By Chris McGrath
The tone was so casual that Donato Lanni couldn't be sure quite how earnest the words had been. If he saw something interesting at a yearling sale, he was to let George Krikorian know. Still in his 20s, Lanni had first connected with the movie theater magnate when cold calling on behalf of John T.L. Jones Jr. after a Corwyn Bay (Ire) filly won a maiden in his silks. Might Krikorian breed the dam back to the Walmac stallion? He did just that and, when he came to visit the Bluegrass, the pair hit it off straightaway.
But nobody had ever asked Lanni to buy a horse before. And here he was, gazing at a Dynaformer yearling at Fasig-Tipton's Fall Sale in 1999. He'd seen her at Keeneland the previous month, unsold at $47,000: he liked her then, and liked her now. But in those days, with no clients, he was too embarrassed even to fill out a card. He'd just watch from a polite distance as others had different horses pulled out and walked.
“You wait for that opportunity in life where someone asks you to do something, and you want to grab the bull by the horns,” Lanni remembers. “You've rehearsed it in your mind, you're ready. But George said it in such a nonchalant way, I wasn't sure if he was serious or not.”
Only one thing for it: call the man and check.
“Hey, I found this filly.”
“I'm busy,” Krikorian replied. “Just buy her.”
And hung up.
“What does that mean!?” Lanni asked himself. “What if she brings a lot of money? I don't really know this guy. And you hear all these stories of people reneging…”
He needn't have worried about Krikorian, of course; but the way things have turned out, Krikorian was himself in the safest of hands. Barely thinking about it, he had just launched one of the most inspired horsemen of his generation on a brilliant career.
“We got lucky,” Lanni says with a shrug. “I mean, I had no idea she was going to be a star.”
But everything that has happened since suggests that an awful lot of judgement compounded the luck admittedly needed with any horse. Imagine having this one shot-very likely your only shot, if things didn't work out-and spending just $35,000 for what turned out to be dual Grade I-winning millionaire Starrer. You wouldn't believe it, if you saw it in one of Krikorian's cinemas. But only a couple of summers later Lanni found him the aptly named Hollywood Story (Wild Rush), as it happens out of a Dynaformer mare, and she too won a couple of Grade Is on her way to banking seven figures. She has meanwhile earned new celebrity as dam of Honor A.P. Honor Code).
Typically, however, for Lanni himself the tale is all about the client.
“He's a great story: self-made, Vietnam vet, started from scratch, an amazing personality,” he says. “Those two mares became the foundation of his farm, and he loves the breeding side now. But it was great for me, that he trusted me.
“Because I do think that for anything you do in life, you surround yourself with genuine people. Good things happen when you have good people around you, as long as you just stay patient and focused. I think those are the two really important thing: good people, and then just staying on course. 'Stay in the buggy.' That was always Johnny Jones's go-to, and that resonated with me.”
Since then, Lanni has found a litany of champions-many for his great friend and collaborator, Bob Baffert, from Arrogate to Authentic; but also plenty for other barns, lately including Canadian champion Moira (Ghostzapper) and a fresh name on the Derby trail in Rocket Can (Into Mischief). So, okay, he can sign big dockets nowadays. As we'll see, however, he still loves dredging the second week of the September Sale; and still turns up bargains anyone could have had. Competitors don't talk of Lanni with envy. They talk with immense respect; almost as though he were some kind of savant, deploying intuitions that can't be learned or articulated. But that won't stop us asking him how they evolved.
The exteriors are familiar: dashing Italian looks, flashbulb smile. But the mindset? Well, it was shaped by “a very strict, old school” upbringing by first-generation immigrants from Campobasso, near Rome, to Montreal. He's grateful for that, believing that young people today miss out on proper communication, proper relationships even, by constant immersion in screens.
Lanni's father worked in construction and occasionally claimed a Standardbred at the old Blue Bonnets Raceway.
“So my story is no different from most people in the horse business,” he says. “Someone took you to the track and, without you really knowing it, something inside you lit or didn't light. And I started handicapping and reading the Form and studying the pedigrees. And at a very young age, maybe 10 or 11, I got a groom license.”
That was for summer work but Lanni was not much older when effectively becoming an assistant trainer, coming to the backside before school and sneaking back for qualifying sessions. Looking back, he realizes how much he owes Standardbred mentors like Andre LaChance, who taught him about soundness, legs, how to keep a horse healthy and thriving.
But then came the revelation of Thoroughbreds, with their wider horizons. He remembers watching a Kentucky Derby and announcing to his mother that someday he would be there too. If the Bluegrass was where the best horses were, and the best horsemen, then that was where he would go.
He obliged his parents by first going to business school, his dad having driven home the principles of his upbringing with a couple of years in his own trade after high school. Lanni worked in the trenches, pouring cement in the cold, and it soon dawned on him that if it was tough at 19 or 20, would he want to be doing the same at 60? As soon as he had sat his last exam, he came home and packed his beaten-up old Volkswagen.
“Where you going?”
“Well, mom, remember when I told you I was going to go to Kentucky?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I told you. Kentucky. I'm leaving.”
Here was dad. “Where's he going?”
“Where!? Why? How long? When's he coming back?”
Thinking back, Lanni smiles wryly.
“I knew I couldn't say anything before, because of the drama, my Italian mother crying and screaming,” he says. “So it was like peeling off a band-aid. I drove down, it was late May, I went through Keeneland and was just in awe. It's like some kids went to Europe 'to find themselves'. I never understood what that meant, 'find myself'. But I was determined to figure out if I was going to make it or not, how to incorporate the passion I had.”
Luckily, without his knowing, a buddy had thrown a tent into his car. Lanni drove round the Horse Park and was delighted to find a campsite. It was a fun summer, and every time they're in the neighborhood he drives through and tells his kids, “This is where I started.”
Actually, his first job restored him to his roots, managing Standardbred yearlings for John Cashman at Castleton Farm. But he had his heart set on Thoroughbreds and Cashman told him to knock the door of Johnny Jones at Walmac: “Just show up and do your thing.”
So he told Jones he would work for nothing, implored him just to give him a phone, a Rolodex, and let him sell some seasons. Jones, suitably impressed, even paid him. And one of the calls he made, as we've seen, was to Krikorian.
When Jones retired, Lanni was hired by his compatriot John Sikura at Hill 'n' Dale.
“With Johnny Jones and John Sikura, you're talking about two very different people with quite a lot in common,” he reflects. “Both started with nothing and built an empire. Both great horsemen, with tremendous business instincts. Very determined. And just positive people who worked hard every day. It was great, because you came to work and just kept learning every day. I was so lucky to work for two of the most dynamic people in the business for 25 years, before I met Bob and went on my own.”
With Baffert, Lanni discovered an immediate personal rapport. But that, plainly, wouldn't be enough on its own. They were also on the same wavelength when it came to horseflesh.
“Well, the trust grew and the relationship grew,” Lanni says. “He is my sounding board. Really Bob took me and pretty much molded me, taught me how to look at horses. I mean, his record speaks for itself. He's a genius, a survivor, an amazing horseman. Just loves his horses. He's Cool Hand Luke, he keeps everything cool and it's a treat to watch him with each horse in the morning. And his work ethic is unbelievable. But as hard as he works, he's taught me that if it's not fun, then you shouldn't be doing it. Because if you're not having fun, you'd go crazy, it'd eat you up.”
But even when you can shop Book 1, there's that elusive element that prevents it being a straightforward equation from sale-topper to Derby winner. Beside the obvious physique, and the obvious pedigree, you have to seek something less tangible: that will to win. Can you read the competitive instinct in a horse that has never had a saddle on its back?
“I think it would sound strange to say that anybody can do that,” Lanni replies. “Bob always says just to use your instinct. 'What's your gut say?' And I think there's that gut factor in anything, in any business. You've got to believe in yourself, trust yourself. And most of the time you'll be wrong, but every once in a while you will land on an Arrogate. Is it skill? I think it's more luck than skill, absolutely. But if you're around them long enough, no matter if it's Standardbred or Thoroughbred, you start understanding horses. They are unbelievable creatures: they've been around a long time, and they've survived, right?
“I enjoy finding that needle in a haystack. That's why I love shopping in Book 6. That, to me, is more gratifying because everybody likes an underdog. You just got to go and turn every rock over. And that has been my thing in life. Never assume. Verify.”
The bottom reaches of the market, where Lanni started out, were also where he first found Baffert. The last session, to the last horse. That's the ethic Lanni admires: something he feels you don't see so much, today.
He thanks his parents for that, the days he was pouring concrete. That's why he feels so much respect for the backside community: the trainers, vets, blacksmiths, grooms. “That life is not for the weak,” he stresses. “My job is not even in the same breath.”
That said, the mission does feel tougher every year. He emphasizes his respect for talented rivals, while nowadays potent partnerships all seem to be targeting the same animals. But that's why nothing is more fulfilling than the ugly ducklings, the ones that take a bit of imagination. And very few horses have given Lanni more satisfaction than War Like Goddess, the English Channel filly he bought at OBS June for $30,000. She'd made $1,200 as a weanling, and was unsold at $1,000 as a yearling. To find her for Krikorian, above all, brought things full circle: another filly who won two Grade Is, for Bill Mott, earning almost $2 million.
“I hadn't bought George a horse in a long time,” he explains. “We'd quit buying because his breeding program had got so big. But this filly is what's so great about this business. People say it's the Sport of Kings, that only the wealthy can participate. Well, there's a filly that didn't bring one bid as a yearling. Anybody could have had her. I probably saw her, and obviously I didn't buy her. So anybody can play the game.”
In the event, Lanni figured she was the last kind of horse to shine in an under-tack show.
“Bred to go a mile and a half on the grass, and people want her to go an eighth in :10 flat!” he exclaims. “She just needed time and there weren't many people that would give a horse a year off, like George would. And actually she worked really well, :10.2. I knew George was the only person that would do what she needed. And now he's been rewarded.”
Once again, Lanni forces the narrative away from his own contribution. And that's authentic. You can always tell false modesty, and here's a man transparently averse taking himself too seriously.
“It makes me uncomfortable talking about myself, and success I've had,” he says. “It takes a good horse, a great team effort, and a bit of luck for everything to work out at the end of the day. It all started with a love for the horse. I never imagined I would be where I am today. I have always put the horses and their needs first, and I fall in love with them over and over again, at every sale.”
Lanni's wife is a doctor and her daily experiences help him keep our essentially trivial business in due perspective. Instead he reiterates gratitude for his own fortune and urges the next generation to persevere towards their own.
“I want young people to know that you can do anything you want in this business, in any business,” he says. “You just have to stay positive, stay focused. Stay in that buggy! And eventually an opportunity will present itself, and you will know it's time to take that chance and make the best of it. You just put one brick on top of another and slowly chip away, chip away, and eventually you'll get to where you want to be. Find what you're good at, stay with it.
“I'm only here today because of the people that trust me to do what I do. And I just try to stay quiet and humble along the way and hope that we continue to win races.”
He won't be able to avoid the limelight if Hopper (Declaration Of War) can win the Big 'Cap on Saturday, only his third start since breaking his maiden. This was a $90,000 gem deep in the September Sale: further confirmation, then, that it's not just the funding nowadays available to Lanni that sets him apart. But exactly that, he insists, is what gives everyone a chance-and what makes our industry so captivating.
“Because it's all a mystery,” he says. “And that's why it's fun to get up every morning. You never know what's going to happen. And to think that I get to do this every day for a living. When I go back home for Christmas every year, I remind myself how lucky I am. Noone's cracked it. I mean that. If I told you that I think I know what I'm doing, I don't. I've just gotten lucky. I've gotten really lucky, because of the people you meet.”