairman of the Japan Racing Association.

Unbeaten since her 2-year-old debut, Almond Eye was a unanimous choice as Japan’s Horse of the Year for 2018 after an unblemished five-race campaign in which she landed the fillies’ Triple Crown before a record-breaking display in the Japan Cup.

Now she bids to extend her winning sequence to eight, having advertised her talents on the world stage in the Dubai Turf at Meydan in March, when she dropped back fully three furlongs before an emphatic victory over her compatriot Vivlos.

With connections having ruled out a visit to Europe later this year for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, the five-time G1 winner is attempting to become the first female to win what is in effect Japan’s spring mile championship since dual Horse of the Year Vodka completed back-to-back successes a decade ago. “She has always surpassed expectations and I’m looking forward to this race as well,” said trainer Sakae Kunieda, seemingly unworried about another step back in distance to the 1,600 metres she has not encountered since she won the Oka Sho (1000 Guineas) in April 2018.

Owned by Silk Racing, the brilliant mare is a daughter of champion sprinter Lord Kanaloa, who stretched out to a mile to win the Yasuda Kinen in 2013. She will be reunited with her regular partner, the world #3 Christophe Lemaire, who is returning from a suspension that knocked him out of the last three weeks of the spring campaign.

However, although Almond Eye is sure to start a heavy favourite, she faces a strong field of 15 rivals, no fewer than six fellow top-level winners among them, headed by the hugely talented 4-year-old Danon Premium (trainer Mitsumasa Nakauchida/jockey Yuga Kawada).

This powerful colt’s career has been hampered by injury since he was Japan’s champion juvenile in 2017, to the extent that he missed the Satsuki Sho (2000 Guineas) with a bruised foot before suffering his only career defeat in the Tokyo Yushun (Derby).

That, however, remains his sole defeat – and he has won all three starts at a mile, including last time out in the G2 Yomiuri Milers Cup. Danon Premium is one of four contenders for his legendary sire Deep Impact, the current world #3, who has been responsible for 1-2s in both the Japanese Derby and Oaks in recent weeks.

Also lining up are last year’s first and second, Mozu Ascot and Aerolithe (who was a disappointing ninth of ten in the Pegasus World Cup Turf at Gulfstream Park in January), plus Stelvio and Persian Knight, the last two winners of the G1 Mile Championship, and up-and-coming miler Indy Champ.

No previous winner of the Yasuda Kinen has gone on to run in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, but 1997 victor Taiki Blizzard was unplaced in the BC Classic on dirt. There has never been a Japanese-trained winner at the Breeders’ Cup, but Japanese-bred Karakontie, who was trained in France, won the Mile in 2014 at Santa Anita.

As part of the benefits from the Challenge series, Breeders’ Cup will also provide a $40,000 travel allowance for all starters based outside North America to compete in the two-day event at Santa Anita on November 1-2.

Three horses have already qualified for the Breeders’ Cup Mile via the 2019 Challenge series: Do It Again, who won the Queen’s Plate in South Africa in January, plus Tamburo Di Oro and Bolo, who won qualifying races last weekend in Chile and California respectively.

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