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Japanese-trained Lani shaking things up at Preakness

Lani, owned by Koji Maeda and trained by Mikio Matsunaga, arrives at Pimlico on Thursday, May 19, 2016, for this weekend's Preakness.
Lani, owned by Koji Maeda and trained by Mikio Matsunaga, arrives at Pimlico on Thursday, May 19, 2016, for this weekend's Preakness. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Just after 5 a.m. Friday, with the sun not yet up and the other horses not yet out of their barns, one of Preakness Week's biggest spectacles was all by himself. He rested inside an isolation barn, with a green tarp curtaining him from the outside world.

No one quite knew what to expect from Lani.

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The Kentucky-bred, Japanese-trained horse created a circus at the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, squealing when he saw spectators or other horses. After training at Belmont Park in New York after the Derby, Lani brought his show to Pimlico on Thursday morning. The handful of spectators on hand watched undefeated Nyquist gallop, then left the track to see Lani's truck pull into the lot.

All week, the connections to the Preakness' top contenders have been asked an impossible question: What will your horse do in the downpour that might drench the racetrack, or might not come at all? Their answers have differed only in style.

Someone inside cracked open a window to give Lani his first sight of Baltimore. A trainer walked him over to his barn, and the horse stayed calm.

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Usually, his connections insist, he is that way. But sometimes he misbehaves. Once, before he traveled to Louisville, Ky., for the Derby, he refused to perform one of his morning gallops.

At the Preakness Alibi Breakfast on Thursday, in front of about 100 people, a host couldn't help but ask about Lani's "personality."

The host called him "a handful." His jockey, Yutaka Take, called him "difficult" (through interpreter Atsushi Koya). Asked about Lani, Koya — who works in the Japan Racing Association's New York office and has helped arrange the horse's appearances in American races — can only laugh.

"Everybody says the same thing," Koya said Friday. "Nobody has seen a character like him."

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Certainly not Pimlico, where Lani is the first Japanese-trained horse to run in the Preakness. His first five starts came in Japan before he won the UAE Derby in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on March 26. He took a long flight from Dubai to Chicago, then a shorter trip to Churchill Downs and started making headlines.

Koya and trainer Mikio Matsunaga agree Lani has almost no trouble with all of the travel, no matter how far. It's how he reacts once he gets to the track that sometimes creates a problem. If Lani wants to run, he will run well. If not, well, he tests Matsunaga and his team.

"He is the king," Koya recalls assistant trainer Eishu Maruuchi telling him, "and I am the servant."

The Japanese training methods also provide a new twist at Pimlico. Matsunaga and other Japanese trainers walk their horses more, for as long as two hours in their workouts. They also stable their horses at a training center rather than at the track, and then have them shipped to the track to run (though Lani has stayed at Pimlico since he arrived Thursday).

Lani might be the first to train for the Preakness using these methods, but his connections hope he isn't the last. Most Japanese owners aren't familiar with the process of competing in American races — "a different world," Koya said — and he hopes Lani sets an example for future horses. Already this year, fans back in Japan have been cheering him on.

Lani has created less commotion this week than at the Kentucky Derby, a fact Matsunaga attributes to being better adjusted. Before the Derby, legendary trainer Bob Baffert told Matsunaga to savor the experience, his first in one of the Triple Crown races.

"But," Matsunaga said through interpreter Keita Tanaka, "we had no time to do that because [of] Lani's behavior. But we get better with the surroundings, so I want to have some [enjoyment] this time.

"We enjoyed the Kentucky Derby, but at that time, we had too much new things. Everything is new and changed from where he has been, so this time, he has gotten used to the American tracks, training and the racing style here."

Matsunaga hopes to appreciate this week more, and part of that includes a better result. His horse was slow out of the gates at the Derby, but recovered to finish ninth. Take is planning his usual start off the pace Saturday and then hopes to come from behind for a strong finish. Matsunaga said a more acclimated Lani will be more equipped for that.

So just after 3 p.m. Thursday, with Lani settled quietly in his isolation stall, Koya and a couple of others from the team were at the Pimlico gift shop, buying all the Preakness souvenirs they could get their hands on.

No one, not even them, can predict what Lani will do once the gates open Saturday. But for now, their dream ride rolls on.



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