The Blue Grass went to a logical winner, synthetic/turf horse Dance With Fate, who is on the fence for the Kentucky Derby, but the Arkansas Derby outcome was impossible to predict as Danza rolled home at 41-1.
Trainer Peter Eurton brought no Derby aspirations into the Blue Grass, consistently questioning Dance With Fate's dirt ability before and after the race, and the colt's connections are going to wait until next week to make a final decision. I expect them to opt for the Run for the Roses -- Dance With Fate's late running style figures to be the deciding factor in a speed-laden field.
Danza's effort came out of nowhere but was easy to admire. The Todd Pletcher trainee netted a 104 BRIS Speed rating for the 4 3/4-length decision, one of the top numbers in the Derby field, but he is a candidate for a regression following the career-best performance.
I'll review both races and offer a prediction for the final scoring prep this weekend.
Dance With Fate improved upon a narrow runner-up in the February 15 El Camino Real Derby on Tapeta, registering a second straight century-topping BRIS Late Pace rating as well as a career-best 99 Speed rating in the Blue Grass. Despite a solid pedigree for dirt tracks, he's run faster on turf and all-weather than in two dirt attempts.
Eurton has explained as much, noting that Dance With Fate packs a more powerful punch on synthetics because the ground doesn't give way for him like dirt does. The conditioner wasn't keen about coming back on three weeks' rest, mentioning the May 17 Preakness as a more viable target for joining the Triple Crown chase, but the allure of the Derby could prove impossible to overcome for the colt's connections.
Dance With Fate rated near the back during the early stages of the Blue Grass and was still 11th with three-eighths of a mile remaining. Jockey Corey Nakatani swung him extremely wide nearing the conclusion of the far turn and the dark bay colt responded with an outstanding turn of foot, blowing past Medal Count in midstretch to win going away by 1 3/4 lengths.
Dance With Fate shipped back to California on Monday and if the race doesn't take too much out of him, the argument can be made that the Blue Grass winner deserves to be in the Kentucky Derby. Nakatani pointed out how the Churchill Downs main track can play favorably to some turf horses -- "He seems to do well on the grass, and at Churchill, I've won the (Kentucky) Oaks on a filly that won on the grass (Pike Place Dancer in 1996) so hopefully we'll get (Dance With Fate) there after this race."
Animal Kingdom raced exclusively on turf and synthetics prior to his 2011 Derby victory and similar types such as Dullahan (2012) and Paddy O'Prado (2010) have placed in recent years. Those examples help make the case for Dance With Fate's involvement as well as the expected pace scenario -- the opening half-mile has been :45 1/5 the last two years and could be extreme again this year.
Dance With Fate will be an outsider if his connections opt for the Derby. I don't expect to see him thrive over the main track at Churchill Downs but stranger things have happened.
Blue Grass runner-up Medal Count is confirmed. By Dynaformer, sire of 2006 Derby winner Barbaro, Medal Count is based at Churchill Downs with Dale Romans and has really come on in his last two starts on Keeneland's Polytrack, recording a sharp victory in the off-the-turf Transylvania before wheeling back eight days later in the Blue Grass.
The bay colt broke his maiden over the main track at Ellis but will need to improve significantly upon his last two dirt efforts, recording unplaced efforts in the Fountain of Youth and Breeders' Cup Juvenile. However, the late runner caught a speed-favoring track at Gulfstream earlier this year and his form appears much improved now.
Don't know whether Medal Count is good enough -- his numbers aren't among the best in the field -- and it will be important to follow his progress over the next couple of weeks. But I'm looking at him as an intriguing option for the exotics.
Danza made two starts last year, breaking his maiden at 5 1/2 furlongs before recording a close third in the 6 1/2-furlong Saratoga Special, and the chestnut son of sprinter Street Boss was no factor opening the year in a seven-furlong optional claimer, finishing 7 1/2 lengths back of stablemate Anchor Down, who is currently sidelined.
One of only two runners higher than 10-1 in the eight-horse Arkansas Derby field, Danza paid $84.60 after easily winning his two-turn bow. He broke from the innermost post position and hugged the rail throughout the 1 1/8-mile event, stalking up close in third before slipping through an opening entering the stretch.
Ahead by 1 1/2 lengths with an eighth of a mile remaining, Danza continued to widen his advantage to the finish line. He turned in a huge performance.
Joe Bravo rode the chestnut colt and hopes to keep the mount for the Derby, but Javier Castellano is waiting in the wings without an assignment following this week's defection of Constitution. Castellano rode Danza in his first two starts.
Pletcher was considering both the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby before opting for the latter.
"We were searching for the right race and the right option," the trainer said, "and it seemed like the Arkansas Derby was the race for us to step out and take our shot. We're certainly very excited that we did and very proud of the way the horse ran today."
Danza surprised everybody and the term "bounce" will be bandied about regarding his chances in the Derby. He benefited from a perfect trip, with pacesetter Bayern drifting several paths off the rail leaving the bend, and figures to face greater adversity in the 20-horse Derby field.
I'll be surprised to see him play a major role next time but won't dismiss Danza's chances for a minor award. He will settle off the pace before looking to rally and has been able to improve his position in the stretch run of all four career starts, registering a 106 Late Pace rating in the Arkansas Derby.
Out of a French Deputy mare, Danza is bred for the distance on his dam's side -- half-brother Majestic Harbor recently captured the 1 1/2-mile Tokyo City Cup at Santa Anita -- but the grueling nature of the 1 1/4-mile test could prove too much too soon for the lightly-raced colt. Animal Kingdom became the first Derby winner with only four starts beforehand (Big Brown won with just three in 2008) and Sunland Derby winner Chitu is the only other confirmed Derby horse this year with such limited experience.
Ride On Curlin closed belatedly to outfinish Bayern for second and will head to the Derby off three consecutive stakes placings, recording a pair of troubled thirds in the Rebel and Southwest. Conditioned by Billy "Bronco" Gowan, the hard-knocking colt settled nicely near the tail of the field Saturday after being forwardly placed in his three previous outings and the grinder figures to employ similar tactics in the Derby.
Picking up the services of Calvin Borel won't help his price -- the Hall of Famer has captured three of the last seven runnings -- and Ride On Curlin has failed to earn a triple-digit Speed rating in his last seven starts. Others look faster than him but Ride On Curlin remains a possible exotics player.
Bayern is under consideration but needs help qualifying with only 20 points (currently 26th on the leaderboard). The lightly-raced colt missed a scheduled start in the March 8 San Felipe due to a foot bruise and came up a little short after establishing a reasonable pace in the Arkansas Derby, but he figures to benefit from the first stakes attempt.
Bob Baffert could point Bayern toward the Preakness.
Tapiture failed to fire after advancing into a striking position at the head of the stretch. He was making his first start at nine furlongs and rates as a poor candidate to handle the added ground in the Derby.
Saturday's Lexington at Keeneland offers a total of 17 points (10 to the winner) and probably won't have any impact upon the Derby. Grey winner Ami's Holiday, a 10-1 outsider in his first start of 2014, is the only horse with any points in the field and would move to 23rd on the list with an upset.
Global Strike is cross-entered to the Illinois Derby and figures to scratch after drawing post 11 in the Lexington, but there is still plenty of speed in the line-up.
Divine Oath and Mr Speaker both look dangerous and figure to compete for favoritism, but I'll take a shot with Poker Player, who was never a factor following a slow start in the Spiral but returns to his favorite track Saturday.
The Wayne Catalano charge offered an eye-catching move on the far turn of last year's off-the-turf Bourbon on Keeneland's Polytrack, winning by a length in a 13-horse field and rebounds Saturday at a decent price (10-1 morning line).
The focus shifts to Derby contenders next week.
Kentucky Derby Top 10
- California Chrome -- Derby favorite will continue to train at Los Alamitos for Sherman before shipping the week of the race.
- Hoppertunity -- Six of the last 13 Derby winners dropped final prep; stalker rates as serious contender for three-time Derby victor Baffert.
- Wicked Strong -- Turned things around in Wood and will be running late at Churchill Downs.
- Samraat -- Sustained first loss but Wood could continue to move him up; will look to challenge from midpack.
- Cairo Prince -- Lacked a rally following two-month freshening in Florida Derby but candidate to rebound for McLaughlin.
- Intense Holiday -- Couldn't catch front-running winner but solid effort for second in Louisiana Derby.
- Medal Count -- Like the progress he's making for Romans; moves up if he trains forwardly at Churchill.
- Ride on Curlin -- Hard-trying sort picks up the services of three-time Derby winner Calvin Borel.
- Candy Boy -- Similar to Cairo Prince, didn't fire following two-month hiatus but could show more in Louisville.
- Danza -- Exits a commendable win in Arkansas Derby but Pletcher trainee is still light on experience.