2016 News

September 26, 2016

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Sprinters Stakes (G1) - Preview
Takamatsunomiya Kinen (G1)
Big Arthur

Hankyu Hai (G3)
Mikki Isle

Ibis Summer Dash (G3)
Bel Canto

Keeneland Cup (G3)
Blanc Bonheur

Hakodate Sprint Stakes (G3)
Solveig

Sprinters Stakes (G1)
Snow Dragon

Just hours before 2016 Derby champion Makahiki makes his bid in the Arc at Chantilly, the hottest action in Japan can be found at Nakayama Racecourse, where the 50th running of the Grade I Sprinters Stakes – the second of Japan's biggest sprint events following the Takamatsunomiya Kinen in the spring – will be held to kick off the JRA autumn Grade 1 season. Twenty of Japan's best short-distance runners have been nominated for the race and 16 will leave the gate to vie over 1,200 meters of turf. They'll be racing for over 212 million yen in prize money, 98 million yen to the winner. In 2012, Lord Kanaloa set the race record of 1 minute, 6.7 seconds

The spotlight on the lineup is focused on Big Arthur, winner of this year's Takamatsunomiya Kinen. Back from a summer layoff, Big Arthur's rule was absolute in his prep, the Sept. 11 Centaur Stakes at Hanshin. Not only did he make the competition look like mere common folk in notching a wire-to-wire victory, he surprised by taking the lead for the first time in his career. The luck of the draw, combined with Yuichi Fukunaga's gutsy strategy, put the son of sprint champion Sakura Bakushin O over the line a length ahead of runnerup Nero. And Big Arthur made it look easy even though he was saddled with the field's top weight of 58 kg. Like his name, Big Arthur stands heavy on the scales weighing in at over 520 kg. If he can win he won't be the heaviest to do so, however. The hefty Hishi Akebono, winner in 1995, tipped the scales at an impressive 560 kg.

Big Arthur is the horse to beat and if none can, he will become the fifth runner in the race’s history to capture both of the year’s top sprint events in the same year.

It will be Big Arthur’s first time at Nakayama, but connections are unconcerned, and, now that the 5-year-old has matured, neither are they reported to be anxious about the long haul up to Tokyo from Ritto Training Center.

Whether he will lead or not, has yet to be seen. Four horses in the past decade have captured the Sprinters going wire to wire and four favorites have won the race over the past decade.

Tipped as the entrant most likely to topple Big Arthur is Mikki Isle, runnerup in this year’s Takamatsunomiya Kinen. He has, however, yet to win a G1 sprint. Excelling in earlier years at the mile, the now 5-year-old first was tried at 6 furlongs in last year’s Takamatsunomiya and finished third. He followed that up with a fourth-place finish in last year’s Sprinters and wrapped the year up with a seventh in the Hong Kong Sprint. That’s a 0-for-4 record at the distance but when you figure in his second to Big Arthur in this year’s Takamatsunomiya Kinen, Mikki Isle certainly seems well-primed to give Big Arthur a run for his money.

Veteran trainer Hidetaka Otonashi knows it won’t be easy. Especially as Mikki Isle hasn’t been raced since the March G1 sprint. “I did consider running him in the Centaur Stakes before the Sprinters,” Otonashi explained. “But, there isn’t much time in between races and with the long trip to Nakayama, I figured he’d get too tense.” Otonashi says Mikki Isle can perform well coming directly from a layoff. But he also knows that the Deep Impact-sired Mikki Isle, who tends to lead or run on the pace won’t have an easy time of it. “I expect Big Arthur to be sitting back and targeting him,” Otonashi said, “so Mikki Isle is going to have to be in good enough shape to shake him off.”

The 5-year-old mare Bel Canto, another Sakura Bakushin O progeny, is also considered to have a good chance at the winner’s circle. It would be her first G1 win, but luck may be with her as it’s her third Sprinters. She finished 5th in 2014 and a miserable 13th last year, but she is not to be ruled out yet.

As she did last year, Bel Canto once again turned in the top score in the Summer Sprint Series by making the top three spots in three of the series’ six designated races. She finished first, second and third in three G3 events, the Ibis Summer Dash, Kitakyushu Kinen and CBC Sho, respectively. Her rotation is the same as last year as well, with Bel Canto coming off the Kitakyushu Kinen and it’s hoped that this year her summer success will carry over to the Sprinters Stakes. Her connections attribute her poor showing in last year’s Sprinters to her having been overly tense before the race, and they will be doing their best to keep her calm. Only two Summer Sprint Series champions in the past have fared well in the Sprinters Stakes – Sans Adieu in 2007 and Hakusan Moon in 2013. Both ran second.

Slated to be partnered with Bel Canto is Masayoshi Ebina, who will be aboard for the first time. Trainer – and former jockey – Koichi Tsunoda is gunning for his first G1 win since he hung out his trainer’s sign six year ago. Tsunoda won the Sprinters Stakes aboard Hishi Akebono in 1995.

Picking up points for her win in the G3, 1,200-meter Keeneland Cup is the gray filly Blanc Bonheur. A daughter of Deep Impact, Blanc Bonheur beat Shuji to the line by half a length in the Sapporo race. She also reached the line before two other Sprinters hopefuls – Let’s Go Donki and Solveig. Blanc Bonheur, who ran third in the Hanshin Juvenile Fillies last year, was racing under only 51 kg at Sapporo but had drawn wide. She will be shouldered with 53 kg for the Sprinters, 4 kg less than the top weight. Blanc Bonheur won her first two races of her career, both over 1,200 meters, before she was moved predominately to the mile. Her last outing saw her back at 6 furlongs and connections believe that, if she can run her own race, she has a chance.

This year’s nominees also include an abundance of 3-year-olds – Shuji, Solveig, Nac Venus and Blanc Bonheur. If all make the cut, it will be the largest number of 3-year-olds to take on the race since it moved to its current autumn slot. Only one 3-year-old has won the race – Aston Machan in 2007 – but this year’s youngsters have competed against the older crowd with success. Solveig captured the Hakodate Sprint Stakes, Blanc Bonheur the Keeneland Cup and Shuji ran second in the same.

Not to be forgotten is the now 8-year-old Snow Dragon, winner of the 2014 Sprinters Stakes, which was held at Niigata Racecourse. It was his first big win and he followed it up with an eighth-place finish abroad in the Hong Kong Sprint. Snow Dragon was then given 14 months off due to leg problems and came back this year to run third in the Ocean Stakes, followed by five other starts, including a seventh in the Takamatsunomiya Kinen and a fifth place last out in the Centaur Stakes. 

For those who like to put their money on a longshot, it should be noted that a double-digit choice has made the top three spots for the last three years. That includes Snow Dragon’s win in 2014 as the 13th favorite.

The Sprinters Stakes is the 11th race on the Sunday card of 12 at Nakayama Racecourse. Post time is 15:40 local time.

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Global Sprint Challenge