Oaklawn’s rise, unlike Danza’s, easy to see

By: Wally Hall
Published: Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Jockey Joe Bravo aboard Danza crosses the finish line to win Saturday's Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs Saturday.
Jockey Joe Bravo aboard Danza crosses the finish line to win Saturday's Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs Saturday.

There were several solid reasons for betting the 1-4 exacta in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby:

A. You have a child or grandchild who is 14.

B. You are 41 and boxed the two numbers.

C. One of the above.

Danza would have been the second horse eliminated by handicappers, right behind Thundergram, who should have gotten an assist in the official race chart after pressuring favored Bayern all the way around until fading at the top of the stretch.

Danza had never run two turns, meaning his longest race had been his previous race, 7 furlongs, when he finished third in a $75,000 optional claiming race, 7 lengths behind the winner at Gulfstream Park outside Miami.

He had not won a race since breaking his maiden in his Belmont Park debut on July 12, 2013, and in the next two races he was third.

That doesn’t exactly keep a handicapper up nights, unless he’s worried about the long-term fate of the colt, by Street Boss, who was purchased for $105,000 as a yearling.

When No. 1 Danza, who stalked the pace setters all the way, finished first and No. 4 Ride On Curlin closed with almost a rush (indicating the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby might be more to his liking), it knocked the favorite, Bayern, to third and out of the Kentucky Derby.

A 1-4 $2 exacta paid $561.40.

Danza won the race because his jockey Joe Bravo was patient and gave the colt a perfect ride. Bravo got his mount to relax close to the rail after breaking from the No. 1 post, then watched as Bayern, a shipper from California, tried to steal the race.

Bayern, under Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, broke on top and then tried to settle into slow fractions, which he did for the first quarter mile. But Thundergram jockey Noberto Arroyo Jr., a rider noted for his aggressive style, apparently sensed the 23.72 opening quarter and he moved up to challenge at the half-mile mark.

Thundergram and Bayern were just off the rail at the head of the stretch when they both hit the wall, and that’s when Bravo settled Danza even closer to the rail and blew away the field.

The 100 points he earned puts him in sixth place for a spot in the May 3 Kentucky Derby with a total of, you guessed it, 100 points.

Long-shot winners are not uncommon in the Arkansas Derby or Kentucky Derby, but what has to be one of the best untold stories is that while tracks like Hollywood Park in Los Angeles are closing, Oaklawn is thriving.

Instant Racing saved Oaklawn as well as other tracks who now feature the electronic game of skill.

A percentage of Instant Racing goes into Oaklawn’s steadily increasing distribution of purse money, and that attracts trainers like Todd Pletcher, who trained the Arkansas Derby winner, Steve Asmussen, Gary Hartlage, D. Wayne Lukas and others.

Because the horses are better, more are claimed as trainers get ready for the bulk of the racing season.

In this slightly shortened racing season - thanks to snow and ice - there were a record 423 horses claimed, an average of more than eight per day, for a total of $6,253,000.

Now Oaklawn has, and although just how successful this venture into online wagering on horses isn’t known yet because all revenues go into escrow the first year, it is another example of the forward thinking that makes Arkansas’ thoroughbred track an industry leader.

Danza becomes Oaklawn’s latest hopeful going forward into the Triple Crown, and no doubt he will be a long shot on the first Saturday in May, probably not more than 40-1, but he’ll pay a pretty penny.

Last Saturday, in front of a crowd of more than 63,000, which impressed a national television audience, Danza got the perfect ride, the perfect finish and paid handsomely to those who found a way to believe in him.

Sports, Pages 19 on 04/15/2014