Sports | Jan 24

Can We See More Japanese Contestants In 2024 Kentucky Derby?

The Kentucky Derby remains one of the most significant horse races on the international calendar, and therefore it is little surprise that there have been no shortage of international challengers look to land success in the massive Triple Crown race throughout history.

Pietro Mattia on Unsplash

However, to this point, no runner from outside North America has managed to land a shock victory in the USA’s biggest race.

But, there has been evidence in recent years to suggest that a new threat is emerging from Japan to land victory on American dirt at Churchill Downs, and it could be a story that is worth watching closely ahead of the 150th Derby this year.

Japanese Runners In The Derby

There is a clear threat from Japanese trainers when it comes to the opening Triple Crown race of the season, as America’s long standing record in the race is coming under increasing pressure. Given that it is a race that, according to TwinSpires, few European raiders look to target, Japan has been the main opposition to the USA in terms of keeping the Triple Crown race in its home nation.

Last year suggested that a Japanese winner of the famous race may be getting closer than ever before, as the nation’s dirt runners are becoming even more competitive on the biggest stages. Derma Sotogake was the standout Japanese runner on American soil in 2023, but he could only finish sixth in the race after being handed an unfavourable draw.

Ultimately, that saw him finish eight lengths behind Mage. But, the Japanese threat was clear once again at the Breeders’ Cup in 2023, as White Abarrio was pushed all the way to the line by Derma Sotogake in the Classic. Fellow Japanese runner Ushba Tesoro finished back in fifth, despite being sent off among the market favourites.

Japanese Route To The Derby

Earning entry into the Kentucky Derby is also more intense for Japanese runners, as they will only have a handful of opportunities to earn the required points to make the trip to Churchill Downs. There are four qualification races on the Road to the Kentucky Derby to be staged in Japan.

The first of those take place in November, as the Cattleya Sho is run at Tokyo over a mile. Kawasaki Racecourse hosts the second race, which is the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun, which is also run over a distance of a mile in December. Tokyo hosts the third prep race in the form of the Hyacinth, which is staged over a mile in the middle of February. Meanwhile, the final prep race is the Fukuryu, which also boasts the most qualifying points, with 40 points awarded to the winner of the race at Nakayama Racecourse in late March.

Historically, the best race to find a likely Japanese contender is staged in the Middle East, as the UAE Derby is a key international leg on the Championship Series of the Road to the Kentucky Derby. Victory in this race earns 100 points, with Derma Sotogake landing victory in the 2023 edition before finishing sixth in the Derby last year.

Amante Bianco Among Japanese Hopefuls

There have been two Japanese prep races for the Derby to this point, with Keisuke Miyata-trained Amante Bianco landing victory in the opening race on the Japanese route to Churchill Downs.

The three-year-old was very impressive in Tokyo at the end of November, making a bold bid over a mile to secure victory by just under a length from George Tesoro.

That victory was the second win that the runner has recorded on the dirt after breaking his maiden in a big-fielded race at Tokyo by just under two lengths from Habire. The signs are promising for this runner, but we are yet to see the progressive contender return to action as a three-year-old.

Forever Young Could Be A Japanese Hope

One of the most impressive Japanese hopefuls on the Derby trail could be Forever Young for trainer Yoshito Yahagi. The three-year-old has won on each of his two racecourse appearances to this point, including on debut when beating Sunrise Zipangu by just over a length.

However, a considerable step up in performance was made on his latest start, as he secured points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby with victory in the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun. The three-year-old travelled excellently throughout that contest, and was excellent when speeding away from the talented field to beat Aigle Noir by seven lengths.

Connections have already opened up talk about a run in the Kentucky Derby in 2024, and there could be a route to the big race by lining up in the UAE Derby in a few months. At this point, he appears to be the most likely Japanese runner to compete in the American Triple Crown race this year.


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