The Japan Dirt Derby is still pencilled into his schedule, it is just that if he goes that route, he will have taken a much-publicised yet roundabout way of getting there: via California and second-place in the G1 Santa Anita Derby, then 12th of 18 in the G1 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
“I really wanted to run my horse in the Kentucky Derby and the dream came true,” Mandarin Hero’s trainer Terunobu Fujita tells Asian Racing Report, explaining that he was first inspired by the JRA (Japan Racing Association)’s Koichi Tsunoda-trained Master Fencer’s sixth in the 2019 ‘Run for the Roses.’
“I felt that all the atmosphere and everything around the race was all a dream. This time it was about my horse running in the race but next time I take a horse, I want my horse to win the race,” he adds enthusiastically.
Hero Call’s position as Haneda Hai favourite has much to do with Mandarin Hero and his fellow Japanese contender in Kentucky, the Derby sixth Derma Sotogake: Hero Call defeated Mandarin Hero at Oí and was fourth behind Derma Sotogake in a Listed race at Kawasaki.
As it turns out, Hero Call runs second in the Haneda Hai. He is no match for the night’s actual hero, the dominant Mick Fire – white star on the face of his brown hood – first-up since December under Norifumi Mikamoto, and now the owner of a perfect four from four record after slamming his rivals.
“Awesome,” reflects Mandarin Hero’s trainer the following evening.
“Mick Fire,” he continues, and there is an unmistakable respect to his tone, “I think he is a serious horse. He had a crack in his hoof, so I never thought he could run like that.”
Fujita stands in the dimness close to the Oí racecourse weighing room, out of public view across the wide sandy dismounting yard and beyond even the brilliant illumination of the track’s beaming floodlights. It is an oddity that the victor is unsaddled down there in the half-light and led back to stables without any further ado: the fans move on to the next race and the next bet.
It is a functional area: functional like the role the NAR has had traditionally in providing weekday wagering fodder to boost the local government coffers, secondary to the bigger-money weekend polish of the JRA. But at Tokyo City Keiba, the functional has found its fun in ‘Twinkle Night’ racing, with its electronic ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ melody to signal betting has closed, and the uniformed all-female brass five-piece that plays the fanfare to cheering fans before the card’s later races.