By Gary West, special to KentuckyDerby.com
When Danza slipped through an opening along the rail at Oaklawn Park and also into the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, the odds – he was 41-1 – said it was a shocking development, a stunner, a lung-emptying blow to the gut of expectations. But his trainer wasn’t shocked. All along, Todd Pletcher thought Danza might be one of the horses in the famed roseate run. Danza was behind the others in his training and lightly raced, and he would get only one shot at it, one opportunity to earn sufficient qualifying points, one chance to hop aboard the train as it was pulling out of the station. And he made it.
But just because he might be the last one aboard, don’t underestimate his talent. In winning Saturday’s Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, Danza ran the 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.68. A race earlier, Will Take Charge, who’s one of the best older horses in the country by any measure, completed the same distance in 1:49.55. Granted, Will Take Charge raced wide in both turns, and Danza enjoyed a PT, or perfect trip, but how many 3-year-olds, even under the best of circumstances, could be close to Will Take Charge after nine furlongs?
And Danza didn’t just win, or squeeze in there by a handsome head; he won decisively, running the final three-eighths of a mile in 37.09 seconds to draw clear by more than four lengths. In other words, in the final round of major preps on dirt, only California Chrome (36.71) and Constitution (36.76) ran faster at the most decisive point in the race, and, of course, when they did so, they were racing over much faster surfaces than Oaklawn Park’s.
Yes, he was a long shot, and when he made his move to get alongside Bayern in the blink of an eye, from the huge closing-day throng at Oaklawn there was an audible gasp that sounded as if a sea of expectations had been sucked up by a vacuum. But Pletcher wasn’t surprised. Last year, in his second start, Danza closed strongly to finish third in the Saratoga Special. And when this year began, Pletcher said Danza was among the most promising 3-year-olds in his barn. And now, quite suddenly, he’s in the Kentucky Derby.
Danza obviously is peaking at just the right moment. And he galloped out so strongly after the race that he suggested he could appreciate the 1 ¼ miles of the Kentucky Derby even more. With the 100 points he earned, Danza is sixth on the leaderboard. He could be a player and should be included among the contenders to watch closely in the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby.
Ride On Curlin also put himself in the Derby field with a good effort. He swung to the far outside and rallied to finish second. The solid effort earned 40 points and reserved for him a place the Kentucky Derby starting gate. Calvin Borel, a three-time Derby winner, will be on Ride On Curlin. One of the curious things about him, though, is that he never has run particularly well at Churchill Downs, where he is winless in three starts.
Bayern, the highly regarded colt from the Bob Baffert stable, led the field into the Oaklawn Park stretch, but faltered and finished third. It was his first start in two months, and, all things considered, it was a solid effort, but hardly what he needed. It left him short on qualifying points. He has 20, putting 26th on the leaderboard.
But, of course, with two weeks until entries are taken, the field for the Kentucky Derby is still taking shape. Dance With Fate, the Blue Grass Stakes winner who’s No. 3 on the leaderboard, isn’t aimed at a roseate run. In fact, his trainer, Peter Eurton, said Dance With Fate is unlikely to run in the Kentucky Derby because he’s better on synthetic surfaces or turf. This year’s, of course, was the last Blue Grass to be run over Keeneland’s synthetic Polytrack. Medal Count, the Blue Grass runner-up who, like the winner, rallied strongly, earned 40 points and is at No. 18. But plans for a few of the horses in the top 20 on the leaderboard are uncertain, which means Uncle Sigh, for example, who's at No. 21, has a good chance to move up and into the gate.
And so now the final buildup, the relentless scrutiny and the final preparation will all converge in a crescendo of anticipation and expectation, until on the afternoon of May 3, after the swelling of music and emotion, everything erupts into a horse race, the 140th Kentucky Derby.