03/27/2016 6:19PM

Road to the Derby: United Arab Emirates Derby

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Grade 2, $2 million United Arab Emirates Derby; 1,900 meters (approximately 1 3/16 miles); Meydan; March 26, 2016
(100 Derby qualifying points for a win, 40 for second, 20 for third, 10 for fourth)

Winner: Lani

Trainer: Mikio Matsunaga

Jockey: Yutaka Take

Owner: Yoko Maeda

Beyer Speed Figure: 83 (estimated)

There were just seven runners in this race, six of them 3-year-olds, only two of them even nominated to the Triple Crown, but one of them, the Japanese-based colt LANI, earned a berth in the Kentucky Derby by prevailing despite a severe stumble leaving the gate.

Lani wore down his rivals to win, but the close finish among the first four runners gave me the impression this wasn’t a particularly strong race.

The Beyer Speed Figure team does not make figs for Meydan. However, owing to the large American presence there this year, most notably California Chrome in the World Cup, it was possible for Randy Moss to make estimated figs for the evening. Moss estimated California Chrome’s fig as 109, and extrapolating that to the UAE Derby estimated the winning Beyer for this race as a paltry 83. Andrew Beyer said he is pretty much in agreement with this assessment.

Lani looked more like a grinder than a horse with any sort of explosive acceleration. But his presence gives the Derby some keen international intrigue, and he’s bound to take some significant play – much as Mubtaahij did last year – so his presence in the pools could be of benefit to those playing against him. I’ll be among those leaving him off my tickets.

After that wicked stumble at the start, Lani trailed his six rivals heading into and around the first turn. He was taken to the middle of the track down the backstretch and made good progress, advancing all the way to second, three paths wide, by the time the field hit the far turn. He first was given a tap with the whip with a little less than a half-mile still to run, and despite several other smacks with the whip initially made no impact on countrymate YU CHANGE, who led into the homestretch. Lani took until midstretch to finally swap over to his correct lead, and when Yu Change started to tire in the final sixteenth Lani was able to reel him in while holding safe the filly POLAR RIVER.

Polar River, who finished second, broke on top but then was wrestled back heading into the first turn and found herself inside, just behind the leaders, a position in which she looked uncomfortable. She gradually was angled off the rail on the far turn, was between runners entering the lane, couldn’t keep up with Lani at that point, was angled wider still, and finished up decently, getting to Lani’s hip at the wire.

One of the biggest indictments I see of this field was the bizarre trip of ON THE ROCKS, who finished fifth. He made a bold brush on the outside around the first turn and eventually made the front, started to drop back through the field nearing the far turn and was shuffled all the way back to last with three furlongs to go, was well back of the leaders entering the lane, but closed fastest of all in the middle of the track. His Japanese form is pretty pedestrian, so for him to get this close – considering the position he was in with three furlongs to go – is not a good look for this field.

Besides Lani, the only other horse in the race who was a Triple Crown nominee was United States-based FRANK CONVERSATION, who finished last of seven. He broke sharply from his rail draw, then angled around Polar River heading into the first turn to move into the two path, just outside of VALE DORI, who led around the first turn and into the backstretch. He began to lose ground nearing the far turn and was pushed wider by runners to his inside who were traveling better, could not keep up when the leaders were sent for home with about three furlongs to go, and steadily faded through the lane. His best races have been on turf and synthetic. He showed again in this race that dirt is not his strong suit.