LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Master Fencer, the first Japanese-bred horse to run in the Kentucky Derby, took a very circuitous route to Churchill Downs.
Everyone involved with the chestnut colt hopes the long journey will be worth the effort Saturday.
“We are very fortunate to have one of the 20 stalls in the starting gate,” owner Katsumi Yoshizawa said through a translator. “I have always wanted to be here and be part of the Kentucky Derby. I really appreciate Churchill Downs for giving me such an opportunity.”
The track in recent years decided to give the Derby a more international flavor by extending two invitations to a leading point earner in selected stakes races, one from Japan and one from Europe.
Master Fencer is the mystery horse in this Derby. He has come a long way to encounter an unfamiliar racing surface.
“The dirt here is different than in Japan,” racing manager Mitsuoki Numamoto said. “It’s more sand in Japan and it is lighter here. It fits Master Fencer.”
The colt was only ranked fourth in the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby standings. The first three – Der Flug, Oval Ace and Nova Lenda – weren’t nominated to the Triple Crown.
Master Fencer was second behind Der Flug most recently in the Fukuryu Stakes as a 10-1 shot.
Besides facing the transition to American racing, there’s also the issue of the long and winding road to get here.
It’s not a straight line from Japan to Kentucky due to strict quarantine conditions on both sides of the Pacific.
Master Fencer spent a week in isolation in Japan before flying to Chicago for additional quarantine at Arlington International racetrack. He then shipped to Keeneland last week to train in relative quiet before arriving at Churchill Downs on Monday night.
“I was concerned about his conditioning but he overcame everything and he’s getting used to all the circumstances, from quarantine in Chicago to training at Keeneland and now training here,” trainer Koichi Tsunoda said through an interpreter.
In his timed workout Wednesday, Master Fencer went five furlongs in 1:05.20, much slower than typical top-class American horses.
“He’ll probably start slow, as usual,” Tsunoda said. “He has great closing speed, so I expect to see that late turn of foot on Saturday.”
Master Fencer will generously reward his backers should he win the Derby. He is an early 50-1 shot with Julien Leparoux aboard.
The two previous Derby runners based in Japan did not fare well. Ski Captain ran 14th in 1995. Lani was ninth in 2016. Both were bred in Kentucky.