Not much is known about 48-year-old Japanese trainer Mikio Matsunaga outside of his home country, though, previously, he was a top jockey in Japan before transitioning to training ten years ago.
He makes his North American training debut in the Kentucky Derby (GI) with the Kentucky-bred UAE Derby (GII) winner Lani, who is a son of the Sunday Silence mare Heavenly Romance. Matsunaga was aboard Heavenly Romance when she posted her upset victory in the Autumn Tenno Sho (Jpn-GI) at Tokyo Racecourse in 2005. She was shipped to Kentucky for broodmare duty in 2011 and would later be bred to Tapit and produce Lani.
Matsunaga is based out of the Rikkio Trianing Center in the Shiga Prefecture located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Kyoto Racecourse and, in 2015, earned the Japan Racing Association’s Award for Training Technique. He’s not a complete stranger to a handful of American jockeys, as he competed in in the World Super Jockey Series in his homeland against top jockeys from various countries, including Victor Espinoza and Edgar Prado from the United States.
Lani is somewhat of a mystery and will be only the second horse based in Japan to compete in the Kentucky Derby, joining Ski Captain, who finished 14th in 1995.
Lani also will become the ninth Kentucky Derby starter raced exclusively outside North America. Canonero II (won in 1971), Dr Devious (seventh in 1992), Thyer (13th in 1992), Citadeed (ninth in 1995), Ski Captain (14th in 1995), China Visit (sixth in 2000), Curule (seventh in 2000), Castle Gandolfo (12th in 2002) and Mubtaahij (eighth in 2015) are the others.
Bold Forbes, the 1976 Derby winner, began his career in Puerto Rico before being shipped to the United States for an American campaign as a 2-year-old. England’s Bold Arrangement is the only other foreigner to hit the board when he was second to Ferdinand in 1986, but he was third in the Blue Grass Stakes (GI) before running in the Kentucky Derby. Overall, horses that raced outside North America have a record of 43-2-1-0 in the Derby since 1967.