Danza wins Arkansas Derby as 40-1 long shot
Todd Pletcher worked his Arkansas Derby magic once again, this time in the most unexpected fashion.
The six-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer added to his record haul at Oaklawn Park on Saturday, earning his fourth win in the Derby thanks to a surprising win by long-shot Danza.
The colt, named after actor Tony Danza, went off at 40-1 in the 1 1/8th-mile Kentucky Derby prep race – pulling away in the home stretch to shock a star-packed field. He won the $1 million race by 4 3/4 lengths, finishing in 1:49.68.
Pletcher won the Arkansas Derby last year with Overanalyze, which was a then-record third time. The former assistant to D. Wayne Lukas added to his record with a fourth win in the race Saturday, and it’s the second time he has won in back-to-back years – after also winning in 2000 with Graeme Hall and 2001 with Balto Star.
”We’ve had good fortune there, good luck,” Pletcher said. ”It’s always been a favorite track of mine since I was a teenager. I’ve got a lot of fond memories of Oaklawn.”
Ridden by Joe Bravo, Danza paid $84.60, $28.40 and $11 and earned 100 points in the Kentucky Derby standings. Ride on Curlin returned $7 and $4, and pre-race favorite and Bob Baffert-trained Bayern paid $4 to show.
Tapiture, who won the Southwest Stakes and was second in the Rebel Stakes, finished fourth.
Danza finished third in his only other race this year, an optional allowance claiming race at Gulfstream Park last month. His relative inexperience, however, didn’t show against a field that featured several Kentucky Derby hopefuls.
He’s sixth in the points system used by Churchill Downs to determine the 20-horse field for the Kentucky Derby on May 3, though Pletcher wasn’t quite ready to say afterward if Danza would run.
”We internally had a lot of faith in the horse,” co-owner Aron Wellman said. ”We knew we were going to be a longshot. It was just a matter of whether he was going to be good enough to compete with these horses. Fortunately, he went out there and executed on the race track today.”
Bayern overtook Tapiture as the pre-race favorite Saturday, and the colt – who missed the San Felipe Stakes last month with a foot bruise – opened quickly in the eight-horse field.
He led with Thundergram for much of the first turn and on the back stretch, where Tapiture finally made a much-expected and hard charge on the outside. The charge, however, for the Southwest Stakes winner wasn’t enough.
The lead pack was four wide entering the final turn, after which Danza shocked the crowd of 63,186 by pulling away down the stretch for the convincing win.
Baffert won the Rebel Stakes last month with Hoppertunity, but the colt skipped Saturday’s race after finishing second in the Santa Anita Derby last week and already qualifying for the Kentucky Derby.
Bayern was expected to add to Baffert’s win total at Oaklawn Park, but the colt didn’t have enough energy left to respond after being passed by Danza.
”Approaching the quarter-pole, the winner came up inside of me,” Bayern jockey Gary Stevens said. ”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.”
Danza earned $600,000. Ride on Curlin, third in both the Southwest Stakes and Rebel Stakes – earned $200,000, and Bayern $100,000.
”Everything unfolded like a dream,” 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, who earned 40 points, is 12th in the Kentucky Derby standings with 55 points. Tapiture is 14th with 52 points, while Bayern is 26th after earning 20 points and would need horses ahead of him drop out in order to make the starting gate at Churchill Downs.
Pletcher fielded two horses in the Arkansas Derby, with Commissioner going off at 5-1. However, the colt was agitated before the race and finished sixth, though Pletcher said he planned to take both of his horses to Kentucky.
”We’re not quite sure if both are going to run, but the plane is headed to Kentucky,” Pletcher said.