Although the Kentucky Derby is based in the United States, it has always been open to international competition.
While naturally, most of the competitors and winners have been bred, raised, and raced in the United States alone, there have been a handful of horses who represented foreign countries in the illustrious race.
*Omar Khayyam (1917) and *Tomy Lee (1959) were both bred in Great Britain. Northern Dancer (1964), Sunny’s Halo (1983), and Mine That Bird (2009) all enjoyed considerable racing success in Canada prior to their Derby wins, with the first two also having been bred in that country. Canonero II (1971) and Bold Forbes (1976) were both bred in Kentucky but had raced in Venezuela and Puerto Rico (respectively) prior to earning Derby roses.
However, no horse bred in Asia has ever earned victory in the Kentucky Derby. Furthermore, no horse who has ever raced in Asia prior to the Kentucky Derby has ever won it- this in spite of having one of the most prestigious Derby preps, the Grade II UAE Derby, run in Dubai.
Many racing fans said that this year would be different. Japan was represented by three different horses who all qualified for entry into the Kentucky Derby in different ways: Derma Sotogake (JPN), who won the UAE Derby; Continuar (JPN), who has assured a spot for his performance in the Japan Road To The Kentucky Derby; and Mandarin Hero (JPN), who prepped for the Derby by finishing second by a nose in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby.
Japan’s hand looked to be stacked, and yet none of those horses even hit the board. What happened to Japan’s Kentucky Derby contingent? Will they be among the contenders for the Belmont Stakes betting odds, as the third Triple Crown race happens on June 10th?
Although Continuar (by Drefong out of Pan de Ring (JPN), by King Kamehameha (JPN)) placed third in the UAE Derby, he earned his entry in the Kentucky Derby by participating in races in his home country. This program called the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby, consists of four Japanese races: the Cattleya Stakes, the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun, the Hyacinth, and the Fukuryu Stakes. The top performer in the series is extended an invitation to the Kentucky Derby, which, if accepted, will give them an automatic berth in the gate.
Continuar was not actually the top performer in that series; Derma Sotogake was. However, he had already qualified for the Kentucky Derby via the UAE Derby victory, so his connections declined the Japan Road invitation so that another horse could participate. The runner-up in the series, Perriere (JPN) also declined the invitation, leaving it to Continuar, who had won the Cattleya Stakes.
Continuar entered the Kentucky Derby and drew the outside post, 20. However, his trainer, Yoshito Yahagi, was unhappy with the horse’s training and overall fitness level and decided to ultimately withdraw him from the competition, a decision that was praised by many, especially in the wake of several breakdowns at Churchill Downs.
But for one nose-length, Mandarin Hero (by Shanghai Bobby out of Namura Nadeshiko (JPN), by Fuki Kisecki (JPN)) would have won the Santa Anita Derby, and the courage and grit he showed in that race not only endeared him to American racing fans but led some to believe he had a legitimate chance in the Kentucky Derby. However, Mandarin Hero was initially on the outside looking in, having only amassed 40 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
However, the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. No fewer than five horses were scratched from the Kentucky Derby prior to the race, meaning that all of the horses on the also-eligible list, Mandarin Hero included, made their way into the field. He started from post position 17.
The race did not go well for Mandarin Hero. He broke twelfth and laid off the pace in the initial stages of the race, but Tapit Trice collided with him and pushed him wide in the second turn. He was unable to recover from that interference and did not come into contention, finishing twelfth in the field of eighteen.
Derma Sotogake (by Mind Your Biscuits out of Amour Poesie (JPN), by Neo Universe (JPN)) gave an electrifying performance in the UAE Derby, taking the 1 3/16-mile race gate to wire. He displayed versatility in his running style as well, having won his previous races (including the aforementioned Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun) by sitting off the pace. He had the look of an absolute powerhouse and was bet accordingly, leaving post 14 as the 8-1 third choice.
As with Mandarin Hero, however, things did not go his way in the Run for the Roses. He had the misfortune of hitting the gate at the break, making it so that he could not get to the front. He fought on and approached the leaders while coming down the backstretch, but ultimately wound up having too much to do in the stretch after having to go six wide on the far turn. He finished out of the money in sixth place, although he outran many other highly regarded competitors.