For the second year in a row Kentucky Derby bettors are going to have to face a relatively rare challenge — how to deal with a horse that comes in to the race after being based outside of North America. As if picking a winner in this race isn’t hard enough already.
Last year it was Master of Hounds who came to the race after being based in Dubai. He qualified for the Kentucky Derby by accumulating sufficient earnings thanks to a second-place finish in the UAE Derby. He closed very strong and was a respectable fifth. This year it is Daddy Long Legs who comes from his base in Dubai to challenge the biggest race for three year olds on the planet. He also earned his way into the race via the UAE Derby, but he finished one place better than Master of Hounds did — and he looked impressive doing it.
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This won’t be the first time that Daddy Long Legs has raced at Churchill Downs, though his connections would like to forget that the last time ever happened. He was at the track in November to run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He was forced wide on the first turn, never recovered, showed no fight, and finished an irrelevant 12th in the 13-horse field. He’s bred to like the dirt, but he certainly wasn’t comfortable on it that day. To his credit, though, that was a remarkably strong race, with as many as nine horses from the field poised to compete in the Kentucky Derby. He’ll have to fare much better against that group this time around.
So why are foreign-bred or base horses so rare when the Kentucky Derby is unquestionably the most prestigious race for three year olds in the world? There are a couple big reasons. First is that every horse born in the southern hemisphere is not eligible to compete. Every horse in North America has a birthday on Jan. 1, so they are born in the first couple of months of the year in most cases. In the Southern hemisphere the universal birthdate is Aug. 1, so horses there are born in the late summer or fall. A Southern three year old, then, is much older than a Northern three year old. Because three year olds are the equivalent of human teenagers in terms of their development, those extra months would be a huge advantage. Therefore, their participation would be unfair.
That leaves just horses based in Europe, Asia, or the Middle East as potential contenders. The problem those horses face is that the Kentucky Derby field is limited to 20 horses. Most years there are more than 20 horses that are interested in running. The qualification criteria is earnings in graded stakes, so foreign horses need to run in North America or in select races in Dubai in order to earn their way into the field. The connections of most horses aren’t willing to undertake that with a young horse, so they can’t earn a spot.
Besides Master of Hounds there are a few prominent foreign-based or bred horses over the years that have run in the Kentucky Derby. Here’s a look at four that stand out:
You can’t talk about foreign-based horses without talking about Arazi. He was a Kentucky-bred horse who raced in France as a youngster. He returned to the U.S. for the 1991 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and won it in one of the most impressive performances not only in that race but in any major race. It was total and utter domination. The result — more money was bet on him in the 1992 Kentucky Derby than on all the other horses combined, even though he had required surgery after the Juvenile and hadn’t run in a prep race. He made his trademark big move around the last corner, but looked like he hit a wall when he was only third, and limped home eighth. Lil E. Tee won in a massive upset.
No European horse has ever finished better than Bold Arrangement’s second in 1986. He seemed to be out of it early, but like many European runners he was bred for stamina, and he looked fresh late when most of the field was fading badly. If it weren’t for the wildly impressive Ferdinand, America’s greatest race would have had their first Euro champion.
Johannesburg was like a reincarnation of Arazi a decade later. He was another European-based, Kentucky-bred horse who won the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile impressively, but he was very disappointing en route to an eighth-place finish in the Derby the next year. The only difference is that he wasn’t the favorite in his Derby. His story is of particular interest here because he is the sire of Scat Daddy, who in turn sired Daddy Long Legs. Daddy’s trainer Aidan O’Brien will hope for better luck in the Derby than his grandsire had.
Only one foreign-based horse has ever won a Derby, and this guy added a Preakness as well in 1971. His story is something out of a fairy tale. He had a disfigured front leg when he was born in North Carolina, he was sold to Venezuelan owners for just $1,200. He was unimpressive down there and looked basically irrelevant heading into the Derby. Somehow, though, he proved to be best on the day as he unleashed a monstrous move after a glacially slow first half mile. It remains one of the strangest and most surprising wins in the history of the race.
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