Japan: Gran Alegria Headlines Sunday’s Mile Championship

This week Japan’s top-level racing remains at Hanshin Racecourse with the 38th running of the Mile Championship on Sunday, Nov. 21. 18 horses ranging in age from 3 to 8, including three foreign-breds, four females and five 3-year-olds, have been nominated for the 18 berths of the 1,600-meter turf test, again at Hanshin this year.

The spotlight lingers longest on Gran Alegria, awarded Best Sprinter of Miler for 2020, and now 5-year-old. The Deep Impact mare looking to leave even more of an impression by notching back-to-back wins of the race and her sixth Grade 1 victory. At the same time soon-to-retire trainer Kazuo Fujisawa gets his last chance to add one more feather to his cap and his already-record-setting five wins of the Mile Championship.

Gran Alegria’s not the only one in the lights. German-bred Schnell Meister, who captured the 3-year-old showcase NHK Mile Cup in the spring, is seen as Gran Alegria’s biggest threat. Back again is Indy Champ, who won the race in 2019 and missed the winner’s circle by 0.1 seconds last year. Salios, also a returnee, is looking for a better break and improvement on last year’s fifth, while 2020 Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes winner and last year’s Best 2-Year-Old Colt Danon the Kid and 2020 Asahi Hai Futurity Stakes winner Grenadier Guards add considerable color and competition to the mix.

The Hanshin outer course over the mile is the usual venue for two Grade 1 fillies-only events, the Hanshin Juvenile Fillies and the Oka Sho (Japanese 1000 Guineas). The race is often clinched by the runner with the fastest time over the final three furlongs. Stamina is also brought into play with Hanshin’s sharp hill just before the finish line. From just past 200 meters out, the track rises 1.8 meters over some 100 meters.

Assigned weights for the Mile Championship are 57 kg for males 4 years old and up, with a 1-kg allowance for 3-year-old colts and a 2-kg allowance for fillies and mares. The Mile Championship is the 11th race on the Sunday card of 12 at Hanshin. Post time is 3:40 p.m.

Here’s a look at the expected top choices.

Gran Alegria: This daughter of Deep Impact has quite the spectacular record herself. In 14 starts, she has eight wins and has finished out of the top three spots only twice, a fourth in this year’s Grade 1 Osaka Hai over 2,000 meters and fifth in the 2019 NHK Mile Cup (she crossed the line in fourth but was demoted for interference). Eleven of her starts have been at the top level and she’s competing in her ninth Grade 1 in a row. Following the Osaka Hai in April, she took on the Victoria Mile in May, then returned just three weeks later for the Yasuda Kinen, which she lost to Danon Kingly by a mere head. She returned on Oct. 31 for the 2,000-meter Grade 1 Tenno Sho (Autumn) but finished third, only 0.2 seconds behind this year’s Satsuki Sho (Japanese 2000 Guineas) winner Efforia and half that time behind last year’s Triple Crown winner Contrail. Now, with only three weeks between races, she’s back, but at her best distance, and with jockey Christophe Lemaire expected to be in the saddle, the winning duo of last year is hoping for a repeat winning performance. If she can pull off a repeat, she’ll be the first to do it since Daiwa Major in 2006 and ’07.

Schnell Meister: A 3-year-old son of Kingman, Schnell Meister was victorious in the NHK Mile Cup in early May and followed that up with a third-place finish half a length behind Gran Alegria in the Yasuda Kinen a month later in his first time competing against older horses. The colt has a number of firsts to conquer, however. It will be his first time at Hanshin and, based at Miho, his first long haul to the track. His assigned weight of 56 kg will not be the most he’s carried but it will, unlike the 54kg he shouldered in the Yasuda Kinen, be the most when competing amid older horses. Expected in the saddle is a familiar face, however. The young jockey Takeshi Yokoyama, hungry for his fourth G1 win this year, partnered Schnell Meister twice before, in the colt’s winning debut and in the Yasuda Kinen.

Danon the Kid: Top 2-year-old last year with a 3-for-3 record, the Just a Way colt Danon the Kid was handed his first defeat with a third in the Grade 2 Hochi Hai Yayoi Sho Deep Impact Kinen in March. His next start was no better, with him finishing only one off the rear in the Satsuki Sho. He was later diagnosed with a fracture. He returned after 6 months for a fourth in his first mile, the Grade 2 Fuji Stakes on Oct. 23 at Tokyo, and the distance may prove more to his liking. Out of the mare Epic Love, his half-brother Mikki Brillante has five wins, three of them over the mile.

Salios: The 2019 Asahi Hai Futurity Stakes winner Salios finished fifth here last year. The Heart’s Cry 4-year-old drew the far outside gate and, traveling from close to the rear, still managed to turn in the field’s fastest final three furlongs time of 33.1 seconds to finish only 0.4 seconds behind the winner. He next posted 5-8 in his two starts hence, both at the G1 level. Both were difficult runs, with the Osaka Hai run over heavy ground. Next out only two months later, he encountered interference at the furlong pole in the Yasuda Kinen. Returning straight from the Yasuda Kinen, Salios is to be partnered with jockey Kohei Matsuyama again. Based at Ritto, Matsuyama made the trip last week to the Noriyuki Hori stable at Miho to ride Salios in trackwork. “I put the colt in quarter-cup blinkers with a cross noseband and he ran well,” said Hori. “We were aiming for a good time but he was a bit excited and the time was fast. His breathing wasn’t good. He’s had enough work so this week we’ll work on his weakpoint, his power from behind. I’ll have him in good shape for the race. He’s a different horse from what he was in the Yasuda Kinen,” Hori claims.

Indy Champ: If ever there’s a consistent horse who deserves to win another Grade 1, it’s Indy Champ. The 6-year-old son of Stay Gold also returns straight from the Yasuda Kinen (which he won in 2019), finishing fourth only a neck behind Schnell Meister and 0.2 seconds behind winner Danon Kingly. First here in 2019, and second last year, Indy Champ’s last win was the Grade 2 Yomiuri Milers Cup in late April 2020. Since then, he’s run only in graded races, all in the 1,200-1,600 range, four of them G1s, but has failed to win. One second, three thirds and two fourths. Regular partner Yuichi Fukunaga is set for the ride. Veteran trainer Hidetaka Otonashi, who has won the Mile Championship three times before, says, “He felt too good in the Yasuda Kinen and in hindsight, he made his move too soon and was overtaken with only 50 meters left. It wasn’t a bad race at all. We followed the usual routine in getting him ready, with this race as our sole objective.”

Grenadier Guards: First in the Asahi Hai Futurity Stakes last year, the Frankel-sired Grenadier Guards has only figured out of the top three spots once in his seven starts. He missed the winner’s circle narrowly in his three starts since his Grade 1 win, all in graded stakes, then lost by a head in the seven-furlong Grade 3 Chunichi Sports Sho Falcon Stakes at Chukyo, and finished third only half a second behind Schnell Meister in the NHK Mile Cup at Tokyo. Trained at Ritto by Japan’s current leading trainer for wins MItsumasa Nakauchida and to be paired with jockey Kenichi Ikezoe, the colt returned after four months off to finish third in the Grade 3 Keisei Hai Autumn Handicap on Sept. 12. Both Grenadier Guards’ two wins have come at Hanshin, one of them over the mile.

Others to watch are:

Lotus Land has consistently run first or second in all but three of her starts. She captured the Grade 3 Sekiya Kinen in August over the Niigata 1,600 meters, but returned in late October 10 kg heavier for a 10th in the Fuji Stakes at Tokyo. Matured since her 12th in the Hanshin Juvenile Fillies in 2019, and with a sharpened behind her, this American-bred girl could surprise. Third in the 2019 NHK Mile Cup, Catedral takes on his second Mile Championship following his sixth in 2019. Often slow at the break and no different last out in the Keisei Autumn Handicap, he nonetheless won with a final 600-meter time of 33.9 seconds under Keita Tosaki, expected back up on Sunday. The Heart’s Cry 5-year-old is 1-2-10 at Hanshin. The 6-year-old Sound Chiara rose consistently from her debut and shone through her second in the Victoria Mile last year. Since then, including a 10th here last year and an 11th in this year’s Victoria Mile, she returned after five months off to land a second amid mixed company in the Grade 2 MBS Sho Swan Stakes over the Hanshin 1,400 meters on Oct. 30 and may be on the up and up.

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