First Japanese-bred horse in Kentucky Derby took long road

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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.

Kentucky Derby modifies qualifying, elevates prep races

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs has modified paths to the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, awarding points to the top five finishers in qualifying races and increasing significance for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and late prep season events.

Most Derby prep races during the qualifying series for 3-year-olds will award points on a 10-4-3-2-1 sliding scale after using a 10-4-2-1 system since 2013. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, run during the season-ending championships on Nov. 4 at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, will increase points from 20-8-4-2 to 30-12-9-6-3 to differentiate the Grade I event from others during prep season.

Select prep races for the 20-horse Derby field have elevated points from a 10-4-2-1 scale to 20-8-6-4-2 to increase their importance and motivate hopefuls to begin their 3-year-old campaigns earlier in the season, track officials stated in a release.

“We believe these modifications adhere to and amplify our goal of assembling the finest group of 3-year-olds in the starting gate for a race at the classic distance of 1\ miles on the first Saturday in May,” Churchill Downs vice president/general manager Mike Ziegler said.

The 149th Kentucky Derby and Oaks for fillies will be held on May 5-6, 2023. Derby qualifying season begins with Saturday’s $300,000, Grade III Iroquois for 2-year-olds at Churchill Downs.

The point changes apply to Oaks qualifiers.

Elevated Derby preps include the Lecomte at Fair Grounds in Louisiana; Southwest at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas; Withers at Aqueduct in New York; Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park in Florida; Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita in California; Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs; and John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park in Kentucky.

Bob Baffert wins record 16th Del Mar Futurity with Cave Rock

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DEL MAR, Calif. — Cave Rock won the $302,000 Del Mar Futurity by 5 1/4 lengths, giving Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert his record 16th victory in the Grade 1 race in which he finished 1-2.

Ridden by Juan Hernandez, Cave Rock ran seven furlongs in a stakes-record time of 1:20.99 on closing day at the seaside track north of San Diego. He lowered the old mark of 1:21.29 set by Declan’s Moon in 2004.

Baffert tied Phil D’Amato for the trainers’ title with 19 wins each at the 31-day summer meet. It was Baffert’s eighth title at Del Mar, but his first since 2003.

Hernandez won the jockeys’ title.

Havnameltdown, also trained by Baffert, finished second in the race for 2-year-olds. Skinner was another 4 1/4 lengths back in third.

Longtime Baffert clients Mike Pegram, Karl Watson and Paul Weitman own the first and second-place finishers.

Cave Rock paid $2.80 to win as the 2/5 favorite. He earned $180,000 for the win.