Danza sent shock waves through the crowd of 63,186 at Oaklawn Park when he took command in upper stretch at odds of 41-1 and rolled to a 4 3/4-length victory in the $1 million Arkansas Derby (gr. I) on closing day April 12 (VIDEO).
Trainer Todd Pletcher sent the unheralded son of Street Boss to victory from Florida in just the colt's fourth lifetime start for owners Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners. The victory qualifies Danza for a slot in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) May 3 at Churchill Downs; he ranks sixth on the leaderboard with 100 points.
Jockey Joe Bravo had Danza prominently placed while saving ground throughout the 1 1/8-mile test, and the winner responded when asked to exploit an opening along the inside at the top of the lane. Danza drew clear through the long Oaklawn stretch drive, and neither of the favorites, 8-5 Bayern nor 2-1 Tapiture, could raise a challenge.
"That was a pretty great effort," Bravo said. "Todd was pretty high on the horse and he told me this morning that he was going to be fresh so don't take anything away from him. Try to save as much (ground) as you can and let him run his race. It was textbook, just textbook. Everything unfolded like a dream."
The previously unbeaten Bayern, who led most of the way before relinquishing the advantage to Danza, was tagged late for second by Ride On Curlin. That likely means the well-regarded Bob Baffert trainee will not advance to the Kentucky Derby under the point system used by Churchill to determine the 20-horse starting field. Southwest Stakes (gr. III) winner Tapiture finished fourth in the field of eight sophomores.
Danza, who was timed in 1:49.68 over a fast track, paid a whopping $84.60 to win, and teamed with 7-1 shot Ride On Curlin for a $561.40 exacta.
Pletcher made it consecutive Arkansas Derby wins following Overanalyze last year. It was his record fourth win in the race overall.
"We were searching for the right race and the right option and it seemed like the Arkansas Derby was the race for us to step out and take our shot," Pletcher said. "We're certainly very excited that we did and very proud of the way the horse ran today. I don't remember winning a grade I at 40-1, but it's not very often that our horses pay those type of mutuels.
"We narrowed it down between the Blue Grass and the Arkansas Derby and it we thought the race would set up a little better there," the trainer added. "Also with dirt, that was the tie breaker."
The winner, bred in Kentucky by Liberation Farm and Brandywine Farm out of the French Deputy mare Champagne Royale, was a close third in the Saratoga Special (gr. II) last summer at Saratoga Race Course. He was third in his only other start since that race, a first-level allowance/optional claiming event at seven furlongs March 1 at Gulfstream Park.
Danza broke alertly from his rail post in the Arkansas Derby but settled in behind Bayern, who dashed to the front from the outside under Gary Stevens. Bayern showed the way through sensible fractions of :23.72, :47.71, and 1:12.29 through six furlongs. But the Southern California shipper, a 15-length allowance winner in his previous start two months earlier, never had a breather while under constant pressure from 50-1 shot Thundergram. The son of Offlee Wild offered little resistance when tackled turning for home by Danza.
Stevens offered no excuse for the favorite.
"I had a good comfortable trip, a nice comfortable pace and it picked up nice," he said. "Approaching the quarter pole, the winner came up inside of me. I thought I was going to be able to stay with him and I thought my horse was going to give him a little fight, but he didn't."
Opening up quickly, Danza was nearly two lengths clear after reaching the furlong marker in 1:37.88, and the chestnut continued to pour it on while running the final eighth in 12.3 seconds under steady handling.
"That was pretty cool down the lane," Bravo said. "It's really fun to have a special horse like that and have him run like that. I'm not a fortune teller, but hopefully, in a couple of weeks we can do that again. I'm crossing my fingers he's my Derby horse. This is what dreams are made of."
Ride On Curlin, seventh at the three-eighths pole while racing in hand for Jon Court, fanned six wide rounding the final bend and finished well while no threat to the winner. He edged Bayern by half a length for the runner-up spot, with Tapiture two lengths farther back after looking menacing while racing wide into the stretch.
"The race didn't work out the way we wanted today," trainer Steve Asmussen said of Tapiture. "I thought he was pretty wide behind a moderate pace and that made it a very long race for him today. We'll see how he comes of it. He goes on to Louisville tomorrow and we'll see where we go from there."
Ride on Curlin, who placed in all three of Oaklawn's graded stakes races for 3-year-olds this meet, is 12th in the Derby point standings with 55. Tapiture is 14th with 52.
Conquest Titan, who made a nice move along the inside before flattening out, was fifth, followed by the Pletcher-trained Commissioner, who was fractious while being saddled in the infield and started poorly. Thundergram was next and grade I winner Strong Mandate , who gave way midway on the final turn, trailed the field by a long way.
A $105,000 Keeneland September yearling buy in 2012 by Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners when consigned by Brandywine Farm, Danza earned $600,000 for the Arkansas Derby win to bring his total bankroll to $666,428. Danza, who graduated at first asking at Belmont Park going 5 1/2 furlongs last July, is a half brother to grade III winner Majestic Harbor.
Danza paid $84.60, $28.40, and $11 across the board as the second-longest play in the field. Ride On Curlin returned $7 and $4, while Bayern was $4 to show.
Knock Em Flat, who ran second in the Northern Spur Stakes earlier on the card, was scratched.