June 20, 2018

Global view an overall positive for Kentucky Derby

Epicharis won the inaugural Japan Road to the Derby in the Hyacinth, now the anchor of an expanded three-race points series (Photo by Katsumi Saito)

While the ramifications of the new “European Road to the Kentucky Derby” and the augmented “Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby” will become clear only in time, the international outreach is a welcome development for the iconic U.S. race.

Even within a strictly American perspective, the Kentucky Derby has changed for the better over the course of its 143-year history. A regional affair in its early days, the classic only attained its prestige as the “Run for the Roses” under the inspired leadership of Col. Matt Winn in the first half of the 20th century. With racing having already evolved into a truly global sport (and business) in the 21st century, a corresponding internationalization of the Kentucky Derby is a logical step.

The one weak point in that analogy is the fact that U.S. dirt horses, as a general rule, are better than their international counterparts, and our scene features greater strength in depth. (South America can rightly point to its dirt stars, but I’m restricting this to Northern Hemisphere-breds since we’re talking three-year-olds at Derby time.) Whereas growing the Derby from a regional to a national prize was bound to attract the top horses from the East Coast (and a burgeoning West), and thereby enhance quality, adding international participants is more of a wild card. Some are going to be classier than others, possibly good enough to emulate Venezuela’s hero Canonero II (1971) or place like Great Britain’s Bold Arrangement (1986), but it’s going to be a variable.

As a longtime international racing fan, however, I’d counter that critique by saying that the lesser domestic preps likewise vary in usefulness for producing serious Derby contenders too. And even the marquee races are deeper some years than others, which we can determine with the benefit of hindsight. So variability, or volatility, is part and parcel of the Derby trail.

More to the point, as a corollary to the old phrase, “a good horse can come from anywhere,” three-year-olds with top-level dirt capability can emerge from other jurisdictions. A recent case in point is British-based Toast of New York, who rose improbably from the winter all-weather circuit to romp in the 2014 UAE Derby (G2) (then on the Tapeta), finished second to Shared Belief in the Pacific Classic (G1) (on the old Polytrack), and showed his dirt class when coming within a nose of Bayern in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Santa Anita.

It’s worth remembering that Toast of New York was a Kentucky-bred who was sold abroad. In this day of the globalization of auctions, and American dirt influences scattered all over the bloodstock world, his example may not be a one-off. Who’s to say that one of the pricey yearlings purchased by Japanese interests, or an American-bred pinhook at a European two-year-olds in training sale (a “breeze-up” in their parlance) won’t develop into a top-tier candidate? Or the offspring of high-class American racemares retired to the broodmare life in Japan?

The concern about reserving coveted spots in the capacity 20-horse Derby field for horses who’ve solely raced internationally – the European and the Japan Road to the Derby representative, plus one (or possibly more) via the UAE Derby – is that deserving American horses would be left out in the cold. And it’s possible that bad racing luck, or ill-timed setbacks, could leave a better horse uncomfortably on the bubble. But Americans have multiple chances to score the requisite points. Hypothetically hard cases, to me, aren’t sufficient to preclude international avenues, especially because there have been hard cases under any kind of eligibility system, from the old graded earnings criteria to the current points structure.

Now to thoughts more specific to the respective points systems for Europe and Japan. Each leaderboard is separate and distinct from the main U.S. leaderboard, so the points refer only to their intramural competition to be the top European or Japanese contender. (In other words, the 10 points you win in a race on the European or Japan Road is not equivalent to the 10 points you earn, for example, in the Iroquois [G3].)

The first four European points races are major events for juveniles on the turf this fall, assuring the tip-top quality of the performers engaged. The September 24 Beresford (G2) at Naas, the September 30 Royal Lodge (G2) at Newmarket, the October 1 Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere (G1) on Arc Day at Chantilly, and the October 28 Racing Post Trophy (G1) at Doncaster all attract proper hopefuls for the European classics. While the Lagardere is a natural pointer to the Poule d’Essai des Poulains (French 2000 Guineas) (G1), the other three typically involve long-term candidates for the Derby (G1) at Epsom.

That’s not to say that the winners of those races would automatically reroute themselves to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, but the place point-getters could entertain the idea of a surface switch if they’re not likely to become classic winners at home on turf. Since the fall races carry the least points, they’d need to earn more in 2018 to vie for the top of the European leaderboard.

The three European points races in the spring are all-weather events of lesser import, but worth more points-wise. The March 1 Road to the Kentucky Derby Conditions Stakes at Kempton is probably going to lure handicap types who’ve been knocking heads through the British winter because the better grade of horses isn’t going to be cranked up that early (unless they’re chasing the money in Dubai). But with high-profile trainers also giving well-regarded but late-developing youngsters a debut over the synthetic later in the year, perhaps an up-and-comer could consider this new opportunity.

The Patton at Dundalk was a perennial spot for Aidan O’Brien, at least in its old guise in early April. Moved up to March 2 now and extended from seven furlongs to a mile, the Patton could still become a favored place for Ballydoyle to give its American Triple Crown nominees a spin. As a counterfactual, what if O’Brien had that option this year? Might we have gotten Lancaster Bomber to the Derby?

The final European points race, the March 30 Burradon at Newcastle, was just held for the first time in April 2017. No world-beaters emerged from the inaugural running, understandably since it was smack dab among the classic trials on turf. But its new position on the calendar – the eve of Dubai World Cup Day – and 30 Derby points to the winner could give European trainers another option for promising types that they don’t want to subject to international travel at that point.

Of course, the obvious line of thought is if they’re good enough, they’ll ship to Dubai for the $2 million purse dangled by the UAE Derby. But horsemen may have other reasons to weigh against that. If you’re taking a longer-term view with a lightly-raced prospect, you might rather keep him home as long as you can. Or if you’re seriously considering a U.S. Triple Crown tilt with a proven horse of ample experience, and you can clinch a berth without the risk of extensive travel, might you decide to go to Newcastle and save your frequent flier miles for Louisville? Forego the Dubai pot in hopes of reaping bigger rewards at Churchill?

The Japan Road debuted for the 2017 Derby, and the addition of a third race toward 2018, combined with a points reduction for the first, makes for a more logical path this time. The new race on the schedule is the December 13 Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun, parked between the November 25 Cattleya Sho and the Hyacinth, typically on the February S. (G1) undercard.

Although the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun is not a Japan Racing Association race, rather at Kawasaki on the National Association of Racing (local governments) circuit, it can attract horses from both jurisdictions. The JRA horses are the nation’s elite, but the NAR is more specifically dirt-oriented and thereby presents additional chances for big prizes on that surface. Thus the JRA’s dirt performers sometimes cross over to the NAR for “exchange races” like the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun.

This revamp stands to benefit the Japan Road, since last time around the Cattleya Sho was arguably over-weighted at 40 points – it’s not a blacktype race, after all – relative to the Hyacinth’s 50. Now it’s reduced to 10 points to the winner, same as the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun, and the Hyacinth is still the best-endowed with 30 points under the new terms.

The European Road to the Kentucky Derby promises to be an intriguing addition to the chessboard for international connections, and the enhanced Japan Road to the Derby figures to keep fueling interest there. I’m eager to see how it plays out this time, and then we can assess its impact going forward.

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