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Saudi Derby Could Be a Steppingstone Toward Louisville

Japan's Forever Young could follow in the footsteps of Derma Sotogake.

Forever Young trains Feb. 20 at King Abdulaziz Racecourse

Forever Young trains Feb. 20 at King Abdulaziz Racecourse

Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia/Neville Hopwood

The $1.5 million Saudi Derby (G3) is not only a feature on the undercard of the world's richest race, the Feb. 24 Saudi Cup (G1), but also a key piece of the puzzle that eventually will come together in the starting gate for the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs May 4.

The likely keys to the Saudi Derby puzzle are a very promising colt from Japan, Forever Young, and a pair of distance-limited Americans in the 1,600-meter (about one mile) race on the King Abdulaziz Racecourse dirt.

Forever Young is by Real Steel, out of the Congrats mare Forever Darling. Owned by Fujita Susumu, the colt is 3-for-3 and, for a time, held the lead in the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby program that awards the winner an automatic spot in the Churchill Downs gate.

Abandoning the series in favor of a quest in the Middle East, he relinquished that lead to Ramjet.

That path is similar to the one taken a year ago by Derma Sotogake, who won the second leg of the Japanese series but then qualified for the Kentucky Derby by winning the UAE Derby (G2) in Dubai. The Saudi Derby does not offer points toward the Run for the Roses but a good showing could propel Forever Young to Dubai and a shot at qualifying there.

Derma Sotogake proved the merit of the plan with a decent sixth-place showing in Louisville, Ky. He then was runner-up in November's Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) and is among the favorites for the Saudi Cup (G1).

"Everything has gone well and I have no concern for his form at the moment," said Yusaku Oka, assistant to Forever Young's trainer, Yoshito Yahagi.

"As he did all he needed to before we brought him here, we had not asked him too much. ... He is tuning up for the race and is very well. Hopefully he keeps good form until the race."

While Forever Young needs to show more before stamping passage to America, the Americans are chasing a massive purse over a one-turn trip that suits their strength.

Bentornato, a Valiant Minister  colt, earned attention while winning the first two legs of the Florida Sire Series at Gulfstream Park. But he finished third in the ultimate leg when asked to stretch around two turns. 

Trainer Jose D'Angelo said distance limitations might play a factor in Bentornato's future but declined in the days before the Saudi run to rule out improvement.

Book'em Danno, a New Jersey-bred Bucchero  gelding, comes to the desert with a record of four wins from five starts. After a victory at first asking, he won the Smoke Glacken Stakes at Monmouth Park and Futurity Stakes at the Belmont at the Big A meet.

A second in the Nashua Stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack in November completed his 2023 season but he picked up again with a victory in the Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs Jan. 13.

Japan, with 22 runners on the grounds for the meeting, has two more in the field—Satono Phoenix and Set Up. With dirt racing undergoing a renaissance in Japan, either could contend.

Argentine-bred Oasis Boy represents Dubai in the Derby, while a hopeful field of five local runners is headed by Salam Alkhair, a Kentucky-bred son of Enticed  who earned his way into the field through the developing Saudi program.