A new way of qualifying for the famed Kentucky Derby (G1) kicked off during the 2012-13 season, and both owners and trainers embraced the points-based system.
But Churchill Downs officials weren’t done.
Taking note of the excitement which erupted when Japanese-based Lani came to the 2016 Run for the Roses, Churchill Downs partnered with the Japan Racing Association to create a separate “Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby.”
Now, horses in Japan could participate in points races in their own country to try to make the Derby field. Only two races were part of the new formula, and no runners ended up coming for the 2017 edition.
Churchill decided to up the ante for the 2018 Kentucky Derby. When the announcement came down on which races would be part of the 2017-18 Road to the Kentucky Derby, the big news was the formation of a “European Road to the Kentucky Derby.” The seven-race series spans Great Britain, Ireland, and France, with events on turf in the fall and the all-weather in March.
An additional contest was added to the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby to bring that total to three, all on dirt. The Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun, at Kawasaki in December, joined the two Tokyo contests that serve as bookends, the Cattleya Sho in November and the decisive Hyacinth Stakes in February.
Three different series, with three separate Leaderboards, and berths to the “Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” on the line.
One spot to the Run for the Roses apiece is up for grabs in the Japan and European series. The spots are actually invites, and one is extended to the Japanese runner with the most points and the other to the points leader from the European series.
If the points leader declines, then the second on the leaderboard is invited and so on down to the third and fourth points leaders for both. However, the invites are only offered to the top four points scorers on the respective Japan and European leaderboards.
While it appears no Japanese runner will make the 2018 Derby, plenty of international excitement comes from a European pair who have run their way into contention.
Mendelssohn from the uber-talented Aidan O’Brien shedrow and the Jeremy Noseda-conditioned Gronkowski were prominent on the European scoreboard in March. But only Gronkowski stayed on the European Road, capturing its final scoring race, the March 30 Burradon Stakes at Newcastle, to clinch the invitation.
Mendelssohn went to Dubai instead and posted a record-setting victory in the March 31 U.A.E. Derby (G2). That latter event is part of the original Road to the Kentucky Derby series and awarded Mendelssohn 100 points, which clinched the bay a spot in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.
Each one is attempting to become the first foreign-based winner of the Kentucky Derby since Canonero II shipped up from Venezuela to score in 1971.