The 2018 European Road to the Kentucky Derby, so far...

Japan may have its own qualifying series for the Kentucky Derby, but a Japanese-bred horse has been the leading performer in the inaugural qualifying series in Europe.

Seven races make up the first European Road to the Kentucky Derby: four juvenile races run on turf this year, and three on synthetic tracks in March 2018.

Heading the list after the four juvenile races is Saxon Warrior, who is helping spread the success of Japan’s great stallion Deep Impact.

Saxon Warrior was foaled in Japan but he’s the product of an experiment by the Irish breeding giant Coolmore. They sent a number of mares to be mated with Deep Impact in Japan, including Moyglare Stud Stakes (G1) victor Maybe (Galileo). The result in 2015 was Saxon Warrior.

Returned to Ireland to the Aidan O’Brien stable, he’s been one of the best 2-year-olds in Europe. He won the first race in the European Road series, the one-mile Beresford Stakes (G2) at Naas, striding away easily from Delano Roosevelt (Galileo) and Warm The Voice (Vocalised).

Saxon Warrior then headed to the one-mile Racing Post Trophy (G1) at Doncaster. He looked like he might be defeated when Roaring Lion sprinted from last to take the lead a furlong and a half from the finish, but as Roaring Lion ran greenly, Saxon Warrior stayed on supremely well to win.

Though Saxon Warrior leads the European Road to the Kentucky Derby series with 20 points, it may not be Churchill Downs that he appears at on Derby day. Bookmakers have him near the head of the market for the 2,000 Guineas (G1), and he is the winter favorite for the Derby at Epsom in early June. It may be Epsom where he makes his deepest Classic impact.

Roaring Lion is in second place in the European series, his Racing Post Trophy second having followed victory in the second race of the series, the one-mile Royal Lodge Stakes, narrowly beating Nelson (Frankel) and Mildenberger (Teofilo). He is American-bred but his sire, Kitten’s Joy, is very much a turf sire. The 2,000 Guineas is his likely spring target.

The other race in the European series that’s been held, the one-mile Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere (G1), went to the high-quality filly Happily (Galileo), a stablemate of Saxon Warrior. She showed class and character to get past Olmedo and Masar, but she’s most likely to be aimed at filly classics in Europe rather than the Kentucky Derby.

The best European prospect for the Kentucky Derby may be a colt that hasn’t run in any of the series races. Mendelssohn showed great form at the end of the season on turf, finishing second in the Dewhurst Stakes (G1) before winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1). But as a Scat Daddy half-brother to outstanding U.S. dirt mare Beholder, Aidan O’Brien has said he will look seriously at the Kentucky Derby.

Don’t be surprised if you see Mendelssohn running in some of the remaining European Road to the Kentucky Derby races on synthetic tracks: the Road to the Kentucky Derby Conditions Stakes at Kempton Parch March 1, the Patton Stakes at Dundalk March 2, and the Burradon Stakes at Newcastle March 30.