Santa Anita Derby International Scouting Report: Mandarin Hero

April 7th, 2023

With two Japanese horses are already in the Kentucky Derby (G1) – Derma Sotogake by romping in the UAE Derby (G2) and Continuar through the Japan Road invitation – Mandarin Hero tries to make it three in Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby (G1).

An international hero from the NAR?

His is a more daring attempt, not only because it involves tackling marquee American contenders on their home soil at Santa Anita. Mandarin Hero hails from the lesser circuit in Japan, the National Association of Racing (NAR), as opposed to the prestigious Japan Racing Association (JRA). Derma Sotogake and Continuar are JRA horses, as are those who keep making a splash on the world stage.

Mandarin Hero, reportedly the first NAR horse to compete in the United States, has raced exclusively at Tokyo’s Oi Racecourse. Oi has a sister-track relationship with Santa Anita, and that’s the genesis of this adventurous bid. Mandarin Hero scored points in Oi races to earn a tilt at the Santa Anita Derby.

As a dirt-oriented circuit, NAR tracks host some major races that can attract the JRA’s top dirt runners. That form has been proven to translate abroad, most famously through Marche Lorraine in the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) and Ushba Tesoro in the recent Dubai World Cup (G1). Derma Sotogake himself won the Dec. 14 Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun at an NAR track, Kawasaki, on the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby.

The difficulty with Mandarin Hero’s form is that on paper, it doesn’t stack up as well versus Derma Sotogake or others who have flown the flag successfully. In contrast, both Marche Lorraine and Ushba Tesoro boasted strong collateral form, if you believed that they could take it on the road.

Indeed, since Mandarin Hero did not take part in any Japan Road races, we’re left to assess him by proxy. The best clue comes via the horse who just handed him his first loss, Hero Call, twice a competitor on the Japan Road.

Fourth to Derma Sotogake in the aforementioned Japan Road event at Kawasaki by about five lengths, Hero Call most recently ventured over to the JRA for the March 25 Fukuryu S. at Nakayama and rallied for an honorable third. The Fukuryu was the final leg of the Japan Road, but the high-profile contenders had all absconded to Dubai for the UAE Derby on the same day. While Hero Call’s effort was respectable, it wasn’t the kind of result that highlighted Mandarin Hero.

On the plus side, Mandarin Hero had been unbeaten at two, and he’s eligible to move forward off his Feb. 23 tightener. Note that his trainer, Terunobu Fujita, has an 18.9% win rate on the local circuit.

Mandarin Hero’s pedigree

Mandarin Hero is from the first Japanese-conceived crop of champion Shanghai Bobby. A winner at Santa Anita himself in his Eclipse Award-clinching Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), he also captured the 2012 Champagne (G1) and Hopeful (G2). Shanghai Bobby’s leading Northern Hemisphere performers include Grade/Group 2-winning sprinters Shancelot and Shang Shang Shang; Extra Hope; and Joevia, third in the 2019 Belmont (G1). But he’s sired a few champions in South America, topped by Uruguayan Horse of the Year Aero Trem.

Mandarin Hero’s dam, Namura Nadeshiko, is by unbeaten champion Fuji Kiseki. One of Sunday Silence’s legacies, Fuji Kiseki has gotten champions on both turf and dirt, a versatility that’s carrying over to his role as a broodmare sire. Daughters of Fuji Kiseki have produced such dirt celebrities as Sound True, White Fugue, and Perriere, winner of the Hyacinth S. on the 2023 Japan Road, along with Group 1 winners on turf, including Yosei and Kermadec in Australia.

Mandarin Hero’s race record at two

Mandarin Hero won all four starts as a juvenile, justifying favoritism in his first three. On June 9, he romped by nine lengths in a newcomers’ race at about six furlongs. Slightly green rallying off Oi’s right-handed turn, he quickly got organized and blew between foes to win in hand on a sloppy (or muddy) track. (The track condition varies in translation.)

Up to about seven furlongs on June 29, Mandarin Hero took up a better early position drafting just behind the leader. He was in tight at the top of the stretch, but muscled his way out into the clear and galloped by 3 1/2 lengths. His margin could have been doubled at will.

Mandarin Hero was not seen again until Oct. 6, when he climbed the next rung of the class ladder over a metric mile. Again working out an inside stalking trip, he angled out and asserted by a length under good handling on a track rated sloppy/muddy.

Hitherto bossing fellow Oi-based juveniles, Mandarin Hero faced his first real class test in the Nov. 16 Haiseiko Kinen. Now rivals from other NAR tracks turned up, and he also squared off against another unbeaten Oi colt, Rebake Full City, who won the Sept. 22 Gold Junior over Urawa shipper Polygon Wave. Thus Mandarin Hero ranked as only the third choice behind them, but he came out on top, in part due to a heady ride.

Initially settled about midpack on the outside, Mandarin Hero made a middle move to chase pacesetter Polygon Wave. He appeared outpaced when the leader continued to hold sway into the stretch, but the further they went, the stronger Mandarin Hero became. Finding top gear late in the metric mile, he collared Polygon Wave to prevail by a neck.

Mandarin Hero’s solid comeback

Mandarin Hero resumed from a three-month layoff in the Feb. 23 Kumotori Sho, where he went off as the second choice to Kawasaki shipper Hero Call. That rival warranted favoritism after a series of fine efforts at his home track, namely a four-race winning streak ended by his creditable fourth in the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun. Hero Call fared best of the NAR horses in that Japan Road event, beaten by a trio of JRA visitors led by Derma Sotogake, in a result reiterating the hierarchy of circuits.

Hero Call accordingly beat Mandarin Hero at Oi as he was entitled to do, securing a forward position and always finding enough in a one-length decision. Mandarin Hero, as in his prior race versus better company, looked dour when driven along to chase. Again he responded well, but Hero Call was too good to catch. As described above, Hero Call backed up that effort with a useful third in the Fukuryu at the JRA’s Nakayama.

Considering that Mandarin Hero was running about 1 1/8 miles in his comeback, he could benefit from the experience. His stamina would come into play if the Santa Anita Derby pace scenario is wild enough, although the flip side of that scenario is that he’d find himself even farther back early. And needless to say, the class hike is a quantum leap from Oi.

Fujita freely said that the colt is liable to get outpaced before picking up.

“He has really good acceleration in the final stretch,” Fujita told Santa Anita publicity. “I think he probably cannot handle the early pace, but he really likes to chase down other horses.”

Owner Hiroaki Arai himself apparently had to be persuaded to attempt the Santa Anita Derby, so his connections are as realistic as they are sporting. If Mandarin Hero can make his presence felt, he’d give a Derby pointer to his more logical compatriot, Derma Sotogake.