Orfevre winning the 2012 Arima Kinen.

Orfevre winning the 2012 Arima Kinen.

Kate Hunter

Japanese Finale Features Rulership, Gold Ship

Nation's biggest race features a top-class field but is missing some major stars.

Hong Kong group I winner Rulership and dual Japanese classic winner Gold Ship look to be the early favorites for the Arima Kinen (Grand Prix) (Jpn-I) Dec. 23 at Nakayama, the Japan Racing Association’s biggest race and its season finale.

The Arima Kinen is a 2,500-meter (1 9/16-mile) turf event that arguably generates the largest handle of any race in the world due in part to many of the runners being determined by fan voting. Horses chosen by racing fans gain automatic entry, but this year’s race is perhaps notable due to the absence of many of the nation’s top stars.

Reigning Horse of the Year and last year’s winner Orfevre, who received the highest number of votes, is bypassing the race as well as four others in the fans’ top 10, including Filly Triple Crown victress and Japan Cup (Jpn-I) winner Gentildonna. Last year, the race featured eight from the top 10 vote-getters, among them Buena Vista and Orfevre, who were first and second in the balloting.

Nevertheless, this year’s edition, worth 384,920,000 yen ($4,571,862), drew a top-class field of 16, topped by Sunday Racing Co.’s Rulership, who was second in the fan voting. The 5-year-old by King Kamehameha has finished on the board in all six starts this season, winning a group I in Hong Kong this spring. He is aiming to break through in a group I race his native Japan. 

After capturing the Audemars Queen Elizabeth II Cup (HK-I) in April at Sha Tin, Rulership has been knocking on the door at the top level but has been compromised by poor starts. In his three most recent races, he finished second, third, and third, respectively, in the Takarazuka Kinen (Jpn-I) in June, Tenno Sho (Autumn) (Jpn-I) in October, and the Japan Cup (Jpn-I) Nov. 25 after virtually sitting down in gate and missing the break.

Trainer Katsuhiko Sumii said schooling Rulership in the gate has been the focus of his preparations leading up to the Arima Kinen.

"He has what it takes, but it's not leading to results because of the way he starts a race,” Sumii said of the bay horse out 1997 Japanese Horse of the Year Air Groove. “His physical condition isn't an issue. He should shape up fine for this weekend."

Eiichi Kobayashi’s Gold Ship has won four of five starts this season, including the  Kikuka Sho (Jpn-I, Japanese St. Leger) in October in his most recent start, and Satsuki Sho (Jpn-I, Japanese Two Thousand Guineas) is April.

The Stay Gold colt cemented his credentials as Japan’s top 3-year-old when he completed a last-to-first rally to win the 3,000-meter (1 7/8-mile) Kikuka Sho.

Trainer Naosuke Sugai said Gold Ship is in peak physical condition and ready for the Arima Kinen.

“He's built up, really broad across the chest and you'll notice it,” he said. “You need power at Nakayama unlike a marathon in the Kikuka Sho.”

Other top contenders include Koji Maeda’s Beat Black, a 5-year-old Miscast horse who win the Tenno Sho (Spring) (Jpn-I); Tomokazu Iizuka’s multiple group winner Dark Shadow, a 5-year-old Dance in the Dark horse who was fourth in the Japan Cup; and Toyomitsu Hirai’s Eishin Flash, a 5-year-old King’s Best horse who won the Tenno Sho (Autum) (Jpn-I) in October,