Kentucky Derby international scouting report: Japan Road invitee Master Fencer
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.