Hanshin Racecourse will host Japan’s first middle-distance G1 turf race of the year, the Osaka Hai, on Sunday 1 April.
The 2000m contest was promoted to G1 status last year and is held on the inner turf course. The race starts just before the homestretch hill and continues for 325 metres until the first turn. The Hanshin course calls for far more agility than the wide-open Tokyo or Chukyo venues and tends to favour horses who run close to the pace or who can close to within fifth or sixth position by the final turn.
Last year, two-time Horse of the Year Kitasan Black proved his power again in winning the race’s inaugural G1 version. This year, five G1 winners are in the field of 16, but most attention is going to a runner who has yet to win a G1 – Suave Richard.
The four-year-old son of Heart’s Cry finished second in the G1 Japanese Derby (2400m) last year and then went on to win the G2 Copa Republica Argentina (2500m). Last time out, he aced the G2 Kinko Sho over 2000 metres at Chukyo. With his biggest rival Derby winner Rey De Oro in Dubai, Suave Richard with Mirco Demuro up, is expected to have his best shot yet at a top-level win.
Suave Richard has in the past shown reluctance to change leads over a right-handed track, as well as a tendency to act up in the gate. Though his first two career starts were at Hanshin, he hasn’t raced there since a 2000m maiden win there in October, 2016. Last year, he was unsuccessful in both his starts going right-handed, finishing sixth in the G1 Satsuki Sho (2000m) and fourth in the G1 Arima Kinen (2500m), both races held at Nakayama Racecourse.
Suave Richard’s biggest rival on Sunday is perhaps Satono Diamond. The five-year-old, Yasutoshi Ikee-trained son of Deep Impact has only finished out of the frame twice in his career, both times at Chantilly, France. He is expected to rival Suave Richard for race favourite on Sunday.
Third in the Satsuki Sho and second in the Derby in 2016, Satono Diamond went on to win two G1s in his three-year-old year. Plagued with breathing difficulties last year, however, his excursion to France ended in disappointment when 15th to Enable in last season’s G1 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (2400m) on soft going. Last time out, in the G2 Kinko Sho (2000m), although he had the fastest time of the field over the final 600m and finished third, the fact that he was unable to catch the eight-year-old race runner-up Satono Noblesse does leave some room for doubt.
Satono Diamond has been ridden in all his starts thus far by Christophe Lemaire, but with Lemaire in Dubai, Keita Tosaki will hold the reins.
Rounding out the expected top three picks in Japan is Al Ain. The colt is another of four horses being fielded by Yasutoshi Ikee, who won Trainer of the Year in 2017 for both money earned and races won. Winner of last year’s Satsuki Sho, Al Ain started this year with a second in the G2 Kyoto Kinen (2200m), and, considering he was shouldering more weight than the winner, could well pull off a win here.
Another standout on strength alone is 2017 Japan Cup champion and Arima Kinen third-place finisher Cheval Grand. However, raced primarily at 2200m and longer, the six-year-old’s last run over 2000m was in the summer of 2015. Whether he can successfully handle the shorter distance coupled with the tighter turns of Hanshin is a concern.
2017 G1 Mile Championship winner Persian Knight, with his second in the G1 Satsuki Sho last year, is also a strong candidate.