Kentucky Derby International Scouting Report: Derma Sotogake

April 10th, 2023

If NAR-based Mandarin Hero could come within an ace of upsetting the Santa Anita Derby (G1), what does that portend for his higher-profile compatriots coming out of the UAE Derby (G2)? Derma Sotogake rates as Japan’s leading Kentucky Derby (G1) contender after his front-running coup on Dubai World Cup night, and the UAE Derby third-placer, Continuar, will take his chance as well.

Derma Sotogake’s connections

Although Derma Sotogake went to the lead in the UAE Derby, that hadn’t been his running style at home in Japan. Even veteran trainer Hidetaka Otonashi did not expect that tactical flourish from new rider Christophe Lemaire, who decided to capitalize on his rail draw at Meydan. Lemaire employed similar tactics aboard Japanese Horse of the Year Equinox later on the card, to devastating effect, in the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1) on turf.

The top jockey in Japan for five straight years (2017-21), Lemaire will be riding in his second Kentucky Derby. His experience last year with Crown Pride was likely instructive, as he got embroiled in a pace war and succumbed in 13th.

Otonashi is one of the most prolific trainers in Japan Racing Association history with 949 career wins, including 19 over the jumps (as of April 10, 2023). Of active trainers, only Sakae Kunieda has more. Otonashi has had scores of major winners, many on turf including Company, who was amazingly best at the age of eight; classic heroes Victory and Oken Bruce Lee; mile champions Mikki Isle and Indy Champ; sprinters Orewa Matteruze and Pixie Knight; and also dirt aficionados, led by champion Chrysoberyl.

Derma Sotogake’s pedigree

Derma Sotogake’s juvenile campaign helped to make his sire, Mind Your Biscuits, Japan’s champion freshman of 2022. A son of the speedy Posse, Mind Your Biscuits earned his biggest wins in sprints, the 2016 Malibu (G1) and back-to-back editions of the Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1). But he stayed as far as 1 1/8 miles when landing the 2018 Lukas Classic (G3) at Churchill Downs.

Derma Sotogake gets a stamina boost from his dam, Amour Poesie, whose signature score came in the about 1 5/16-mile Kanto Oaks on dirt. Her own ancestry features turf stamina front and center. By the Sunday Silence stallion Neo Universe, who nearly swept the Japanese Triple Crown, she is out of mare by 1988 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) winner Tony Bin. More details can be found in his “12 Pedigree fun facts.”

Derma Sotogake at two

The fact that Derma Sotogake started out at about nine furlongs on turf gives a sense of his staying aptitude. Debuting at Hanshin June 26, Takarazuka Kinen Day, he was a closing sixth, only a half-length behind future Hopeful (G1) upsetter Dura Erede. Derma Sotogake might have been fourth with a better trip. Patiently handled, he tried to angle out for a run, but found his path blocked. He did well to clock his final 600 meters (about three furlongs) in :34.5, especially since little was expected of him as one of the biggest longshots.

Much more was expected in his next start Aug. 14 in a Kokura maiden, over the same distance on turf. Sent off as the 4-1 third choice, Derma Sotogake was a non-threatening fourth from off the pace, in a race that didn’t set up for closers.

Switched to dirt at the same track for a Sept. 3 maiden, Derma Sotogake was a slight second choice vying for favoritism. Off a beat slow, and well back, he made a sustained run for third in about 1 1/16-mile affair.

Derma Sotogake broke through next time at Chukyo Oct. 2, back up to about 1 1/8 miles, as the 8-5 favorite. He secured a more advantageous position attending the early leader; if not on drawn on the far outside, perhaps he could have dictated himself. Inheriting the lead on the far turn, still on the bridle, Derma Sotogake was joined by a challenger. He was very tractable in that situation, appearing content to run alongside his rival, until given his cue. Then Derma Sotogake kicked away by four lengths.

In a Nov. 6 Hanshin allowance, Derma Sotogake got up to mug Continuar in the shadow of the post. The two were in the stalking flight, "Derma" saving ground while Continuar took the overland route. Dashing through a seam, Derma prevailed by nose. Both clocked their final split in a joint-fastest :37.4, although Continuar can be marked up for ground loss (and inexperience).

Derma Sotogake advanced into stakes company for the Dec. 14 Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun on the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby. The third choice on the cutback to a metric mile, he was aided by a solid pace. Derma Sotogake, not fast from the gate, had to be ridden to get a semblance of position off the pace. When favored Perriere made a bold move on the turn and struck the front, Derma Sotogake was in hot pursuit. Perriere tired in deep stretch, grabbed first by Omatsuri Otoko. Then Derma lengthened stride and headed Omatsuri Otoko on the line.

Derma Sotogake’s Mideast ventures at three

Like familiar foe Continuar, Derma Sotogake sought international credentials this season rather than keeping to the Japan Road series. Although both lost in the Saudi Derby (G3), Derma Sotogake finished ahead of Continuar again in Riyadh, and widened his margin when wiring the UAE Derby.

The one-turn mile of the Saudi Derby figured to be sharp for him, compared to the two-turn Zen-Nippon, and so it proved. Not quickest from post 3, Derma Sotogake recovered to stalk in proximity to the wider Continuar. Both improved turning into the stretch, albeit with no chance of catching the top two, Saudi-based Commissioner King and Bob Baffert’s speedster Havnameltdown. Derma stayed on better than Continuar, possibly aided by being drawn on the inside, in third.

With Lemaire aboard for the first time in the UAE Derby, Derma Sotogake was hustled on the rail to take the lead from Aidan O’Brien’s Cairo, who apparently had the same idea. Inside speed can be lethal early on the Dubai World Cup card, as Isolate had reminded everyone in the Godolphin Mile (G2). Derma Sotogake found his comfort zone and spurted away by 5 1/2 lengths from compatriot Dura Erede. Continuar, breaking from post 12, stalked but faded in the lane to a distant third, and Perriere rounded out the Japanese superfecta.

More significant than the bare margin, Derma Sotogake finished about 1 3/16 miles in 1:55.81, within shouting distance of Mendelssohn’s track-record 1:55.18 from the 2018 UAE Derby. Of course, the invocation of Mendelssohn is an object lesson about not projecting a repeat of a blowout Meydan performance at Churchill Downs. On a sloppy track in the Kentucky Derby, Mendelssohn experienced culture shock, got banged around early, and ended up being eased home behind Justify.

Derma Sotogake vs. past Japanese attempts at the Derby

The aforementioned Crown Pride is another cautionary tale about good-looking UAE Derby winners. To be fair, though, the precise nature of his Kentucky Derby flop was unpredictable, since he wasn’t forecast to be in a pace burnup at all.

Lemaire surely learned from that. It’s also worth noting that he had not ridden Crown Pride at Meydan, or in any race before the Kentucky Derby. He’s had the chance to get acquainted with Derma Sotogake in advance, and that’s a plus.

In another potentially important distinction, Derma Sotogake is the first Japanese-based Kentucky Derby hopeful who won a dirt stakes at home. Crown Pride and Lani (2016) were unplaced in the Hyacinth S. before earning their way in via the UAE Derby; Master Fencer was fourth in that same Tokyo listed race but ended up accepting the Japan Road invitation. The trailblazing Ski Captain (1995) had proven his class at the highest level on turf, but he had not raced on dirt until his 14th behind Thunder Gulch at Churchill Downs.

Another encouraging sign is that Derma Sotogake has won in a variety of circumstances – with forward or hold-up tactics, quickening off a slow pace, and rallying off a strong pace. As a consistent, improving, and long-striding type, he has the profile to deliver Japan’s best result so far in the Run for the Roses.