Back in 1971, Canonero II shipped up from Venezuela to shock the racing world by winning the Kentucky Derby in his very first North American start. The connections of Lani, winner of the March 26 U. A. E. Derby (G2), will try to pull off a similar feat.
Lani was a two-time winner in his native Japan, including a listed stakes victory, before his lucrative score in the Meydan twilight.
In the Derby the colt stumbled badly at the start and fell back to last in the early running. Under the expert and patient guidance of star Japanese rider Yutaka Take, Lani was allowed settle and regained contact with the field midway up the backstretch. By the time they were mid-way around the final turn Lani was contending for the lead as if the incident never happened. However, when Lani reached the eighth pole he was under a hard drive and it looked like he might not have enough left to get past leader Yu Change. But then the script flipped again. Yu Change tired. Lani surged past that rival with enough energy to hold the late-running filly Polar River at bay by less than a length.
Kudos to the grey for overcoming a disastrous start and winning a 1 3/16 dirt race in a foreign land. He'll enter the Kentucky Derby having successfully run the farthest of any of his 19 competitors. And his pedigree is certainly suited for a Triple Crown run being by America's sire sensation Tapit out of a daughter of 1989 Derby/Preakness hero Sunday Silence. His next two dams are by Sadler's Wells and Ribot, sire of several Classic winners each around the world.
But that's where the positives end for Lani. His stretch run on Saturday was not visually impressive and the estimated Beyer Speed Figure came in a lowly 83. The field for this year's $2 million event looked particularly weak as there were no grade/group 1 performers in the mix and only two of the entrants were winners at grade/group level when the gates opened. And then there's the colt's temperament. Like many Tapits he apparently has his personality quirks His trainer Mikio Matsunaga said after the race:
“The Meydan staff has been very kind to us, allowing us to take the best care of Lani as possible. He can be very troublesome so we really appreciated the allowances given to us by the track staff [who allowed him to be saddled away from the crowds].”
There will likely be no such accommodations made at Churchill Downs where a raucous crowd of 150,000 or so will gather on the first Saturday in May.
The last foreign-based horse to hit the board in the Kentucky Derby was Bold Arrangement who was second to Ferdinand in 1986 (after prepping first in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland). Lani has even more history against him as the U. A. E. Derby winner has yet to hit to the board in a U. S. Triple Crown race. Here's breakdown of their finishes:
2000 - China Visit: 6th Kentucky Derby
2001 - Express Tour: 8th Kentucky Derby
2002 - Essence of Dubai: 9th in Kentucky Derby, 6th Belmont Stakes
2009 - Regal Ransom: 8th Kentucky Derby
2012 - Daddy Long Legs: DNF Kentucky Derby
2013 - Lines of Battle: 7th Kentucky Derby
2014 - Toast of New York: 6th Belmont Stakes
2015 - Mubtaahij: 8th Kentucky Derby, 4th Belmont Stakes
Should Lani wear the roses he wouldn't be quite the upset that Canonero II was 45 years ago but he does have much overcome.