Handicapping Saturday night’s Oka Sho: Rooting for Ria to rebound
Eighteen fillies will contest the first Japanese classic of the season, the Oka Sho (G1), at 2:40 a.m. (ET) as Saturday night turns into early Easter Sunday morning. Three are capable of superlative efforts on their day – early favorite Resistencia, unbeaten Daring Tact, and the one I keep gravitating toward as perhaps the forgotten horse, #8 Ria Amelia (6-1).
A physically imposing daughter of Deep Impact and Canadian champion Ria Antonia (who was awarded the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies [G1] via disqualification), Ria Amelia was astonishing in her career debut at this track and metric mile trip last June. She simply annihilated them by eight lengths under a motionless Yuga Kawada. Not seen again until the Oct. 26 Artemis (G3) at Tokyo, Ria Amelia easily swept past the field, clocking her final 3 furlongs in :33.0, in a textbook case of confident handling.
That’s why Ria Amelia went off as the 4-5 favorite in the Dec. 8 Hanshin Juvenile Fillies (G1). But she lagged too far back early and offered a half-hearted rally to wind up sixth. Even her lackluster effort hinted of her talent, for she still recorded the third-fastest finish in :35.7 without trying too hard. Her assistant trainer commented that she wasn’t even blowing afterward and “just didn’t run.”
Considering how dynamic she was first up and again off a break, the plan to freshen Ria Amelia up for the Oka Sho appears wise. If adhering to the pattern of her first two starts, she’s a major win threat. She could be part of a banner weekend for young trainer Mitsumasa Nakauchida, who sends out favored Danon Premium in Friday night’s lucrative Queen Elizabeth (G1) during The Championships at Randwick.
Eleven of the past 20 Oka Sho winners had competed in the Hanshin Juvenile Fillies, but only three turned the double, and none since Apapane (2010). The trend gives reason for concern about champion #17 Resistencia (3-1), especially at her short price. As Ron Flatter has pointed out, the favorite has not been winning the Oka Sho in recent years.
It’s easy to forget that Resistencia was the 10-1 fourth choice in the Hanshin Juvenile Fillies, where she spurted away in a front-running tour de force in a record 1:32.7. Resistencia was then upset in the key prep, the March 7 Tulip Sho (G2), but that actually helps her trend-wise. In the last 20 years, the Tulip Sho produced 10 Oka Sho winners. Only two won both; eight were improving from Tulip Sho losses. The rider switch to Yutaka Take could help Resistencia regain the winning thread. Still, I’m inclined to wonder if she’ll run back to her eye-popping Hanshin Juvenile Fillies.
#11 Cravache d’Or (10-1) fits the trends neatly as the third in the Hanshin Juvenile Fillies and near-miss second to Maltese Diosa in the Tulip Sho. (Maltese Diosa was herself second in the Hanshin Juvenile Fillies, but her prep win arguably makes her worth opposing as a win candidate here.) Another reason to upgrade Cravache d’Or is her bang-up effort to unbeaten colt Salios in last fall’s Saudi Arabia Royal Cup (G3). The one hesitation is that she’s been settling for minor awards, and the daughter of Heart’s Cry might need a bit more time and distance to reach her peak. On the other hand, she keeps Mirco Demuro aboard. And if the rainy forecast verifies, soft ground is an unknown, but in theory a stiffer test of stamina could suit her.
One emerging trend is for fillies to use the Nikkan Sports Sho Shinzan Kinen (G3) versus the boys as a springboard. Four Oka Sho winners in the past decade have taken this route, but only Almond Eye (2018) went straight from that Kyoto race in January to Hanshin. #4 Sanctuaire (6-1) is trying to emulate her by not having a subsequent prep. As a Deep Impact half-sister to multiple Grade 1 hero Yoshida, Sanctuaire has plenty of upside. Yet I can’t get out of my mind the image of Ria Amelia galloping past her in the aforementioned Artemis. Thus I want to regard Sanctuaire’s success over males as a compliment to Ria Amelia.
Aside from Ria Amelia and Resistencia, #9 Daring Tact (3-1) has exuded potential star quality in two dominant displays. Her spectacular stakes debut came in the Elfin S., a less productive prep but still responsible for four Oka Sho winners in the past 20 years (only one in the last decade). The Elfin fourth, Epos, came back to take the Hochi Hai Fillies’ Revue (G2) (not a key stepping stone to success here). The caution is that the inexperienced Daring Tact, described as “sensitive” and “easily upset” in trainer comments on japanracing.jp, must keep her calm in her first appearance away from Kyoto.
Among big prices to consider for the exotics are #6 Woman’s Heart (40-1) and #13 Magic Castle (20-1), both with a brilliant late kick. Woman’s Heart, who beat the boys in last summer’s Niigata Nisai (G3), turned in creditable efforts in defeat in the Hanshin Juvenile Fillies and Tulip Sho. The fact she competed in both historically significant pointers could count for something here. Magic Castle did not line up in either, but her form suggests she’d have been competitive. Second to Maltese Diosa in an allowance, she chased Resistencia home in the Nov. 2 Fantasy (G3), and in her recent comeback, she just failed to collar Miyamazakura in the Daily Hai Queen Cup (G3).
A postscript on the weather: Rain’s in the Hanshin forecast, and truly soft ground would be an inscrutable variable. Ria Amelia is untested on anything other than firm, but her rounded action gives me hope she can adapt to a softish course. Cravache d’Or is likewise an unknown quantity in the wet, but her dam’s full sister, Excited, bolted up in the 2011 Hilltop at soggy Pimlico.
A few have credentials on “good,” most notably Resistencia. Her dam, Argentine Group 1 queen Malacostumbrada, relished heavy going to score her signature wins. So in principle she should be fine on soft, although her early speed from post 17 might make for a tough slog if conditions are dreary enough.