Foreign-Based Derby Contenders Sending Mixed Signals So Far

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

With 72 days remaining until the Kentucky Derby, the field is slowly starting to crystallize, and we're getting a better idea of which foreign-based runners might have the Kentucky Derby as a distant goal.

In recent years, Churchill Downs has done quite well attracting international challengers to contest the Derby; there's been at least one international contender in eight of the last ten Derbies. By awarding qualification points to the UAE Derby (UAE-II) in Dubai and saving spots in the Kentucky Derby starting gate for the top qualifiers along the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby and the European Road to the Kentucky Derby, we should continue to see a steady stream of international challengers for the foreseeable future.

But so far in 2019, it appears that the top contenders in the United States will have little to worry about from foreign raiders. In particular, the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby seems unlikely to produce a significant challenger this year. The Zen Nippon Nisai Yushun runner-up Derma Louvre remains the most likely candidate to travel from Japan, but an uninspiring third-place finish in the February 17 Hyacinth Stakes going a metric mile at Tokyo Racecourse was a disappointing performance, and he would need to rebound significantly in the March 30 UAE Derby (UAE-II) at Meydan in Dubai to remain a factor on the Derby trail. That could be easier said than done, given that his late-running style isn't well-suited to the often speed-favoring dirt track at Meydan.

A more inspiring candidate from Japan would be Oval Ace, an unbeaten son of Henny Hughes who won the Hyacinth with a sharp rally from just off the pace (running the final 600 meters in :36.10), but he's not currently nominated to the Triple Crown and isn't expected to pursue a start in the UAE Derby. Still, he could always be supplemented to the Triple Crown, and if his connections target the March 31 Fukuyru Stakes at Nakayama (the final leg of the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby), a victory in that 1 1/8-mile event could potentially propel Oval Ace toward the Derby.

Meanwhile, out in Dubai, identifying the winner of the UAE Derby could be easier said than done. Walking Thunder was the clear early favorite after kicking off his career with three powerful wins at Meydan, but then he was soundly beaten by Estihdaaf in the UAE 2,000 Guineas, a performance that—quite frankly—calls into question the overall strength of the three-year-old dirt runners in Dubai. At least they both have solidly dirt-oriented pedigrees, and Estihdaaf (a son of Arch) is an improving sort racing for the high-profile team of Godolphin and trainer Saeed bin Suroor—you just know they'll take a shot at the Kentucky Derby if afforded the opportunity.

Another to consider in this wide-open Dubai division is Manguzi, who was crushed by Walking Thunder in the UAE 2,000 Guineas Trial before beating Estihdaaf in the Al Bastakiya Trial. Royal Marine, a Group 1 winner on turf who finished fourth with a poor start in the UAE 2,000 Guineas Trial, is another name to know. But given how Meydan tends to favor speed horses racing on the rail, post positions and race tactics in the UAE Derby could be just as important as talent in determining which horses earn sufficient Kentucky Derby qualification points to secure a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate.

In Europe, Ireland's leading trainer Aidan O'Brien is well represented with seven Triple Crown nominees, and he's arguably the most likely foreign conditioner to saddle a Derby starter—he's had six already, including the much-hyped Mendelssohn in 2018. But at this point, it's difficult to predict who might be O'Brien's top hopeful. Several of his more accomplished nominees are bred top and bottom for turf, including the Group 1-placed trio of Sydney Opera House, The Irish Rover, and Western Australia, and while Sergei Prokofiev might have a more dirt-oriented pedigree (he's by Scat Daddy out of a Tapit mare), he's never run farther than six furlongs and will need to show that he's more than a sprinter.

Truthfully, the most intriguing of O'Brien's nominees might be U S S Michigan, whose lone run to date yielded a close runner-up finish in a six-furlong maiden race at the Curragh last June. A son of War Front out of the Unbridled's Song mare Photograph, U S S Michigan boasts a pedigree with some solid dirt influences, and his full brothers Green Dispatch, George Patton, and Battle Flag all ran well over synthetic tracks in Europe, further suggesting that this isn't your typical European turf pedigree.

It's hard to say where U S S Michigan might turn up next, but three major prep races remain along the European Road to the Kentucky Derby, starting with the March 6 Road to the Kentucky Derby Condition Stakes at Kempton. I wouldn't be surprised to see U S S Michigan turn up in one or more of these spots, and if a significant foreign Derby starter is going to emerge, U S S Michigan might well be the one.

O'Brien also nominated the Scat Daddy son Van Beethoven, a considerably more experienced colt with eight runs under his belt. That includes a victory in the six-furlong Railway Stakes (Ire-II) at the Curragh, but two later efforts going seven furlongs against tougher competition resulted in non-threatening unplaced finishes that leave me wondering just how far Van Beethoven really wants to run. O'Brien's final nominee, Blenheim Palace, is among the early entries for the Investec Derby (Eng-I) and Irish Derby (Ire-I), but the son of Galileo went 0-for-3 last year while never finishing better than fourth or closer than 8 ½ lengths to the winner of a race. He would need to step up his game significantly to be a factor on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.

Are there any foreign-based Derby contenders that have caught your eye?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, 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

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