A rousing stretch battle provided a memorable outcome to the Santa Anita Derby (G1), a major qualifier in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series. The 1 1/8-mile race has produced four of the last 11 Kentucky Derby winners.

1. Practical Move digs deep to repel challengers

Following convincing wins in the San Felipe (G2) and Los Alamitos Futurity (G2), Practical Move momentarily appeared to put rivals away when surging clear in upper stretch, but his fortitude wound up being tested in the final sixteenth of a mile as Mandarin Hero and Skinner came with bids.

With rider Ramon Vazquez, the stalker broke a step slowly but quickly recovered to establish his customary position within a couple of lengths of the pace, and Practical Move launched an early move entering the far turn to take a short lead by the top of the stretch. The Tim Yakteen-trained colt extended his advantage to about a length, but Mandarin Hero and Skinner were entering the frame behind him.

Mandarin Hero, a four-time winner on a lesser circuit in Japan, rallied up the inside from midpack, while Skinner took the overland route, and the pair bumped after straightening for home as Mandarin Hero angled off the rail to go after Practical Move.

His lead disappeared as it got extremely close late in the final 20 yards between the top two, and Skinner had every chance on the far outside before coming up a half-length short, and Practical Move kept finding more to prevail.

The hard-fought victory may prove beneficial for Practical Move, who confirmed himself as a serious Kentucky Derby contender, and his tactical ability appears to be an advantage given the lack of speed lining up for the first leg of the Triple Crown.

Practical Move registered a 100 Brisnet Speed rating, his third consecutive triple-digit number, and the lanky son of Practical Joke appears well-built for the 1 1/4-mile distance. We’ll find out if he’s good enough at Churchill Downs.

2. Japanese invader follows smart path, must wait to get in

Japanese horses are making a serious impact internationally, and Mandarin Hero merits serious respect after a top-class showing in his U.S. debut. From six starts, the Terunobu Fujita-trained colt has recorded four wins and two seconds. Santa Anita-based Kazushi Kimura picked up the mount on the Japanese-bred son of Shanghai Bobby.

Points are presently an issue for Mandarin Hero, who ranks 24th on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 40 points. Attrition is always part of the build-up to the first Saturday in May, Rich Strike ranked 27th at this same point last year, and Mandarin Hero may be able to get four defections.

Internationally-based runners in the Kentucky Derby this century have eschewed a U.S. prep race at age three, shipping straight to Churchill to finish up the track. They don’t show up with their best, and the culture change will be an issue for Derma Sotogake and Continuar, Japanese horses making their U.S. debut in the 2023 Kentucky Derby.

If Mandarin Hero makes the field, he will be better-suited to handle the environment. Prepping in the Santa Anita Derby provides an edge, and Mandarin Hero will look to offer a road map for overseas hopefuls.

3. Skinner well-positioned

Winless from three starts last year, Skinner has progressed nicely since opening his sophomore season with a maiden victory in mid-February, finishing third in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby. The bay colt wasn’t much a factor after a bad break in the San Felipe, getting involved late to finish nearly four lengths back of Practical Move, but Skinner looked more serious in the Santa Anita Derby.

He rallied boldly while wide on the far turn to reach a threatening position by upper stretch, and Skinner kept grinding all the way to miss narrowly, netting a career-best 99 Brisnet Speed rating. The son of Curlin is trained by Kentucky Derby winner John Shirreffs, and three-time Kentucky Derby winner Victor Espinoza rides, and Skinner would bring an improving late kick to the Derby field.

Skinner still needs help, ranking 21st on the Kentucky Derby list with 45 points, but there’s always at least one defection in the weeks leading up to the first Saturday in May.