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[ODDS and EVENS] Forever Young Brings a Perfect Record into the 150th Kentucky Derby

Ryusei Sakai will ride Forever Young in the Kentucky Derby, seeking to become Japan's first winner of the race. Kazushi Kimura will saddle up T O Password.

As the countdown to the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby grows closer and closer, the buzz surrounding unbeaten Japanese thoroughbred Forever Young has been constant.

After all, the Real Steel-sired colt is 5-for-5 in his young racing career. Up-and-coming jockey Ryusei Sakai has piloted grandsire Deep Impact's headline-grabbing progeny in all of his starts to date.

I've never been mistaken for a genius, but I do know this: There would be no better early birthday present for Sakai, who turns 27 on May 31, than a triumph in the Kentucky Derby.

Forever Young is already a winner in three different countries (Japan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates), and going for a triumph in a fourth nation on Saturday, May 4. Post time is 6:57 PM at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. For racing fans in Japan, it'll be Sunday at 7:57 AM JST.

Joining Forever Young, trained by Yoshito Yahagi, in the Kentucky Derby is T O Password, ridden by Toronto-based Japanese jockey Kazushi Kimura.

Kentucky Derby
Trainer Yoshito Yahagi (©SANKEI)

In Kentucky, Yahagi is in his element, preparing his horse for one of the world's great races.

"I'm very proud to represent Japan at Kentucky Derby 150," Yahagi told reporters on Wednesday, May 1 at Churchill Downs. "American horse racing is very tough. I always have so much respect for American horses.

"My horse had a great morning yesterday for his breeze (high-speed exercise) and I'm very pleased with how he did it. We did many things to prepare for kickback (which includes flying dirt in the race). But that's all secret."

Kentucky Derby
Kentucky Derby preparations: Forever Young works out at Churchill Downs on April 30. (Coady Media/Churchill Downs)

Forever Young's Success to Date

Forever Young made his debut on October 14, 2023, in a 2-Year-Old Newcomer race, which was contested over 1,800 meters at Kyoto Racecourse. He won it by four lengths.

For owner Susumu Fujita's prized thoroughbred, two more races followed to close out the year, on November 3 in the 1,800-meter JBC Nisai Yushun at Hokkaido's Mombetsu Racecourse and December 13 in the 1,600-meter Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun. Forever Young romped to an impressive seven-length win in the latter event at Kawasaki Racecourse.

After the calendar flipped to 2024, Forever Young continued to make a name for himself in the racing world.

On February 24, Sakai piloted the Northern Farm-bred equine to a narrow victory far away from his Hokkaido Prefecture birthplace. In the G3 Saudi Derby, Forever Young won by a head's length at King Abdulaziz Racetrack, competing against a select field of 11 other runners.

On March 30, Forever Young extended his winning streak to five: a two-length triumph in the G2 UAE Derby, run over 1,900 meters, at Dubai's Meydan Racecourse.

Further Impressions of Forever Young

Of course there's no guarantee that a horse will perform well after traveling great distances for a race. 

So looking at how Forever Young has performed ― and progressed ― in 2024 is an encouraging sign, according to Yahagi, one of the most accomplished Japanese trainers in recent years. In 2021, he became the first Japanese trainer to claim a victory in the Breeders' Cup World Championships, winning the Filly & Mare Turf and the Distaff.

Forever Young, ridden by Ryusei Sakai, wins the UAE Derby on March 30 in Dubai. (Rula Rouhana/REUTERS)

What has Yahagi learned about Forever Young in recent weeks?

"He did not travel well from Japan to Saudi Arabia, so he was not in great condition but he still performed very well," Yahagi told reporters later. "After traveling from Riyadh to Dubai he improved and he has so much potential. I always have a lot of confidence in him."

At 2,012 meters (or 1¼ miles), the Kentucky Derby is a comparable length to the UAE Derby.

Racing experts have been impressed with Forever Young's ability to seize the moment and find a way to win. As writer James Scully noted in his Takeaways from the UAE Derby on April 2: "He broke from an unfavorable outside post and lost ground the entire way, but the son of Real Steel would not be denied, wearing down a stubborn pacesetter to score comfortably by two lengths with regular rider Ryusei Sakai."

Kentucky Derby
Ryusei Sakai (©SANKEI)

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Sakai's Aspirations for the Kentucky Derby

A Japanese horse or jockey has never won the Kentucky Derby, but Sakai appears confident that Forever Young has the skills to contend for a title in Louisville's landmark 150th extravaganza.

"He's a very unique horse," Sakai was quoted as saying through interpreter Kate Hunter at Churchill Downs in mid-April, The Courier-Journal, a Louisville newspaper, reported. "Up to this point he's never been beaten. Ever since he won the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun in December in Kawasaki, they've been focused on coming here to the Kentucky Derby. … 

"Between that and his experiences this year and the horse's talent, we're pretty hopeful."

The Kentucky Derby morning line odds on May 1 included Forever Young at 10-1, T O Password at 30-1 and race favorite Fierceness at 5-2.

Kentucky Derby
T O Password exercises at Churchill Downs during a morning workout on April 29. (Coady Media/Churchill Downs)

Two Years in a Row: A Pair of Japanese Horses in the Kentucky Derby

In May 2023, two Japanese horses participated in the Run for the Roses, which featured a number of scratches before the Triple Crown race. Derma Sotogake, guided by JRA regular Christophe Lemaire, finished sixth out of 18 entrants, eight lengths behind the winner, Mage (Javier Castellano's ride). Mandarin Hero (Kimura) placed 12th, 20½ lengths off the pace.

For Kimura, his first Kentucky Derby materialized after Sakai's horse Continuar was scratched on Thursday night, about 48 hours from post time.

Yahagi issued a statement, explaining his decision to pull Continuar out of the prestigious competition.

"After evaluating the colt upon my arrival, I feel that he has not been able to reach the peak fitness required to take on a race as tough as the Kentucky Derby," Yahagi said.

Kazushi Kimura rides Gretzky the Great in 2020 at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto. ( Michael Burns Photography)

Kimura 'Excited' to Return to Churchill Downs

Kimura, 24, is an established star in Canada. He was the leading jockey at Toronto's Woodbine Racetrack in 2021, 2022 and 2023. Kimura has also had success in recent years at the winter meet at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California.

On April 20, Kimura earned his latest graded-stakes win, riding Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert's Mr Fisk to victory in the G3 California Stakes.

"I am very excited to be riding in the Derby again," Kimura was quoted as saying by The Canadian Press in early April. "I'd like to thank the connections of T O Password for this great opportunity.

"Hopefully, we can make this a memorable day for the entire team."

Here's a couple interesting tidbits about T O Password: His great-grandfather was Sunday Silence, the 1989 Kentucky Derby winner. And Copano Rickey, who sired T O Password, achieved noteworthy success as the JRA's Best Dirt Horse in 2015.

A winner in both career starts, T O Password is coming off a March 23 victory in the 1,800-meter Fukuryu Stakes at Nakayama Racecourse.

Trainer Daisuke Takayanagi believes T O Password is in good condition in the run-up to the Kentucky Derby.

“[T O Password] had a long trip from Japan and I wanted to see how he'd do going a little faster than normal," Takayanagi told reporters at Churchill Downs on Wednesday, reflecting on the previous day's workout. "I didn't care about time, I wanted to see how he was moving. [And] I was very pleased with how he was moving. He has only run two times but improved in his second start. I think he can keep improving."


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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