2019 Hanshin Cup Preview

Saturday, the stakes season at Arlington gets underway with the Grade 3 Hanshin Cup.  Now a $100,000 race for three-year-olds and up, going the one-turn mile over the Arlington polytrack, this race was originally christened in 1941 for Equipoise, a Hall of Fame racehorse whose stakes wins included a pair of top-notch local triumphs: the 1933 Arlington Handicap and the 1933 Hawthorne Gold Cup. In its Equipoise Mile days, its winners included Hall of Fame inductee and onetime Arlington stakes namesake Swoon's Son (1957, 1958), champion sprinter Smile (1986) and multiple stakes winner Better Bee (1959).  Better Bee went on to sire Abe's Hope, the Illinois-bred winner of the 1966 Blue Grass Stakes, as well as his Maryland-bred full brother Bee Bee Bee, winner of the 1972 Preakness.  Its more recent winners have included durable fan favourites like Bonapaw (2002), Hogy (2013), and Nikki's Sandcastle (2014).

Two years ago, longtime local trainer Dee Poulos won her first career graded stakes when Crewman held off Ghost Hunter to prevail by a neck.  Success in the Hanshin Cup runs in her family: her late husband Ernie Poulos won the Equipoise Mile in 1990 with Black Tie Affair.  Black Tie Affair would go on to finish third in the Breeders' Cup Sprint that year, and then win the Breeders' Cup Classic the next year.  He is currently the namesake of a stakes at Arlington, the Black Tie Affair Handicap, a turf route for Illinois-breds which will be run on July 20.

Last year, another longtime local got his first graded stakes victory in this race: Cipriano Contreras sent Matrooh, a horse he and co-owner Crystal Racing Enterprises had claimed two starts before for $25,000 at Oaklawn, to victory in the Hanshin Cup.

This year will be the race's 23rd year as an exchange race with the Japan Racing Association; the race took its current name in 2000.  As part of the exchange, Hanshin Racecourse hosts the Group 3 Arlington Cup, a 1600 metre turf race for three-year-olds that serves as a prep for the NHK Mile Cup (G1) at Tokyo.  This year's edition of the Arlington Cup was run on April 13; 35/1 longshot Iberis won in a frenetic blanket finish, though he went on to finish only 16th in the NHK Mile Cup on May 5.

Saturday, May 11: Arlington International Racecourse

Race 7: Hanshin Cup (G3), three-year-olds and up, one mile on the polytrack, post time 4:35pm CDT

The Hanshin Cup is one of my favorite graded stakes of the year because there's nothing like it in North America: it's a one-turn mile on polytrack, the only graded race to fit that configuration.  Thus, it never fails to draw a brain-bending field of Arlington locals trying to step up, Tapeta or Turfway lovers rolling the dice and seeing whether they can handle Arlington as well, or shippers with back class trying to find their mojo again with a spin over the synthetic.

Remember, horses who like other synthetic tracks won't necessarily like Arlington, so don't take too short of a price on them.  That precept of polytrack handicapping comes to mind with a few horses who bring form from other synthetic tracks.  There's LANIER, who has found his form over the Turfway surface, but now tries Arlington for the first time in a race where he won't be the only game in town up front.  There's ECKERSLEY, who is Grade 3-placed on a synthetic surface, but that was on the Tapeta at Golden Gate, and he'll need to find a renaissance at age seven on the switch to the Davis barn to be a top candidate here.  There's MACHTREE, who did run a good race in the G3 Marine last year over Woodbine's Tapeta, but also needs a serious step up on this new surface.

And then, there's NUN THE LESS, who has always shown talent, but finally broke out after being claimed by Cipriano Contreras for $40K last summer.  Though so much of that form came at Turfway?  Remember, NUN THE LESS started with trainer Chris Block.  He did his time at Arlington earlier in his career, and has hit the board in all three tries over the footing. The mile may be on the short side of what he has been doing nowadays, but he is a winner at seven furlongs over the Arlington main, and Chris Block was moderately successful at turning him into a sprinter back in 2017.

In a sense, SIR ANTHONY returns to where it all began. He showed talent at two, but caught fire at three after coming up the rail and winning the Bruce D Memorial Stakes over this course and distance at 35/1 on Million Day last year.  That victory may have been a surprise, but it wasn't a fluke, which he proved with a win in the Harlan's Holiday (G3) at Gulfstream in December, and with a close second in the Skip Away (Listed) there in March.  Both times, he again made a bid up the fence.  Though a mile may be on the short side of what SIR ANTHONY is best at nowadays, one cannot deny that he has ability at the distance, and he will get plenty of pace to run at in this year's edition of the Hanshin.  Don't be surprised to see a familiar chestnut face coming up the fence once again.

Speaking of speed, this race has a lot of it.  RERIDE needs the lead, and should be up there even on the cutback in trip. RICHIESINTHEHOUSE should outjump him and ensure a flying pace, but it's unclear he will stay a mile versus this kind of a field. LANIER ought to be part of the front-end brigade.

And then there's GONEGHOST, who appeals most among the front-end scrum.  He is a fast horse early, but has been effective at any trip he has tried, and has proven he can stay on well even after a vicious pace battle.  In last year's Hanshin Cup, he overcame a less-than-perfect start and a pace battle, and was just run down late by the in-form Matrooh.  GONEGHOST does come into this fresh -- he hasn't raced since January -- but trainer Becker knows how to get a horse fit off the layoff.  People who aren't as familiar with Arlington or Becker may shy away, but given the break and the presence of bigger-name shippers like RERIDE and REVVED UP (who should run on late if he likes the polytrack, but at such a short distance, this space would rather relegate to underneath shares), there is a good chance GONEGHOST will provide fair value on the tote.

Selections:

#6 NUN THE LESS (7/2)
#5 SIR ANTHONY (9/2)
#9 GONEGHOST (5/1)

Longshot:  Though trainer Scott Becker has only won one of his 14 graded stakes starts in the last five years, six of those starters have run in the money, suggesting he is quite astute when he decides to step a horse up to this kind of a level.  GONEGHOST is obviously the barn's "A" entrant, but why not take a shot with #1 GITA'S LAD (10/1) as well?  Only four years old, he turned a corner at Hawthorne this spring, kicking on from midpack to win a first-level allowance at one turn and then wiring a two-turn N2X there two weeks later.  The cut back to one turn should be a positive for this son of Ghaaleb, and if he can get back to the kind of race he ran two back, in which he sat a few lengths off the pace and made a run into the lane, he can get an advantageous trip at a big price.

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