Racing fans are set for a Christmas treat in the Arima Kinen (G1). Japan’s prestigious year-end prize at Nakayama pits defending champion Efforia and multiple Grade 1 romper Titleholder against the newest stars on the scene – Equinox, Vela Azul, and Geraldina.
Arima Kinen – Race 11 (1:25 a.m. ET Sunday)
Efforia capped a nearly-perfect 2021 campaign in last December’s Arima Kinen to clinch Horse of the Year honors. Other than getting mugged by Shahryar in a stakes-record Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) (G1), Efforia was invincible at three, with wins in the Satsuki Sho (Japanese 2000 Guineas) (G1) and Tenno Sho Autumn (G1) over an all-star older brigade.
But 2022 has been a total letdown. Ninth in the Apr. 3 Osaka Hai (G1) behind the surprising Potager, Efforia has not been seen since a sixth to Titleholder in the June 26 Takarazuka Kinen (G1).
Trainer Yuichi Shikato believes that Efforia is poised to fire in a more representative manner in his title defense.
“He had gate problems in the Osaka Hai, and the high pace of the Takarazuka Kinen was something he’d never experienced before,” Shikato said, according to japanracing.jp. “After that, he went to two different farms and returned to Miho refreshed. He has so much energy he doesn’t seem to know what to do with it, and I think he is looking like he did when he was at his best.”
Of course, the presence of Titleholder raises the likelihood of another searching gallop. After crushing his foes on the front end in last year’s Kikuka Sho (Japanese St. Leger) (G1), he regressed to fifth in the Arima Kinen, but resumed his relentless march this term. Titleholder shook off the cobwebs with a narrow score in the Nikkei Sho (G2) at this track and trip, then drubbed the classy Deep Bond by seven lengths in the Tenno Sho Spring (G1) and made it a hat trick by dispatching Efforia, among others, in a course-record Takarazuka Kinen.
Titleholder ventured to France in hopes of landing an elusive Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) for Japan, only to get sapped on the very soft going and fade late in 11th. Upon returning to his training center at home, Titleholder was in recovery mode for a time, but coming back to himself now.
“He is improving slowly but surely,” trainer Toru Kurita said. “His muscle tone and coat are looking good, and his wind was better than it had been the week before. He is also more eager to run.”
Like Titleholder, Deep Bond seeks to rebound from an 18th in the Arc, the second straight year he’s been undone by the boggy conditions in Paris. But unlike Titleholder, the multiple Grade/Group 2 winner has yet to break through at the top level. Deep Bond has settled for runner-up honors in the 2021 Arima Kinen as well as the past two runnings of the Tenno Sho Spring. Still, trainer Ryuji Okubo said that the five-year-old is stronger than when he returned from France to place second in last year’s edition, raising the possibility of going one better on Sunday.
Three new sensations have claims in the about 1 9/16-mile affair.
Three-year-old Equinox is following a trajectory very similar to Efforia’s from a year ago. Less experienced at this stage, however, Equinox was a close second in the first two jewels of the Triple Crown, from the far outside post 18 in both. He was freshened for a tilt versus elders in the Oct. 30 Tenno Sho Autumn, where he entered the big leagues by reeling in tearaway leader Panthalassa. Equinox will have to catch a more robust stayer in Titleholder here, but the son of 2017 Arima Kinen hero (and two-time Horse of the Year) Kitasan Black is on a seriously upward curve.
So is Vela Azul, whose electric burst in the Nov. 27 Japan Cup (G1) symbolized his rapid rise up the turf ranks. The erstwhile dirt performer has been a revelation on the surface switch, and turned in a visually impressive rally two back in the Kyoto Daishoten (G2). Sporting a three-race winning streak, Vela Azul will try to join the exclusive club of Japan Cup winners to achieve the double at Nakayama.
Geraldina is bred in the purple, with both parents being Japanese Horses of the Year. She’s by Maurice and out of two-time Horse of the Year Gentildonna, who went out on top in the 2014 Arima Kinen. Gentildonna is herself by the legendary Deep Impact, stunned in the 2005 Arima Kinen in his lone Japanese loss but victorious in his 2006 swan song here.
Living up to those exalted bloodlines in the second half of 2022, Geraldina defeated males in the Sankei Sho All Comers (G2) at Nakayama before rolling late in Hanshin’s Queen Elizabeth II Cup (G1). Those results give her nifty collateral form, not only with the Japan Cup, but the Hong Kong Vase (G1) as well.
Progressive sophomores Boldog Hos and Justin Palace were the near-miss second and third, respectively, from the course-record renewal of the Kikuka Sho on Oct. 23. Justin Palace, a Deep Impact half to Palace Malice, previously won the Kobe Shimbun Hai (G2) as his Leger prep over Boldog Hos. The tighter confines of Nakayama could suit Justin Palace better as well, since he was runner-up here in last year’s Hopeful (G1). Another on the upgrade is four-year-old Breakup, coming off a new career high in the Copa Republica Argentina (G2).
Aristoteles has fallen off the form that saw him force Contrail to dig deep in the 2020 Kikuka Sho and complete a Triple Crown sweep. But this is just the third start of a limited 2022 campaign, and he gets what could be a key equipment change to first-time blinkers. The aforementioned Potager has been unplaced in all three starts since his Osaka Hai upset, notably winding up 11th behind Titleholder in the Takarazuka Kinen and 13th behind Equinox in the Tenno Sho Autumn.
Akai Ito, last year’s Queen Elizabeth II Cup upsetter, was fourth to Geraldina in her title defense. Also exiting that distaff feature are Izu Jo no Kiseki (10th) and Win Mighty (16th). Yet both had excuses for their subpar runs in the QEII. Izu Jo no Kiseki, who was coming off a signature win in the Fuchu Himba (G2), flopped on the yielding going at Hanshin. Win Mighty was compromised by aggressive tactics from an outside post. Third in the 2020 Yushun Himba (Japanese Oaks) (G1), Win Mighty was also third to Vela Azul in the Kyoto Daishoten.
Meguro Kinen (G2) winner Boccherini was only 17th of 18 in Japan Cup, where he found the Tokyo ground too firm. But he’s better than that, having finished second-best to Titleholder, beaten only a neck, back in the Nikkei Sho and to Vela Azul in the Kyoto Daishoten. Grade 3 veteran Last Draft, fifth in the Copa Republica Argentina, completes the field.