April 22, 2024

Gran Alegria topples Almond Eye in Breeders’ Cup WAYI Yasuda Kinen

Gran Alegria
Gran Alegria winning the 2020 Yasuda Kinen (Japan Racing Association)

A champion filly burst clear in Sunday’s Yasuda Kinen (G1) at Tokyo, but it wasn’t 3-10 favorite Almond Eye. Rather it was the year-younger Gran Alegria, who emphatically answered the question about her ability to win a major mile race over males, and earned a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1).

Almond Eye fans had a pang of déjà vu when, for the second straight year in this race, she had a problematic start. Yet the former Japanese Horse of the Year wasn’t an unlucky bystander this time. Instead, Almond Eye was the cause of her own poor position by breaking a beat slow.

Also unlike last year, when she rattled home in a near-miss third, Almond Eye didn’t quicken quite as sharply. Her final split in :33.9 (about three furlongs) was the third-fastest in the field – just off Gran Alegria’s :33.7, but not creating the visual impression she does at her best.

Further evidence that Almond Eye regressed is the fact that Normcore, a shade more than four lengths behind her in the May 17 Victoria Mile (G1), was just about three-quarters of a length adrift here. Thus the three-week turnaround was apparently not enough of a respite for Almond Eye.

Gran Alegria had been pointing to the Victoria Mile, until a fever caused her to await the Yasuda Kinen. Last year’s champion 3-year-old filly had already conquered older males, but in the about 7-furlong Hanshin Cup (G2) Dec. 21. Trainer Kazuo Fujisawa shortened her up another panel in the March 29 Takamatsunomiya Kinen (G1), where she steamed late to join the photo finish, crossed the wire third, and got promoted to second via disqualification.

Prior to diving into the sprinting ranks, Gran Alegria had fine results at a metric mile. At two in 2018, the Deep Impact filly defeated males in a newcomers’ race and the Saudi Arabia Royal Cup (G3), both over this course and distance. After a third to Admire Mars in the Asahi Hai Futurity (G1), she starred in the first fillies’ classic, the 2019 Oka Sho (Japanese 1000 Guineas) (G1) at Hanshin. Another tilt versus males in the NHK Mile Cup (G1) resulted in a fifth, again to Admire Mars.

Gran Alegria thereby entered the Yasuda Kinen as a champion in her own division, but yet to topple males at the top level, or at this trip. This was no easy spot to establish such credentials, making her performance all the more significant.

The 11-1 third choice was reserved a little worse than midpack early, not that far ahead of Almond Eye, while traveling with greater zest than the favorite. Gran Alegria was still on cruise control turning into the straight, which was vital since jockey Kenichi Ikezoe had taken a clod of turf to his right eye and didn’t have the best view. Smoothly advancing to tackle pacesetter Danon Smash, Gran Alegria dashed 2 1/2 lengths clear and finished in 1:31.6.

Unlike Gran Alegria who raced in the clear from post 11, Almond Eye found herself buried on the inside from post 5. She had to work her way outside for a seam, and Gran Alegria had flown by that point. Almond Eye’s consolation was taking second by a half-length over defending champion Indy Champ, and gaining a bit of revenge for last year.

Normcore motored late in :33.8 to snatch fourth. Keiai Nautique got up for fifth, followed by Admire Mars, who lacked spark in his first start since capturing the Dec. 8 Hong Kong Mile (G1); Danon Kingly; Danon Smash; Persian Knight; Vin de Garde; Mr Melody; Seiun Kosei; Danon Premium; and slow-starting Kluger.

Sunday Racing Co.’s Gran Alegria now sports a mark of 8-5-1-1.

“First of all, I must thank everyone at the stables who tuned her up so well,” Ikezoe said. “I was focused on keeping her in good rhythm and in a good position which all worked out beautifully. She just gave her best with such a tenacious run down the stretch – I was afraid up to the line that we were going to be caught, especially by Almond Eye. I hurt myself when a chunk of grass hit my eye at the third corner, but it doesn’t hurt at all now!”

As Ikezoe offered his postrace comments with a noticeably black eye, Almond Eye’s jockey, Christophe Lemaire, came up to hand him an ice pack. Lemaire wasn’t blaming the start for the favorite’s loss.

“We had a poor break, but I think we recovered well and made a smooth and strong bid turning for home with Gran Alegria in aim,” Lemaire said. “She showed her good turn of foot but she could have done better. The winner was just so strong. It wasn’t our day.”

Almond Eye, who was bidding for a JRA record of eight Grade 1 titles on turf, will have to look ahead to another day. If following the same itinerary as last year, a title defense in the Nov. 1 Tenno Sho Autumn would be next.

Gran Alegria would be a fascinating Breeders’ Cup contender should connections decide to accept the free ticket to the Mile. Her dam, millionaire Tapitsfly, captured the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf at Santa Anita as well as the 2012 Just a Game (G1) at Belmont and First Lady (G1) at Keeneland, site of the 2020 Breeders’ Cup.

Tapitsfly, a daughter of Tapit descended from 1960s turf star Pink Pigeon, sold to Northern Farm’s Katsumi Yoshida for $1.85 million at Fasig-Tipton Kentucky November in 2012. Gran Alegria is her first foal.