Yutaka Take, the 47-year-old Japanese riding legend, will be back at Churchill Downs Saturday for a second attempt at winning the Kentucky Derby, 21 years after a disappointing 14th-place finish aboard Ski Captain in 1995.
The second time around the oval under the Twin Spires at Churchill, Take will be guiding Lani, a Japanese-owned, American-bred gray son of Tapit and as much of an enigma to his connections as his rider is a unfamiliar to many American racing fans.
Lani won two of his four starts as a 2-year-old before winning the Cattleya Sho in Japan last November. Nominated to the Triple Crown, trainer Mikio Matsunaga opted to prep his charge in the Group 2 UAE Oaks at Meydan in Dubai, which awards 100 Derby points to the winner, a virtual assurance of a gate. Somewhat surprisingly, Lani pulled off a 3/4-length victory over favored Polar River, a filly who had been undefeated before that loss. It was owner Yoko Maeda's first win in Dubai after several tries.
Take is hoping his second trip to the Derby will bring him similar good fortune.
"It has taken 21 years, but I have been hopeful," said Take through a translator about his return to Churchill. "It is like a dream."
The reality is that Take is a very good rider all the time but Lani is a very good horse only sometimes -- when he feels like it. Lani's 5-furlong work Tuesday was the third-fastest of 18 run that morning. But the horse has shown a tendency to slouch at times, once even stopping short during a workout. He snorts loudly at other horses and, though slow to get running, sometimes refuses to leave the track after a workout.
"He does this back home sometimes," explained Take, shrugging his shoulders. For fans seeing him work at Churchill, that behavior is entertaining; for his connections, it's perplexing.
Take's dream took on more substance when Lani drew the number 8 gate Wednesday. All Take would say with a large smile was "Happy." Though the horse is still considered a longshot, a few more than 20 percent of Derby winners started from that gate.
Steve Jackson, advisor to the Maeda family for 20 years, was also pleased with the draw. "We know he's slow out of the gate," said Jackson. "He's a closer. He just has to stay out of the pack."
As for any strategy, Jackson said there is none right now. "Yutaka will decide that during the race."
Perhaps the horse can be unpredictable, but there is no slouch in the jockey. Take was Japan's champion jockey for all but one year between 1988 and 1999, and has won the title 13 times. He has also won races in Great Britain, France, Hong Kong and Dubai. His career win total is approaching 4,000 including the 2005 Japanese Triple Crown aboard Deep Impact.
He has no illusions about winning the Kentucky Derby.
"It is the most difficult race to win," he says, "and all of the American horses are tough."
Lani has become an overnight superstar celebrity in Japan, where the success of Japanese horses racing abroad has instilled a deep sense of national pride even among Japanese who are not usually racing fans. Since his arrival in Louisville April 3, Lani has been followed by a score of Japanese reporters and a film crew shooting footage for a future documentary.
No horse has ever won the Derby without at least one prior start in the U.S. No UAE Derby winner has ever captured the roses either, their best performance being last year's eighth-place finish by Mubtaahij. But despite the long trip from Dubai to the Kentucky, which sometimes results in subsequent underperformance referred to as the "Dubai bounce," and the long odds, Take is confident Lani can have a big race on Saturday.
"If he wants to run," he concluded through his translator with an enigmatic smile.