On the morning of March 26 we got our first Kentucky Derby horse of the year. There are plenty who are planning to run in Louisville on the first Saturday of May, of course, but Lani became the first to have the points to make the field and to have no more races to run. All that is left for him is some training and some luck. By winning the U.A.E. Derby on the undercard of the Dubai World Cup, this horse wrapped up his ticket and his shot at the roses.
When Lani enters the starting gate in Kentucky he'll make some history - he'll be just the second ever horse based in Japan to run in the Derby. He's not as exotic as that sounds - he was bred in Kentucky. He races for Japanese connections, though, and his first five races before heading to Dubai were in Japan. The last, Ski Captain, was 14th in 1995, so the chance to be the best Japanese finisher in the Derby ever isn't a particularly high barrier to cross.
Last race: It was an odd collection of horses that gathered in the $2 million U.A.E. Derby. Polar River and Vale Dori were two impressive fillies taking on the boys for the first time. Fank Conversation was a horse based in California making the odd - and ultimately unsuccessful - trip to Dubai to chase Derby points he wasn't likely to get in the U.S.. Two Japanese runners and a couple of no-hope locals rounded out the field. It was a professional win for the big grey colt. He tripped coming out of the gate and looked for a second like he would go down. He recovered but trailed the field early. He made up the ground on the backstretch, rode through the final turn three wide, and then patiently chased down the ultimate third-place finisher, catching him strides before the wire, and holding off the late charging Polar River. You can't call it a dominating win by any means, but the horse overcame less-than-ideal circumstances to come out on top against a nice filly. There is a lot to build on there, and the potential is clear. It didn't feel like we just saw the Kentucky Derby favorite or anything, though. Prior winners of the U.A.E. Derby have come over for the Derby, but none have fared particularly well - the runner-up in the 2011 U.A.E. Derby, Master of Hounds, actually has the top Kentucky Derby finish with fifth.
Prior experience: Your knowledge of Japanese racing can't be any less than mine, so it's hard to put too much context into his results. What we do know is that the horse broke his maiden in his third try in November. Then he came back just six days later - something that would never happen over here - to win his first stakes race. He was laid off until the end of February when he was fifth in another stakes in Tokyo before heading to Dubai, where his only race was the U.A.E. Derby. So, overall he has three wins in six starts, with two coming in stakes.
Trainer: Mikio Matsunaga has been training for 10 seasons, and in 2015 won the award for top trainer in Japan for the first time. Last year he won 44 races, with a mix of both flat and jump races. Prior to being a trainer he was a top jockey in Japan, though he was overshadowed by his contemporary and rival Yutaka Take, who we will hear about soon. He retired from riding when his primary trainer retired from training, and he took over the trainer's barn. He has had just two North American starts in his career, with a third-place showing being the best result.
Jockey: Matsunaga couldn't beat Yutaka Take in the jockey standings, so now he hires him to ride his horses. Take just turned 47, so he's no longer at the peak of his career. At his best, though, he consistently won jockey titles, and he won the Japanese Triple Crown in 2005 with Deep Impact, a son of Sunday Silence - the damsire of Lani. Take rode Ski Captain, so he is the only Japanese jockey on a Japanese horse to ride in the Derby. He has ridden 223 races in North America dating back to 1989, so he will not be totally unfamiliar with the style of racing and the ways of North American jockeys.
Breeding: Like so many young horses right now, Lani is a son of Tapit. There could be as many as five or six Tapit sons in the Derby field. Tapit horses can run, and they are often a bit weird. Lani is no exception - he had to get special permission to get tacked up far away from the other horses before the U.A.E. Derby. As a son of Tapit, the Triple Crown bona fides in the first four generations of the pedigree are ridiculous - Unbridled won the Derby, A.P. Indy won the Belmont, Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown. On the dam side we have Sunday Silence, who won the Derby in 1990, and we can go back to Northern Dancer, too. There is no shortage of Classic blood here.
Odds: Lani opened at 50/1 in the final Kentucky Derby futures pool and had not appeared in any of the prior three futures pools. At BetOnline there are 44 horses with odds assigned, and Lani is not one of them. The horse will be a Derby long shot.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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