Trainer of Japan's Mandarin Hero aims high in Santa Anita Derby

Trainer of Japan's Mandarin Hero aims high in Santa Anita Derby
Photo: Tokyo City Keiba

Japanese trainer Terunobu Fujita was on hand at Santa Anita getting the lay of the land ahead of his historic participation in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby on April 8 with Mandarin Hero.

Fujita, 46, will be the first trainer from Japan’s National Association of Racing to start a horse in the U.S. when Mandarin Hero goes postward for the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby. Japan’s NAR circuit is composed of regional tracks that race mostly on dirt. It is generally considered to be a notch below that of the more prominent Japan Racing Association, which races mostly on turf.

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Mandarin Hero, shown above with purple colors, was 4-for-4 last year as a 2-year-old and in one start this year was a fast-closing second in a 1 1/8-mile stake on Feb. 23. All five of his races were run at Oi Racecourse in Tokyo.

Oi Racecourse and Santa Anita have a sister-track relationship that goes back decades. Each October, Santa Anita partners with Oi to hold a Japan family day in Arcadia featuring the Tokyo City Cup (G3). In turn, Oi each November hosts a Santa Anita week with the featured race being the Santa Anita Trophy.

In 2018, a program was implemented where horses at Oi could earn qualifying points for the Santa Anita Derby through designated races. Mandarin Hero dominated the series this campaign.

While enjoying the races trackside on Saturday, Fujita said, “it was my dream to have a horse run in the Santa Anita Derby.

“I knew right after Mandarin Hero’s maiden win I wanted to come to Santa Anita,” he added.

This was not Fujita’s first trip to Santa Anita. In 2010, just as he was opening his stable in Japan, he spent a week at Santa Anita “to look around and study American racing.”

Mandarin Hero is slated to touch down at Los Angeles International Airport on March 29 after a 10-hour direct flight from Tokyo via U.S. Equine. Presuming there are no problems with quarantine, Mandarin Hero should be on the grounds at Santa Anita on March 31.

Owned by Hiroaki Arai, Mandarin Hero is a dark brown colt from the first Japanese crop of Shanghai Bobby, North America’s champion 2-year-old male of 2012. Shanghai Bobby spent his first five seasons at stud in Kentucky before being sold to Japanese interests in 2018.

Fujita said Arai initially was hesitant to send Mandarin Hero to the U.S.

“I asked the owner at the end of last year, ‘Can we go to Santa Anita?’ He didn’t want to come,” Fujita recalled. “But after Mandarin Hero’s last race, he said ‘let’s go.’

“It was big news in Japan,” Fujita added. “I’m very proud of that.”

Through his first five starts, Mandarin Hero’s running style has been to come from off the pace. In the Santa Anita Derby, Fujita plans to use a jockey from the local colony.

“He has really good acceleration in the final stretch,” Fujita said. “I think he probably cannot handle the early pace, but he really likes to chase down other horses.”

If Mandarin Hero were to finish first or second in the Santa Anita Derby, he likely would earn enough qualifying points to move on to the Kentucky Derby.

“That would be a dream come true,” Fujita said.

Also on the Santa Anita Derby card are the Santa Anita Oaks (G2), Charles Whittingham (G2) and the Echo Eddie and Evening Jewel for Calfornia-breds.

2023 Santa Anita Derby G1

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