First Japanese-bred horse in Kentucky Derby took long road

AP Photo

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.

Newgate wins Robert B. Lewis Stakes; Baffert runs 1-2-3-4


ARCADIA, Calif. — Newgate won the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes by a neck, with Bob Baffert as the trainer of all four horses in the Kentucky Derby prep race at Santa Anita.

Ridden by Frankie Dettori, Newgate ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.11 and paid $4 and $2.60 as the even-money favorite. There was no show wagering because of the field size.

Hard to Figure returned $5.20 at 12-1 odds. Worcester was another 1 3/4 lengths back in third. Arabian Lion was fourth.

“So much improvement in all these horses,” Baffert said. “I was actually nervous before the race, worried that something weird might happen, but I can relax now.”

The Lewis was a Kentucky Derby prep race, but no points were awarded because Baffert has been banned for two years by Churchill Downs Inc. The Hall of Fame trainer was in Louisville to testify in federal court as he seeks a temporary injunction to end the suspension, which runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet. It was meted out following a failed drug test by Medina Spirit after the colt finished first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

Newgate earned his first graded stakes victory. The colt was second, beaten by a neck in the Sham Stakes last month in his previous start.

“Frankie Dettori has been teaching him how to just sit back, relax and come with a punch and that’s what he did today,” Baffert said.

The victory, worth $120,000, increased Newgate’s career earnings to $241,975, with two wins in six starts.

Baffert: 2-year Churchill Downs suspension hurt reputation

bob baffert

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs never gave advance notice nor reached out to explain its two-year suspension, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said in federal court, and reiterated that the penalty has caused irreparable harm to his business and reputation.

Baffert has sued the historic track and is seeking a temporary injunction to stop his suspension following a failed drug test by the now-deceased Medina Spirit after the colt came in first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

The suspension for a series of failed tests by his horses runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet and could exclude Baffert from the Derby for a second consecutive spring.

Almost a year ago, Kentucky racing officials disqualified Medina Spirit and suspended Baffert for 90 days for those failed tests. Churchill Downs elevated Derby runner-up Mandaloun to winner.

“They’ve hurt my reputation,” Baffert said during nearly two hours of testimony in U.S. District Court. “My horses should’ve made much more money. I didn’t run for 90 days, and I had to let people go.”

Churchill Downs wants the case dismissed, citing nine failed tests by Baffert-trained horses as justification for disciplining horse racing’s most visible figure. The list of violators includes 2020 Kentucky Oaks third-place finisher Gamine, who was ultimately disqualified.

Medina Spirit failed his test for having in his system the corticosteroid betamethasone, which Baffert and attorney Clark Brewster have argued came from an ointment rather than an injection.

Track president Mike Anderson said the decision by Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen stemmed from Baffert’s “refusal to take responsibility for repeat violations” during a news conference at his backside barn after Medina Spirit’s failed test was revealed.

“We wanted to make a statement that this was a consequence of not doing the right thing,” Anderson said.

Attorneys Matt Benjamin and Christine Demana, who are representing Churchill Downs, also disputed Baffert’s contention that business has suffered by noting his latest crop of promising 3-year-old colts on this year’s Derby trail.

One of them, Arabian Knight, won last week’s Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn by 5+ lengths to give Baffert his record sixth win in the race. The horse is ineligible to earn Kentucky Derby qualifying points as the winner because of Baffert’s suspension.

A slide presented also showed that Baffert horses made 477 starts from May 10, 2021, through December 2022 and won marquee races such as the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (Corniche, the Eclipse winner) along with Grade 1 wins in the Pennsylvania Derby and Malibu Stakes (Taiba).

Friday’s 3 1/2-hour hearing followed four hours of testimony on Thursday. District Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings gave no indication when she would rule. But Brewster said he expects a decision “within several days.”

Baffert testified that he had had a good relationship with Churchill Downs, though he noted that he was paying for his seats at the track and having to “grovel” to get them. He also insisted that he tried to be a good ambassador for horse racing, especially after American Pharoah and Justify won the Triple Crown in 2015 and 2018, respectively.

“I think today was great because I finally got to tell my story in a nonbiased atmosphere,” he said. “I hope for the best, and hopefully we’ll be here.”