The Kentucky Derby is an internationally significant horse race that always attracts fans–as well as horses, jockeys and trainers–from all over the world. This year UAE Derby winner Lani became only the second Japanese based horse to run in the race but he definitely won’t be the last. In fact, Churchill Downs wants to raise the profile of the ‘Run For The Roses’ in Japan. Japanese gaming regulations strictly limit the number of out-of-country races that can be simulcasted at the country’s racing facilities. As a result, the Kentucky Derby simulcast is not available in Japan and Churchill Downs would like a greater presence in the horse racing crazy country.
The Kentucky Derby is no different with horses entered that are based or were bred from all over the world. Starting with the 2017 Kentucky Derby the top combined finisher in two Japanese stakes races will automatically qualify for the race. Both are run at Tokyo Racecourse–the Cattleya Sho for 2-year-olds on November 26 and the Hyacinth for 3-year-olds. Japanese horses have become increasingly competitive on the international scene in recent years and the Japan Racing Association wants to continue that trend. Churchill Downs is happy to help in hopes that they can leverage the arrangement into opportunities in the Japan gaming marketplace.
Under the Kentucky Derby qualification system horses earn points in designated races for two and three year olds. The 20 horses with the most points earn qualification. The Japanese horse berth is technically the first ‘automatic berth’ awarded outside of the points qualification system. For this reason, it could generate some controversy. In reality, the winner of the UAE Derby gets an ‘automatic berth’ since it awards 100 qualification points to the top finisher. Many fans and horsemen don’t like that either, arguing that the level of competition in the UAE Derby doesn’t justify it having the same stature as races like the Santa Anita Derby or Wood Memorial.
At the end of the day, however, Churchill Downs has every right to set the qualifying conditions for their race. Horsemen might grumble about it but with little recourse to change it won’t likely make it a huge issue.