Master Fencer could inspire new round of international Derby challengers

Dec 14, 2019 J. Keeler Johnson/TwinSpires

As Churchill Downs continues to push for international participation in the Kentucky Derby (G1), the European Road to the Kentucky Derby and the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby are slowly gaining recognition and momentum.

Each international qualification series offers one slot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate to whichever horse accumulates the highest number of qualification points in designated prep races. If the top qualifier declines their invitation to Churchill Downs, invitations can also be extended to the next three qualifiers in descending order.

The European Road to the Kentucky Derby produced mixed results during the 2018-19 season. Since all seven races in the series are conducted over grass or synthetic courses, the winners are often ill-suited to racing on dirt at Churchill Downs. While the 2018-19 series featured plenty of variety—the seven races were won by seven different horses—the top four qualifiers (Bye Bye Hong Kong, 30 points; Playa Del Puente, 20 points; Jahbath, 20 points; and Antilles, 12 pounds) ultimately declined their invitations.

In contrast, the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby was more productive. Dirt racing is widespread in Japan, giving potential Derby candidates an opportunity to gain experience over the surface they'll tackle at Churchill Downs.

Although the top three qualifiers in the 2018-19 series (Der Flug, 40 points; Oval Ace, 30 points; and Nova Lenda, 20 points) all declined their invitations, the connections of fourth qualifier Master Fencer (19 points) elected to give the Derby a try.

Master Fencer's participation was initially unexpected since he failed to win any of the four qualifying races, but by placing fourth in the Hyacinth S. and second in the Fukuryu S., he stamped his credentials as the most consistent runner in the series. Sent off at 58-1 in the Kentucky Derby, Master Fencer outran expectations to finish just 2 1/4 lengths behind Country House, who was awarded the victory via disqualification.

Master Fencer's deceptively strong performance might inspire other Japanese horsemen to keep the Kentucky Derby on their radar. The 2019-20 series kicked off on a promising note when Dieu du Vin rallied to an impressive victory in the 1,600-meter Cattleya Sho on November 23 at Tokyo, earning 10 qualifying points. A stoutly-bred son of Declaration of War out of a Tapit mare, Dieu du Vin boasts a strong turn-of-foot and appears to be an even brighter prospect than Master Fencer at this point in time.

Meanwhile, Kameko leads the charge on the 2019-20 European Road to the Kentucky Derby. Winner of the Vertem Futurity Trophy (G1) and runner-up in the Royal Lodge (G2), Kameko has already accumulated 14 qualifying points to sit atop the leaderboard. But as a son of top turf sire Kitten's Joy, Kameko's pedigree suggests he might struggle on dirt, leaving the European Road to the Kentucky Derby a wide-open affair.

If there's any certainty on the European trail, it's that world-renowned Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien will be a factor. With half a dozen Derby starters to his credit, O'Brien is always on the lookout for horses with the talent and pedigree to challenge on the first Saturday in May. He got off to a hot start saddling Royal Dornoch to win the Royal Lodge and Innisfree to claim the Beresford (G2), giving him a pair of contenders heading into winter.

If the Japan and European routes to the Derby continue to grow, it's only a matter of time before an international challenger claims the roses and transforms the Derby into a truly global event.

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