Kentucky Derby International Scouting Report: Forever Young

April 5th, 2024

Forever Young is arguably Japan’s best chance so far in the Kentucky Derby (G1), not just because he’s undefeated, and trained by a master horseman in Yoshito Yahagi, who’s already scored historic victories in the Breeders’ Cup.

After achieving the highest-ever rating by a two-year-old on dirt in his homeland, Forever Young has taken his game on the road, and overcome varying degrees of adversity in both the Saudi Derby (G3) and UAE Derby (G2). Those qualifications set him apart from the six past Japanese shippers who’ve tried the Kentucky Derby. Unlike his compatriots who either took a gigantic leap forward in Dubai, or otherwise didn’t appear to be the top of the class at home, Forever Young sports the pattern of an elite colt potentially building toward a new career high at Churchill Downs.

Of course, that’s not to minimize the challenges, whether external circumstances – e.g., the 0-for-18 stat of UAE alumni in the Kentucky Derby – or the possibility of self-sabotage at the start. But Forever Young has the unquantifiable ability to keep winning, even when he should have lost, and his timeline going into the Derby is eerily similar to his biggest win as a juvenile.

A trainer proven on the world stage – and on the U.S. dirt

It would be no surprise if Yahagi becomes the first Japanese trainer to solve the Derby puzzle. A multiple Japan Racing Association (JRA) award winner for his training prowess over the last decade, including the past five years in a row, Yahagi has topped the standings in different categories. He’s won the JRA training awards for most wins (2014 and 2016), most prize money (2019 and 2023), both metrics of wins and prize money (2022), and the “trifecta” of sweeping those honors as well as the training technique category (2020 and 2021). 

While Yahagi trained 2020 Japanese Triple Crown champion Contrail, many of his big names have gained fame on the world stage. North American racing fans will remember his sensational Breeders’ Cup double at Del Mar in 2021, when Loves Only You captured the Filly & Mare Turf (G1) and Marche Lorraine shocked the Distaff (G1). Yahagi’s racked up other majors from Hong Kong to the Middle East and Australia. To mention just two of his high-profile victories, Japan’s Horse of the Year Lys Gracieux plundered the prestigious Cox Plate (G1) in 2019, and last year, Panthalassa wired the $20 million Saudi Cup (G1) as an outsider lacking dirt credentials.

Forever Young’s regular rider, Ryusei Sakai, is an up-and-coming talent based with Yahagi. Currently tied for fourth in the overall jockey standings at home, Sakai has won Japanese Grade 1s on both dirt and turf. He turned in a front-running masterclass aboard Godolphin’s dirt star Lemon Pop in last December’s Champions Cup (G1), and his astute handling of Forever Young is a reflection of his confidence in the colt.

Forever Young’s pedigree and sales history

Bred by the powerhouse of Northern Farm, Forever Young sold for ¥98 million (approximately $725,926 according to the sale website) as a yearling at the Japan Racing Horse Association’s Select Sale. As you might expect, he descends from the breed-shaping male line of 1989 Kentucky Derby hero and Hall of Famer Sunday Silence. 

Forever Young’s sire, Real Steel, is a full brother to the aforementioned champion Loves Only You, both by the great Deep Impact and out of a granddaughter of Breeders’ Cup legend Miesque. Real Steel, himself trained by Yahagi, became the horseman’s first big splash on the international scene when taking the 2016 Dubai Turf (G1).

Forever Young is related to Derby rival Sierra Leone. The two are out of accomplished half-sisters from a female line cultivated by Debby Oxley. Forever Young’s dam, Forever Darling, was sold for a mere $8,000 as a yearling at Keeneland September, but she went on to win the 2016 Santa Ynez (G2). By the A.P. Indy stallion Congrats, and from the immediate family of Japanese Horse of the Year Zenno Rob Roy, Forever Darling was privately acquired by Katsumi Yoshida and ultimately exported to Japan.

Forever Young’s dominant juvenile campaign

Debuting for owner Susumu Fujita on Oct. 14 at Kyoto, Forever Young went off as the 3.20-1 second choice in an about 1 1/8-mile race for newcomers. But he proved much the best by four lengths in 1:54.8, a time faster than the other two-year-old maiden on the card that elapsed in 1:55.3.

Off a beat slow, Forever Young recovered to sit a couple of lengths off the pace in the second flight. He was just galloping among horses until he got a seam in upper stretch. Splitting foes like a seasoned pro, he kicked away with authority. Forever Young posted a field-best final 600 meters (about three furlongs) in :37.7, under good handling in what looked like an easy steering job. 

Forever Young next graduated to stakes company in the JBC Nisai Yushun, also going about 1 1/8 miles at Mombetsu, a track on the lesser National Association of Racing (NAR) circuit. Bet down to 6-5 favoritism, he was again slow to find his stride from the gate. But he didn’t get any sort of position as he did at Kyoto. 

Rather, Forever Young lagged well back with only a straggler or two behind him. His aversion to kickback was evident as he raced with his head up in air, feeling the spray of the good track pelting him. Yet he launched a sustained, stout rally to score by 1 1/2 lengths in 1:54.3, with a gap of eight lengths back to third. 

Forever Young completed the hat trick as the 11-10 favorite in the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun, a scoring race on the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby. The cutback to a metric mile was a question mark, although it was still two turns around Kawasaki’s tight circuit. He delivered in crushing style, revealing greater tactical adaptability.

Drawn in the outside post 12, Forever Young broke a bit outward, but at least he deployed quickly into stride. Sakai hustled him to track in second, and he traveled very comfortably. Forever Young inherited the lead when the pacesetter folded approaching the far turn, but Sakai kept him on hold. He didn’t set the favorite down until Aigle Noir headed him turning into stretch. Forever Young’s response was rapid as he took off and stormed home by seven lengths. 

This was the blowout performance that garnered a 113 rating, the best ever recorded for a Japanese dirt juvenile. His time of 1:43.5 was influenced by a stop-start pace, and the demanding condition of the track (according to 

Although Fujita was reportedly intrigued by Japan’s new dirt Triple Crown in 2024, the international route prevailed. Forever Young was set for a Mideast swing, not the Japan Road, in hopes of making it to the Kentucky Derby.

Forever Young snatches victory from defeat in Saudi 

Between Yahagi’s reputation and his own burgeoning resume, Forever Young was the odds-on favorite in the Feb. 24 Saudi Derby on Saudi Cup Day. But the one-turn metric mile posed a bit of culture shock, especially once he relapsed into a sluggish start, against speedier rivals who were in their element at that configuration. 

Indeed, Forever Young looked out of his comfort zone for a long way. He was niggled along to try to stay in touch with the smart Book’em Danno, who was cruising just off the pace on the backstretch. The leaders got away from Forever Young cornering into the stretch, and he appeared bound for third at best. But his stamina finally kicked in late, despite never changing leads (possibly an indicator of how out of sync he was). Even on his left lead, Forever Young somehow got up to chin Book’em Danno on the line. 

Considering that Book’em Danno was coming off a 12 1/2-length tour de force in the Pasco S., this was some effort to catch him. Another Florida shipper, Bentornato, checked in a further six lengths adrift in third. 

The clock furnished another data point: Forever Young obliterated the stakes record, posting a final time of 1:36.17. Yahagi later revealed he didn’t ship well to Saudi. Between the travel, the idea of the Saudi Derby as a stepping stone for the UAE Derby, the conditions that didn’t favor him, and his own miscues, Forever Young really ought to have lost.

Circumnavigation of Meydan in the UAE Derby

The UAE Derby’s about 1 3/16-mile trip around Meydan was more congenial for a colt who’d started his career at about 1 1/8 miles. And Yahagi reported that he was physically better after moving from Saudi to Dubai. 

Still, Forever Young could have had another excuse; this time, the 1-2 favorite lost ground around the entire circuit from his far outside post. 

Sporting a new visor to protect his face from the kickback, Forever Young was ridden with urgency, as in the Zen-Nippon, to get position. But here he was parked very wide rounding the clubhouse turn. Sakai sensibly eased back a bit into a spot within comfortable striking range. Although he was still racing wide without cover, he traveled with gusto at every stage. Forever Young took aim on the leader at the top of the lane, switched leads effectively, and powered away by two lengths from Argentine-bred Auto Bahn. 

Forever Young crossed the wire in 1:57.89. The time is well off the 1:55.18 track record set by Mendelssohn in 2018, and compatriot Derma Sotogake’s 1:55.81 in last year’s UAE Derby. 

But that might not tell the whole story, since both Mendelssohn and Derma Sotogake got away as pacesetters in races that produced exceedingly flattering margins. Forever Young’s different running style, and substantial ground loss, must be factored into the assessment.

During the current season at Meydan, only one other race over the distance has gone faster – the Jan. 26 Al Maktoum Challenge (G1) won by the older Kabirkhan in 1:57.72. Note that Kabirkhan’s race was faster in the middle stages, while the UAE Derby pace slackened at the comparable points. Hence Forever Young finished much faster than Kabirkhan in order to record almost the same time.

According to the Gmax tracking data, Forever Young reeled off the fastest sectionals in each of the final three furlongs in the UAE Derby – :12.2, a punishing :11.8, and :12.6 while pulling away, with ears pricked. 

Historical headwinds

Merely invoking the specters of Mendelssohn and Derma Sotogake, however, is a reminder of the woeful record of UAE Derby competitors in the Run for the Roses. The aforementioned 0-for-18 factoid is worse than just not producing a winner; not one has even managed to crack the superfecta.

That’s partly a function of the difficulty of trying to peak again after long-distance travel, and partly tales of softer trips at Meydan, but it’s also an indication of the deeper competition in the Kentucky Derby itself. Yet I’m convinced that the right horse can defy this uniformly negative trend one day. If the Churchill Downs track had been fast in 2017, Thunder Snow might have taken care of it already. It was the wet surface that caused the bucking bronco exhibition from Godolphin’s $16.5-million globetrotter. 

Forever Young’s other challenge, trying to stay undefeated through the Derby, is no mean feat either. The most recent horse to join that exclusive club is Justify (2018), although Maximum Security would have done so, if not for his disqualification for interference in 2019. The handful to attempt it over the past three years all lost their perfect marks. 

Race timeline the key?

Forever Young fans can take heart in the fact that his 5-for-5 record, compiled at five different racetracks in three countries, illustrates his ability to adapt to various situations. He’s won by tracking the leader, stalking a few lengths back, or closing from the clouds, and gaining experience that will come in handy in the Derby. 

None of that addresses the unique demands of performing up to a high level as an international shipper, who must carry his form from Japan to the Mideast and now to the U.S. But the race spacing angle just might.

The Kentucky Derby will be the third start of his form cycle, significantly on a timeline comparable to the spacing of his two-year-old campaign. Last fall, Forever Young had nearly three weeks from his maiden to his stakes debut, then a 5 1/2-week gap to his blowout in the Zen-Nippon. This year, he had a month from Saudi to the UAE, and now five weeks to the Kentucky Derby. 

Could that prep schedule portend a similar leap forward for his main aim, on the first Saturday in May? At least his manner of winning the UAE Derby suggests that he hasn’t maxed out yet, but has left something to build upon in the next month.