Oka Sho (G1) Race Preview: Hanshin - Sunday, 7th April 2024

The 84th running of the Oka Sho (Japanese 1000 Guineas) will be held on Sunday, April 7th and it is a 1,600m turf event at Hanshin Racecourse.

LIBERTY ISLAND winning the Oka Sho at Hanshin in Japan.
LIBERTY ISLAND winning the Oka Sho at Hanshin in Japan. Picture: Japan Racing Association

This Sunday, April 7, Hanshin Racecourse once again hosts the Japan Racing Association's big event, the Grade 1 Oka Sho (Japanese 1000 Guineas), the first leg of the Classics for 3-year-old fillies.

It is the 84th running of the race and joins with the Yushum Himba (Japanese Oaks) next month and the Shuka Sho in the autumn to comprise the fillies' triple crown. Each Classic is a once-in-a-lifetime shot at glory, and capturing all three races is arguably the highest honor a 3-year-old filly can achieve.

The shortest of the three races at 1,600 meters, the Oka Sho is open to a full gate of 18 and carries a purse of over JPY302 million (upwards of USD2 million) and a first-place prize of JPY140 million.

The striking dark bay Ascoli Piceno is the field standout. Winner of the 2-year-old filly pinnacle Grade 1 Hanshin Juvenile Fillies and named Top 2-Year-Old Filly of 2023, she's unbeaten from three starts. If Ascoli Piceno can extend her winning streak this time out, she'll become the ninth filly in Japan racing history to capture the first Classic with a pristine record.

The Oka Sho is run over the right-handed outer Hanshin course and starts in the backstretch with about 450 meters to the first turn. A sweeping turn and a downhill slope take the runners around the bend to the homestretch spanning just over 470 meters. The track continues to slope downward until it abruptly goes back up from shortly past the final furlong pole. The ground rises 1.8 meters before it flattens with 80 meters left to go in the race. The pace of the Oka Sho tends to be relaxed and horses with excellent late speed tend to emerge the winner.

The race favorites have only won twice in the past 10 runnings of the Oka Sho, but has figured in the Top 3 finishers six times. The second favorites have emerged the winner four times.

All runners are saddled with 55kg in the Oka Sho, the 11th race on Hanshin's Sunday card of 12. Post time is 15:40 local time.

Here's a look at the expected top picks.

Ascoli Piceno: Unbeaten in her three starts thus far, this daughter of Daiwa Major is not only proven over a mile, but she's also proven over the Hanshin 1,600-meter outer course. Ascoli Piceno has already landed two graded events, the Grade 3 Niigata Nisai Stakes, where she competed against colts as well, and her most recent race, the Grade 1 Hanshin Juveniles Fillies on Dec. 10. She does go to the Oka Sho unprepped, with three and a half months between races, but she took on the Juvenile Fillies with about the same time between races and was successful. Though based at the Miho Training Center of eastern Japan, her trainer Yoichi Kuroiwa has once again (as he did for the Juvenile Fillies) sent her to Ritto ahead of time to avoid the long trip to Hanshin Racecourse directly before the race. She worked under jockey Hiroshi Kitamura on March 27 and the sloppy track did not show her to her best, but expectations remain high. Ascoli Piceno has blistering late speed, with final three-furlong times in her last three races all in the 33-second range, which seems perfect for the long stretch of the Hanshin mile.

Queen's Walk: Taking on her first Grade 1, the Kizuna-sired Queen's Walk heads into the Oka Sho with two wins and one second from her three starts, and it includes the victory of the Grade 3 Queen Cup over 1,600 meters at Tokyo, her first start at the distance and her first graded race. A huge filly weighing over 515kg, the Mitsumasa Nakauchida-trained Queen's Walk has been successful racing to the right as well, though her first two starts were a furlong longer. Her expected partner is Yuga Kawada, who won the Oka Sho aboard Stars on Earth in 2022 and last year with Liberty Island (also trained by Nakauchida). Kawada aims to become first Japanese jockey to pilot three Oka Sho winners in a row.

Sweep Feet: Sweep Feet is a Ritto-based filly by Suave Richard and she just claimed her first graded race, a win of the Oka Sho trial race Grade 2 Tulip Sho over 1,600 meters at Hanshin on March 2. She did that despite a late break, with a fleet-footed late run on her first time over slightly heavy ground. More experienced than many, the chestnut filly captured the Tulip Sho on her sixth career start and her record has only seen her miss the Top 3 once (a seventh in the Juvenile Fillies). The last winner of the Tulip Sho to win the Oka Sho was in 2014 when Harp Star took the prize. Expected in the saddle is Yutaka Take, who holds the record for most rides in this race, and is gunning for his fifth win of the race. If Take wins, it will be his first win of the Oka Sho in 20 years (since winning with Dance in the Mood).

Cervinia: A Harbinger filly trained by Tetsuya Kimura, Cervinia takes on her first test racing to the right. She has two wins from her three career starts so far, over the counterclockwise tracks of Tokyo and Niigata. She clinched her first graded stakes race on her first try, the Grade 3 Artemis Stakes over 1,600 meters at Tokyo. That race, however, was at the end of October and she goes into the Oka Sho without a sharpener. Set to race in the Juvenile Fillies, she was withdrawn after some concerns with her hindquarters. Her final kick is not brilliant, but her overall ability is thought to put the Oka Sho winner's circle within reach. Christophe Lemaire rode all three of Cervinia's starts, and his being sidelined after his accident in Dubai will necessitate a new partner this time.

Stellenbosch: Sakae Kunieda fields the Epiphaneia-sired Stellenbosch, runner-up by a mere neck in the Hanshin Juvenile Fillies. She has yet to finish further back than second in her four starts thus far, and she was but a nose and a neck behind the winner in the two races she lost. The Juvenile Fillies was Stellenbosch's first graded stakes run and her excellent late speed helped take her to second from way off the front as the field turned for home. She too is going unprepped to the Oka Sho, with it being her longest time between races yet. Kunieda, with two wins of the Oka Sho (Apapane in 2010 and Almond Eye in 2018, both filly triple crown champions), currently holds the record for Oka Sho wins by active-duty trainers. Joao Moreira is expected to have the ride.

Corazon Beat: Yet to figure out of a winning ticket, Corazon Beat (also by Suave Richard) comes off a second in the Hochi Hai Fillies' Revue over 1,400 meters at Hanshin. Finishing third 0.2 seconds behind the winner of the Hanshin Juvenile Fillies and winning the Grade 2 Keio Hai Nisai Stakes before that, the chestnut filly has proven herself consistent and reliable. Her path to the Oka Sho also greatly likens that of 2017 winner Reine Minoru, who was also third in the Juvenile Fillies and second in the Fillies' Revue. Corazon Beat hails from the Miho stable of Shizuya Kato, but has been housed at Ritto since her last start to spare her the ardors of travel.

Here are some others to watch:

The gray filly Ipheion has two wins from her three career starts so far, all over 1,600 meters, and she returns from her win of the Grade 3 Fairy Stakes. It will be her first start at Hanshin, but her good results racing to the right and her early speed should stand her well.

Etes Vous Prets is just off a win of the Fillies' Revue, her first time over 1,400 meters. Her previous five starts were all over 1,200 meters and this time will be her first time to run over a mile. Bred in Ireland and owned by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, the versatile filly looks to become the first foreign-bred filly to win the Oka Sho since the race was opened to foreign-bred horses in 2004.

Of the 27 nominees for the Oka Sho, Bond Girl is currently one of the three fillies tied in earnings for the last two spots on the gate. If she makes it in, she is one to watch. Though Bond Girl has had only two starts, both of them at Tokyo, and her most recent race was a second in the Oct. 7 Grade 3 Saudi Arabia Royal Cup, this Daiwa Major filly has ability. Headed for the Juvenile Fillies, but she was injured after getting loose in morning work the week of the race and was withdrawn.
Japan Racing Association