Lani brings international glamor into the 2016 Kentucky Derby (G1), as the Japanese-based winner of the UAE Derby (G2) on Dubai World Cup night. But in fact, he’s a Kentucky-born lad with Derby heroes prominent in his pedigree.

By North America’s record-setting sire, Tapit, Lani descends from the male line of 1977 Triple Crown legend Seattle Slew. Lani has an even closer Derby connection through his maternal grandsire, 1989 Derby/Preakness (G1) champion Sunday Silence, who became a breed-shaping sire in Japan.

Lani’s dam, Heavenly Romance, is just one of a myriad of high-class runners by Sunday Silence. A homebred campaigned by Koji Maeda’s North Hills Management Co., Heavenly Romance captured the prestigious Tenno Sho (Emperor’s Prize) Autumn in 2005, beating then-reigning Japanese Horse of the Year Zenno Rob Roy among a star-studded field.

Heavenly Romance retired to the broodmare life in Japan, but her first three foals weren’t up to her lofty standard on the racecourse. Given Sunday Silence’s saturation of the Japanese bloodlines, connections believed she didn’t have a wide enough range of possible mates that would suit her.

“There was a shortage of horses that we really thought matched her from a pedigree standpoint,” commented Steve Jackson, an advisor to Maeda for early 20 years.

Hence Heavenly Romance moved to a place where she could find plenty of outstanding stallions who would complement her – the Bluegrass of Kentucky.

Jackson was instrumental in selecting her new home, Lane’s End Farm’s Oak Tree division in Fayette County, which now hosts a total of four Maeda-owned mares. Having served as a nutritional consultant for a number of farms, Jackson was impressed with Oak Tree’s divisional manager, Callan Strouss.

“I was very confident in how he raised a horse,” he said of Strouss.

Heavenly Romance must agree, because all three of her Kentucky-bred runners so far have grown up to be major stakes winners.

Shipped stateside while in foal to 2001 Japanese Horse of the Year Jungle Pocket, Heavenly Romance delivered a bay colt named Awardee. Like her other offspring, Awardee was subsequently sent to Japan to begin his racing career. Now in career-best form as a 6-year-old, Awardee recently extended his winning streak to four in the April 16 Antares Stakes (G3) at Hanshin.

Heavenly Romance’s first Kentucky date was with leading sire Smart Strike. Their daughter, Amour Briller, just landed her fourth notable stakes victory in the March 2 Empress Hai at Kawasaki.

Next came Lani, who was “good-looking, leggy, like most of her get,” Strouss said.

“That mare’s offspring is very leggy, very nice. The mare is like that herself.”

Lani’s yearling half-sister is a “lovely, balanced, nice, big filly by Distorted Humor, a chestnut.”

His newborn baby half-brother is an “Awesome Again colt, very typical of what she produces…good-looking, leggy, nice, correct -- a lot to like about her foals.” 

Strouss recalled that Lani “always had a lot of energy as a young horse” and was “always a good-feeling colt.

“Not roguish, but always full of himself, very full of himself, as a colt.”

Jackson used similar language to describe baby Lani.

“Always kind of full of himself,” Jackson said. “Not just a plodder or laid-back type,” he was “kind of mischievous, always a colt.

“Not a particularly early maturing kind of colt – a big, ol’ gangly teenager trying to get into trouble.”

Such descriptions ring true for anyone who’s seen Lani this year. He has a tendency to appear coltish or studdish, in his morning training and even in the walking ring before the UAE Derby. Those adjectives are polite euphemisms that refer to his mind being on the fillies, and accordingly advertising himself as a stallion prospect.

In August of his yearling year, Lani took up residence at Bruce Gibbs’ Greenfield Farm to be broken and go into pre-training. A few months later in December, he shipped to Japan, spending time at Maeda’s private training center at Daisen Hills before finally joining Mikio Matsunaga at Ritto Training Center.

Jockey-turned-trainer Matsunaga has a longstanding relationship with the whole family. The regular rider of Heavenly Romance, he guided her to her famous win in the Tenno Sho for trainer Shoji Yamamoto. (A short clip of Heavenly Romance getting up between horses is available in Japanese on YouTube, as is the video below from takusan8, showing Matsunaga bowing, on Heavenly Romance, before the Emperor and Empress.)


Matsunaga seamlessly transitioned to a new role as Yamamoto’s assistant trainer at Ritto, and when Yamamoto retired, he succeeded him as head trainer in his own right. Matsunaga’s trained all of Heavenly Romance’s offspring, and the continuity extends to Lani’s groom-cum-exercise rider, who served Heavenly Romance in the same capacity. The stable’s familiarity with their tendencies may come in handy.

Jackson observed that there are “some similarities” among them: Heavenly Romance was “a typical Sunday Silence,” and “Lani’s tough.” 

A full sibling to Lani could be on the way in 2017. Heavenly Romance was just bred back to Tapit last Sunday, and she’ll soon be scanned to determine if she’s in foal.

Jackson revealed an auspicious sign: her scan is scheduled for Derby Day.

 Both photos courtesy of Mathea Kelley (one on upper right shared by @OakTreeDave on Twitter).