Matsunaga said UAE Derby (UAE-II) winner Lani has found the 1 ½-mile Belmont track, the sandy surface, and the expansive backstretch more to his liking. While Matsunaga can’t change his initial decision to prepare for the Derby at Churchill, he has seen his Tapit colt settle into a rhythm since arriving at Belmont May 9 to prepare for the Preakness Stakes (gr. I)—in which he ran fifth after a Derby ninth—and looks forward to his start in the June 11 Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (gr. I).
“He likes his surroundings here at Belmont Park,” Matsunaga said through an interpreter June 8. “He’s been having a good time in New York and we’re looking forward to running Saturday...
“Since we’ve come here, he’s been doing very well. The surroundings are nice and quiet. Before the Derby, If I knew we would have had these kind of surroundings, I would have brought the horse straight from Dubai to New York. I didn’t expect those (backstretch) crowds before the Derby during the training.”
On June 8 Lani breezed five furlongs in 1:00.43 at Belmont and spent his usual extended time on the track, which Matsunaga said is similar in size and surface to Tokyo Racecourse, which features a 2,100-meter (1.3-mile) dirt oval.
“He was very controllable, according to the rider. And he showed good acceleration coming out of the turn and he had great strides,” Matsunaga said. “I couldn’t be any happier with that.”
Matsunaga said Lani appears to be moving forward, noting it’s been a dramatic change since the gray colt’s pre-Derby morning antics made headlines.
“I was very happy with his condition before the Preakness but I’m even happier going into this,” Matsunaga said. “He’s had two races in the United States now, so he’s used to the race style in the States. This race is the ideal trip for Lani so if he were to win it—no surprise.”
Lani certainly has the breeding to run well at the Belmont distance. He is a son of two-time leading sire Tapit, who already has sired 2014 Belmont winner Tonalist . Lani is out of Heavenly Romance, a group I-winning daughter of dual-classic winner and Japan's 13-time leading sire Sunday Silence. Heavenly Romance, who defeated males in the 2,000-meter (about 1 ¼-mile) Tenno Sho Autumn (Jpn-I) also has produced stakes winner Amour Briller, by Smart Strike, and group III winner Awardee, by Jungle Pocket.
After the Belmont Lani will spend time in quarantine before being shipped back to Japan where Matsunaga plans to continue to race him in top dirt races. Just starting in all three Triple Crown races would be an achievement of some level. Lani joins Preakness (gr. I) winner and Derby runner-up Exaggerator as the only two 3-year-olds this season to compete in the trio.
“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 about (21,000), so two out of (21,000), and I’ve been training one of them,” Matsunaga said. “This is something I view with much pride as a trainer.”