HOW HE GOT HERE
Mandarin Hero will be the third Japanese horse to run in the 2023 Kentucky Derby. He qualified as the 2ndalso eligible horse to draw in after the scratches of Practical Move (who beat him in the Santa Anita Derby) and Lord Miles. This came from him earning 40 points after finishing 2nd in the Santa Anita Derby to Practical Move.
Mandarin Hero has spent most of his short career racing on the NAR circuit in Japan. This is the lower level of racing in Japan vs. the JRA. In addition, the NAR only races on dirt vs. the JRA with both Turf and Dirt racing.
His career debut came on June 9th, at Oi racecourse over 6f. He was positioned mid-pack that day and came on with a rush to destroy his field, winning by 9 lengths on the wire. It was his first experience over a sloppy track, where he seemed to relish the conditions.
His next two races through allowance company also proved to be successful as he won stepping up to 7f and a mile, winning both events both at Oi racecourse with room to spare.
Stepping up to listed stakes company in the Haiseiko Kinen at a mile at Oi, Mandarin Hero raced mid-pack once more before his jock Takayuki Yano rushed him up from 7th to 2nd with a mid-race move. He sustained that move under a drive to eventually wear down the leader that day by a neck. That would be his last start as a 2-year-old.
In his debut at three, he ran in the 1 1/8th Kumotori Sho at Oi racecourse once more. That day he was more forwardly placed, sat a stalking trip, angled out for the stretch run but was never going past the winner that day, Hero Call (Derma Sotogake beat him handily in their previous race).
After that trip, his trainer went the very unusual route of shipping his colt to the Santa Anita Derby. He was given time to acclimatize to his surroundings and a great ride from eclipse winning Japanese jockey Kazushi Kimura. Sitting back off a hot pace, he split horses on the turn, split horses again at the top of the stretch and was in a prolonged battle with the eventual winner and 3rd place finisher Skinner. He lost by a nose that day but gained the respect of many as to his ability.
HOW HE FITS HERE
He’s making his third start off layoff and his second start in North America. While his countrymates have had to ship from Japan to Saudi Arabia to Dubai to Kentucky, his airmiles card has only been stamped twice, going from Japan to California to Kentucky. His Beyer speed fig of 100 in the Santa Anita Derby stamps him as one of the fastest in the race, with many feeling he would have caught Practical Move with another furlong of distance. He’s yet to finish worse than 2nd in his career and would have no issue at all if it were to rain come race time (2 for 2 over off going). Look for him late.
CONNECTIONS AND PEDIGREE
Trainer Terunobu Fujita is an up-and-coming trainer on the NAR circuit in Japan. He has scored a Jpn G1 win in his career, but I am sure a victory here would be the highlight. He does things his own way to ensure the horse peaks on their day. Doubters of that can look back on Mandarin Hero’s work prior to the Santa Anita Derby, where he worked a slow half mile in 53.60. He came back to almost win the race after that work. He’s still young and learning the ropes so expect this to not be his last Kentucky Derby trip.
I’ve been a fan of and followed the career of Kazushi Kimura since he stepped foot on the grounds at my native Woodbine. He comes from a horse racing family back in Japan and was originally in the JRA Jockey School before deciding to head to North America. He’s set the Woodbine scene alight since starting as an apprentice in 2018, winning the sovereign award for top apprentice in Canada in 2018 and the eclipse award in 2019. The past two years have seen Kazushi excel in Canada, scoring multiple G1 wins and becoming leading rider at Woodbine. He is a fantastic rider who showed the rest of North America what he could do during the latest Santa Anita meet.
Mandarin Hero has a Japanese pedigree that isn’t your typical speed over stamina mix. This is more of a miler over miler type pedigree. He is by champion 2-year-old Shanghai Bobby who himself was a talented colt but never got to show his ability at three due to injury. He does sire mostly sprinter/miler types but has sired 1 ¼ G1 winner Aero Trem in Argentina (finished 5th in the Dubai World Cup to Country Grammer). Mandarin Hero is out of the Fuji Kiseki (2-year-old champ in Japan, won a 1 ¼ G2 event) mare, Namura Nadeshiko. Namura Nadeshiko was winless in three career starts before being sent to the breeding shed. Mandarin Hero has been the best of her offspring, with most of her horses being sprinter/miler types as well. Fuji Kiseki will help with the added distance but there remains some question marks on the dam-dam side.
The speed fig numbers and his race in the Santa Anita Derby say he does fit with the best of this field. Can see him leaving the gate and Kimura trying to save as much ground with him as possible going into the first turn. He should be sitting mid pack then passing horses late. Don’t worry if you see Kimura riding him early as he seems to be a horse you need to keep riding hard to get the best response out of. I do have questions as to if he really wants to go this far based on his pedigree, but I will be in his camp come derby day looking to prove to me he can get that extra furlong. Top five placing projected.