Kentucky Derby jockey profile: Ryusei Sakai

May 1st, 2023

One of the younger jockeys slated to ride in the 2023 Kentucky Derby (G1) is Ryusei Sakai. The 25-year-old from Japan has never previously ridden in North America, but is traveling to Churchill Downs to guide UAE Derby (G2) third-place finisher Continuar in the Run for the Roses.

Sakai has ridden Continuar on three occasions, most notably guiding the chestnut colt to a debut victory at Hanshin last October. That’s one of the 300-plus wins Sakai has recorded from nearly 4,000 rides in Japan since starting his career in 2016.

Success has been quick in coming for Sakai. He snatched his first group stakes wins in 2019 and has been on a steady ascent ever since. In 2022, he picked up a classic victory aboard Stunning Rose in the Shuka Sho (G1, Japanese 2,000 Guineas).

Many of Sakai’s victories have come on turf, but his prowess riding on dirt is obvious. Teaming up with Yoshito Yahagi, the trainer of Continuar, Sakai guided Danon Pharoah to win the 2020 Japan Dirt Derby. The Sakai/Yahagi partnership reaped dirt dividends again in 2022 when Japan’s Bathrat Leon traveled to Dubai and won the Godolphin Mile (G2). And earlier this year, Sakai picked up a top-level dirt prize when riding Lemon Pop to victory in the February (G1).

Over the past few years, Sakai’s win percentage in Japan has been on a steady ascent. In 2019, he won with just 5.7% of his mounts. But in 2022 his success rate jumped to 12.5%, and he’s winning 12.7% of the time in 2023. He’s been particularly strong on dirt this year, winning at a 14.1% rate.

Kentucky Derby bettors will be glad to hear Sakai has lots of experience (and success) riding races of 2,000 meters in distance, the metric equivalent to the Kentucky Derby’s 1 1/4-mile journey. He’s won four group stakes over this distance, including the Shuka Sho. In addition, the Japan Dirt Derby (a top prize on Japan’s secondary National Association of Racing circuit) is contested over 2,000 meters, so Sakai can boast a victory on dirt over the Derby’s approximate distance.

Riding in the United States is unexplored territory for Sakai, but given the rapidly increasing success he’s finding in Japan, he should be ready for the challenge.