Kentucky Derby looks to draw from overseas

By Ron Flatter  ( 

December 15, 2017 09:29 AM
Le Vent Se Lève won the Zen Nihon Nisai Yūshun, a Japanese prep race for the Kentucky Derby.
© Photo by Akihiro Takeda for Churchill Downs

LAS VEGAS — Bolt d’Oro, Enticed, McKinzie and Montauk. Anyone following the early steps on the Kentucky Derby trail knows these names are popular in futures bets.

But what about Saxon Warrior, Roaring Lion and Ruggero? They are also on the trail – kind of. Good luck finding familiar-looking charts to prove it.


Those last three and others competing against them are trying to get into the Derby by way of overseas races, part of an expanded initiative by Churchill Downs to globalize America’s most famous race. One horse from Europe and another from Japan could wind up among the 20 horses in the starting gate – perhaps bumping two U.S. 3-year-olds out of the race.


Le Vent Se Lève became the latest candidate to move into contention for one of those invitations, winning at odds of 9-5 in Wednesday’s Zen Nihon Nisai Yūshun on the dirt at Kawasaki Racecourse. Sired by Symboli Kris, trained by Kyoshi Hagiwara and ridden by Mirco Demuro, Le Vent Se Lève closed on a slow pace to run his record to 3-for-3, winning the one-mile race in a pedestrian 1:41.60.


“We’re keen to provide a useful and meaningful path to the Kentucky Derby for (Japan’s) world-class competitors and horsemen,” Churchill Downs racing executive Mike Ziegler said last summer. That was when the Japan conduit to the Derby was renewed for a second year. The European program returns nine years after Churchill tried and failed to get a horse from a Kempton, England, prep into the Derby.


As ambitious as this program sounds, it is important to remember that the transoceanic playing field is hardly level. It is not just about finding Derby-worthy dirt horses from overseas. It is also about giving handicappers enough information to compare horses from over there with those over here. On that score this may as well be the movable-type era.


Consider the Nisai Yūshun. With a dearth of chart information and a race video showing dirt that looked more like desert sand, Wednesday’s race in Japan just added to the skepticism about the worthiness of foreign entries for the Derby. In short, do horses that have never raced in North America – maybe never even raced on dirt – deserve a chance to run for the roses? And if they get in, what are bettors to make of them?


Don’t confuse this with some sort of argument on either side of the “build that wall” debate. This is more about whether an international horse is worthy of a wager either now in the futures market or even later if it is drawn into the Derby field.


Johnny Avello at the Wynn Las Vegas reliably lists the would-be invaders among the more than 300 horses on his Derby sheets. The undefeated Coolmore colt Saxon Warrior (85-1) has the shortest odds of the internationals on that list. By comparison Bolt d’Oro (12-1) remains the favorite going through the usual American channels to get to Churchill Downs.


Therein lies one of the rubs. There are 35 Derby preps in the U.S., including 14 that are virtual win-and-you’re-in races. It is almost unheard of for a horse to simply drop in and win without some previous résumé entry signaling it as a contender. This year’s Derby winner Always Dreaming may not have raced in a graded stakes before his win in the Florida Derby, but he did not come from out of nowhere. His two decisive wins beforehand made him a meritorious and rather well-known 5-2 choice at Gulfstream Park.


Conversely, the overseas path to the Derby has far fewer races – and a much lower bar to clear in order to get an invitation to come to Kentucky. In Japan, for instance, there are only three designated preps – all ungraded stakes internationally – with the winner of the Feb. 18 Hyacinth Stakes having the right to come into the Derby. If the owner of the top point-getter turns down the invitation, it will be passed down as low as the fourth-best horse in those standings.


The same applies to the European trail, which has seven races, including four on turf and three on all-weather tracks. At least the turf races are group stakes.


“We felt it was important to work with our European partners to create a distinctive path for horsemen who are interested in the Kentucky Derby,” Churchill Downs president Bill Mudd said when this plan was hatched. “Any European horse that intends to test the Kentucky Derby now has an opportunity to qualify by competing in the new series, which culminates (on) synthetic surfaces at Kempton Park, Dundalk and Newcastle.”


The fact that the European races are on fake dirt means that the horses coming out of them are not necessarily qualified for the main track at Churchill. That just adds to the riddle for handicappers.


Pedigrees only go so far, especially when applying them to spartan past-performance forms that come nowhere close to the depth of those here in America. Speed ratings such as those listed by Timeform and the Racing Post are problematic at best, since there are no reliable conversions to Beyer, Brisnet or Ragozin figures.


If nothing else there is some history to consider, although it is thin, and it serves more to fuel cynicism than it does to provide contemporaneous information about the current crop of foreign contenders.


The last 51 runnings of the Derby have had 36 horses that came in with previous races outside North America. The only two that hit the board were Cañonero II (Venezuela), the winner in 1971, and Bold Arrangement (England), second to Ferdinand in 1986.


Churchill Downs has taken baby steps until now to test foreign waters, and it has not worked out well at all. The UAE Derby has been a prep for Kentucky since its advent in 2000. Master Of Hounds’s fifth-place Kentucky Derby finish in 2011 was the best result for any of the 13 horses that have come over from Dubai. Thunder Snow’s bucking-bronco act coming out of the gate this year was as bad as it got.


Even at 16-1 odds Thunder Snow sounded as overrated as every recent UAE Derby horse to come to Kentucky. They are inevitably characterized by slow winning times and an inability to handle the kickback from the Churchill Downs dirt. So what is to suggest that the horses coming from the European turf or fake dirt or the loose soil of Japan will be any different?


If a foreign horse ever were to join Cañonero II as a Derby winner, it would happen without one penny of my money being on it. But beware. I think I said the same thing last year about a Todd Pletcher-trained horse ever winning again.


Destin, eight others are in Harlan’s Holiday


Three-time graded-stakes winner Destin (5-2) is the morning-line favorite for Saturday’s $100,000 Grade 3 Harlan’s Holiday Stakes at Gulfstream Park.


After winning the Grade 2 Marathon at Del Mar on the first day of the Breeders’ Cup, Destin finished sixth in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap three weeks ago at Churchill Downs. The 4-year-old trained by Pletcher will be reunited with jockey John Velázquez, who rode the colt to its last two victories.


Fear The Cowboy (7-2), a three-time winner at Gulfstream, and the gray gelding Mr. Jordan (4-1), an 11-length winner last month at nearby Gulfstream Park West (formerly Calder), are also in the field of nine for the 8½-furlong dirt race Saturday at 4:06 p.m. EST.


Racing notes: Fire survivor wins at Los Al


Scathing, a 4-year-old filly that survived last week’s wildfire at San Luis Rey Downs, won a $15,000 allowance race over five furlongs Thursday at Los Alamitos. She was the first horse stabled at the San Diego County training center to race since the Dec. 7 fire. Owned by Cody Polansky, trained by Adam Kitchingman and ridden by Santiago González, Scathing (4-1) won by 1½ lengths for her fifth victory in 22 career starts. The fire killed 46 horses and forced hundreds of others to be moved to other stables.


Comebacking jockey Rajiv Maragh is moving his tack to southern California. Only days ago here in Las Vegas at the Jockeys’ Guild Annual Assembly, Maragh said publicly that he would be spending the winter at Aqueduct. That was before reports came out Thursday that he would be at Santa Anita’s opening day Dec. 26. Maragh, 32, missed more than a year after suffering serious back, rib and lung injuries in a July 2015 fall at Belmont Park.


Thought to be headed to a breeding career, fan favorite Lady Eli may remain in training next year. The Blood-Horse reported that Sol Kumin and his fellow owners are having second thoughts about retiring the 6-year-old mare that suffered leg cuts when she finished seventh in last month’s Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf. Those cuts led her to being removed from the Keeneland November sale.


Reeling from the loss of slot-machine revenue, two racing organizations in Canada have merged to try and form a more powerful union. Ontario Racing, a thoroughbred group, joined forces with the Standardbred Alliance to form Ontario Racing Management. The new organization will have oversight over the setting of purses at 15 racetracks, including Woodbine near Toronto.


Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at This week it features The Blood-Horse reporter Jeremy Balan, who talks about covering last week’s fire at San Luis Rey Downs, and Joe Bravo from the Jockeys’ Guild annual assembly here in Las Vegas discussing his career and the future of New Jersey racing if the U.S. Supreme Court approves sports gambling there. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Spotify.

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