Kentucky Derby Hopeful Team Lani Well Represented at Churchill Downs

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TwinSpires Staff

May 7th, 2016


It has been easy enough to spot Lani in training for Kentucky Derby 142, what with his striking gray coat and his methodical training technique. But since his every move is followed by a small but growing core of reporters and photographers from Japan, team Lani is especially hard to miss here at Churchill Downs.

Let’s not hype this. We are not talking about a case of Lani fever. But there are symptoms that it will be full-blown if he pulls off the 30-1 upset in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.

“To be honest, it was surprising that he won the UAE Derby,” said Nobu Furuta, deputy manager of international relations for the Japan Racing Association. “I would not say there is much fever, but now we are interested in his race in the Kentucky Derby.”

It certainly is not the fervor that Japanese fans showed by the thousands in Paris, watching El Condor Pasa and Deep Impact and Nakayama Festa and Orfèvre one heartbreaking defeat after another in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. So forgive Japanese fans if they consider the Arc their crucible and the Derby as a mere curiosity.

“It’s difficult to compare this with Orfèvre, because he was an experienced, champion horse,” Lani’s trainer Mikio Matsunaga said Friday through an interpreter. “Lani is still young and facing horses and their tactics for the first time, so people’s expectations are not as high as they were for Orfèvre.”

One writer went a step further, saying Lani’s record before his breakthrough in March in Dubai made skeptics out of a lot of race fans.

“He had five races, and he won only two of them,” said Manabu Mimuro of Yomiuri Shimbun, which has the largest circulation of any newspaper in the world. “That’s one reason Japanese people don’t have as strong a confidence or interest in him. I don’t think they know how strong he is.”

Whether it is Lani’s so-so racing record or constantly being teased by unrequited hopes in the Arc, Japanese interest seems almost perfunctory this week. There is also the fact that this is only the second time a Japanese horse has come to the Derby (Ski Captain finished 14th in 1995), so Kentucky does not exactly show up as a big blip on Japan’s racing radar.

“Expectations here are not as high as they were for Dubai,” said Shimpei Sasaki, a racing TV director for the Kansas Telecasting Corporation tat has a crew here in Kentucky. “We’re very happy to be here with Lani. But this is the first time for Japan to be here in 21 years. And we know it is difficult to win at Churchill Downs with 20 horses. In Japan the maximum is 18.”

One other thing about Japan. There is no gambling allowed on foreign races. At least not yet.

“We were just allowed by the government to handle some of the major racing overseas,” said Atsushi Koya, Japan Racing Association’s New York general manager. “But only two races have been authorized by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries – the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Breeders’ Cup Turf.”

So what about illegal betting through bookmakers? Perish the thought.

“No bookies over here,” said a Tokyo horseplayer who shall remain anonymous. “Don’t want them. Yakuza (organized crime syndicates) won’t really touch it. Deep Impact and Orfèvre were backed in France on the PMU (Pari Mutuel Urbain) by the thousands that traveled over there.”

“Most of the fan interest in the Kentucky Derby is not betting interest,” Koya said. “It’s like World Cup soccer or the baseball World Series or U.S. Open tennis or the Masters golf tournament. It is not legal to bet on those in Japan, but there is still interest – especially in how competitors from Japan compete against competitors from America.”

At least this year we are unlikely to see at Churchill Downs what has become an a familiar and even attractive sight site whenever there is a Japanese horse with a strong chance to win at Longchamp in Paris. That would be the scene of hundreds of Japanese flags being waved by a big bloc of cheering, chanting fans from Japan.

Still, what reaction there is to Lani will be chronicled by 50 journalists credentialed from 15 media organizations, according to Churchill Downs spokesman Darren Rogers.

“Usually the Kentucky Derby is not covered that much here before the race,” Furuta said in his email from Japan. “It is obvious that we can find more related articles this year than there were in previous years when there was no Japanese horse.”

The early arrivals among the visiting media have been here to capture every move Lani, Matsunaga and exercise rider Eishu Maruuchi have made from Barn 17 to the track and back. Along the way, the crowds have continued to build both in the stable area and in the grandstand.

“It is much, much greater than I expected,” Matsunaga said through an interpreter during the course of this week’s sessions with the media. “There is nothing like this at home before the Tokyo Yūshun (Japanese derby). The crowds are not a big concern here, because we have huge crowds at our races in Japan. Crowds don’t bother Lani. He likes people.”

And even if he does not have the following of bigger Japanese stars, Lani has his loyalists. An oversized greeting card showed up late Thursday from Daisen in western Japan, where owners Koji and Yoko Maeda have their stable. It did not take a translator to know it said good luck.

“Now that Japanese horses are getting stronger,” Furuta said, “we think it may not be just a dream to win the Kentucky Derby.”

But as with all racing stories, the biggest noise will be made by the horse itself. Emblematic of that was what happened on a dreary, cold Thursday morning with the sky as gray but not nearly as bright as Lani’s colt. With a dozen media types transfixed, Lani walked outside and greeted the dawn with a head-clearing, full-throated whinny. It was ready-made image that was captured and instantly sent back to Japan – whether it is ready for this Kentucky Derby long shot or not.