This year’s Japan Road has produced a participant in the Kentucky Derby (G1) – Katsumi and Yasuyo Yoshizawa’s Master Fencer. The third Japanese-based sophomore to attempt the Run for the Roses, Master Fencer is unlike Lani (ninth in 2016) and Ski Captain (14th in 1995). They were both Kentucky-breds making a homecoming, while Master Fencer is the first horse bred in Japan to compete in the Derby. Of greater relevance to his chances, however, is that Master Fencer does not bring the same credentials. Lani had won the UAE Derby (G2). Ski Captain, although untested on dirt, had lost only once at that point, by a neck to unbeaten champion Fuji Kiseki in Japan’s marquee race for juveniles, the Asahi Hai. Master Fencer has yet to win a stakes, or even contest a graded event. He garnered the Japan Road invitation not as the top scorer overall, but as the leader among the few Triple Crown nominees taking part in the designated Japanese points races. To phrase it more directly, there are better dirt three-year-olds in Japan. Master Fencer has been outpaced in the scoring races going shorter, so presumably the hope is that the grinding type can show more on the step up to 1 1/4 miles on dirt. In fact, the Derby distance is not new to him. Master Fencer began his career in maidens at about 1 1/4 miles on turf, placing second at Hanshin September 23 and fourth at Chukyo December 2. Then his jockey-turned-trainer Koichi Tsunoda, who ironically had ridden Fuji Kiseki to beat Ski Captain in his heyday, made the key decision to switch to dirt. Master Fencer’s pedigree was versatile enough to recommend him on either surface. His Sunday Silence-line sire, Just a Way, ranked as the world’s top horse of 2014 after a course-record romp in the Dubai Duty Free (G1) on the Meydan turf. But his dam, the Deputy Minister mare Sexy Zamurai, is the more obvious dirt influence. Herself a half-sister to Grade 2 winner One Caroline, Sexy Zamurai spent most of her career on the dirt and produced a dirt stakes scorer in Japan, Top Divo. Dirt was the making of Master Fencer as he promptly won two straight at about 1 1/8 miles. In a December 23 maiden at Hanshin, the chestnut raced within striking range early, made his move on the right-handed turn for home, and kicked away by 3 1/2 lengths. Master Fencer ran a similar race in a January 14 allowance at Kyoto, the only time that he’s been favored in his six-race career. He steadily gained momentum to put away Washington Tesoro, who had been 10th in the first Japan Road scoring race, the November 24 Cattleya Sho. Since his second to Master Fencer, Washington Tesoro has gone unplaced in two more allowances. Last time he was ninth behind unbeaten Chrysoberyl, a full brother to top dirt performer Chrysolite (and half to champion Marialite) who would have been a fascinating contender had he tried the Japan Road. Given Master Fencer’s profile over longer, the cutback to a metric mile and class hike for the February 17 Hyacinth S. at Tokyo – a scoring race on the Japan Road – figured to be a tall task. Accordingly, he went off as the 11-1 fifth choice in the 10-horse field, but rallied well from last for fourth to Oval Ace, Weitblick, and favored Derma Louvre. His performance was creditable since Master Fencer tied Oval Ace for the fastest final 600 meters (about three furlongs) in :36.1. None of the Hyacinth trifecta lined up in the final Japanese points race, the March 31 Fukuryu S. at Nakayama. Back up in trip to about nine furlongs, Master Fencer was likely to do better than in the Hyacinth, but even so, he was only the third choice at 10-1. The betting public hammered the undefeated Der Flug into 3-5 favoritism, and he justified the status by remaining perfect in three starts. His 40-point haul would have guaranteed him a spot in the Derby starting gate, if his connections had so desired. Master Fencer was second best, beaten 1 1/2 lengths, and clocked the fastest final split in :37.1. But the replay of the race isn’t as complimentary as the bare result. Der Flug had gears, and Master Fencer did not – or at least not as quickly summoned when required. As the winner moved fluently into contention, Master Fencer had to be driven hard to follow him. To his credit, Master Fencer kept finding, but the Kentucky Derby is an unforgiving place for horses who get outmoved. Aside from his running style making him a hostage to fortune, the biggest issue for Master Fencer is the quantum leap in class. He’s graduating from losses at a lesser level, on Japan’s secondary surface, to America’s iconic race, indeed the world’s premier dirt classic. That jump in competition would be a concern for the still-unbeaten colts who’ve won scoring races, Oval Ace and Der Flug, never mind a rival comfortably dispatched by both. A case in point is Derma Louvre, who ventured to Dubai for the UAE Derby and finished fourth, beaten more than six lengths by Plus Que Parfait. Had he taken the easier option at Nakayama instead, Derma Louvre might well have outranked Master Fencer as the top-scoring Triple Crown nominee on the Japan Road. Derma Louvre had 14 when he shipped out. Master Fencer had but 3 points as the Hyacinth fourth, and added 16 as the Fukuryu runner-up to make it a total of 19, eclipsing Derma Louvre. Master Fencer has to come up with fancier swordplay to factor in Derby 145. If he produces it around Churchill Downs, it would rate up there among the biggest surprises beneath the Twin Spires. Master Fencer photo (c) Akio Takahashi