Tales from the Crib: Master Fencer

Apr 27, 2019 Kellie Reilly/Brisnet.com

Additional reporting by Kate Hunter

Thirty years after Sunday Silence wore the roses, a great-grandson of his will become the first Japanese-bred to race in the Kentucky Derby (G1) – Master Fencer. Katsumi and Yasuyo Yoshizawa’s runner garnered an invitation via the “Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby.”

Two other Japanese shippers have tried the Derby, but Lani (ninth in 2016) and Ski Captain (14th in 1995) were both bred in Kentucky. If he can improve upon their results, Master Fencer would make even more history.

Master Fencer is from the first crop of Just a Way, a Japanese champion whose record-setting win in the Dubai Duty Free (G1) on Dubai World Cup night made him the top-ranked horse in the world in 2014. He also captured two of his homeland’s prestigious events, the 2013 Tenno Sho (Emperor’s Prize) Autumn (G1) and the 2014 Yasuda Kinen (G1). Just a Way is in turn by Heart’s Cry, famous for handing the great Deep Impact, a fellow son of Sunday Silence, his first defeat (and only loss in Japan).

Master Fencer’s dam, Sexy Zamurai, was bred by Payson Stud in Kentucky. By the influential Deputy Minister, she is a half-sister to multiple graded stakes heroine One Caroline, winner of five of seven lifetime starts including a romp in the 2009 Rampart (G2) at Gulfstream Park. Further back in the female line, she descends from Broodmare of the Year Northern Sunset, dam of European Horse of the Year St. Jovite as well as major U.S. winners Salem Drive, Lac Ouimet, and L’Carriere. This is also the family of champion Farda Amiga, victorious in the 2002 Kentucky Oaks (G1) and Alabama (G1).

Sexy Zamurai was sold for $110,000 as a Keeneland September yearling to Master Fencer’s owner/breeder, Katsumi Yoshizawa. He’s the proprietor of Yoshizawa Stable, a private training complex encompassing three strategically located sites, as well as a school for horsemen. Among the prominent horses who called his training center home was Just a Way.

Campaigned in partnership, Sexy Zamurai won twice from 35 starts in Japan and subsequently reverted to Yoshizawa’s ownership. She has had better success as a broodmare. Her first foal, Top Divo, is a stakes performer with six career wins. Her second foal, Epoch, has yet to earn a stakes credit but has won five times. Now Master Fencer, her fourth foal, is in the Derby.

Yoshizawa explained his rationale for sending the mare to Just a Way:

“I chose Just a Way for Sexy Zamurai because I wanted to mix the Sunday Silence line with another strong American line.”

Her chestnut colt arrived on February 21, 2016, at the farm where Yoshizawa boards his mares, Mishima Bokujo. Nestled in Urakawa on the northern island of Hokkaido, the heartbeat of Japan’s Thoroughbred breeding industry, Mishima Bokujo has a record going back more than half a century. Here Master Fencer grew up.

“He was a nice, strong-looking, healthy foal,” Yoshizawa said.

“He has a good disposition as a yearling and was quite calm. Unfortunately, early on he wasn’t the best-looking mover then, but over time he has gotten better.”

Master Fencer is trained by Koichi Tsunoda, a former jockey who rode such standouts as Fuji Kiseki and Jungle Pocket during his career. Since becoming a trainer in 2011, he’s sent out five-time graded winner Bel Canto; multiple Grade 3 scorer Ares Barows; and most recently, Iberis, upset winner over the boys in the April 13 Arlington Cup (G3).

After starting out with a pair of creditable efforts on turf, Master Fencer prospered on the switch to dirt, breaking his maiden at Hanshin and scoring in a Kyoto allowance. The early Triple Crown nominee now joined the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby and competed in the final two scoring races. A closing fourth in the Hyacinth S. over a metric mile, Master Fencer benefited from the added ground of the about nine-furlong Fukuryu S. and placed second. (For analysis of his record, see the Kentucky Derby International Scouting Report.)

While Master Fencer ranked fourth overall on the Japan Road leaderboard, the top three were not made eligible for the Triple Crown, and did not avail themselves of the opportunity to come to Churchill Downs. That left the invitation to Master Fencer.

Yoshizawa, upon accepting the invitation, spoke feelingly upon what it meant to have his homebred line up in Derby 145:

“It is an honor to be able to participate in one of the world’s greatest races. In Japan, kids in grade school have a yearly athletic competition that the whole family and close friends all get very excited about, making a picnic lunch and rushing off to cheer for their children. They hope their children perform well, but of course parents most of all want their children to come back safely. This is how I, personally, feel about Master Fencer, hoping he comes back from the race safely most of all. I feel lucky to be able to race my horse in Kentucky. Thank you very much for this invitation.”

Photos courtesy of Mishima Bokujo

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