Top-level action continues this Sunday at Kyoto Racecourse with the three-year-old classics back following the summer hiatus. It’s ladies first with the final leg of the filly triple crown – the 2,000-meter Shuka Sho, completing the trio that starts in the spring with the 1,600-meter Oka Sho (Japanese 1000 Guineas) and the 2,400-meter Yushun Himba (Japanese Oaks). Twenty-two of Japan’s best fillies have been nominated for the Shuka Sho and 18 of them will go to the gate.
It’s expected to be a heated battle with the spotlight on archrivals Almond Eye and Lucky Lilac, neither of whom have raced since the Oaks on May 20. Almond Eye, now on a four-race winning streak, became the first filly in 7 years to scoop the first two legs of the triple crown and is seeking to become the fifth filly to win all three. Though 2-year-old champion Lucky Lilac failed to make the winner’s circle in either classic, she, like Almond Eye, has yet to finish out of the top three spots.
Challenging them are 16 others, including eight daughters of Triple Crown champion Deep Impact, whose progeny have won the Shuka Sho four times in the past. Also gaining a share of the attention will be the Grade 2 Rose Stakes top two Cantabile and Salacia, as well as Randonnee and Pioneer Bio, who fared well in the Sept. 8 Grade 3 Shion Stakes.
All fillies in the Shuka Sho carry 55kg and the winner earns 100 million yen. The Shuka Sho is the 11th race on the Sunday card at Kyoto. Post time is 15:40 local time. The expected top choices are:
Almond Eye: With only two races to her name, Almond Eye started this year with a win of the Grade 3 Shinzan Kinen over the mile, and three months later topped the field of the Oka Sho in record time, finishing 1 3/4 lengths ahead of runner-up Lucky Lilac. Some six weeks later in the Oaks, Almond Eye was fast out of the gate for the first time, traveled in sixth position and topped the 17-strong field in the second-fastest time in the race’s 79-year history. She beat Lily Noble to the line by two lengths, with Lucky Lilac another 1 3/4 lengths later in third. Though the long interval between races this time raises some concern, Almond Eye’s performances to date indicate she doesn’t need a prep to flaunt her stuff. She has experience at Kyoto in the Shinzan Kinen (albeit not over the inner course), has weathered the long haul to the track well before, and should do fine if she gets to run her race. The Lord Kanaloa-sired Almond Eye hails from the Miho stable of Sakae Kunieda, who hopes to halt the 6-year winning streak here by Ritto-based trainers with his classy lass. “She returned to the training center a month ago,” said the 63-year-old Kunieda, “and the plan from the start was to go to the Shuka Sho without a prep. Even with the change to the right-handed track at Kyoto, if she runs a race like she did last out, there should be no problem.” Christophe Lemaire, currently leading Japan’s jockeys by 33 wins and who has ridden all Almond Eye’s races but the Shinzan Kinen, is expected to be in the saddle. If Almond Eye wins, she’ll become the first to take home the filly triple crown since Gentildonna in 2012, the fourth since the filly triple crown was officially instated with the inauguration of the Shuka Sho in 1996.
Almond Eye, picture Japan Racing Association
Lucky Lilac: The Orfevre-sired Lucky Lilac aced her debut at Niigata and jumped to a win of the Grade 3 Artemis Stakes at Tokyo before scooping the top-level Hanshin Juvenile Fillies and the JRA Award for Best 2-Year-Old Filly last year. Three months later in her first start of the year, she continued her streak with a win of the Grade 2 Tulip Sho, then suffered her first loss with a second in the Oka Sho. The Oaks, her first start over anything but a mile, saw her finish 0.6 seconds behind Almond Eye. Unlike Almond Eye, Lucky Lilac was slated for a prep but sidelined due to swelling in her right hind leg caused apparently from an injury while spelling. She returned to Ritto looking heavy and her condition on race day will be key. “Luckily, there were no signs of any damage after she returned to the training center,” trainer Mikio Matsunaga said. “She is usually well on her game on race day and I don’t think she’ll be any less so because of the time off. She has matured, she’s a good starter and with her ability to race from a forward position, I think the inner course over 2,000 meters will suit her.” Matsunaga, a former JRA jockey, won six JRA Grade 1 races during his riding career, five of which came from all-female races. He has won the Shuka Sho once (in 2009 with Red Desire) since opening his stable in 2007.
Cantabile: This daughter of Deep Impact aced the 1,800-meter Grade 3 Flower Cup before taking on the Oaks, where she finished in 13th place. Back at 9 furlongs last out in the Grade 2 Rose Stakes, Cantabile returned from a 4-month layoff to win by over a length under Lemaire. The Rose Stakes is known as a reliable indicator of success in the Shuka Sho. Runners who made the top three spots in the Rose Stakes have won the Shuka Sho six times in the past decade and finished second eight times. However, following a summer layoff, a weight gain going in to the Rose Stakes is usually desirable for those heading to the Shuka Sho. Cantabile, however, went to the Rose Stakes with a 4-kg loss from her Oaks weight, so it will be wise to note on Sunday whether her weight has stabilized. Unlike the spring classic, the Ritto-based Cantabile has the home advantage with a win and a second at Kyoto. Yutaka Take, who has three wins of the Shuka Sho, has the reins and is paired with Cantabile for the first time.
Salacia: Another Deep Impact filly, Salacia is taking on her first Grade 1 competition. She has yet to win at the graded-stakes level, but has one second and two fourths in Grade 2 events. Salacia has matured considerably since the spring and has put on a good 20kg since then. Last out, she finished second in the Rose Stakes, 1 1/4 lengths behind Cantabile. She is on the up and up and should prove competitive with the more established fillies. “Unlike the spring, she hasn’t dropped any weight and is looking good. She is better out of the gate than she had been, but this being the inner course at Kyoto, I would like her to get a good position. If she can do that, I think she has a chance,” trainer Manabu Ikezoe said.
Primo Scene: Primo Scene is a Miho-based Deep Impact filly that has, in her six prior starts, been raced only at the mile. The Shuka Sho will be 2 furlongs longer than anything she’s seen before but with her far-off-the-pace racing style, it should suit. Primo Scene has two Grade 3 wins, including her Aug. 12 run in the Sekiya Kinen at Niigata last out. She has taken on two top-level races this year, the Oka Sho, in which she finished 10th, and the NHK Mile, where she placed fifth. The latter race saw her compete against colts, but the Sekiya Kinen pitted her against older horses as well, though she did carry only 51kg, 4kg less than she’ll carry here. She will be racing at Kyoto for the first time and has the trip west to weather, a trip she did not take well to the first time (for the Oka Sho), when she was tense and agitated in the pre-parade ring.
Other horses worth a mention are the Ritto-based Randonnee, a U.S.-bred excitable filly by Blame, who has figured in the top three spots four times in her six starts thus far, racing primarily in the 1,800-2,000-meter range. Randonnee finished third last out in the Grade 3 Shion Stakes at Nakayama on Sept. 8. This will be her first time at Kyoto. Mikki Charm is a front-running late bloomer by Deep Impact who is jumping up to the graded level for her first time. On a three-way winning streak, she will be paired with Sprinters Stakes winning jockey Yuga Kawada.