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.
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?
Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contests page—there's a new challenge every week!
The Road to the Kentucky Derby handicapping challenge is back for the fifth straight year! Check out the Road to the Kentucky Derby contest page for more details.
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 www.theturfboard.com.