Is Japan's Sumahama a Kentucky Derby Contender?

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

February 20th, 2018

The Road to the Kentucky Derby might just be getting serious in North America, but across the globe in Japan the action reached its peak on Sunday with Hyacinth Stakes at Tokyo Racecourse, the final and most important race in the series.

Sixteen horses faced the starter in the 1,600-meter (about one mile) event, with the favorite in the Japanese wagering being Sumahama, who entered the Hyacinth off two sharp gate-to-wire victories going 1,800 meters at Hanshin and Kyoto. Breaking from post position thirteen, Sumahama was beaten to the lead by Meisho Isana and had to adapt to settling in second place, but this proved to be no obstacle, as Sumahama casually bided his time until partway through Tokyo’s long homestretch. At that point, jockey Yusuke Fujioka took a quick look back before asking Sumahama to run, and the colt responded with a fresh burst of speed that carried him to the wire 2 ½ lengths in front.
Sumahama’s success from a stalking position isn’t surprising given that the early pace was slow—:24.00, :48.80, and 1:14.20—but Sumahama’s acceleration in the homestretch was legitimate, as he ran the final 400 meters in a respectable :24.30, giving him a final time of 1:38.50. For comparison, older males running the same distance in the February Stakes (Jpn-I) later on the card posted fractions of :22.90, :45.80, and 1:10.90, plus a final 400 meters in :25.10 en route to a final time of 1:36 flat.

By winning the Hyacinth, Sumahama has earned a place in the Kentucky Derby field should his connections choose to accept it. However, Sumahama is not currently nominated to the Triple Crown and his status for the Derby is uncertain. Should he skip the race, the automatic starting berth would pass to Ruggero, who won the Cattleya Sho (the first leg of the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby) last November before running an even race to finish third in the Hyacinth, four lengths behind Sumahama.

The bigger question is whether Sumahama or Ruggero have the talent and speed to be competitive against the best three-year-old colts in North America. Japan’s best prospect for the Kentucky Derby was arguably Le Vent Se Leve, impressive winner of the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun in December, but unfortunately the colt has been sidelined by a leg issue and will be unable to seek qualification for the Derby. Two other promising colts—the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun runner-up Don Fortis and the Triple Crown-nominated debut winner Copano Kicking—did not compete in the Hyacinth.

I can’t really knock anything that Sumahama has accomplished thus far, and after recording three straight victories, he appears to have a bright future. But part of me wonders if he’ll find the waters a lot deeper at Churchill Downs.