The field for the G1 Takarazuka Kinen (2200m) this year is the joint smallest in a decade, with only 11 horses expected to go to the gate on Sunday (25 June). Kitasan Black, who last start won the G1 Tenno Sho Spring (3200m) in record time, is the lineup’s heavyweight and his odds are likely to be rock-bottom in Japan with many predicting him to win.
Three other Group 1 winners are tackling this race, contested over Hanshin’s right-handed course. They include 2016 Hong Kong Vase (2400m) winner Satono Crown, Japanese Oaks (2400m) and Shuka Sho (2000m) victor Mikki Queen, and Gold Actor, who won the year-end Arima Kinen (2500m) in 2015.
Though he is yet to bag a top-level race, Cheval Grand is expected to have his admirers, while Sciacchetra, a colt that has been powering up in class, is also likely to attract significant betting action.
Wednesday morning saw attention focused on the headliners as they were given their final fast gallops at the Miho and Ritto training centers, in eastern and western Japan respectively.
Kitasan Black worked over 1200m on the woodchip course at Ritto under jockey Yu Kuroiwa, with the legendary Yutaka Take to ride on Sunday. Kitasan Black worked with two others, starting well behind them, as Kuroiwa was instructed by trainer Hisashi Shimizu.
“He loses concentration, so I told him not to start his run too early,” Shimuzu said. “I told him he could finish with the others but not to go too soon.”
Kuroiwa followed the instructions meticulously and Kitasan Black, who finished third in this race last year, received nods of approval all around. He clocked 82.8 seconds over the 1200m with a final furlong of 12.2 seconds.
“He’d been a lot tenser last year,” said Shimizu. “He’s much calmer now and he looks good. Even though the ground is slow, he quickened nicely.”
Cheval Grand, also at Ritto, worked up the hill course and climbed 800m in 56.2 seconds with a 13.4s final section. Trainer Yasuo Tomomichi said: “The ground was bad and it took more time but the assistant who was riding him said he ran solidly. He’s ready and he’s better than he was for his last start.”
At Miho, Satono Crown worked alone in light rain over the woodchips on the flat. Rounding into the straight, with barely a touch from the assistant trainer aboard, Satono Crown picked up the pace and cruised to the line. He clocked 12.8 seconds over the last furlong as he recorded 70.1 seconds for the entire 1000m workout.
Satono Crown finished sixth in this race last year. “Last year he doesn’t handle the heat well and he’d just returned from Hong Kong,” said trainer Noriyuki Hori. “He’s had an easier schedule this year and he will get better results this time.”
The key though, according to Hori, will be how he is mentally after this week’s workout.
Mirco Demuro, who took the reins for Satono Crown’s last two starts, was reserved: “I wonder how he’ll do on the inside track at Hanshin. It was our first time over that course last race and things seemed a bit too busy for him. It won’t be a problem if the ground is slow though. What is important is that he runs his own race and isn’t overly concerned about the others.”
Jockey Suguru Hamanaka rode Mikki Queen, who disappointed last out with a seventh-place finish in the G1 Victoria Mile as the race favourite, in her final gallop.
Hamanaka worked Mikki Queen over 800m on the Ritto woodchip flat course, with the mare taking the lead over her training partner halfway down the stretch and passing the line for a time of 54.7 seconds over 800m. The jockey gave her a glowing report: “She ran well today. She worked hard last week and the week before, so this week was just to let her stretch her legs. She is switched on and her responses were good.”
Gold Actor, who ran seventh in the Tenno Sho Spring behind Kitasan Black, worked at Miho on the flat.
The Takarazuka Kinen will be Gold Actor’s third start since returning from a layoff and trainer Tadashige Nakagawa said: “He’s gotten better with each race since his layoff and I am sending him to the gate with hopes high.”
It is the rainy season in Japan and the weather is unpredictable. Little, if any, rain is predicted in the days before the race, but rain is likely on Sunday. For Kitasan Black, however, there are no concerns – he has shown he can handle any going with aplomb.