Japanese Horses In the Kentucky Derby: Racing Stars From Japan

April 8th, 2024

Studying the most recent editions of the Run for the Roses has led to this author learning quite a lot about the extraordinarily talented Japanese horses present in Kentucky Derby lore. 

In the first years of the Kentucky Derby, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the event was understandably made up of nearly all American competitors; international travel was difficult for humans, much less horses! 

However, as technology improved, the Sport of Kings became more international, and in recent years Japan has emerged as a world power in Thoroughbred racing. The inclusion of international competitors has increased the viewing audience: seeing a trainer, jockey, and horse from Japan in Kentucky Derby regalia adds an air of curiosity and excitement.

Japanese Horses In Kentucky Derby History 

Ski Captain

Pedigree: Storm Bird (Northern Dancer) x Ski Goggle, by Royal Ski

Ski Captain was the first Japanese-based horse to contest the Kentucky Derby, and he did so in 1995, when international travel for Thoroughbreds was much less common than it is today. Ski Captain was bred in Kentucky but was owned by Shadai Race Horse Co. and campaigned by Hideyuki Mori, both of whom are Japanese.

At that time, the Road to the Kentucky Derby series did not exist, so Ski Captain did not have to earn points in any qualifying prep races. Instead, he won a Grade III race and was Grade I-placed in his native Japan before finishing fourteenth in the Kentucky Derby at odds of approximately 12-1 as a part of the mutuel field. His graded stakes earnings played a crucial role in securing his spot in the Kentucky Derby.



Pedigree: Tapit (AP Indy) x Heavenly Love (JPN), by Sunday Silence

The next Japanese horse of significance to run in Kentucky Derby was not actually bred in Japan, either. Although his owner, trainer, jockey, and even his own dam were all Japanese, Lani himself was bred in Kentucky. 

Nevertheless, his first five career starts were all in Japan. He won the 2015 Cattelya Sho as a two-year-old, a race which would later become one of the points-earning races in the Japan Road To The Kentucky Derby. 

Lani earned his way into the 2016 Kentucky Derby with a win in the Grade II UAE Derby, which earned him 100 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. He finished ninth in the Derby, fifth in the Preakness, and third in the Belmont, making him the first Japan-based horse to run in all three United States Triple Crown races and the first to finish on the board in one.


Master Fencer

Pedigree: Just A Way (JPN) (Heart’s Cry [JPN]) x Sexy Zamurai, by Deputy Minister

Master Fencer was the first horse from Japan in Kentucky Derby history to actually have been bred there. He was also the first horse to enter the Kentucky Derby via the Japan Road to The Kentucky Derby; the qualifiers in 2017 and 2018 declined their invitations. 

The horse was not actually the top points-earner for his year- Der Flug, Oval Ace, and Nova Lenda all scored more points, but were not nominated to the Triple Crown. 

Master Fencer, who had been second in the Fukuryu and third in the Hyacinth in his native country, finished a fast-closing sixth in the Kentucky Derby.


Crown Pride

Pedigree: Reach the Crown (JPN) (Special Week [JPN]) x Emmy’s Pride (JPN), by King Kamehameha (JPN)

Crown Pride burst upon the Kentucky Derby scene in 2022 with a win in the UAE Derby and was viewed as an interesting prospect. 

His final Kentucky Derby odds of 17-1 demonstrate that, while he was not among the favorites, he was not completely dismissed as Lani and Master Fencer (29-1 and 59-1, respectively) had been. 

Although Crown Pride ultimately finished thirteenth, it was his extreme speed duel with Summer Is Tomorrow that caused the pace of the race to explode, setting up the race for deep-closing long-shot Rich Strike to win.


Mandarin Hero

Pedigree: Shanghai Bobby (Harlan’s Holiday) x Namura Nadeshiko (JPN), by Fuji Kiseki (JPN)

Mandarin Hero provided another first for Japanese horses in the Kentucky Derby, as he was the first Japanese-based horse to qualify for the Kentucky Derby by running in a prep race on American soil. 

The horse’s trainer, Terunobu Fujita, did not utilize the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby or the UAE Derby, but chose instead to run his horse in traditional Derby prep race, the Grade I Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita in Arcadia, California. 

Mandarin Hero lost the Santa Anita Derby in a dramatic photo finish and, for a time, looked as though he would not have enough points to earn entry into the Kentucky Derby; however, a flurry of scratches during Derby week allowed Mandarin Hero to clinch a spot in the starting gate. He finished twelfth after being bumped hard in the final stretch.


Derma Sotogake

Pedigree: Mind Your Biscuits (Posse) x Amour Poesie (JPN), by Neo Universe (JPN)

Derma Sotogake arrived at the 2023 Kentucky Derby as one of the favorites following a visually stunning domination of the UAE Derby. He had already earned a spot in the Kentucky Derby as the top points-earner on the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby; however, earning 100 points with his UAE Derby win allowed his connections to pass the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby invitation to the runner-up, Continuar. Continuar did ship to America and almost ran, but was a disappointing late scratch due to his trainer not feeling Continuar was at his best. 

At 8-1, Derma Sotogake started as the third choice in the field of 18; unfortunately, he bumped the gate and therefore suffered a slow start. He was unable to avoid traffic during the race and ultimately finished sixth, approximately six lengths behind the victorious Mage. Still, a strong performance for Derma Sotogake and Japanese representatives.

Japanese Triumphs And Memorable Moments: Milestones And Records In Kentucky Derby History

The Japan Road To The Kentucky Derby 

Prior to 2017, the only way to qualify for entry into the Kentucky Derby was to earn points through traditional Kentucky Derby prep races, all of which were held on American soil save the aforementioned UAE Derby. 

Although there was no rule officially prohibiting the entry of a Japanese horse in Kentucky Derby prep races, the lack of local ways to prepare the horses and determine the best chances of a good Kentucky Derby performance certainly hampered international participation. 

Due in part to Lani’s performance in the 2016 Triple Crown races, Churchill Downs Inc. partnered with the Japan Racing Association to develop the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby, in order to increase international competition. 

Initially, only two races were included (the Cattelya Sho for two-year-olds and the Hyacinth Stakes for three-year-olds), but races were added in 2018 (the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun for two-year-olds) and 2019 (the Fukuryu Stakes for three-year-olds). 

At the conclusion of the series, the horse who has earned the most points is invited to participate in the Kentucky Derby; if their connections decline, the offer is made to the runner-up, and so on down to the fourth position point earner. 

In 2024, the horse who earned the most points on the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby was T O  Password, who won the Fukuryu Stakes. 

Master Fencer’s Dramatic Rush

Master Fencer was regarded as a curiosity in the lead-up to the 2019 Kentucky Derby, but few bettors thought that he actually had a chance to get a piece of the race. 

However, he did a lot to prove them wrong, and while he did not earn an official placing in the Kentucky Derby, he acquitted himself well. The 2019 Kentucky Derby was a roughly run event, but toward the end of the race Master Fencer was moving incredibly fast. His closing strides showed he was a serious racehorse, and many believed that were the race a furlong longer, Master Fencer would have cracked the top three.

Japanese Horses In Kentucky Derby Preps

While the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby caused a lot of Japanese owners and trainers to contract Derby Fever, some wanted to stake their claim through the more traditional route. The trainer of Mandarin Hero, Terunobo Fujita, was one such person.

It was very poignant that Mandarin Hero ran in the Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park, as in the 1940s the track was closed andused as a Japanese internment camp during World War II. To see a Japanese horse, trainer, and jockey perform so well at the very place which could have imprisoned them 80 years prior, brought full circle just how far societal relations have come.

What challenges do Japanese horses face when competing in the Kentucky Derby?


With the exception of Mandarin Hero, none of the Japanese horses in Kentucky Derby history had ever raced in America prior to the big race. That means that these horses are in a new place, with different track conditions and a different climate. Horses often struggle with change, and although most of the Japanese competitors arrive at Churchill Downs several weeks ahead of the Derby itself, the environment for workouts and training is not the same as race day.

Jet Lag 

The travel experience is also a factor. Although air travel is fast, and the conditions are certainly better than they were in the past, it is still a very stressful event for horses and can cause them to lose valuable days of training time, if they need to recover. Although many of the Japanese competitors had traveled to the United Arab Emirates prior to arriving in Louisville, the trip over the ocean is a far longer one.

What factors contribute to the increasing presence of Japanese horses in the Kentucky Derby?

Racing On The International Stage

As international travel became faster, easier, and more accessible, racing began to transform into an international event. 

The advent of major racing festivals such as the Breeders’ Cup series and the Dubai World Cup Carnival use hefty purses to lure the world’s best Thoroughbreds into diverse, talent-laden races held on both turf and the American specialty surface, dirt.

Japan responded to these additions by improving their breeding program, incorporating bloodlines from all over the world. 

They also focused not only on turf racing, as most of the world does, but on dirt racing as well. One of the goals of many Japanese owners is to capture America’s most well-known race: the Kentucky Derby.

The Sound Of Silence

While Japan has affected the culture of the Kentucky Derby, the reverse has also happened. The influence of the Kentucky Derby Japanese horses have felt most significantly comes from a single horse- one who was a superstar on American racetracks, particularly when he won his own Kentucky Derby, but who attracted little attention from American mare owners in the breeding shed.

Breeder Zenya Yoshida acquired Sunday Silence for $31 million following the colt’s retirement in 1990, and in the end, that price proved to be a bargain. It is not hyperbole to say that Sunday Silence completely revolutionized the Japanese Thoroughbred industry; he led the Japanese sire list thirteen times prior to his death in 2002, and his sons have proved to be equally adept at passing down talent. 

Sunday Silence’s name has become as pervasive (if not more so) in Japanese pedigrees as Northern Dancer is in Western pedigrees

As proof, consider this: of the four horses highlighted earlier in this article that were bred in Japan, all trace to Sunday Silence at least once, as do 2024 Kentucky Derby Japanese competitors Forever Young and T O  Password.

How does the participation of Japanese horses in the Kentucky Derby impact the global horse racing community?

The participation of Japanese horses in the Kentucky Derby has renewed international interest in the Derby and in American racing as a whole. 

Japanese competitors making a strong showing in the Kentucky Derby and in Kentucky Derby prep races around the world have increased the prestige of the Japanese breeding industry. 

In turn, that has caused Japanese breeders to import more American horses, seeking to breed a horse ideal for the absolutely unique, traditional, and historic race that is the Kentucky Derby.

For more on this year's contenders from Japan, see the Kentucky Derby International Scouting Reports on Forever Young and T O Password