Horses

Bad boy Lani commanding respect in advance of Belmont Stakes

Lani worked with rider Eishu Maruuchi at Churchill Downs in the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby. Lani and Exaggerator are the only horses who will contest all three Triple Crown races this season.
Lani worked with rider Eishu Maruuchi at Churchill Downs in the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby. Lani and Exaggerator are the only horses who will contest all three Triple Crown races this season.

Somewhere between the whirlwind atmosphere that surrounded him in Kentucky, his brief jaunt to Baltimore and subsequent return to New York, Lani appears to have lost the memo that he is supposed to be the crazy one.

The gray son of Tapit who has made himself at home on the Belmont Park oval in recent weeks doesn’t quite match up anymore with the horse that was the subject of backstretch cracks in the run-up to the Kentucky Derby. The Japan-based colt who would leave the barn screaming every morning at Churchill Downs, buck his way through attempted gate schooling sessions and borderline refuse to train now looks like a downright professional, demeanor and all.

“Looney Lani” some called him, critiquing his temperamental nature and unconventional — by American standards — training routine. By whatever measure you evaluate the UAE Derby winner, Saturday’s 148th running of the Belmont Stakes may prove as good a time as any to start taking the colt seriously.

When the gates open for the 1½-mile test, Lani and Preakness Stakes winner Exaggerator will share the bragging rights of being the only horses to start in all three legs of the Triple Crown this season. There is more than a little bit of irony in the fact that the horse who has least fit the mold of a classic contender now appears to be in better form at the tail end of the task than when he started.

Lani shipped to Belmont Park just days after his ninth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, and the quiet surroundings of the massive oval’s backstretch have rubbed off on owner Koji Maeda’s top 3-year-old. In the weeks since his fifth-place effort in the Preakness Stakes, the Kentucky-bred runner has settled down and put in three solid workouts, the most recent a 5-furlong move in 1:00.43 on Wednesday.

His latest breezes have been a far cry from his Kentucky Derby preparations, which saw him lollygag though a 5-furlong move in 1:06 on April 20 and then obstinately work only 3 furlongs when he was supposed to go five-eighths seven days later. Lani’s issue of switching running leads has also come around of late, another sign he is increasingly comfortable as he readies for his third North American start.

“He has shown a dramatic change from before the Derby and before the Preakness,” trainer Mikio Matsunaga said via a translator this week. “He is much fitter and ready, he knows the race is coming close and my staff has done a very good job.

“He had a little trouble in training before the Derby, not only with changing leads but he would suddenly want to stop during training. But he hasn’t shown that kind of bad behavior since we came to New York. I’m totally happy with how he’s done at Belmont Park. Since we came here, he has settled in very well.”

Underneath Lani’s antics has been a legitimate racehorse that has won three of eight career starts and boasts a pedigree tailor-made for the arduous final leg of the Triple Crown.

Out of a daughter of Hall of Famer and 1989 Belmont Stakes runner-up Sunday Silence, Lani stumbled out of the gate in the Group II, $2 million UAE Derby at Meydan Racecourse on March 26 and looked beaten in midstretch only to rally late to edge Polar River by three quarters of a length.

The break has not been Lani’s friend. He practically walked out of the gate and was last in the early going of the Kentucky Derby, as was the case two weeks later when he got off to a pedestrian start in the Preakness Stakes.

If he can get himself away in halfway decent order out of post No. 10 in the Belmont, Lani might just be able to grind his way into a position behind expected pacesetter Gettysburg where his late kick won’t have so much work to do in the final couple furlongs.

“I’m expecting him to be a lot more closer (to the pace) than what he’s been showing the previous two races, which is a very good thing for him because he’s not going to have as much ground to make up,” Matsunaga said. “I was very happy with how his condition was before the Preakness Stakes but I’m even happier at this time. ... If he won it, for me it would be no surprise.”

Lani’s fitness level has never been in question. In a routine Matsunaga says is common back in Japan, his charge is often on the track for upwards of 25-30 minutes at a time — walking, jogging and galloping through multiple laps.

“We go straight to the track here, but we would do an hour walk before he goes to the track back home in Japan,” Matsunaga said. “It’s been great for him. I haven’t seen this type of horse many times. He has a unique character.”

Even Lani’s walk is atypical as he has a distinct little head bob with each stride. He has become a cult favorite with his idiosyncratic routine, and his progress from renegade to contender is in itself an accomplishment.

“There are only two horses running in all three races of the Triple Crown, and the number of horses bred in America each year ... is like (less than) 30,000,” Matsunaga said. “I’ve been training one of them. This is something I view with much pride as a trainer.”

Alicia Wincze Hughes: 859-231-1676, @horseracinghl

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