Kentucky Derby International Scouting Report: Continuar

April 10th, 2023

Having lost all three match-ups with leading Japanese contender Derma Sotogake, is there a case for Continuar to turn the tables in the Kentucky Derby (G1)? Trainer Yoshito Yahagi’s belief in him warrants respect, as does his pedigree, along with a hypothesis that different race dynamics could help.

Yahagi the international maestro

U.S. racing fans associate Yahagi with Japan’s breakthrough Breeders’ Cup success at Del Mar in 2021. While Loves Only You was eminently logical in the Filly & Mare Turf (G1), few could have prognosticated that Yahagi would make it a double with Marche Lorraine in the Distaff (G1).

But the trainer with the trademark hats had already proven his abilities on the world stage. After Real Steel captured the 2016 Dubai Turf (G1) on World Cup night, Yahagi sent star mare Lys Gracieux to lift Australia’s coveted Cox Plate (G1) in 2019. Loves Only You herself plundered Hong Kong twice for Group 1s. In 2022, Yahagi scored a triple on Dubai World Cup night, and earlier this season, he won twice on the Saudi Cup card including the $20 million highlight with Panthalassa. And that’s not even touching his record as a multiple champion trainer in Japan, with 2020 Triple Crown champion Contrail on his domestic ledger.

Up-and-coming rider Ryusei Sakai has guided Yahagi’s Bathrat Leon to two of those international wins, the 1351 Turf Sprint (G3) on Feb. 25 Saudi Cup Day and the 2022 Godolphin Mile (G2). Sakai has racked up three JRA Grade 1 victories in the past six months, most recently in a pressure situation aboard Godolphin’s Lemon Pop in the February (G1).

Continuar’s pedigree

Like Derma Sotogake, Continuar is by a top-class American sprinter who was exported to stud in Japan and became a champion freshman sire there. Continuar is from the second crop of Drefong, the divisional Eclipse Award champion of 2016 with victories in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) and King’s Bishop (now the H. Allen Jerkens Memorial) (G1). In that Breeders’ Cup, Drefong beat Mind Your Biscuits, the sire of Derma Sotogake, so you might say that the rivalry is continuing through their sons. At four in 2017, Drefong did not have as much success, but he did add the Forego (G1) to his resume back at Saratoga.

Himself a son of triple Eclipse Award winner Gio Ponti, and out of a mare by Hall of Famer Ghostzapper, Drefong got off to terrific start as a sire. The headliner from his initial crop was Geoglyph, who scored in the 2022 Satsuki Sho (Japanese 2000 Guineas) (G1), the first jewel of the Triple Crown. Geoglyph was also a solid fourth in his dirt debut in the Feb. 25 Saudi Cup.

Yet Continuar’s greatest appeal comes from his dam’s side. He’s out of a three-quarter sister to the spectacular Almond Eye, a two-time Japanese Horse of the Year, Fillies’ Triple Crown winner, and twice successful in the Japan Cup (G1), including a record time of 2:20.6 in 2018.

Continuar’s dam, Pan de Ring, is a daughter of Japanese champion and superior sire King Kamehameha and Fusaichi Pandora, a major winner by breed-shaper Sunday Silence. This is the deep family of European celebrities El Gran Senor and Try My Best, Belmont (G1)-winning champion Rags to Riches, et al.

Continuar as a juvenile

The word was out on Continuar when he went off as the even-money favorite in a newcomers’ race at a muddy Hanshin Oct. 8. Breaking from the far outside post 11, he prompted the slow pace in the about 1 1/8-mile affair and readily forged clear in the stretch. Jockey Sakai kept him on task as a rival closed, and Continuar might have been on the verge of idling. But he remained comfortably on top by a length under good handling.

Continuar was a 13-1 outsider in a Nov. 6 allowance over the same track and trip, where he just missed to the 4.80-1 Derma Sotogake. Covering extra ground in a tactical race that turned into a scramble late, Continuar appeared to be getting the upper hand. But the more experienced Derma Sotogake burst through between foes to win the photo. Continuar was coming again once he saw that new threat, only the wire came too soon, and Derma Sotogake’s nose was still in front when it counted.

Next seen in the opening leg of the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby, the Nov. 26 Cattleya S. at Tokyo, Continuar prevailed as the 2.90-1 second choice. He was presumably tightened for this target, judging by his body weight. From 536 kilograms in his allowance, Continuar trimmed down to 522 kilograms.

Continuar needed to be sharp on the cutback to a metric mile in the Cattleya, especially around one turn. That configuration also yielded a faster pace, and Continuar accordingly drafted a bit further back than in his Hanshin routes. He smoothly advanced, and urged on by Damian Lane, he gradually asserted and held by a half-length. His final time was a strong 1:36.6.

Continuar’s Mideast ventures at three

Since Continuar’s best effort of 2022 came in his third, and most significant, start, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Yahagi has been building up to his third start of this term – the Kentucky Derby. Obviously that’s not an excuse for his wide-margin losses in his two outings so far, the Feb. 25 Saudi Derby (G3) and March 25 UAE Derby (G2), where expectations were higher. Yet he didn’t have the best set-ups in either of those races. He’s still done enough to make the Kentucky Derby, as the Japan Road invitee, with a chance of saving his best for the first Saturday in May.

The Saudi Derby was another one-turn mile, but an entirely different dynamic from the Cattleya, with two tearaway leaders who didn’t come back to the field. The handwriting might have been on the wall early when Continuar changed his legs on the backstretch, possibly not loving the Saudi surface. From post 10, he stalked outside of Derma Sotogake and churned on down the length of the stretch in fifth. Derma Sotogake was third, just three-quarters of a length in front of Continuar, while covering less ground from post 3.

Continuar again drew well outside of his familiar foe in their UAE Derby rematch. As Derma Sotogake hustled to set the pace on the rail, and won as he pleased, Continuar was trying to track out wide from post 12. Although holding third, he lost touch with the imperious winner and dropped 10 lengths behind.

Thanks to those 30 points in Dubai, Continuar squeaked into the Kentucky Derby; added to his 10 from the Cattleya, they gave him enough to qualify for the Japan Road invitation. (There were two above him in the Japan Road standings, but leader Derma Sotogake was already in via the main leaderboard, and the second on points, Perriere, was removed from consideration.)

Hope springs eternal?

It’s certainly possible that Derma Sotogake has improved through the spring. On the other hand, given the tendency for inside speed at Meydan to magnify margins – especially earlier on the card – I’m not persuaded that he’s suddenly 10 lengths better than Continuar. The margins between them were pretty narrow at Hanshin and in Saudi, and Continuar had at least some extenuating circumstances in both.

Is this simply special pleading because I’m partial to the “nephew” of Almond Eye? It’s true that I’d like to view him through rose-colored glasses. Aside from giving benefit of the doubt to a training mastermind, who’s regarded this colt very highly, Continuar has the vibe of a sophomore capable of more than we’ve seen so far. Whether he reveals himself in the ferociously difficult task of the Kentucky Derby, or later, he’ll stay on my radar.