Homeracing

2019 Kentucky Derby Contender Profile: Master Fencer

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

April 10th, 2019

The recent confirmation that Japan’s Master Fencer will contest the 2019 Kentucky Derby has added a bit of international intrigue to the Run for the Roses. Master Fencer will be just the third Japan-based runner to compete in the Derby, and he’ll be making history as the first Derby starter bred in Japan. His participation will naturally provide a challenge for handicappers, since it’s difficult to determine how his form compares to that of the more clearly established Derby contenders based in the United States.

With that in mind, I’ve analyzed Master Fencer’s abilities from every angle, covering his pedigree, race record, strengths and weaknesses. Is he a horse that could contend for victory on the first Saturday in May? Let’s dig in and find out.

Pedigree

Master Fencer is a son of the young stallion Just a Way, the world’s highest-rated horse in 2014 thanks to a brilliant victory in the Dubai Turf (G1) in Dubai. That race was at 1 1/8 miles, but Just a Way also won the prestigious 2013 Tenno Sho Autumn (G1) going 2,000 meters (about 1 1/4 miles), showing that he had plenty of stamina in addition to his high-class speed.

Master Fencer’s dam, Sexy Zamurai, was more of a sprinter/miler, but her sire—Deputy Minister—won the 1 1/8-mile Donn Handicap (G2) and placed second in the 1 1/4-mile Meadowlands Cup (G1). Deputy Minister was a strong source of stamina at stud, siring such high-class route runners as Go For Wand, Open Mind, Awesome Again and Touch Gold, the latter being a Belmont Stakes (G1) winner. As a broodmare sire (his position in Master Fencer’s pedigree), Deputy Minister has also tended to pass on stamina, with his daughters producing Belmont winners Sarava and Jazil, as well as the two-time Horse of the Year Curlin and the Breeders’ Cup Marathon winner Man of Iron.

There’s no reason to conclude from a pedigree perspective that Master Fencer can’t be effective running 1 1/4 miles on dirt.

Race Record

Setting pedigree aside, we do have some hard data for analyzing Master Fencer’s distance preferences, because unlike North America's Kentucky Derby contenders, Master Fencer has already negotiated 1 1/4 miles twice in his career. In his debut at Hanshin in September, he finished second in a 2,000-meter turf race and ran the final 600 meters (about three furlongs) in a respectable :36.30. His second start came going 2,000 meters over the turf course at Chukyo, and while Master Fencer could only finish fourth on that occasion, he was disadvantaged by rallying into slow fractions. Even still, he managed to finish just two lengths behind the winner while running the final 600 meters in :34.70.

Though he showed promise on turf, Master Fencer enjoyed more success when switched to dirt, where he won back-to-back 1,800-meter races at Hanshin and Kyoto while rallying from fifth on both occasions. He then cut back in distance for the 1,600-meter Hyacinth Stakes at Tokyo, the shortest race of his career, and rallied from last to finish a non-threatening fourth, though he ran the final 600 meters in :36.10, tied for the fastest final fraction in the race.
Master Fencer earned his way into the Kentucky Derby field with a second-place finish in the 1,800-meter Fukuryu Stakes at Nakayama. Again reserved near the back of the pack, Master Fencer produced a big run around the far turn and had every chance to win, but couldn’t out-kick fellow late-runner Der Flug and had to settle for second place.

Strengths

Master Fencer clearly has an affinity for dirt, and he doesn’t require any particular track configuration to excel. He’s never run over the same track or course more than once, and he’s run fine around left-handed and right-handed turns. He’s handled undulating tracks and tight turns, too, similar to what he’ll encounter at Churchill Downs.

It’s also encouraging that Master Fencer doesn’t appear to have any clear distance limitations. With three strong efforts going 1,800 meters under his belt, plus a couple of decent runs going 2,000 meters on turf, the distance of the Kentucky Derby shouldn’t be an issue for Master Fencer.

Weaknesses

The main factor that could trip up Master Fencer’s chances at Churchill Downs is his class, which remains unclear. While he’s undoubtedly a talented colt, dirt racing in Japan is definitely second-tier compared to their turf racing, and Master Fencer can’t really be considered the best (or even second-best) 3-year-old dirt runner in the country. Der Flug beat him fairly and squarely in the Fukuryu Stakes, and Oval Ace, Weitblick and Derma Louvre (the top three finishers in the Hyacinth) also seem superior to Master Fencer.

I am also of the opinion that Japan’s current crop of 3-year-old dirt runners is a bit lacking compared to the last few years, which have featured such capable runners as Lani (winner of the 2016 UAE Derby and third in the Belmont), Epicharis (narrow runner-up in the 2017 UAE Derby), and Le Vent Se Leve (arguably the best dirt horse in Japan these days regardless of age).

Another potential problem is Master Fencer’s lack of tactical speed. As a deep closer he’ll be reliant on a clean trip and a fast pace in the Kentucky Derby, both of which have been difficult for late runners to come by in recent editions.

Conclusions

I’m a big fan of international participation in the Kentucky Derby, and from a sporting perspective, I’ll be rooting for Master Fencer to run well. From a handicapping perspective I’m reluctant to support a colt who might be no better than the fifth-best 3-year-old dirt horse in Japan. The Kentucky Derby represents a huge jump in class, so despite his stamina-oriented pedigree and his admirable performances running long, I will almost certainly be opposing Master Fencer on the first Saturday in May.
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