After two weeks without a Grade 1 to headline Japan Racing Association racing, the Takarazuka Kinen steps in to give the fans one last thriller until top-level racing starts up again in late September.
Sunday sees the action move to Hanshin Racecourse west of Osaka, where 16 horses nominated not only by their connections but by the fans as well will compete in the first of the year’s two “All-Star” races. This year marks the 59th running of the Takarazuka Kinen, a 2,200-meter turf event carrying a total purse of 325 million yen and a first-place prize of 150 million yen.
The full gate of 18 will be two shy on Sunday and without one sole standout in the champion lineup that includes five Grade 1 winners, bets are expected to be spread over the field.
Ballot heavyweight Satono Diamond, who won both the Kikuka Sho (Japanese St. Leger) and Arima Kinen (The Grand Prix) last year, as well as close to 64,000 votes from the fans, will likely be the race favorite, with Kiseki, another Kikuka Sho winner and only one of two 4-year-olds in the field, looking for his second Grade 1 victory.
Last year’s winner Satono Crown is back to try to become only the second horse in the race’s history (after Gold Ship in 2014) to win back-to-back versions and two mares – Vivlos and Smart Layer – will attempt to become only the fourth female yet to win the Takarazuka.
Three horses – Satono Crown, Vivlos and Danburite – are heading directly from overseas excursions into the Takarazuka, while the Hong Kong-based gelding Werther will be racing in Japan for the first time. He is only the second foreign raider to take on the Takarazuka Kinen, the first in 21 years.
The competition is interesting in the saddles as well, with Christophe Lemaire on Satono Diamond chasing down his fourth Grade 1 victory in Japan this year alone and looking to tie the only two other jockeys currently riding who have ever won four Grade 1s before the summer. They are Yutaka Take, who also holds the record for most wins of the Takarazuka at four, and Yuichi Fukunaga, who captured his first Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) this year, aboard Wagnerian. The two riders are set to ride Danburite and Vivlos, respectively.
The Takarazuka Kinen is run over the Hanshin inner course and horses must execute four turns. The race starts to the far right of the stands and continues 530 meters to the first turn. From 200 meters before the finish line the track rises 2 meters over half a furlong and from early in the backstretch, the course starts a gentle downward slope that continues until hitting the stretch hill 200 meters out.
Earnestly, who clocked 2 minutes, 10.1 seconds in 2011, still holds the race record.
The Takarazuka Kinen is the 11th race on the Hanshin card of 12 on June 24. Post time is 15:40 local time.
Satono Diamond, picture Japan Racing Association
Here’s a look at some of the expected top choices.
Satono Diamond – This Deep Impact 5-year-old beat Kitasan Black, winner of seven Grade 1s, in the 2016 Arima Kinen after running third in the Grade 1 Satsuki Sho and second in the Japanese Derby. He continued to shine brightly until traveling to France in the fall of 2017. Though Satono Diamond has not posted a win since March of 2017, he looks primed for one, going in to his third start since returning to Japan following two overseas challenges and, had he been able to get a clear run last out in the Osaka Hai, would likely have fared better than seventh place. He can handle both the course and the distance and Christophe Lemaire in the saddle is a formidable factor.
Vivlos – Winner of the 2016 Grade 1 Shuka Sho, the Yasuo Tomomichi-trained Vivlos captured the Dubai Turf at Meydan last year and returned for a second run on March 31 this year. She finished second, but it was a step down in finishing order only, as her time was a full 3.7 seconds faster than last year. The Takarazuka distance, as indicated by her fifth-place in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup last year, should not pose a problem, and though her only other Hanshin run ended in a 12th-place finish, she has won racing to the right. Vivlos will be paired with Yuichi Fukunaga and the Tomomichi-Fukunaga combination has brought 50 wins in 277 starts, including Fukunaga’s Derby victory. Fukunaga has yet to win the Takarazuka, but another first could well be in the stars.
Kiseki – This son of Rulership won the Kikuka Sho and next traveled to Hong Kong, where he ran ninth. Back for his first start this year in March, he went to the lead amid a slow pace to finish ninth again in the Grade 2 Nikkei Sho over 2,500 meters at Nakayama. Still somewhat difficult to settle, Kiseki should fare better with the shorter distance. Kiseki won the Kikuka Sho over a sloppy track and rain would be a plus on Sunday. Mirco Demuro is slated for the ride.
Perform a Promise – This Stay Gold 6-year-old looks to be coming into his own at last after rising quickly through the ranks from early last year to reach the Grade 2 level and win the Nikkei Shinshun Hai this past January. He followed that with a third in the Meguro Kinen on May 27 that spotlighted his tenacity and excellent acceleration. The 2,200 meters of the Takarazuka should give him enough ground and though it’s been a while since he raced at Hanshin, he did win his debut there. If he can handle the 58 kg he’ll be carrying, only 1 kg more than he’s raced under (and won), all should be well. His last two starts were under Mirco Demuro but Keita Tosaki in the saddle is equally advantageous.
Mikki Rocket – Looking to win his first Grade 1 is the 5-year-old King Kamehameha-sired Mikki Rocket. Sixth in last year’s Takarazuka Kinen, Mikki Rocket has not won since January 2017, when he aced the Grade 2 Nikkei Shinshun Hai at Kyoto. This year he has had three starts, including the Tenno Sho (Spring), where he turned in a solid performance that earned him fourth place. Rain would be a problem but the distance is one he’s used to. Trainer Hidetaka Otonashi says, “He wants to move in morning work, is looking really good and has gotten better out of the gate. His best distance is probably 2,400 meters, but I think he can handle this.”
Werther on Thursday morning, picture Hong Kong Jockey Club
Werther – The 7-year-old New Zealand-bred Werther, by Tavistock, had an outstanding season in 2015/1016 that brought him the Horse of the Year Award in Hong Kong. Last year, he notched two wins at the top level, over 2,000 meters and 2,400, then ran second at yearend in the Hong Kong Cup, finishing ahead of Neorealism, Staphanos and Smart Layer in that order. He has a 3-2-6 record from his three starts this year, which included two Grade 1 events and last raced at Sha Tin on June 3. In that race, though he finished sixth it should be noted that he was racing for the first time in four months, carrying 60 kg and racing over a mile, not his best distance. Hugh Bowman has the ride on Sunday.
Satono Crown – This Marju 6-year-old captured last year’s Takarazuka and ran a close second to Kitasan Black in the Tenno Sho (Autumn) six months later, but has posted two double-digit finishes in his three starts since and is returning now from a seventh-place run at Meydan in the Dubai Sheema Classic. It’s been 3 months since that run but a return to Hanshin is a plus. Better yet would be rain, which is predicted for the area for much of this week.
Other hopefuls worth a wager are Strong Titan and Smart Layer. The latter, now 8 years old, ran fifth in the Hong Kong Cup over 2,000 meters in December. She couldn’t keep up with the sudden rise in pace in the Osaka Hai, but did turn in a respective seventh in the marathon Tenno Sho (Spring) last out. She has had her best results at Hanshin. Strong Titan notched a win in the 2,000-meter Grade 3 Naruo Kinen at Hanshin on his second start back after five months’ off. Late speed is his forte and rain poses no problems. It will be his first time carrying 58 kg but at over 520 kg himself, he should be able to handle it.