Lani a real Derby wild card

Of the races that award Kentucky Derby qualifying points, the richest on the list is run about 7,400 miles from Churchill Downs' twin spires.

But some would argue that the winner of the $2 million United Arab Emirates Derby, despite being assured entry into the Kentucky Derby with 100 points, is not necessarily qualified.

The best Derby finish from a UAE winner came from the race's first champ, China Visit, who in 2000 managed a sixth at Churchill. The average Derby finish by a horse who raced in the UAE Derby is about 10th, though Daddy Long Legs' 20th in 2012 drags down the average.

There might be no good reason to believe 2016 UAE Derby winner Lani is much better than his predecessors, but make no mistake: Wherever he finishes, Lani has made a memorable impression this Derby season. The colt from Japan was among the first intended Derby starters to arrive in Louisville, and for the past several weeks, he has blown through Churchill Downs like a sailor on extended port call.

He yells full-throated, wild-eyed at nearly every passing horse, and Lani, evidently angling for an early stallion career, makes no effort to hide an already-keen eye for fillies. His training sessions have been the source of amusement and amazement. Lani spends far longer out on the track than most American horses, and it often has taken him far longer than American horses to run around Churchill's famed oval.

Lani worked five furlongs on April 20 in 1:06, a time barely fast enough to make the official work tab. In a more recent workout, jockey Yutaka Take had to resort to the crop just to get Lani up to a breezing speed about three furlongs from the finish line. There are mornings when it seems Lani basically says, "Thanks, not today."

"He always had a strong mind and can be very bossy and colty," said Keita Yutaka, the agent for owner Koji Maeda. "That's never changed. Even back home, he's always been like that. That was the same in Dubai and when he came to the U.S. He's not willing to run all the time. He has a very fracturing temperament, and it's hard to predict. But if you look in his past performances, you can see he never gets beat by a large margin."

It's true that for all his quirks, Lani can run some. Whether he's fast enough to make a dent in the Derby remains to be seen, but just getting to this point is no small feat. Lani is the second Japan-based horse to make the Derby -- Ski Captain, also with Take as jockey, finished 14th in 1995 -- and only the ninth Derby starter to have made all his pre-Derby starts outside North America. The most recent of those was Mubtaahij, who finished eighth last year after winning the UAE Derby by a far wider margin than Lani. Mubtaahij's people weren't especially downtrodden by just getting into the top half of the Derby field, but Lani's camp is looking for more.

"The owner and his racing team have been quite successful for more than 20 years, and they've won more than 20 Group 1s," Yutaka said. "Their ambitions are very high. They are only thinking about winning the Kentucky Derby."

Lani, who shipped directly from Dubai to the U.S., is trained by former jockey Mikio Matsunaga. Lani is by Tapit and out of the mare Heavenly Romance, whose sire, Sunday Silence, famously won the 1989 Kentucky Derby over Easy Goer. Lani debuted racing 1¼ miles on turf in September and since then has won three of five dirt races, the $2 million UAE Derby easily his most important victory.

It's fair and important to question the quality of the competition Lani beat March 26 at Meydan in Dubai. The 3-year-old filly Polar River finished second with trouble in upper stretch, and while she's seemingly talented, there's no good way on her form lines to measure her ability. A close third in the race was another Japanese horse, Yu Change, of no great accomplishment whose connections did not nominate him to the Triple Crown.

But Lani's performance was perhaps better than those bare basics. In Meydan's immense saddling enclosure, he was kept far away from his foes, heading down the tunnel to the parade ring after the other horses had gone past, hollering all the way down the tunnel. Lani spent little time in the parade ring, going out onto the track to warm up long before the post parade.

Unsurprisingly, he broke last, spotting the field several lengths. Racing from the rear, he lost ground the entire first turn before Take made a very early move, letting Lani zoom from the back of the pack to a pace-pressing position as he wheeled onto the backstretch. Lani settled there, lost ground again on the far turn and ground out a three-quarter-length victory, the margin perhaps not fully expressing his superiority on the night because Lani did not appear fully extended.

"As soon after he hit the finish line, the connections decided to bring him to the Kentucky Derby, but it was more than a year project," said Tanaka, who has traveled with Lani since the gray colt left Japan and said his connections are hopeful of making all three legs of the Triple Crown. "The owner, he recognized this horse was very talented when he was an early 2-year-old, and having a run in the Kentucky Derby has always been in his mind."

Tanaka said Lani's camp hasn't been at all distressed by the unusual morning exercise at Churchill, but unlike at Meydan, after Lani walks over from the stables for the Derby, there will be no escaping the noise, chaos and proximity of 19 other horses in the last lead-up to his race. Will Lani melt down?

The colt has no early speed. He's nearly certain to break slowly, with perhaps 19 horses in front of him going into the first turn.

"I don't predict him to be in the first half of the field on the homestretch the first time, but he just keeps coming and coming, and he will finish strongly," Tanaka said.

And even if he doesn't, thus extending the UAE Derby's run of also-rans, Lani at least made his presence known this Derby season.