Missing the Derby? Bet the Satsuki Sho Instead

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

Doesn't it feel like we should be deep into handicapping the Kentucky Derby right now? In a normal year, the Road to the Kentucky Derby would be complete and the Run for the Roses would be just two weeks away.

But 2020 has been far from an ordinary year, and with the Kentucky Derby postponed until September, the U.S. racing schedule feels a bit empty right now. That's why I'm turning my attention to Japan, where the Satsuki Sho (G1)—the first leg of the Japanese Triple Crown—will take place on Sunday at Nakayama Racecourse.

Held over 2,000 meters (about 1 1/4 miles), the Satsuki Sho really isn't all that different from the Kentucky Derby. It's a spring classic, it's drawn a large field of 18 starters, and each horse will carry 57 kilograms (125.7 pounds). Since the Derby is off the table for the time being, shouldn't we dig in and embrace the Satsuki Sho as a replacement handicapping challenge?

Heading into the Satsuki Sho, the most accomplished contenders are #1 Contrail and #7 Salios, a pair of Group 1-winning juveniles set to make their 2020 debuts. Both are undefeated and warrant respect in this competitive field.

Contrail, a son of Deep Impact, has compiled a 3-for-3 record and has already scored a major victory over the course and distance of the Satsuki Sho. Favored to win the Dec. 28 Hopeful Stakes (G1), the pace-tracking Contrail sprinted the final 600 meters in :35.80 to score by 1 1/2 lengths over fellow Satsuki Sho contender #17 Weltreisende, who returned to finish a game second in the 1,800-meter Spring Stakes (G2) on Mar. 22.

Salios is likewise 3,-for-3, and while he's never run beyond a mile, he made a nice impression in the Dec. 15 Asahi Hai Futurity (G1) at Hanshin, accelerating from just off the pace to win by 2 1/2 lengths in 1:33 flat. Internationally-acclaimed rider Ryan Moore was in the saddle that day, though the Australian jockey Damian Lane—riding in Japan on a short-term license—will have the mount for the Satsuki Sho.

But it's not very common for horses to win the Satsuki Sho in their seasonal bow. Saturnalia pulled off the feat last year, completing the Hopeful/Satsuki Sho double Contrail is attempting to replicate, but every other Satsuki Sho winner since 2003 utilized at least one prep race to sharpen their fitness for the first leg of the Japanese Triple Crown.

That's why I'm going to oppose the two favorites with #5 Satono Flag, an up-and-coming son of Deep Impact conditioned by Sakae Kunieda, best known as the trainer of superstar Japanese Filly Triple Crown winner Almond Eye.

Satono Flag showed plenty of potential as a juvenile. After finishing sixth in his debut, the bay colt tackled a 2,000-meter maiden race at Tokyo Racecourse and dominated his opposition, sprinting the final 600 meters in :34.50 to rally and win by three lengths over the next-out winner Dejimano Hana. Satono Flag's final time of 1:59.50 eclipsed the juvenile course record at Tokyo by 0.30.

Satono Flag has continued to show promise in 2020. On Jan. 5 he rallied from behind a modest pace to win a 2,000-meter allowance race at Nakayama by three lengths, sprinting the final 600 meters in :35.30. And on Mar. 8, he closed tenaciously over a yielding turf course at Nakayama to win the 2,000-meter Deep Impact Kinen (G2) by 1 3/4 lengths over Wakea, who had previously finished third in the Hopeful. Even over the wet course, Satono Flag finished in :36.10, faster than any of his ten rivals.

For the Satsuki Sho, Satono Flag will pick up the services of Christophe Lemaire, Japan's leading jockey in 2017, 2018, and 2019. The colt has drawn well in post five, setting up the potential for a ground-saving trip, and the large field should ensure the pace is swift enough to enhance the effectiveness of Satono Flag's late rally. Lemaire won this race last year aboard Saturnalia, and I'm confident Satono Flag has the talent and upside to give Lemaire a double.

The Kyodo News Hai (G3) at Nakayama has produced four of the last eight Satsuki Sho winners, so history suggests #13 Darlington Hall and #18 Bitterender—who finished a nose apart when running 1-2 in the 1,800-meter race—are worth considering on Sunday. But Bitterender has drawn the far outside post and Darlington Hall will lose jockey Christophe Lemaire to Satono Flag, so a spot in the exotics might be the best these two can hope for.

A more intriguing alternative is #16 Galore Creek. Though he could only finish a dull eleventh in the Hopeful, Galore Creek has shown significant improvement in 2020. After finishing fourth in a 2,200-meter allowance race at Nakayama to kick off the season, the son of Kinshasa no Kiseki dropped his body weight from 506 kilograms to 496 kilograms and promptly dominated the 1,800-meter Spring Stakes (G2) at Nakayama in impression fashion. With a powerful rally from off the pace, Galore Creek sprinted the final 600 meters in :33.80 to beat the above-mentioned Hopeful runner-up Weltreisende by 1 1/4 lengths.

Normally at this time of year, I would be pondering which horses to use in the Kentucky Derby trifecta. So to seek some semblance of normalcy, I'll instead put together a trifecta play for the Satsuki Sho, keying Satono Flag in the top two slots while otherwise emphasizing Galore Creek and Contrail.

Recent stakes winners #2 L'Excellence, #3 Cortesia, and #11 Crystal Black have shown the ability to finish strongly against good company, so I'll include them on the bottom of my tickets:

$1 Trifecta: 5 with 1,7,16 with 1,2,3,7,11,16,17 ($18)
$1 Trifecta: 1,16 with 5 with 1,2,3,7,11,16,17 ($12)

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Satsuki Sho?


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

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