Traditional Japanese culture is all about family, respect for elders and conformity. Devotion to duty, perseverance and politeness are paramount.
Then there’s the other side, because people love to rebel against constraints. Japan also is famous for bizarre game shows, pink-haired teens and punk rockers. Maybe Boredom or The Dead Pop Stars will be inspired to write a song about Japan-based Lani, a talented but temperamental gray colt whose bizarre antics enlivened Kentucky Derby week and the hour before the race.
Keita Tanaka, spokesman for owner Koji Maeda, accompanied Lani from Dubai, where he won the $2-million UAE Derby, to Churchill Downs and then to Belmont Park. He’s scheduled to van to Pimlico on Thursday morning and run in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes.
“He’s got a lot of fans because of his personality,’’ Tanaka told Newsday. “He’s kind of a bad boy, and people like bad boys.”
But not the ones who train him and have to put up with his weirdness. Considering his off-the-wall behavior leading up to the Derby, it’s remarkable that Lani managed to finish ninth, 10 3⁄4 lengths behind Nyquist.
Clocker Gary Young described a typical Lani morning for the Louisville Courier-Journal: “As the beast stepped onto the track, he looked like Russell Crowe entering the Colosseum in ‘Gladiator.’ ” Not what an exercise rider wants to see, and Eishu Maruuchi admitted that Lani runs the show.
He fought his rider during three workouts at Churchill. He resisted entering the starting gate for a schooling session, digging in his heels for several minutes before going in. Predictably, he was off slowly in the Derby, quickly fell behind by 19 lengths and lost all chance.
Trainer Mikio Matsunaga tried to make the best of it. “He chased from behind and the ground was too fast and not suitable for him, but he did a good run,’’ Matsunaga said. “For Lani and myself, it’s a big experience for us.’’
Unfortunately, the most memorable moments came before the race. Lani shook his head violently after being led from his stall. He acted studdish, as he often does when a filly is in the vicinity. Instead of focusing on “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports,” he was envisioning “a stallion, a mare, a moment.’’ Bad, bad, bad.
His groom walked him in circles for 15 minutes to try to calm him. Nope. He was kept far behind the other 19 runners on the long walk from the backstretch to the paddock. Hearing thousands screaming can upset the most even-tempered horse. It was guaranteed to send Lani into a tizzy, and he morphed into mule mode.
As he kicked the side of his stall, someone tweeted: “Lani is freaking out in the paddock. Shocker.” Before “My Old Kentucky Home” played during the post parade, Lani had galloped toward the backstretch with Yutaka Take. Japan’s all-time greatest rider must have wondered why he came 5,000 miles for this. In the understatement of the week, Take said: “It was a very tough race. He needed more speed.’’
The morning after, Matsunaga let his guard down. He said four-time Derby winner Bob Baffert had told him “to enjoy the best race in the world,” and he said he was “very impressed by the atmosphere.” Matsunaga was asked if he’d like to come back.
“Yes, but with a different type horse,’’ he said. “I would want one that is tough, very capable, and possibly a front-runner . . . and easier to handle.’’
In the Hawaiian language, Lani means “heavenly,” although his personality could be attributed to the other place. Blame the blue-blooded Kentucky-bred’s craziness on volcanic DNA. His daddy is Tapit, the world’s leading sire, with a $300,000 fee. His maternal grandfather is Hall of Famer Sunday Silence. Tapit’s offspring are notorious for acting up. Sunday Silence was a handful, too. A few days before the 1989 Belmont Stakes, he reared up and cut trainer Charlie Whittingham’s forehead with a hoof.
“His grandfather was a character,” Tanaka said, “and I’ve heard that many sons of Tapit are difficult to handle.”
Oddly, once Lani gets running, he’s all business, a one-paced grinder who looks capable of staying any distance. He lacks speed but keeps on coming, and he went from last to first in the UAE Derby. He’s earned $1.36 million, so he’s more than paid his way around the world.
Lani just wants to be left alone. While at Belmont, he’s staying at Barclay Tagg’s Barn 6, where carpenters nailed boards top to bottom to the front of stall 33 to provide privacy. Apparently, it’s helped. “He’s settled in very well,” Tanaka said.
“I don’t see any problems with him,’’ Tagg told Newsday. “They act like he’s a lion or a tiger, but I’ve had worse horses than that.”
It will be Tanaka’s first trip to Pimlico, but thanks to YouTube, he’s familiar with its venerable infield tradition, “The Running of the Urinals.” Drunks sprint on top of two rows of portable toilets as other revelers hurl full beer cans at them.
Too bad it’s been banned, because it’s Lani’s kind of scene.