En Garde, Kentucky! Master Fencer Has Arrived
First Japanese-Bred Runner To Start in The Kentucky Derby
By Augusta Hosmer
Most North American racing fans associate Japanese horses racing at American racetracks with the wild-tempered Tapit colt Lani, who won the 2016 UAE Derby (GII) in Dubai and ran with mediocre success in that year’s Kentucky Derby (GI), Preakness Stakes (GI) and Belmont Stakes (GI). Lani became famous for his hot-tempered antics at tracks in the U.S. before returning to his home in Japan, so when it was announced that another Japanese horse, Master Fencer, could be coming to run in this year’s Derby, everyone waited eagerly for another wild child to storm off the trailer.
Well, it was storming when Master Fencer arrived at Keeneland on the evening of April 25, but the thunder and tumultuous rain didn’t at all mirror this chestnut colt’s calm personality.
We had a chance to speak to Kate Hunter, the Japan-based recruiter for Churchill Downs and the Triple Crown and one of the people who traveled stateside with Master Fencer on the morning after the colt’s arrival.
“Most people were expecting another Lani,” Hunter said. “When people found out about this horse, I got a lot of memes sent to me of Lani breathing fire.”
As Hunter said this, we heard a noise from Master Fencer’s stall and realized he had decided to take a leisurely roll in his shavings before getting a bit of grass and a bath. He was led out of his stall looking like a coconut truffle, still wet from the rainy morning exercise over Keeneland’s training track with light-colored stall shavings sticking to every inch of him. Ferocious.
This relaxation and quiet is precisely what Master Fencer’s connections had in mind when they decided to keep the horse at Keeneland for a few days instead of heading straight to Louisville. Lani’s trainer, Mikio Matsunaga, who is good friends with Master Fencer’s trainer, Koichi Tsunoda, was one of the ones who suggested they try the Kentucky Derby.
“They gave the opinion that he should be here because of the experiences with Lani in 2016,” Master Fencer’s exercise rider, Yosuke Kono, explained. “Lani was getting kind of crazy over there (at Churchill Downs), so we chose here to stable first, even just for four days. We prefer a quiet place.”
The Run for the Roses will be Master Fencer’s first international race, but he seems to be taking to his newfound globetrotting habits rather well.
“When he first got in the export quarantine in Japan, he didn’t eat that much,” Kono said. “He was kind of anxious with the circumstances and changes, but now, he’s so used to it, and even now after the first morning work here, he is totally relaxed. He’s totally fine.”
And as if to confirm Kono’s point, we heard Master Fencer munching his morning meal rather loudly from his stall – even over the sound of the pouring rain hitting the metal roof of the barn.
So, in that spirit of maintaining the peace, Master Fencer will continue to train at Keeneland for a few days.
“Because the shipping took about a week or so including quarantine, we didn’t do any hard work during morning works. Instead, (trainer Tsunoda) wants him to get used to these American horses and tracks, and so forth,” Kono explained.
Master Fencer galloped two laps around the Keeneland training track and trotted one and a half laps with a pony on the morning of April 26. It was his first time on a track since he left Japan, and he will likely gallop once or twice more.
Once his quiet days at Keeneland are over, however, his connections hope to make a name for this horse. On Monday evening, Master Fencer and his team plan to travel to Churchill Downs. His owner and trainer will arrive then as well.
“This is the first Japanese-bred racehorse to run in the Kentucky Derby, so despite there being two other Japanese (runners), we’re going to make a little bit of history,” Hunter said. “At least even just getting in the gate, we’re making history.”
This horse and his connections traveled about 6,000 miles to get here, but everyone on the team seems to agree it was worth it.
“As of right now, more than excitement, we still have some anxiety because of both the horse and the people’s first times in the United States,” Kono explained. “So, our first target is to just get in without any problems or issues. I’ll get excited when he gets in (to Churchill Downs.)”
With that said, no one in the barn could resist a grin when the possibility of winning the Derby was raised.
“Many people in Japan and in the United States are really looking at this Japanese contender, so more than anything we want him to run for us.”
Master Fencer, a son of Japanese stallion Just a Way, accumulated 19 points on Japan’s four-race Road to the Kentucky Derby series; each year, one invitation is extended to the top points earner on the Japanese Road to the Kentucky Derby circuit. Though Master Fencer finished fourth, the top three were not Triple Crown nominated and declined to travel to the U.S. Master Fencer, however, was nominated for the Triple Crown in the first round.
“They were hoping to win one of the preps, but it turns out that the other guys didn’t want to go,” Hunter said with a smile. “I got to make the phone call. ‘Guess, what? If you want to go, it’s yours.’”
Master Fencer was bred and is owned by Katsumi Yoshizawa, a big fan of American racing who is no stranger to Kentucky.
“He usually buys four or five horses every year at Keeneland,” Hunter said. “Mr. Yoshizawa owns the largest private training facility in Japan. It’s probably one of the most successful, independent facilities available for owners, and all the top owners and trainers absolutely love him. He also has a training facility to train Japanese riders. There’s a shortage in Japan. He’s got an amazing facility he opened up recently to train Japanese outriders and stuff like that, so he’s got a massive staff. He’s probably got the largest staff of anybody in Japan.”
It was actually this large staff that came up with the name Master Fencer. There was a contest to name the horse, and Mr. Yoshizawa liked that name the best.
“It’s a lot of team camaraderie,” Hunter said.
Yoshizawa’s plans for Master Fencer after the Derby depend on the Derby results. That said, according to Kate Hunter, “Everything’s on the table.”
Even in just the brief time in the company of Master Fencer and the folks who arrived with him, it’s clear the horse is genuinely loved and everyone is beyond excited for the possibility of a Derby win. Will more history be made this year than just the first Japanese-bred horse running in the Derby? Maybe he’ll be the first Japanese-bred Derby winner and though many are skeptical, stranger things have happened on this Derby trail.
We now have less than a week to wait now to find out!