Japanese ‘All-Stars’ set to do battle in spring season grand finale

2017 Tokyo Yushun winner Rey De Oro is one of the leading fancies on Sunday despite disappointing in the Dubai Sheema Classic in March. Photo: Dubai Racing Club/Neville Hopwood

The Breeders’ Cup ‘Win and You’re In’ Challenge returns to Japan on Sunday with a fees-paid berth in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf up for grabs in the grand finale of the spring season, the 60th running of the Takarazuka Kinen at Hanshin racecourse.

Run over 2,200 metres (1m3f), the 325 million yen (about $2.8m) event is the last G1 in Japan before the Sprinters Stakes kicks off the autumn campaign at the end of September.

Although no winner of the race has ever competed at the Breeders’ Cup, the Takarazuka Kinen’s roll of honour features several equine luminaries, among them TM Opera O, formerly the world’s leading all-time money earner, and the Triple Crown winner Deep Impact, nowadays as much of a legend at stud as he was on the racecourse.

A competitive 12-runner field featuring six top-level winners (among them several classic winners) is set to contest the Takarazuka Kinen, which is one of two ‘All-Star’ races on the Japanese calendar, alongside the Arima Kinen (Grand Prix) in late December. As a result, the majority of the field for both is partly composed of horses voted for by public ballot.

Fan-ballot pick number one Almond Eye is an absentee from this year’s contest after a narrow defeat in the Yasuda Kinen, but the next three – Rey De Oro, Kiseki and Al Ain – are all present and correct.

In an open-looking contest, 2017 Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) victor Rey De Oro (Kazuo Fujisawa/Christophe Lemaire) is sure to figure among leading fancies, though he is on a bit of a recovery mission after another disappointing effort in Dubai, where he was never happy when well adrift of Old Persian in the Sheema Classic, a race in which he had also disappointed 12 months previously.

The son of fellow Derby winner King Kamehameha had several of these behind him in last year’s Tenno Sho (Autumn) and can be expected to give a truer impression of his abilities back on home turf.

Old rival Suave Richard (Yasushi Shono/Mirco Demuro), second to Rey De Oro in the 2017 Derby, was well in front of that opponent when third in Dubai, Al Ain (Yasutoshi Ikee/Yuichi Kitamura) is also likely to have his supporters after a surprise 21/1 success in the Osaka Hai, a G1 at this venue over 2,000 metres on March 31. 

Although that was his first win since the Satsuki Sho (2000 Guineas) in 2017, the 5-year-old son of Deep Impact had several of these rivals behind him that day including Kiseki (Katsuhiko Sumii/Yuga Kawada), who was a neck second. The latter, who won the Kikuka Sho (St Leger) as a 3-year-old, has yet to repeat that G1 score but usually hits the money, including when second to Almond Eye in the Japan Cup.

Others to consider include Lys Gracieux, the only female in the line-up, who was second in the Hong Kong Vase after landing the G1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup over this distance in Tokyo last term. Australian rider Damian Lane is expected to take over in the saddle.

Of the remainder, injury has compromised Makahiki’s career since his victory three years ago in the Tokyo Yushun, while Etario has bits and pieces of form to suggest he can be a force in this grade.

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.

Two horses have already qualified for the Breeders’ Cup via Japanese Challenge contests. Dirt star Inti earned a place in the BC Classic thanks to his February Stakes victory, while Indy Champ has a spot in the Mile after winning the Yasuda Kinen earlier this month.

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