By Nicholas Godfrey
Tokyo: Tenno Sho (Autumn) G1 ¥289.6m (£2.14m) 2,000 metres (1m2f), turf, 3yo+
Japan: Brilliant racemare Almond Eye left jockey Christophe Lemaire shedding a few tears on Sunday as she entered the Japanese racing history books with her eighth G1 success in the Tenno Sho (Autumn).
With seven G1 wins on the Japan Racing Association circuit plus the Dubai Turf in 2019, the Sakae Kunieda-trained five-year-old is the first Japanese-trained horse ever to record eight top-level victories on turf.
With star three-year-olds Contrail and Daring Tact, who both completed Triple Crowns, among the colts and fillies respectively, 2020 is turning into an annus mirabilis for Japanese racing in spite of the coronavirus pandemic.
On Sunday, Almond Eye showed the youngsters they can’t have the stage to themselves as she kicked off her final autumn campaign in fine style in the 81st running of the autumn version of the Emperor’s Prize, a race she had also won in 2019.
Despite having been beaten by star sprinter-miler Gran Alegria on her most recent outing in the Yasuda Kinen in June, the daughter of Lord Kanaloa was made 2-5 favourite to pick up the winning thread as she stepped back up in trip in the ¥289.6m (£2.14m) contest.
Lemaire settled her a couple of horses off the fence in about fourth behind a decent pace set by former two-year-old champ Danon Premium, just one of several high-profile G1 winners in an ultra-talented 12-runner field.
Almond Eye eased into the front rank in the middle of the track before easily taking over from the leader at the furlong marker and establishing a telling advantage between herself and her rivals.
In truth, the race was won at that point, and she was always holding the late challenges of both Fierement and second favourite Chrono Genesis, though they closed to within a half-length and a neck of the winner.
JRA champion jockey Lemaire, evidently renowned as something of an ‘Iceman’ by his Japanese fans, was in emotional mood after the race as he let down his guard, giving the horse he adores above all others a peck on the neck.
“I have to admit, there was a lot of pressure on us to win the eighth G1 title but she didn’t let us down,” said the Frenchman, who now has 32 JRA G1 wins to his name.
“Her performance today was awesome,” he went on. “The mare was relaxed at the start and we were able to break well. Then she showed a great turn of foot in the straight but ran out of steam a bit climbing the hill. The others were gaining on us but she didn’t give up.”
Although Almond Eye will be retired to the paddocks at the end of the season, she is likely to have a couple more runs before then, with the tantalising prospect of a Japan Cup clash with the younger generation a possibility.
Hong Kong is also on the table, before the season-ending Arima Kinen at Nakayama over the Christmas period.
“Her future lies in the hands of the owner and trainer but I would very much like to ride her again,” commented a slightly teary Lemaire. They won’t be letting anoyone else on her, that’s for sure.
• Visit the Japan Racing Association website