Kentucky Derby International Scouting Report: Mandarin Hero

May 6th, 2023

With the scratch of Practical Move after spiking a fever on Thursday, Cyclone Mischief has drawn into Saturday’s Kentucky Derby (G1) from the also-eligible list. Now Mandarin Hero, the Japanese shipper who nearly upset Practical Move in the Santa Anita Derby (G1), has made it into the starting gate after the scratch of Lord Miles.

Mandarin Hero is the third Japanese runner in Derby 149. There are a couple of key differences from compatriots Derma Sotogake and Continuar. They belong to the elite Japan Racing Association (JRA), while Mandarin Hero represents the second-tier National Association of Racing (NAR).

But that technicality meant nothing when Mandarin Hero came within a nose of catching Practical Move in the Santa Anita Derby. Therein lies the other significant contrast with Derma Sotogake and Continuar, who have yet to race in the United States. Their racing backgrounds in Japan and the Mideast are covered extensively in the respective international scouting reports on Derma Sotogake and Continuar.

Mandarin Hero’s 4-for-5 record at NAR tracks was likewise treated in detail in the international scouting report for the Santa Anita Derby. I’d expressed reservations about the bare form, which on paper—collaterally—didn’t quite stack up to Derma Sotogake. Another concern was the supposed likelihood of his getting outpaced early, finding himself with too much to do, and closing belatedly.

Yet my projection based on his Japanese resume was way off the mark. Indeed, even trainer Terunobu Fujita was pleasantly surprised that Mandarin Hero was able to secure such good position, within striking range of a fast pace.

As I watched the Santa Anita Derby unfold, and saw Mandarin Hero take up a spot in proximity to the stalking Practical Move early, my first thought was that things could get very interesting. There was no doubt he’d do his best work late, and now he didn’t have that much of a deficit to bridge. Mandarin Hero had to angle off the rail and around new leader Practical Move at the top of the stretch, then kept on relentlessly between him and Skinner.

Although his past Japanese form established Mandarin Hero as an ultra-reliable type with a grinding style, his Santa Anita effort was the best of his career. Does that portend continued momentum at Churchill Downs, with jockey Kazushi Kimura staying aboard? Or will he find it harder to top it again, four weeks later?

Mandarin Hero underscores the challenge of extrapolating international dirt form to U.S. conditions. Back home in Japan, he wouldn’t have appeared likely to threaten Derma Sotogake. Yet Mandarin Hero relished Santa Anita. Conversely, Derma Sotogake turned in a career-best effort in the UAE Derby (G2), but will that transfer to Churchill Downs?

Because the Japanese horsemen are constantly tweaking their approach based on experience, Mandarin Hero could be the first in a series of shippers flocking to U.S. preps. Especially if he outperforms Derma Sotogake in the Derby, the direct U.S. route might lure some serious candidates who would otherwise have gone to Dubai.

Indeed, there’s precedent for an international contender running well in a stateside prep and backing it up on the first Saturday in May. Bold Arrangement, from the yard of Clive Brittain, placed third in the Blue Grass (G1) at Keeneland and wheeled back to finish runner-up behind Ferdinand in the 1986 Derby.