Hopeful Stakes (G1) - Preview
This Wednesday, Dec. 28, youth is spotlighted in the Hopeful Stakes, what is now the last Grade 1 event of the Japan Racing Association year. This year, 2 days separate the Arima Kinen (The Grand Prix) and the 2,000-meter competition for 2-year-olds.
Whereas the Arima Kinen is a gathering of old favorites, the Hopeful Stakes brings together youngsters just starting out, some with only one start in their budding careers before the leap to the top-level competition. Eighteen 2-year-olds have been nominated for the race, and though fillies are eligible, this year's nominees are all colts.
The entrants are not the only ones debuting on the Grade 1 level. Five new sires have their first progeny to take on the top -- Declaration of War, Beach Patrol, 2004 Satsuki Sho runnerup Real Steel, and Satono Crown and Satono Diamond, both with two G1 victories apiece.
Together, the Hopeful Stakes, Hanshin Juvenile Fillies and the Asahi Hai Futurity Stakes, bring the number of JRA Grade 1 events (all on turf, all in December) open solely to 2-year-olds to three, with the last two held currently over the mile at Hanshin. The Hopeful Stakes is run over the same distance and at the same venue as the Satsuki Sho, the first and shortest of the three 3-year-old classics that comprise Japan's Triple Crown.
The Hopeful Stakes marks its 39th running this year, but only its sixth anniversary of becoming a Grade 1 competition. The race's roots are long and it has gone by many names. The most recent moniker was the Radio Nikkei Nisai Stakes at Hanshin, a Grade 3 at Hanshin promoted to a G2 in 2014, rechristened and moved to Nakayama. In 2017, the Hopeful Stakes was further promoted to a G1. It now sports a purse of over 152 million yen, with a winner's prize of 70 million.
The race is held over the Nakayama inner course, and the starting gate is set at the top of the homestretch, to the right of the grandstand. The field will pass before the grandstand twice before reaching the finish line. It's about 400 meters from the starting gate and the first turn.
There's an upward slope to negotiate while vying for position before the bend and the slope continues to rise ever so slightly into the bend before descending along the backstretch and into the turn. Here, the relatively tight turns of Nakayama cause many horses to circle wide and those on the outside will be forced to cover more ground. Into the stretch, the final distance is only 310 meters, but it's up the hill once again before the youngsters can call it a day. It's a grueling course, whatever the age.
On Wednesday, races will be held at both Nakayama and Hanshin. The Hopeful Stakes will be the 11th race (of 12) on the Wednesday card at Nakayama. Note that the post time is 3:25 p.m., 15 minutes earlier than usual for Grade 1 events.
Here's a look at some of the expected popular choices.
Gastrique - The Just a Way colt Gastrique is now two for two, after swiftly pocketing his first big test with victory in the G2 Tokyo Sports Nisai Stakes (1,800, Tokyo) Nov. 19. Slow away in both his starts (both over 9 furlongs, both at Tokyo), his lightning-fast late kick has seen him home the winner. In four of the last five runnings of the Hopeful Stakes, the eventual winners were no further back than fourth position at the top of the stretch years. Gastrique's superior late speed, however, may prove him one of the exceptions. Calm and cool, he is also expected to be able to handle the extra furlong. A big colt, it remains to be seen how he will fare over the tighter turns of Nakayama and his first race to the right. It should also be noted that, in the last five runnings since the Hopeful Stakes became a Grade 1 competition, only one graded stakes race winner (Contrail in 2019) has won the race. Hailing from the stable of the Miho-based Hiroyuki Uehara, Gastrique will also be bucking a Hopeful Stakes 5-year winning streak by Ritto-based horses.
Mikki Cappuccino - Mikki Cappuccino is unbeaten in his two career starts thus far, both over 2,000 meters, the first at Tokyo and the most recent (Dec. 3) over the Nakayama 2,000 in the Habotan Sho. Though that race included no other Hopeful Stakes nominees, Mikki Cappuccino's winning margin of 3 1/2 lengths over the Hopeful Stakes course alone bodes well. He missed the break and raced from a rear position but was six off the front at the top of the stretch, and a time of 34.6 seconds over the final 3 furlongs brought him home a winner. His sire Epiphaneia had two wins at the distance, including a G3 and was runnerup in the 2013 Satsuki Sho (Japanese 2000 Guineas). Keita Tosaki has ridden both Mikki Cappuccino's starts and is expected up on Wednesday. Ritto-based Yoshito Yahagi, currently leading JRA trainers with 56 wins this year, also leads for overall wins of 2-year-old events.
Hearts Concerto - From a stunning debut win by 8 lengths over the Chukyo 2,000, Hearts Concerto lept to the graded level in the Tokyo Sports Hai Nisai Stakes (G2, Tokyo) on Nov. 19. Though he was slow at the break and disappointed as the race favorite, his third-place finish was only 0.2 seconds behind winner Gastrique. The Heart's Cry-colt is a full brother to Nasuno Symphony, a filly who also hailed from the Miho stable of Ryo Takei. Nasuno Symphony topped 11 colts and one filly in finishing fifth in the 2017 Hopeful Stakes. This will be Heart Concerto's first time racing to the right.
King's Reign - Fielded by the Miho-based Takahisa Tezuka, King's Reign posted 3-1-1 in his three starts to date, two in the summer in Hokkaido and his most recent in the Hyakunichiso Tokubetsu over the Tokyo 2,000 on Nov. 6. He is by Rulership, who excelled over 10 furlongs, and out of the Deep Impact mare Touching Speech, who captured the 2015 Rose Stakes (G2, 1,800, Hanshin) and finished a close third behind two older fillies in the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup that same year.
Top Knife - A son of the American-bred, Irish-trained Declaration of War, winner of three G1s in England, Top Knife won the listed Hagi Stakes over the Hanshin 1,800. He then finished second in the Radio Nikkei Kyoto Nisai Stakes (G3, 2,000) to the front-running Gruner Green, who evaded the interference suffered by a third of the field at the top of the stretch. Top Knife displayed excellent racing ability and did a fine job of coming to within a head of the winner.
Gruner Green - After a 3-1 at Tokyo over 9 and 10 furlongs, Gruner Green captured the Radio Nikkei Kyoto Nisai Stakes (G3, 2,000) at Hanshin wire to wire on Nov. 26. He's a son of Lovely Day, who was given the Asahi Hai Futurity Stakes over the mile and finished seventh, but later went on to excel at distances of 2,000-2,400 meters. Gruner Green is a half brother to Verde Green, winner of two G2 events (both over 2,200 meters).
Phantom Thief - Horses debuting at Hanshin have won the Hopeful Stakes for the past 4 years straight, and Phantom Thief, unbeaten in his two starts, was a standout in his debut over the Hanshin 1,600. Next up, he captured the Nojigiku Stakes (Chukyo, 2,000) by 2 lengths. He's a half brother to Lupinus Lead, a filly 1 year his senior who has notched 4 wins, 1 second and 1 third in 8 starts and has reached the open class. Expected in the saddle is Yuichi Fukunaga, who tops all jockeys with his record seven G1 2-year-old wins, Fukunaga has one final chance to make it eight before his retirement at the end of February.
Others of interest:
Despite being the only runner to suffer interference in the Radio Nikkei Hai Kyoto Nisai Stakes (G3, 2,000, Nov. 26), the Kitasan Black-sired Wurttemberg managed to finish in third place (0.2 seconds off the winner). His 2-1 at Kokura over 1,800 meters also shows him adept over tighter courses. The Real Steel-sired Fate, who also hails from the stable of Yoshito Yahagi, won his debut and returned 3 months later to finish fifth (half a second slower than winner Gastrique) in the Tokyo Sports Hai Nisai Stakes (G2, 1,800, Nov. 19). This, however, will be his first test over a clockwise course. J Palms is one of two hopefuls with only one previous start. J Palms is a half brother to 2021 Hopeful Stakes winner Killer Ability and displayed ample talent acing his debut over the Tokyo 2,000 on Nov. 5.