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Forever Young Places 3rd at Kentucky Derby in Photo Finish

Jockey Ryusei Sakai's ride secured the best-ever finish for a Japanese thoroughbred in the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

In a down-to-the-wire finish in the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby, Mystik Dan edged Sierra Leone and Japanese entrant Forever Young. It was a photo finish and the winner was announced several minutes after the race concluded on Saturday night, May 4 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.

When it was official, the Kenny McPeek-trained Mystik Dan, ridden by Brian Hernandez Jr, was declared the winner by a nose over second favorite Sierra Leone (jockey Tyler Gaffalione's ride), and Forever Young, piloted by Ryusei Sakai, was a further nose adrift before an announced crowd of 156,710.

In the long history of this race, 26 of them have been decided by a neck or less. Ten times the winner was determined by a nose ― before Saturday, this had happened most recently in 1996, when Grindstone edged Cavonnier.

Trainer Yoshito Yahagi's Forever Young, sired by Real Steel, had entered the Kentucky Derby with five wins in five career starts, including the Grade 2 UAE Derby on March 30 in Dubai.

Vying to become the first Japanese thoroughbred to win the Run for the Roses, Forever Young battled for position with Sierra Leone and Mystik Dan down the final stretch. (Watch the full race on YouTube.)

On the crowded dirt track, Sierra Leone bumped into Forever Young on multiple occasions on the inside late in the race. But to his credit, Sakai, a 26-year-old Tokyo native riding in his first Kentucky Derby, maintained his composure.

Riding along the inside rail proved to be the perfect position for Mystik Dan, who finished third at the Arkansas Derby on March 30.

Sakai Reacts to Third-Place Finish

Although Forever Young set a new standard for Japanese horses at the Kentucky Derby, Sakai admitted that he was "really disappointed" with the result. (Forever Young bested Derma Sotogake's sixth-place finish in 2023.)

But the Tokyo native said the experience of competing in the Derby for the first time was a big thrill. In 2023, his horse, Continuar, was scratched days before the race.

"It was a really great racetrack, and I have never received so many cheers," Sakai was quoted as saying by Sports Hochi.

Sakai expressed optimism for Forever Young's racing future.

"I think he still has a lot of room to grow and I think he has a wonderful future ahead of him, and I want to thank them (owner Susumu Fujita and trainer Yahagi) for letting me ride him," Sakai said, according to the sports newspaper.

He added, "I am looking forward to seeing how he will grow in the future, and I think I must become a jockey worthy of riding on the back of this horse."

Kentucky Derby
Another view of Mystik Dan's Kentucky Derby victory in a photo finish at Churchill Downs. Forever Young, Ryusei Sakai's ride, is in the middle. (Michael Clevenger and Christopher Granger/USA TODAY SPORTS)

T O Password Overcomes Slow Start to Finish 5th

Catching Freedom (Flavian Prat) placed fourth, followed by T 0 Password, the other Japanese entrant in the race. Making just his third career start, the Copano Rickey-sired T O Password had a disappointing start, according to jockey Kazushi Kimura.

"He didn't break well," Kimura said of T O Password after his second Derby ride. "This was his third time running and he was in a new country. He probably wasn't 100 percent mature. Today he finished up strong. I hope the horse can stay for the Preakness."

The Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown, is on May 18 at Baltimore's Pimlico Racecourse.

Kentucky Derby
Horses round the first turn during the running of the 150th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. (Albert Cesare/USA TODAY SPORTS)

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Hernandez Reacts to His Kentucky Derby Win

Derby winner Hernandez, 38, making his fifth appearance in America's most famous horse race, was assigned the No 3 post with Mystik Dan.

After the Goldencents-sired bay colt reached the wire in 2 minutes, 3.24 seconds, the too-close-to-call reality of the moment required a difficult dose of patience, 

"The longest two minutes I've spent in my life, waiting for them to hang that number up," Hernandez said. "It was exciting when we hit the wire, but I wasn't sure if we won, so it was quite a rush to sit there and wait for it."

Kentucky Derby
Jockey Brian Hernandez Jr waves to the crowd after riding Mystik Dan to victory in the 150th Kentucky Derby. (Jeff Faughender/USA TODAY SPORTS)

Back-to-Back Churchill Downs Wins for Hernandez

Hernandez also won the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, held annually since 1875 and contested over 1,800 meters, aboard Thorpedo Anna on Friday, May 3.

"For three weeks, I've felt like we were going to win both races," trainer McPeek said. "I can't tell you why. Both horses have been easy to deal with, the team has done such a great job every day. There's been no drama. I just believe in mojo, in positive energy and we've had a lot of it."

Kentucky Derby
The field of horses races into the final turn during the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby. (Grace Hollars/USA TODAY SPORTS)

The Derby Runner-Up's Viewpoints

After earning a runner-up finish aboard Sierra Leone, Gaffalione shared his perspective on the pulse-rising experience.

"Everything was going to plan as the horse got into a good rhythm on the first turn as we were able to save ground," the American jockey, who had appeared in the Derby on seven previous occasions, told reporters at Churchill Downs.

"I got into a nice position and followed Forever Young and he started to make a good move. I decided to follow him and coming into the stretch, I felt like I had plenty of horse. He wanted to lean in today and made it a little difficult. I had a hard time keeping him straight and that definitely cost us. He gives you everything, very responsive but he loses concentration."

Race favorite Fierceness (three-time Derby winner John Velazquez's ride) finished 15th in the 20-horse field.


Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and X (formerly Twitter) @ed_odeven.


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