Japan Cup: all you need to know as record-breaking Almond Eye joins the immortals

By Nicholas Godfrey

In what was billed as Japan’s ‘Race of the Decade’, superstar racemare Almond Eye went into retirement with her second Japan Cup victory at Tokyo racecourse on Sunday in the 40th edition of the race. Here’s some stuff you might like to know …

What’s going on?

Almond Eye decisive in clash of Triple Crown winners

A thrillingly memorable clash of three Triple Crown winners went the way of record-breaking racemare Almond Eye as she went into retirement with an epic victory in the 40th running of the Japan Cup.

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Well, we say ‘thrilling’ – and it certainly was – but in the end it wasn’t entirely the sort of head-to-head contest implied by the word ‘clash’ as the 6-5 favourite scored decisively by a length and a quarter from Contrail, with Daring Tact close up in third.

Both Curren Bouquetd’Or and Glory Vase were also close up, as a tea towel would have covered the minor placings (neck, nose, neck).

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Japan’s richest race with a prize fund of ¥648 million (£4.68m) was run at a fierce gallop as veteran G1 performer Kiseki – runner-up to Almond Eye in 2018 – established a huge advantage to enter the long Tokyo straight about ten lengths clear.

Drawn two, Almond Eye had raced on the rails throughout just off the front of the chasing pack. Moved out a few paths in the stretch, she took command about a furlong out with her signature turn of foot before going on to score decisively over the hugely talented three-year-old pair Contrail and Daring Tact.

Horse Racing Almond Eye Japan Cup 2020
Almond Eye (Christophe Lemaire) is out on her own in the Japan Cup. Photo: Japan Racing Association

Respective winners of the colts’ and fillies’ triple crowns in 2020, they both issued desperate wide bids from farther back but were never getting to the winner and had to settle for minor placings as they forfeited their unbeaten records.

At least connections of the vanquished pair can reflect that it took a great to conquer them.

Why Almond Eye is number one …

Almond Eye will go down as the greatest female racehorse in the history of Japanese racing – and, whisper it quietly, she can’t be too far off number one overall.

Silk Racing’s daughter of Lord Kanaloa must at least be in the argument, having become the only Japanese horse to win nine G1s on turf – eight on the Japan Racing Association circuit (also a record) plus the Dubai Turf.

Six other horses have won seven JRA G1s, namely T M Opera O, Symboli Kris S, Deep Impact, Vodka, Gentildonna and KItasan Black.

Almond Eye’s previous G1 wins in Japan are the Oka Sho (1,000 Guineas), Yushun HImba (Oaks) and Shuka Sho (fillies’ St Leger) during her Triple Crown year of 2018, when she also won her first Japan Cup, then the Tenno Sho (Autumn) in both 2019 and 2020 and this year’s Victoria Mile and Japan Cup. She is only the second horse to win two Japan Cups after Gentildonna (2012 and 2013).

… and also number one the prize-money chart

With 11 wins from her 15 career starts, Almond Eye goes into retirement as the biggest prize-money earner in Japanese racing history with career earnings of ¥1,912,029,900 – or about £13.8 million at current exchange rates.

Her earnings surpass those of previous number one Kitasan Black, who accrued ¥1,876,843,000 (£13.5m).

The all-time world prize-money leader is the mighty Winx, whose career total of just over £14.5m leads the way.

Almond Eye’s retirement ceremony will be held at Nakayama on December 19.

Horse Racing Almond Eye Japan Cup 2020
Almond Eye and Christophe Lemaire lead them home in the Japan Cup. Photo: Japan Racing Association

Jockey and trainer stats

Winning jockey Christophe Lemaire was landing his third Japan Cup after Vodka (2009) and Almond Eye; it was his 35th JRA G1 title altogether. Trainer Sakae Kunieda has now won 19 G1s on the JRA circuit, with Almond Eye providing a pair of Japan Cup wins.

Japan’s reigning champion Lemaire is on the verge of his fourth successive jockeys’ title in Japan, where he has ridden more than 1,300 winners altogether. Japan has only a single G1 event every weekend – and Lemaire has now won the last four.

The Frenchman has eight G1s to his name in 2020, thereby equalling his 2018 record mark.

Christophe Lemaire: no more tears

There were no tears this time from Christophe Lemaire, who had been unusually emotional after Almond Eye’s previous victory in the Tenno Sho (Autumn).

“Last time there was a record on the line, and there was so much pressure, that winning was a huge relief,” said the JRA’s champion jockey. “This time was a sayonara party. That’s the difference.”

That’s probably why he stood up in his irons and blew kisses at the (limited) crowd after the race. 

Lucky Lotto lets a few thousand witness history

As Japan gradually eases its COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, an official attendance figure of 4,604 was registered for what was billed as Japan’s race of the decade.

They included 4,348 lucky fans admitted to the reserved seats at Tokyo racecourse after a JRA lottery in which there were more than 50,000 applications.

Mind you, they might have been excused for feeling a touch lonely in the the colossal nine-floor Fuji View grandstand. Also known as Fuchu, Tokyo has the largest capacity of any racecourse in the world at 223,000 – that’s 58,000 more than Churchill Downs, for example, which can hold 165,000 including the infield ! 

At 196,517 for the Tokyo Yushun (Derby) of May 1990, Tokyo’s record attendance is actually well short of its capacity. The Japan Cup high came with 187,524 in 1995, when German-trained Lando scored under Michael Roberts.

Nearly £200m is bet on the race

The JRA reported tote turnover on the race of ¥27,274,334,600. That’s just short of about £200m (£196.8m) at current exchange rates. Total turnover for a 12-race card in Tokto was reported at ¥3737,169,195,300 (about £268.2m).

Way To Paris: naughty, naughty

Although the Japan Cup was created 40 years ago as the nation’s showpiece international contest, the 2019 edition had featured no overseas runners and 2020 had just one in the shape of the French-trained Way To Paris.

What is more, the near-white seven-year-old, who won the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud in June, almost let the side down entirely as he delayed the start with a stubborn display of recalcitrance, refusing to enter the starting gate until the stalls handlers finally got him in with a persuasive mix of coaxing and coercion. “The horse seemed laid back up to the gate. He just didn’t want to get in and got worked up,” said jockey Mirco Demuro.

After the gates opened, though, the horse nicknamed the ‘White Flash’ was anything but. He raced in last before making up a few places in the straight to finish tenth of 15, thereby continuing a long run of failure for visiting horses dating back to Alkaased’s victory for Luca Cumani and Frankie Detori in 2005. No European-trained horses has made the frame since the Sir Michael Stoute-trained Conduit was fourth in 2009.

As for Way To Paris, the stewards ruled that he will have to pass a gate test before running again – a moot point, as he has now been retired.

Shall we talk about it?

Christophe Lemaire (Almond Eye’s jockey): “This mare is a true professional and she never gave me a second of anxiety today. Whatever I asked her for, she delivered. She is Japan’s strongest horse, and I’m filled with gratitude toward her. Since this was her final start, it was very special for me and I’m thrilled we were able to win.
“After winning the Victoria Mile in the spring, we had three weeks to get her prepared for the Yasuda Kinen in which she was second. She had an extra week this time and was tuned up beautifully. 
“She was relaxed in the gate, broke smoothly and was able to sit in a good position. The turf condition near the rails was much better than last week so I don’t think the inner draw was a problem. The pace was just right for her and she responded well in the stretch. The others closing in on us didn’t worry me at all.
 “Almond Eye is a perfect mare and doesn’t have any weak points. Every time I get to ride Almond Eye is special – today, for her retirement race, it was even more special. Her career as a racehorse ended today but I look forward to riding her children.”

Sakae Kunieda (Almond Eye’s trainer): “She’s looked good since she arrived at the racecourse – she has definitely matured mentally. We were worried about the rough going near the rails, but Christophe did a good job in finding a good path.
“The pace was ideal for Almond Eye and her response was totally different from that in the Tenno Sho (Autumn). Since expectations of an eighth G1 title were enormous in her last Tenno Sho start, we felt a bit of pressure then but today, all we wanted was for her to come back safe and sound.
“The victory is such a bonus, we couldn’t be happier. She has given us so much excitement and joy and it has been fulfilling to be a part of her career. It would be great if I could be involved in training her colt or filly someday.”

Zoe Pfeil (representing Andrea Marcialis, trainer of Way To Paris): “Everything was different from what he’s used to when racing at home, so he was very nervous and took a lot of time to get into the stalls. He broke poorly and even though the pace was so fast, he did respond in the last 300 metres. He was used up trying to get into the stall and the bad break also affected the outcome.”

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