A horse must run a mile and a quarter to win the Kentucky Derby, but the high-strung, headstrong Lani has traveled much farther than that just to have the chance.
Bred in Kentucky but based in Japan for owner Koji Maeda, the son of Tapit was flown 4,800 miles to Dubai, where he won the UAE Derby on March 26.
The next day, Lani was flown 7,200 miles to Chicago, where he was quarantined for a couple of days before boarding a van and riding 330 miles to Churchill Downs where he arrived at Barn 17 on April 3.
The gray or roan 3-year-old has made his presence felt since, through his loud squealing when he comes out of the barn, the obvious attention he pays to his opposite sex and his unorthodox training routine.
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“He has a very strong mind himself,” trainer, Mikio Matsunaga, said Tuesday through translator Kaita Tanaka. “When the other horses come toward him, he may get sometimes aggressive to the others. But in the races, he always concentrates on how he runs and he likes racing.”
He’s pretty good at racing, too. Lani, which means “sky of the heavens” in Hawaiian, has won three of five starts on dirt. In Dubai, he started dead last then circled the field to win by three-quarters of a length.
Whether he’s good enough to win the sport’s biggest race is another matter. No UAE Derby winner has finished better than sixth (China Visit in 2000) in the Kentucky Derby.
Only two Derby winners raced outside of America before the Derby — Venezuela’s Canonero II in 1971 and Puerto Rico’s Bold Forbes in 1974. The best finish by a horse who made his last start before the Derby outside the U.S. was Bold Arrangement, who finished second to Ferdinand in 1986. Lani will be just the ninth Derby starter to make all his starts outside of the United States. None finished in the top five.
On top of all that, Lani would be just the second Japan-based horse to run in the Derby, following Skai Captain, who finished 14th in 1995. At age 47, Yutaka Take is a Japanese racing legend, having won nearly 4,000 races. His last visit to Churchill, he rode two horses in the 2000 Breeders’ Cup.
Safe to say, few horses have been like Lani, who has been described as “lacking interest in his works.” He worked 5 furlongs at Churchill in an extremely slow 1:06 on April 20. A week later, he was to work 5 furlongs, but refused to start right away and went 3 furlongs in :37.40.
“His temperament is that he’s not willing to run always,” Take told the media.
The connections deny he dislikes the starting gate, but he does like to walk. The horse has spent a lot of time walking the track, on instructions from Matsunaga, it turns out.
“Usually when I am back home we have plenty of places to walk, even inside the barn,” the trainer said. “But there is not ideally big enough. So I give him one lap good walking on the main track.”
Tuesday, Tanaka informed the clocker if the horse was “happy” after his first lap around the track, Lani would work 5 furlongs. And, after some urging, he did in 1:01.
His temperament is that he’s not willing to run always.
Yutaka Take, Lani’s jockey
Lani has the breeding. Known for producing high-strung offspring, Tapit was the leading U.S.-based sire in 2014 and 2015. Lani’s dam, Heavenly Romance, is by Sunday Silence, who won the 1989 Kentucky Derby.
“I don’t think my horse is not only a runner, he is a runner with a good chance,” Matsunaga said. “So I want to change history.”
And Lani is receiving plenty of attention back home. At least 15 Japanese media outlets have requested credentials from Churchill Downs for the race.
“I know it is a big honor to have a runner in the Kentucky Derby as a trainer,” Matsunaga said.
Is it also the biggest challenge of the trainer’s career?
“Definitely it is,” said the trainer.