By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Doesn't it feel like we
should be deep into handicapping the Kentucky Derby right now? In a normal year,
the Road to the Kentucky Derby would be complete and the Run for the Roses
would be just two weeks away.
But 2020 has been far from
an ordinary year, and with the Kentucky Derby postponed until September, the U.S.
racing schedule feels a bit empty right now. That's why I'm turning my
attention to Japan, where the Satsuki Sho (G1)—the first leg of the Japanese Triple
Crown—will take place on Sunday at Nakayama Racecourse.
Held over 2,000 meters
(about 1 1/4 miles), the Satsuki Sho really isn't all that different from the
Kentucky Derby. It's a spring classic, it's drawn a large field of 18 starters,
and each horse will carry 57 kilograms (125.7 pounds). Since the Derby is off
the table for the time being, shouldn't we dig in and embrace the Satsuki Sho
as a replacement handicapping challenge?
Heading into the Satsuki
Sho, the most accomplished contenders are #1
Contrail and #7 Salios, a pair
of Group 1-winning juveniles set to make their 2020 debuts. Both are undefeated
and warrant respect in this competitive field.
Contrail, a son of Deep
Impact, has compiled a 3-for-3 record and has already scored a major victory
over the course and distance of the Satsuki Sho. Favored to win the Dec. 28
Hopeful Stakes (G1), the pace-tracking Contrail sprinted the final 600 meters
in :35.80 to score by 1 1/2 lengths over fellow Satsuki Sho contender #17 Weltreisende, who returned to finish
a game second in the 1,800-meter Spring Stakes (G2) on Mar. 22.
Salios is likewise 3,-for-3,
and while he's never run beyond a mile, he made a nice impression in the Dec.
15 Asahi Hai Futurity (G1) at Hanshin, accelerating from just off the pace to
win by 2 1/2 lengths in 1:33 flat. Internationally-acclaimed rider Ryan Moore
was in the saddle that day, though the Australian jockey Damian Lane—riding in
Japan on a short-term license—will have the mount for the Satsuki Sho.
But it's not very common for
horses to win the Satsuki Sho in their seasonal bow. Saturnalia pulled off the
feat last year, completing the Hopeful/Satsuki Sho double Contrail is
attempting to replicate, but every other Satsuki Sho winner since 2003 utilized
at least one prep race to sharpen their fitness for the first leg of the
Japanese Triple Crown.
That's why I'm going to
oppose the two favorites with #5 Satono
Flag, an up-and-coming son of Deep Impact conditioned by Sakae Kunieda,
best known as the trainer of superstar Japanese Filly Triple Crown winner
Satono Flag showed plenty of
potential as a juvenile. After finishing sixth in his debut, the bay colt
tackled a 2,000-meter maiden race at Tokyo Racecourse and dominated his
opposition, sprinting the final 600 meters in :34.50 to rally and win by three
lengths over the next-out winner Dejimano Hana. Satono Flag's final time of
1:59.50 eclipsed the juvenile course record at Tokyo by 0.30.
Satono Flag has continued to
show promise in 2020. On Jan. 5 he rallied from behind a modest pace to win a
2,000-meter allowance race at Nakayama by three lengths, sprinting the final
600 meters in :35.30. And on Mar. 8, he closed tenaciously over a yielding turf
course at Nakayama to win the 2,000-meter Deep Impact Kinen (G2) by 1 3/4
lengths over Wakea, who had previously finished third in the Hopeful. Even over
the wet course, Satono Flag finished in :36.10, faster than any of his ten
For the Satsuki Sho, Satono
Flag will pick up the services of Christophe Lemaire, Japan's leading jockey in
2017, 2018, and 2019. The colt has drawn well in post five, setting up the
potential for a ground-saving trip, and the large field should ensure the pace
is swift enough to enhance the effectiveness of Satono Flag's late rally.
Lemaire won this race last year aboard Saturnalia, and I'm confident Satono
Flag has the talent and upside to give Lemaire a double.
The Kyodo News Hai (G3) at
Nakayama has produced four of the last eight Satsuki Sho winners, so history
suggests #13 Darlington Hall and #18 Bitterender—who finished a nose apart
when running 1-2 in the 1,800-meter race—are worth considering on Sunday. But Bitterender
has drawn the far outside post and Darlington Hall will lose jockey Christophe
Lemaire to Satono Flag, so a spot in the exotics might be the best these two
can hope for.
A more intriguing
alternative is #16 Galore Creek. Though
he could only finish a dull eleventh in the Hopeful, Galore Creek has shown
significant improvement in 2020. After finishing fourth in a 2,200-meter
allowance race at Nakayama to kick off the season, the son of Kinshasa no
Kiseki dropped his body weight from 506 kilograms to 496 kilograms and promptly
dominated the 1,800-meter Spring Stakes (G2) at Nakayama in impression fashion.
With a powerful rally from off the pace, Galore Creek sprinted the final 600
meters in :33.80 to beat the above-mentioned Hopeful runner-up Weltreisende by
1 1/4 lengths.
Normally at this time of
year, I would be pondering which horses to use in the Kentucky Derby trifecta.
So to seek some semblance of normalcy, I'll instead put together a trifecta
play for the Satsuki Sho, keying Satono Flag in the top two slots while otherwise
emphasizing Galore Creek and Contrail.
Recent stakes winners #2 L'Excellence, #3 Cortesia, and #11 Crystal
Black have shown the ability to finish strongly against good company, so I'll
include them on the bottom of my tickets:
$1 Trifecta: 5 with 1,7,16
with 1,2,3,7,11,16,17 ($18)
$1 Trifecta: 1,16 with 5 with 1,2,3,7,11,16,17 ($12)
Now it's your turn! Who do
you like in the Satsuki Sho?
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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.