December 5, 2021

Almond Eye versus unbeaten Triple Crown stars Contrail, Daring Tact in a Japan Cup for the ages

Almond Eye shown winning the 2018 Japan Cup (Copyright Japan Racing Association)

Sunday’s 40th edition of the Japan Cup (G1) serves up an epic clash of three Triple Crown winners, with history on the line. Almond Eye, champion of the 2018 Japan Cup after sweeping that year’s Fillies’ Triple Crown (Tiara), hopes to conclude her record-breaking career with a ninth Grade 1 title. Standing in her way are unbeaten stars of the current classic generation: Contrail aims to become the first Japanese Triple Crown-sweeping colt to capture the Japan Cup in the same year, and Daring Tact hopes to follow Almond Eye’s path as the reigning Triple Tiara heroine.

This showdown ups the ante on a similar combat in the 2012 Japan Cup, when Triple Tiara winner Gentildonna toppled 4-year-old Orfevre, the 2011 Triple Crown champion. Thus the precedent doesn’t neatly apply here.

Almond Eye’s historic resume

Almond Eye became the first Japanese-based horse ever to win eight Grade/Group 1s on turf when repeating in the Nov. 1 Tenno Sho Autumn (G1). One of those majors came in the 2019 Dubai Turf (G1). If she can add another Japan Cup to her resume, the Sakae Kunieda trainee would become the first to win in non-consecutive years. The only other dual Japan Cup champion is Gentildonna, who followed up promptly in 2013.

Almond Eye’s stunning performance here two years ago, in record time of 2:20.6 over Kiseki, clinched Japanese Horse of the Year honors. Her two ensuing campaigns, both limited, have alternated between brilliant wins and excusable defeats. Upon returning from Dubai in 2019, she suffered her first Tokyo loss when a troubled third in the Yasuda Kinen (G1) at a metric mile, but the daughter of Lord Kanaloa rebounded with a vengeance in her first Tenno Sho Autumn. After illness ruled her out of a Hong Kong venture, a subpar Almond Eye tried the Arima Kinen (G1) and threw in the worst race of her life in ninth.

The Dubai Turf on World Cup night was supposed to be her starting point once more, but the pandemic canceled the event after she’d already arrived. Rerouted instead to the May 17 Victoria Mile (G1) back at Tokyo, Almond Eye was again breathing fire fresh as she blitzed them in 1:30.6. She wheeled back on shorter rest than usual for another try at the Yasuda Kinen on June 7, only to lack her typical spark in second.

Almond Eye adhered to her pattern by winning off a break in her Tenno Sho Autumn title defense. The question now looms if she’ll back it up 28 days later, but Kunieda believes she has more left in the tank for this swan song:

“Going in to the Tenno Sho (Autumn), there was room for a bit more improvement. I thought she was a bit heavy but when she got to the track, she was looking sharp and kept that sharpness afterward.

“She has gotten a lot stronger now. Whereas she was always exhausted after a race, now she’s not and I saw no signs of fatigue after the Tenno Sho. We considered Hong Kong, but it just didn’t seem realistic with the pandemic. The Japan Cup, on the other hand, didn’t pose any problem so we aimed her here.

“As for the time between races, she went from the Victoria Mile to the Yasuda Kinen and though she lost, it was still a good race. This time, she’s still in good shape so it should be OK.

“I think she can still give us a performance like she did two years ago but the heavy rain on the first day of the Tokyo meet this year did a lot of damage. Looking at the track last week, I’d say it’s not ideal. The main thing is that she has a safe run.”

Kunieda’s concern about the course might be alleviated by now, since it’s rated firm at last report, and the forecast is favorable.

Regular rider Christophe Lemaire, who will guide her from post 2, described what Almond Eye has meant to him.

“For three years, Almond Eye and I have worked together in the top races,” Lemaire said. “It’s been quite an adventure. She is an incredibly strong horse. The pressure has been on for every race but I’ve always felt very good working with her. Her speed and the way she moves are fantastic and for me, it felt amazing. It was like a dream.”

Contrail and Daring Tact

Contrail had to dig deep to prevail in the Oct. 25 Kikuka Sho (Japanese St Leger) (G1), but withstood the about 1 7/8-mile test to become just the third unbeaten colt to sweep the Triple Crown after Symboli Rudolf (1984) and his own sire, Deep Impact (2005). Both lost next time. Symboli Rudolf came right back for the Japan Cup and placed third. Deep Impact didn’t run again until December’s Arima Kinen, and got overturned by Heart’s Cry. Both would go on to win the Japan Cup, but as 4-year-olds.

Thus Contrail would stand alone in the record book if he can remain perfect in his first start after his classic sweep. Last year’s champion 2-year-old colt, the Yoshito Yahagi trainee was more dominant in the May 31 Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) (G1) at the Japan Cup course and distance than he was in the first jewel, the about 1 1/4-mile Satsuki Sho (Japanese 2000 Guineas) (G1) at Nakayama. That bodes well for his chances to make it 8-for-8 here, if the Kikuka Sho hasn’t left its mark.

Jockey Yuichi Fukunaga is hopeful, commenting that Contrail’s last work was better than his penultimate move for the Japan Cup.

“He moved really well, and I was surprised at the improvement from last week,” Fukunaga said. “He won the Derby so I’m not worried about the distance….Contrail’s best point is his acceleration, and his mental power. He has yet to go full out. He has a kick we haven’t even seen yet.”

In contrast, the 5-for-5 Daring Tact has a trend in her favor since the past two Triple Tiara queens have beaten older males in the Japan Cup. The daughter of 2014 Japan Cup hero Epiphaneia also gets a key weight break with 117 pounds, receiving nine pounds from older males and four from Almond Eye and Contrail.

The one caution is that Daring Tact cut it closest in the course-and-distance Yushun Himba (Japanese Oaks) (G1), getting up late by just a half-length. She was more emphatic in the bookend classics, the Oka Sho (Japanese 1000 Guineas) (G1) at Hanshin and the Oct. 18 Shuka Sho (G1) at Kyoto. Those were both around right-handed tracks, and the Oaks is her only attempt left-handed. It could be worth noting that a few of her classic rivals did not enhance the form when unplaced versus older distaffers in the Nov. 15 Queen Elizabeth II Cup (G1) at Kyoto.

The leading opponents

Outside of the “Big Three,” Glory Vase slammed last year’s Hong Kong Vase (G1) in the manner of a budding star. After a fruitless round trip to Dubai for the canceled Sheema Classic (G1), his reappearance in the June 28 Takarazuka Kinen (G1) was anticlimactic as the son of Deep Impact beat only one home. Whatever the cause (possibly the rain-affected Hanshin course), Glory Vase was back in business next time in the Oct. 11 Kyoto Daishoten (G2) to outfinish Kiseki.

Last year’s Japan Cup runner-up, Curren Bouquetd’or, was another who intended to race in the Sheema Classic. Although still a graded bridesmaid for Almond Eye’s trainer Kunieda, she has come close. The Deep Impact filly missed by only a neck in the 2019 Japanese Oaks and played second fiddle again in last fall’s Shuka Sho. She’s posted runner-up efforts in both starts this term as well. After the Feb. 16 Kyoto Kinen (G2), Curren Bouquetd’or accompanied stablemate Almond Eye to Dubai. In her return to action in the Sept. 27 Sankei Sho All Comers (G2), she came up just a nose short.

Kiseki, whose enthusiastic front-running set up Almond Eye’s record in the 2018 Japan Cup, missed last year’s running after a seventh in the Arc. Although winless since the 2017 Japanese St Leger, Kiseki has collected several other minor awards. The 6-year-old was second in the Takarazuka Kinen for the second straight year as well as runner-up to Glory Vase in the Kyoto Daishoten before a fifth in the Tenno Sho Autumn.

Other contenders

World Premiere, the 2019 Japanese St Leger winner, has not raced in nearly 11 months. Last seen third in the Dec. 22 Arima Kinen, he succumbed to a pair of champions in Horse of the Year Lys Gracieux and Saturnalia. If his match-fitness is an obvious question, World Premiere has the class, and Yutaka Take. Trainer Yasuo Tomomichi has two other chances in Makahiki, twice fourth in the Japan Cup (2017 and 2019), and You Can Smile, fifth here a year ago. Makahiki has gone winless since 2016, when capturing the Japanese Derby and Prix Niel (G2), and wound up 11th in the Apr. 5 Osaka Hai (G1) in his lone start this season. You Can Smile has recency in his favor, coming off a fourth in the Nov. 8 Copa Republica Argentina (G2), but his most notable efforts have come over further, including his Hanshin Daishoten (G2) victory in March.

Given the historical stature of the leading Japanese contenders, and the local dominance in recent years, it’s not surprising that only one European shipper – Way to Paris – is trying to upstage the home team. No international has carried off the prize since British-based Alkaased (2005), who won by a whisker from Heart’s Cry.

Trained by Andrea Marcialis in France, Way to Paris must buck an even more engrained trend, for the only Gallic raider to win here was Le Glorieux (1987). The 7-year-old is in line for a participation bonus, however, as the winner of the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud (G1). He’ll pocket at least $200,000, with the chance of an even bigger payday if he can manage a top-three finish in his last start before retiring to stud. Ninth on heavy going in the Arc last out, Way to Paris had nearly upset Sottsass in the June 14 Prix Ganay (G1).

Mikki Swallow, fifth in the 2018 Japan Cup, enters in better form this time. The winner of the March 28 Nikkei Sho (G2) at Nakayama, he was third in the Tenno Sho Spring (G1) over two metric miles, and an even fifth in the Sankei Sho All Comers could have been the right sort of prep.

Multiple Grade 2 veteran Perform a Promise, sidelined by a leg fracture after a third in the 2019 Tenno Sho Spring (G1), came off the bench to floor Loves Only You in the June 6 Naruo Kinen (G3). The 8-year-old has run only once in the interim, finishing sixth to Glory Vase in the Kyoto Daishoten, but he sports a 5-1-2-1 record at Tokyo including a victory in the 2018 Copa Republica Argentina.

Others in the line-up have class concerns as they make ambitious debuts at the top level – multiple Grade 3 scorer Crescendo Love, fourth in the Sankei Sho All Comers; Grade 3-placed pace factor Taurus Gemini; and indifferent dirt performer Yoshio.

Watch and wager on the Japan Cup card Saturday night U.S. time on TwinSpires.com. Post time for the Japan Cup, the 12TH and final race, is 1:40 a.m. (ET) overnight into early Sunday morning.