Early look at Arima Kinen: Japan Cup vs QEII Cup form, clash of Black & Gold

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

December 22nd, 2015

International racing fans have one more Japanese major to look forward to before year’s end – Sunday’s Arima Kinen (G1) at Nakayama. The post-Christmas bash marks the swan song of temperamental fan favorite Gold Ship (pictured); an expected rematch of the Japan Cup (G1), featuring the trifecta Shonan Pandora, Last Impact and Lovely Day; a test of the Queen Elizabeth II Cup (G1) form, pitting upset winner Marialite versus well-regarded fourth Rouge Buck; along with likely appearances from last-out Japanese St Leger (G1) hero Kitasan Black and gallant third Lia Fail, as well as up-and-comers Gold Actor and Albert.

The Arima Kinen is an immensely popular event in Japan, and the field is in part determined by the votes of fans. Former champion Gold Ship continues to garner support, despite – or maybe because of – his maddening quirks, and he again proved to be the top vote-getter. As reported by Graham Pavey (@LongBallToNoOne), 120,981 ballots were cast for Gold Ship, while Lovely Day took second with 113,412, and Kitasan Black attracted 93,925 to grab third.

Gold Ship captured the 2012 Arima Kinen as a three-year-old, during his championship campaign that included two-thirds of the Japanese Triple Crown. Although a feast-or-famine type ever since, the gray made history by becoming the first two-time winner of the Takarazuka Kinen (G1) in 2013-14, and he completed a three-peat in the Hanshin Daishoten (G2) this past March. The six-year-old next added the Tenno Sho Spring (G1) over two metric miles, but hasn’t been involved in his last pair. Still, his comeback 10th in the Japan Cup was very much a stepping stone to this big finale. And considering that Gold Ship has finished third in the past two runnings of this race, immediately on the heels of flops, the omens are quite good for a rebound. Note that his retirement ceremony will take place right afterward.

The Japan Cup had a pretty open look this year, so it was no great surprise that there was a bunched finish. Shonan Pandora got up to prevail over the rail-skimming Last Impact, who nearly sprang the upset under a typically inspired Ryan Moore ride. Unfortunately, Moore was later slapped with a suspension in Hong Kong, and Last Impact won’t have his services here. He’ll reunite with Yuji Hishida, who was aboard for his unlucky seventh in last December’s Arima Kinen. In contrast, Shonan Pandora had better luck recently at Nakayama: she handily accounted for Nuovo Record, Marialite, and older males in the September 27 Sankei Sho All Comers (G2) over this course. Last year’s Shuka Sho (G1) heroine certainly has the credentials, but given the competitive nature of this race, Shonan Pandora may be a bit of an underlay off her Japan Cup.

Others exiting the Japan Cup are Lovely Day, a close third as the favorite; Sounds of Earth (fifth); One and Only (seventh); Derby Fizz (ninth); Hit the Target (13th); Admire Deus (16th); and Pelusa (17th).

Of those, Sounds of Earth has the most upside. Second to Toho Jackal in a record-setting Kikuka Sho (Japanese St. Leger) last fall, he was a fast-finishing fourth to Admire Deus in the March 28 Nikkei Sho (G2) at this course and distance. Sounds of Earth resumed from a five-month holiday to rattle late for second to Lovely Day in the Kyoto Daishoten (G2), and wasn’t beaten far in the Japan Cup.

Lovely Day had previously won four straight, including the Takarazuka Kinen and Tenno Sho Autumn (G1) (beating Shonan Pandora in each). But he’s been unplaced in three prior tries at this about 1 9/16-mile distance. Indeed, trainer Yasutoshi Ikee believes that Lovely Day’s ideal trip is about 1 1/4 miles, an idea reinforced by his getting nabbed in top company late in the Japan Cup. Unless he draws inside and gets the absolute run of the race, he’s likely to come up a little short again.

One and Only reached the mountaintop in the midst of his three-year-old season, with victories in the 2014 Japanese Derby (G1) and Kobe Shimbun Hai (G2), but he’s lost his way in the interim. His lone highlight this year was a third in the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1) on World Cup night.

The Japan Cup isn’t the only Autumn International race with form on offer here: the first event of the series, the November 15 QEII Cup, is likewise represented by the victorious Marialite and the strong fourth Rouge Buck. I suspect that the form will be reversed come Sunday. Marialite brought an improving profile into her first Grade 1 foray, and capitalized on a good trip on a rain-affected track that suited her. To be sure, Marialite also likes Nakayama, with a 4-2-0-1 local mark that reflects a win at the distance. But the QEII Cup was a perfect storm for her, compared to her near-miss rivals.

Rouge Buck was reappearing from a six-month layoff in the QEII Cup, and went down by a grand total of three-quarters of a length. Sure to be fitter and sharper in her second start back, the daughter of Manhattan Café and champion Ginger Punch is eligible to run up to her big reputation. She had easily beaten males in the February 8 Kisaragi Sho (G3), and finished a close second in the Japanese Oaks (G1), before fever knocked her off the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) trail. We’ll be hearing a lot more from Rouge Buck in 2016, but she might not wait for the calendar to turn. She will have to buck history to win, though. While the Arima Kinen has been friendly to distaffers in recent years – see Daiwa Scarlet (2008) and Gentildonna (2014) – they were older. No three-year-old filly has won since Star Roch in 1960.

Three-year-old colts Kitasan Black and Lia Fail will also try to strike a blow for the 2015 classic crop. Kitasan Black advanced his career record to five-for-seven with a narrow success in the October 25 Japanese St. Leger, where he benefited from a ground-saving trip throughout. Lia Fail, on the other hand, had to deal with post 17 and chasing a stiff pace, and he just missed in third.

Kitasan Black boasts a two-for-three mark at Nakayama, his lone local loss being a third in the Japanese Two Thousand Guineas (G1). By Deep Impact’s full brother Black Tide, he won the Fuji TV Sho Spring (G2) (over Real Steel and champion Danon Platina) and regained the winning thread here in the September 21 St. Lite Kinen (G2), a St. Leger trial. If he makes it three straight, watch his blues-singer owner burst into song. 

Lia Fail, a half-brother to Marialite, started his career on dirt but has thrived since switching to turf. Two starts back, he wired the September 27 Kobe Shimbun Hai, and looms as the likely front runner here.

The Arima Kinen could serve as the launching pad for two progressive four-year-olds, Gold Actor and Albert. Gold Actor, who was third to Toho Jackal and Sounds of Earth in last year’s Japanese St. Leger, is a perfect three-for-three this term. A son of Screen Hero (like star miler Maurice), Gold Actor exits a career-best score in the Copa Republica Argentina (G2) at this distance at Tokyo. Albert, already being discussed as a Melbourne Cup (G1) contender, extended his winning streak to four in the December 5 Sports Nippon Sho Stayers (G2) at Nakayama. He takes an abrupt drop in trip from that about 2 1/4-mile marathon, but his preceding allowance wins came in the 1 1/4- to 1 1/2-mile range. In other words, Albert is no plodder.

Rounding out the list of prospects are Satono Noblesse and Meiner Frost, who’ve been beaten recently by Gold Actor and Shonan Pandora; Ocean Blue, who’s not in the same form as when second in the 2012 Arima Kinen; and Tosen Reve, who garnered this past Sunday’s December S. and probably won’t make the line-up.

Gold Ship photo copyright, and courtesy of, Japan Racing Association.