In Japan, the big races of the first half of the year wrap up with the Takarazuka Kinen, a Group 1 over 2200m at Hanshin. Like the Arima Kinen, the Takarazuka Kinen features favourites of the fans, who vote for the horses they most want to see.
This year, 20 horses – ranging from ages four to seven – have been nominated for the 18 berths of the Takarazuka Kinen and the final line-up is expected to boast five top-level winners – Titleholder, Efforia, Daring Tact, Panthalassa and Potager.
Titleholder won the vote, a two-time Group 1 winner who scored upward of 190,000 votes from fans. That number topped (by nearly 40,000 votes) the previous record set in 1990 by the iconic Oguri Cap.
A long-distance specialist (though he’s also won over 1800m and 2000m), Titleholder bagged both the G1 Kikuka Sho (3000m) at Hanshin as a three-year-old, and this year, the spring version of the G1 Tenno Sho (3200m) at Hanshin, both wire to wire. Both races were also his only starts at Hanshin. Despite the presence of other front-running horses in the field this time, trainer Toru Kurita says he’s leaving the racing strategy up to the jockey. Titleholder is going straight from the Tenno Sho in early May to the Takarazuka Kinen.
Three-time Group 1 winner Efforia was the fans’ second favourite in the ballot. Efforia’s only time out of the top two in eight career starts came at Hanshin, last out in April’s G1 Osaka Hai (2000m). First in the G1 Satsuki Sho (2000m), second in the G1 Japanese Derby (2400m) at Tokyo, Efforia went on to claim the fall version of the G1 Tenno Sho (2000m) and finally the G1 Arima Kinen (2500m) at Nakayama for a 2021 Group 1 treble.
Yuichi Shikato said: “I do think Efforia is the most talented horse here. He lost rather embarrassingly last time but I think the main factors leading to the loss were his first long trip west and the pace of the race. There was also a bit of a mishap in the gate.”
The top two in the ballots are also expected to be the top two at the betting windows in Japan, but if things go like they have been this year, the race favourite won’t be returning the love. The local favourite in the past 12 Group 1s in Japan, from the end of 2021 to the present, has failed to make the winner’s circle. That’s not the only skid Titleholder needs to stop, says Kurita. “He’s met Efforia three times in the past and three times he’s lost. And they’ll be meeting for the first time in a while,” he said.
Kazuo Yokoyama has the ride on Titleholder. His younger brother Takeshi rides Efforia.
Though the spotlight is on the fan favourites, the competition will be keen for a share of the monster JPY432 million (approx. HK$25 million) on offer.
The Yoshito Yahagi-trained Panthalassa returned to the turf in October after a six-month layoff and has since scored four wins wire-to-wire from five starts, including a deadheat first with Lord North in the G1 Dubai Turf (1800m) last start at Meydan.
Daring Tact is also a three-time Group 1 winner, having scooped the filly triple crown in 2020. She followed that up with a third in the G1 Japan Cup (2400m). Third in the G1 FWD QEII Cup (2000m) at Sha Tin last year, she was sidelined for nearly a year with suspensory ligament inflammation and returned for a sixth-place finish in the G1 Victoria Mile (1600m) last out in mid May.
Potager has raced primarily over a furlong shorter than the Takarazuka Kinen. He returns from his first big win, in the Osaka Hai, where he secured a good position early on and was able to bring out his best.
Fourth in the Osaka Hai and runner-up in the G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Cup (2000m), the Miho-based Hishi Iguazu takes on his fourth Group 1 in what will be only his second time at Hanshin. Last week, he clocked 10.9 seconds over the final furlong with no urging from rider Damian Lane and is looking his best yet.