Leading up to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, it isn’t just the horses on display that add intrigue to the world-famous event, but also all of the human connections who have helped bring their horses into international focus – including the owners. In Japan, before their own Derby, owners are often the most noticeable exception in terms of receiving media coverage, partially due to the strict privacy laws and also because the focus in Japan is almost entirely on the horse.
However, Katsumi Yoshizawa, the owner of Japan’s 2019 Kentucky Derby contender Master Fencer, was made to be in the spotlight. As a young man growing up in Sapporo, Hokkaido, Yoshizawa’s love affair with horses began in high school when he joined an equestrian club. He continued this hobby in college before graduating and moving on to a typical businessman’s life in Japan. That moment would be short-lived however, when a friend introduced him into the world of horse racing and he got a job working in the office of a training farm in Hokkaido. For many people, that might be the end of their story, but Katsumi proved to be so much more.
In 1995, Katsumi made the bold move to open his own training facility, Yoshizawa Stables, taking advantage of the sprawling Bloodhorse Training Center (BTC) in the far eastern part of Hokkaido that is owned and operated by the Japan Racing Association. Private stables are able to use these massive facilities, which include many courses on all surfaces and distances over hundreds of acres. Training farms in Japan break yearlings, train up 2-year-olds, and help maintain the condition of active racehorses.
After renting land adjacent to this facility, Katsumi has grown his training empire exponentially, buying a mountain in Shigaraki, Shiga Prefecture just north of Kyoto and opening up Yoshizawa Stables West in 2012. A year later, he opened Yoshizawa Stables East north of Tokyo. Over the years, Yoshizawa has built a record of excellence, and both of these mainland facilities are used by some of the best trainers in Japan, including Godolphin Japan, to shuffle out and maintain their racehorses as they race and move back and forth from the JRA training centers located nearby.
Yoshizawa’s training operation has been responsible for horses such as six-time Group 1 winner Gold Ship, 2014 Longines World's Best Racehorse and three-time Group 1 winner Just a Way (Master Fencer’s sire), Japanese Derby winner Tanino Gimlet, and 12 other prominent Group 1 winners and more than 25 group stakes winners in Japan.
In 2017, he opened a school for horsemen looking to get into the industry, teaching them the fundamentals and what it takes to ride and care for Thoroughbred racehorses.
Each of Yoshizawa’s three operations offers year-round care for his clients’ horses and, of course, his own. As of April 2019, Katsumi has 26 horses running in the same colors as Master Fencer, though he does partner with other owners as well. A staple at the Keeneland September yearling sale, Katsumi has worked hard to find good American stock to bring to Japan. As an avid fan of American horses, he has even taken to putting the word “American” into the names of many of his Keeneland purchases that he goes on to race himself.
In 2005, he purchased Lot 317, a Deputy Minister yearling filly out of the Broad Brush mare Powder for $110,000 from Taylor Made Sales Agency. He went on to race the filly, now named Sexy Zamurai, in partnership with someone else before regaining full control of her as a broodmare. Sexy Zamurai has four foals of racing age, and all of them have been winners multiple times. Her youngest to race, Master Fencer, is set to run in the 145th Kentucky Derby on May 4 at Churchill Downs after having accepted the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby invitation.
Master Fencer in many ways is the culmination of one man’s dream, from loving horseback riding as a young boy, starting his own successful training empire, and traveling the world to bring new stock into Japan. Master Fencer is the first Japanese-bred horse to ever run in the Kentucky Derby, and his presence reflects the love of American racing and horses in general that brought Katsumi Yoshizawa’s Kentucky Derby dreams front and center.