Japan will be represented in the 2016 Kentucky Derby (G1), thanks to the well-bred and improving Lani, who toppled previously unbeaten filly Polar River in Saturday’s $2 million UAE Derby (G2) at Meydan.

Lani was one of just two Triple Crown nominees in the lucrative race on the Dubai World Cup undercard. The other, El Camino Real Derby (G3) winner Frank Conversation, brought up the rear in the seven-horse field. Once again failing on dirt, Frank Conversation continues to shape as a turf/synthetic performer, and not a proper Kentucky Derby hopeful.

But Lani responded affirmatively to the question he had to answer, and by earning 100 points toward the Kentucky Derby, he guaranteed himself a spot in the field. Yoko Maeda’s Kentucky-bred colt will be making a homecoming of sorts at Churchill Downs, where he’ll aim to do better than Japan’s Ski Captain, who was 14th in the 1995 Kentucky Derby.

It didn’t look promising for Lani at the start, for he stumbled and almost got a noseful of dirt. Although he quickly regained his feet, he was relegated to last in the early going with legendary Japanese jockey Yutaka Take. Up front, the Argentinean-bred filly Vale Dori was showing the way, and a slightly keen Polar River was tucked just behind her on the fence.

The pace was only steady, and Japanese shippers On the Rocks and Yu Change moved up to prompt Vale Dori on the backstretch. Lani eventually advanced on the far outside, and entering the far turn, he was lapped onto new leader Yu Change. But Yu Change got away from Lani turning into the homestretch, and opened up a couple of lengths. Polar River was trying to rally between Vale Dori and Lani, only to get shut off.

The farther they went down the long Meydan straight, the more Lani kept on chugging. The gray wore Yu Change down in deep stretch. Polar River regained some momentum after switching to the outside, but not enough, and Lani held on by three-quarters of a length.

“He’s a very strong horse so I really thought I had a good chance in the race,” Take said. “Even though he tripped at the start he traveled really well throughout. Right now he’s still rather immature so he’s got a lot of growing up to do. He’s getting better and better and I’d like to go to Kentucky (for the Derby).”

Runner-up Polar River received 40 points, which will also be credited to her Kentucky Oaks (G1) account. Unless connections reverse course, however, she isn't expected to line up at Churchill in May.

“She was tight for room at a critical point after the turn-in,” her trainer Doug Watson said. “She stayed on very well again at the end. If anything she’s still a bit green. But going forward she’s going to be a superb filly as she matures. It was still a good run.”

Yu Change finished third. That's good for 20 Kentucky Derby points, but as a non-Triple Crown nominee, he'd have to pay a $200,000 supplemental fee. Vale Dori was a close fourth. As a Southern Hemisphere-bred, Vale Dori is considered a 4-year-old and thus ineligible to compete in the Triple Crown. On the Rocks, Lazzam, and Frank Conversation completed the order under the wire.

Jockey Frankie Dettori was more humorous than charitable about Lazzam: “I went to war with a water pistol.”

Frank Conversation’s rider, Mario Gutierrez, cited the surface.

“I don't think he got a hold of the track,” Gutierrez said. “He broke good and I tried to keep him in the clear the whole time. By the time I tried to go after those leaders, he didn't really fire. It was maybe the track, maybe the travel, who knows? I think he'll be a better turf horse.”

Lani’s future, on the hand, is very much on dirt. By record-setting sire Tapit (who also has Mohaymen and Cupid in Derby calculations), he’s now won three of five on the dirt for trainer Mikio Matsunaga. Lani was coming off a fifth in the Hyacinth Stakes at Tokyo, where he made a big move on the far turn before flattening out. He took the requisite step forward to become a Kentucky Derby contender on Saturday.

Out of the accomplished Japanese racemare Heavenly Romance (a daughter of 1989 Kentucky Derby and Preakness [G1] champion Sunday Silence), Lani comes from a prolific family. One of his maternal relatives is Elusive Quality, sire of 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion Smarty Jones.

Photo courtesy Dubai Racing Club/Andrew Watkins.