Will the Ship set sail in the Arima Kinen?

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

December 27th, 2014

If you had to guess the most popular race in Japan, you might think of the Japanese Derby or Japan Cup. But in fact, it's the Arima Kinen, held at Nakayama right around Christmas. Fans get to vote on the composition of the field, with their top 10 choices granted a spot in the sweet 16. All of the contenders -- the "Big 4" of Gold Ship, Gentildonna, Just a Way and Epiphaneia, along with bomb candidate To the World -- are mentioned in my preview over at

If you had to guess who got the most votes for Sunday's 59th running, you might think of Gentildonna, but you'd be wrong. Instead, the fan favorite is the maddeningly mercurial Gold Ship, by an 11,000-vote margin over the multiple champion mare.

When Gold Ship's on, he's world-class. The dual Japanese classic winner flaunted his superiority in the 2012 running of this race, and he's gone on to make history as the only two-time winner of June's Takarazuka Kinen. But a bet on Gold Ship is always a gamble on his precarious frame of mind. If something annoys him into a bad mood, he simply won't exert any effort at all -- the racing equivalent of Achilles sulking in his tent.

Gold Ship failed to show up on the grand stage of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe last time out, trudging home a listless 14th. Trainer Naosuke Sugai has come up with a different reason for his latest flop: the bucolic setting of his French headquarters made Gold Ship think that he was on vacation, not revving up for a race, and he behaved accordingly. Since the gray definitely has a mind of his own, and doesn't hesitate to use it, that explanation makes sense.

A Gold Ship with his head in the game would be tough to beat, and he'll go off at higher odds here than in Japan. Post 14 shouldn't be a hindrance to the deep closer who'll drop back anyway. That said, "logic" and Gold Ship don't routinely fit together in the same sentence.

Gentildonna is making her grand finale in the Arima Kinen, with her retirement ceremony to follow the race, and it would be entirely fitting to see her put an exclamation point on her historic career. I don't hold her fourth as the two-time defending champion in the Japan Cup against her, since the course was still bearing the effects of rain, and she'll get her preferred quick conditions here.

Yet I can't avoid the thought that the daughter of Deep Impact is better over expansive left-handed courses like Tokyo -- the scene of her landmark consecutive victories in the Japan Cup -- and Meydan, where she put Cirrus des Aigles in his place in the Dubai Sheema Classic. The tighter, right-handed contours of Nakayama may not play as well to her strengths, and that could be just enough to thwart the fairy-tale ending.

A similar question applies to Japan Cup romper Epiphaneia, according to trainer Katsuhiko Sumii and assistant Kengo Takada, who both cited the Nakayama course as a potential issue. Unlike Gentildonna, who has never raced here before, at least Epiphaneia has run well in both of his prior appearances at Nakayama, albeit in narrow defeats last year.

But Epiphaneia's biggest obstacle could be himself. He pulled hard for much of the way in the Japan Cup, and Belgian ace Christophe Soumillon did well to cajole the strong-willed colt. Soumillon won't be in the irons Sunday, leaving Yuga Kawada the unenviable task of riding him for the first time in a race. International fans may remember Kawada as the overly patient rider of Harp Star. Drawn in post 13, Epiphaneia could find himself lit up out wide, making for a tougher trip than his inside passage in the Japan Cup.

As a card-carrying fan of Epiphaneia's parents, Symboli Kris S and Cesario, I'd love to see him duplicate his Japan Cup performance and continue his newfound ascendancy. But his odds won't offer anywhere near the value they did last time.

Just a Way was no match for Epiphaneia at Tokyo, but the change in venue to Nakayama promises to suit him better. Just a Way has lived a tale of two seasons: invincible in the first half, catapulting himself into the top of the World's Best Racehorse Rankings, and very beatable in the second half. Best of the rest behind Epiphaneia in the Japan Cup in his latest, he showed that he can handle 1 1/2 miles. The extra sixteenth in the Arima Kinen should be within his compass, especially over this course, even if it's not his ideal trip.

As clean and neat a solution as it would be for the World's Best Racehorse to end his career on a winning note, I wonder whether he's quite the same horse as he was earlier in the year. Just a Way was initially due to retire after the Japan Cup, and this is a change of plan, which was not helped by drawing post 15. On the other hand, note that jockey Yuichi Fukunaga believes that he is "back to his best" at the moment.

If you're casting about for a big-price play, sophomore To the World has some points to recommend him.

A horse for the course, To the World was victorious in a photo in a Grade 2 classic trial here in March, and runner-up to Isla Bonita in the Satsuki Sho (Japanese Two Thousand Guineas) in his only other Nakayama venture. He again played second fiddle to Isla Bonita in a Japanese St Leger prep, and that form stacks up well, considering that rival came back to finish a close third to Spielberg and Gentildonna in the Tenno Sho (Autumn). To the World found the 1 7/8 miles of the Kikuka Sho (Japanese St Leger) itself well beyond him, but is worth a look back in trip over this course. He's well drawn in post 6 and has visiting jockey William Buick booked.

Bred in the purple as a son of King Kamehameha and champion mare To the Victory, who was runner-up in the 2001 Dubai World Cup and third in the Arima Kinen, To the World is a full brother to multiple Grade 2 scorer To the Glory, twice third in the Arima Kinen himself.

Trainer Yasutoshi Ikee commented that To the World was "brilliant" in a recent work, adding that "his brother always ran well when it was cold -- it could be the same with him."