What a difference a race makes. On Saturday, 41-1 longshot Danza that shocked the horse racing world and pulled off an unlikely victory in the Arkansas Derby. Less than 24 hours later he’s confirmed to be shipping to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby. More significantly, the racing world is taking another look at the Todd Pletcher trained colt and starting to think they might have missed out on a horse that–hindsight being 20/20–was a lot stronger than the longshot price on him suggested.
The horse–named after actor Tony Danza–was lightly raced as a two year old but that shouldn’t have scared anyone off. As we’ve talked about extensively during this Derby prep season that’s a growing trend in developing race horses. The new Kentucky Derby qualification process provides a strong disincentive for overracing a young horse. For these reasons Kentucky Derby entrants with only a handful of previous starts is going to become the rule and not the exception.
And it’s not like Danza underachieved in his three previous starts either–he won his maiden race last July and in his only other two year old action finished a respectable third in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special. But Danza managed to stay in contention throughout the race and slipped past favored Bayern down the stretch under the guidance of jockey Joe Bravo. Ride on Curlin would finish second while Bayern held on for third. He ended a six month layoff in an optional claiming race at Gulfstream in March, finishing third behind stablemate Anchor Dan–a very highly regarded three year old that you’ll likely hear from later in the summer. Definitely not a spectacular resume but nothing to be ashamed of either.
For horse handicappers the ‘tell’ probably should have been the mere presence of a Todd Pletcher trained horse in a Grade 1 stakes race at such a high price. After the race Pletcher made the point that handicappers would have been more enthusiastic about Danza had they looked beyond the past performance data in the Daily Racing Form:
“I’m sure right after the race most people did what I would have done if I were on the outside looking in — grabbed the past performances and said, ‘Look at this horse!’ When you look at it now, you see a horse that won his maiden impressively first time out at Belmont, just missed in a flying finish in the Saratoga Special and ran a better-than-it-looked third in an allowance race at Gulfstream.”
Pletcher now has four horses qualified for the Derby–in addition to Danza he’s got Constitution, Intense Holiday and We Miss Artie set for the ‘Run for the Roses’. A fifth Pletcher trained horse, Vinceremos, is ‘on the bubble’ and could realistically get in following Blue Grass Stakes winner Dance With Fate’s decision to skip the Derby. Vinceremos was unimpressive in the Blue Grass Stakes so Pletcher might decide to bring him back later in the summer.