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

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

Japanese trainer Terunobu Fujita was on hand at Santa Anita preparing the ground ahead of his historic Grade 1 entry. Santa Anita Derby April 8 with Mandarin Hero.

Fujita, 46, will be the first trainer from the Japan National Association of Racegoers to start a horse in the U.S. when Mandarin Hero moves on to the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby. The Japanese NAR circuit consists of regional circuits that are raced mostly around the country. It is generally considered to be a level below that of the more prominent Japan Racing Association, which races mainly on turf.

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

Oi Racecourse and Santa Anita have a sister relationship that goes back decades. Every October, Santa Anita partners with Oi to host a Japan Family Day at Arcadia featuring the Tokyo Cup (G3). In turn, Oi hosts Santa Anita Week each November 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 certain races. Mandarin Hero dominated the series this campaign.

While enjoying the racetrack on Saturday, Fujita said, “My dream was to run a horse in the Santa Anita Derby.

“Right after Mandarin Hero’s first win I knew 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 scheduled to land at Los Angeles International Airport on March 29 after a 10-hour direct flight from Tokyo via US Equine. Assuming there are no quarantine issues, Mandarin Hero should be on the court at Santa Anita on March 31st.

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

Fujita said Arai was initially hesitant to send Mandarin Hero to the US

“I asked the owner late 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 can’t handle the early pace, but he really likes chasing other horses.”

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

“It 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 Echo Eddie and Calfornia’s Evening Jewel.

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