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‘Fencer’ Hopes to Be First Japanese ‘Master’ of the Belmont


Master Fencer | Christie DeBernardis

By Christie DeBernardis

ELMONT, N.Y.–Master Fencer (Jpn) (Just a Way {Jpn}) is not the first Japanese runner to enter the GI Belmont S. In fact, he is the third in the past four years alone, following Lani (Tapit) in 2016 (third) and Epicharis (Jpn) (Gold Allure {Jpn}) in 2017 (scratched race day with a foot issue), but the Katsumi Yoshizawa homebred hopes to become the first from his country to win the Test of a Champion Saturday.

In addition to the $1.5 million Belmont purse, Master Fencer is also eligible for NYRA’s $1 million bonus, offered to any Japan-based horse to win the Belmont S.

“This is very, very rare to just participate in the Triple Crown races for Japanese horse trainers,” conditioner Koichi Tsunoda said through translator Mitsuoki Numamoto outside of Nick Zito’s Barn 12 as Master Fencer was bathed and had his legs thoroughly cold hosed while surrounded by a slew of press. “It was because of many people’s support that we made it here. Winning would repay a debt of gratitude for the many people surrounding me.”

Master Fencer tuned up for Saturday’s affair with an easy five-panel breeze in 1:01.28 (3/3) (video) under jockey Julien Leparoux on the Belmont main track Wednesday morning after the renovation break. Things went much smoother this time after a much-publicized stumble during his previous workout, when he went the same distance in 1:01.48 with his regular exercise rider Yosuke Kono aboard May 29 (video).

“[Master Fencer] didn’t change his lead in the stretch [instead staying on his left one], but [Leparoux] said he didn’t want to lose momentum for the breeze. He was traveling well. He didn’t want him to have a stressful work. He just wanted him to breeze without any issues like the last breeze.”

Breaking his maiden at third asking at Japan’s Hanshin Racecourse Dec. 23, Master Fencer followed suit with a win at Kyoto Jan. 14. He finished fourth in the Listed Hyacinth S. Feb. 17 and completed the exacta in the Fukuryu S. Mar. 31, both of which are on Japan’s Road to the Kentucky Derby. With the Japanese horse ahead of him in points declining the Derby invite, the chestnut accepted his spot in the Run for Roses and closed strongly to be sixth after running last most of the way. (He originally crossed the line seventh, but was promoted to sixth after the DQ of Maximum Security {New Year’s Day}).

Master Fencer trained at Keeneland following his Derby effort and shipped to New York May 24. Tsunoda, who is also a former jockey, said his charge has settled in well at Belmont.

“He had been training and eating well at Keeneland and even here at Belmont,” the trainer said through Numamoto. “I hope he will run much better than he did in the Derby. This will be a smaller field, just 10 horses including him. It is much easier to chase other horses, so if he could save ground, he will probably show us that great late kick in the stretch. Distance doesn’t matter.”

Belmont’s main track is known as “Big Sandy” for a reason. When asked how Master Fencer has been getting over the surface in Elmont, which is much deeper than what he had trained over at Churchill Downs and Keeneland, Tsunoda said, “We wanted Julien [Leparoux] to experience how he moves on this kind of sand track. As you can see, he is not very skillful in changing his leads and I don’t want anything to happen between the races, so because of that we asked Julien to get on. I am not pessimistic about the deeper sand.”

If all goes well Saturday, this may not be the last time racing fans see Master Fencer on American soil.

“I would have to talk to the owner, but we may go to the Breeders’ Cup,” Tsunoda said before walking off to inspect his colt’s legs as the sophomore received lots of love from Kono.


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