Lani works at Churchill Downs April 27

Lani works at Churchill Downs April 27

Coady Photography/Churchill Downs

Lani Works in Perplexing Fashion

Japan's Kentucky Derby (gr. I) contender was difficult to motivate April 27.

Lani, only the second Japanese-based horse to contest the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), was supposed to have a major workout April 27 for the May 7 classic at Churchill Downs. Yutaka Take, Japan's most famous jockey, even came in for the work aboard the UAE Derby (UAE-II) winner.

But Lani apparently had other things on his mind, and declined to kick into gear until after a quarter-mile of what was designed to be a five-eighths of a mile work. He picked it up midway through the turn to get an official time of :37 2/5, galloping out a half-mile in :50 3/5. The Churchill clockers caught the first eighth-mile of the timed portion in :14.

A trainer timing from the backside clocked Lani lallygagging what was to be the first quarter-mile of a five-eighths work in :37. That's far slower than the son of Tapit  goes in his normal enthusiastic gallops of two miles or more.

But he can be that way, said Kieta Tanaka, agent for owner Yoko Maeda and who has been serving as the barn's translator.

"He was a little shy, shyer than what I thought, for accelerating," Take said through Tanaka. "But after the quarter pole, he did a good gallop for two furlongs and after the finish pole."

Tanaka said that "even back home, he sometimes does something like what you saw this morning. It's not a big concern." 

Take acknowledged that Lani's temperament is such that he's not always willing to run, but "if he wants to run on Derby Day, we have a big chance." The jockey said he wouldn't know which Lani was showing up until they broke from the gate.

If Kentucky-bred Lani wins the Derby, it will be with the most unorthodox training, by American standards, since Canonero II came from Venezuela and proved in 1971 that there is more than one method to success.

Lani has been at Churchill Downs since April 3, clearing quarantine at Arlington International Racecourse near Chicago. He was supposed to work five-eighths last week after galloping a mile. But that training session also started extremely slow before the colt picked up the pace on the turn, his final time of 1:06 barely making the cutoff to have a published workout. That work was by design to be devoid of speed, his camp said, adding this work would have more speed. 

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Take also rode Ski Captain, the first Japanese-based horse to run in the Derby and who finished 14th in the 1995 race won by Thunder Gulch. 

"For a very long time, I have been wishing to ride in the Derby again," the jockey said through Tanaka. "The time has come now, and I'm very excited about it.... For the jockeys riding outside the U.S., it's extremely difficult to even get a ride in the Kentucky Derby. So I understand how precious the experience this time will be."

 Asked if he'd observed the changes in the now suite-laden grandstand since 1995, Take said with a laugh, "Today I was on a difficult horse," and didn't notice.

Lani taking on America's best 3-year-olds in the Derby is a big story in Japan. A video crew from Western Japan's Kansai Telecasting Corp. was in town working on a documentary on Lani. 

Crew chief Shinpei Sasaki, who has documented some of the world's most famous racing venues, said he was 15 when he became a fan of the Kentucky Derby watching Ski Captain's quest. But this is the first time Sasaki has been at Churchill.

He didn't need a translator when asked his impression, saying with a big smile, "awesome."