Getting a perfect trip under jockey Christophe Lemaire, Japanese filly Triple Crown winner Almond Eye dominated her male rivals in the 38th Japan Cup at Tokyo Racecourse as the 2-5 favorite on Sunday, winning the Group 1 race in record-setting time of 2:20.60 for 2,400 meters (about 1 1/2 miles) on firm turf.
Pacesetter Kiseki finished second, 1 3/4 lengths behind the winner, with Suave Richard third in the field of 14, another 3 1/2 lengths back.
There were only two international runners in the field – tying 2006 as having the lowest number – and neither was a factor. Thundering Blue, the G2 York Stakes winner and G1 Canadian International runner-up, finished 10th for trainer David Menuisier. Aidan O'Brien-trained Capri, the 2017 winner of the G1 Irish Derby and G1 St. Leger, finished 11th.
“I thought the ground was too quick and he was a bit too tense before the race in the paddock,” Menuisier said. “He did show his brilliance in the final stages, but it was a good experience and he will now be given a good rest and we'll see how he does next season.”
As for Capri, the colt's jockey, Ryan Moore, said: “The ground was quick and the pace too fast. The winner finishing at 2:20.6 was too good,”
Trained by Sakae Kunieda, Almond Eye races for Silk Racing Co., Ltd. She is a 3-year-old filly by Japanese sprint champion Lord Kanaloa (by the Kingmambo sire King Kamehameha) out of Japanese Group 1 winner Fusaichi Pandora, a daughter of American Horse of the Year Sunday Silence. Almond Eye was bred by Katsumi Yoshida's Northern Racing.
Almond Eye became the second 3-year-old filly to capture the Japan Cup following 2012 winner Gentildonna – a two-time Horse of the Year in Japan – and seventh 3-year-old to beat older rivals in the race.
The win was the second Japan Cup triumph from 14 tries for Lemaire, currently the leading jockey in Japan with 193 victories going into the Nov. 24-25 weekend, a winning clip of 27 percent that has him 55 wins ahead of his nearest rival, Mirco Demuro.
Almond Eye has now won seven of eight starts, her only defeat coming in her career debut when second of 17 runners in Niigata in August 2017. She won a maiden race in October, then was freshened for a 3-year-old campaign that began with a win over colts in the G3 Shinzan Kinen at Kyoto on Jan. 8. She then swept the fillies G1 Triple Crown races, taking the April 8 Oka Sho (Japanese 1000 Guineas) at Hanshin, the May 20 Yushin Himba (Japanese Oaks) at Tokyo and the Oct. 14 Shuka Sho at Kyoto. The Japanese Oaks, like the Japan Cup, is run over 2,400 meters, or 1 1/2 miles. French rider Lemaire, 39, has been aboard for all of her starts except for the Shinzan Kinen.
The Japan Cup result never seemed in doubt as Almond Eye was perfectly placed along the inside after breaking from the No. 1 post position, directly behind Kiseki and running easily throughout. Kiseki was on an uncontested lead from the outset, opening up several lengths down the backstretch and around the final bend. Fractions were fast: :23.70 for the opening quarter-mile, :48.20 for the half, 1:11.70 for six furlongs, 1:34.80 for a mile and 1:57.20 for 1 1/4 miles. Almond Eye swung out at the top of the long Tokyo Racecourse stretch, seized command from Kiseki with a furlong remaining and drew off under moderate urging.
Almond Eye's closing fractions were 45.80 seconds for the final half-mile and :34.40 for the final three furlongs. Her final time of 2:20.60 was 1 1/2 seconds faster than the previous Japan Cup and Tokyo course record of 2:22.10, set by Alkaased, the last non-Japanese trained Japan Cup winner, in 2005. The fastest 1 1/2 miles run on turf in the United States was 2:22.63 by Twilight Eclipse at Gulfstream Park in 2013.
In a year of tremendous accomplishments by fillies – including Enable's second consecutive G1 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe victory (followed by a G1 win in the Breeders' Cup Turf) and the fourth consecutive G1 Cox Plate win by Winx, extending her winning streak to 29 races – Almond Eye has largely gone unnoticed outside of Japan. Despite her dominating performances in the fillies Triple Crown, Almond Eye is not ranked among the World's Best Racehorses in the list sponsored by Longines for the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities.
She obviously will move up into the rankings following her record performance, but Almond Eye's connections are considering an ambitious campaign in 2019. Her challenges could include the G1 Sheema Classic in Dubai and G1 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in France, where she could face Enable, who is being returned to training as a 5-year-old.
“I had every confidence in her potential and she was in great form coming into the race—she traveled smoothly to Tokyo yesterday and settled in nicely—and although she broke a little in air at the break, she was still able to secure a good position up front and into a nice flow,” Almond Eye's trainer, Sakae Kunieda, said through a translator. “When I saw that the clock indicated 59.9 seconds at the 1,000-meter mark, I was already pretty sure that she could pull it off and win the race. The Japan Cup itself being recognized as an international event and having won this race gives her various options to choose from including an overseas challenge that will most certainly be expected of her, although details will have to be discussed with the owners.”
Jockey Lemaire said of the filly: “I am happy to have won the Japan Cup, which is a big international race watched everywhere around the world, but personally I feel relieved to have won (with the race favorite) because I knew she had the potential to win but you never know what might happen in the 2,400 meters.
“Today I was a little bit anxious, but I think we saw the best Almond Eye in the race and it was a great show. I don't really like the inside number one draw because it is very hard to make a plan and can depend on how you break — I didn't want to put too much pressure on her out of the gate — it can also be pretty tricky because if you get locked inside a slow pace it can be a mess in the end and it is also difficult to stay back and move wide to the outside. (As a result) she broke well, and I saw that Kiseki was taking the lead which was good because Kiseki is a good horse and a leader with a good pace, so I had the best leader for Almond Eye and was happy with how the race went.
“By the first corner Almond Eye was already her usual self and well into the bridle and I really enjoyed being in the position of being on her back and by the backstretch, I nearly thought the race was over and ours. This is a very special filly as I keep telling the press in Japan that she is “Perfect” – her ability, temperament, she can adapt and race from any position, so if she has a chance to race overseas, I think she can race as well as she did today if not at least be competitive against the world's best.”
The Japan Cup attracted a crowd of 98,988, down nearly 9 percent from 2017. Wagering on the race was 20.5 billion yen (approximately $181.2 million), a decline of 7.7 percent from 2017.
Purse for the Japan Cup was $5.9 million, with $2.7 million going to the winner.
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