Danzing Candy Soars in the San Felipe

Danzing Candy opens up at the top of the lane on his way to victory in the 2016 San Felipe Stakes.

Danzing Candy opens up at the top of the lane on his way to victory in the 2016 San Felipe Stakes.

After the amazing racing year that was 2015, I’m starting to think that we — fans — have been lulled into a false sense of security. After all, we got from American Pharaoh last year what we’d waited nearly four decades for — a Triple Crown winner that won every race he was asked to, even as he made his way toward the Derby. The racing pundits across the country had labeled him the one to beat and we all nodded in agreement all along, even if we had to try to beat him at the windows. And we simply enjoyed the ride.

This year? No such luck.

While the top two in the division, champion Nyquist and “now” horse Mohaymen, are expected to duke it out in three weeks in Gulfstream Park’s Florida Derby (GI), the rest of the top of the crop must sort things out themselves, while at the same time leaving us all in a constant state of guessing who the next star will be.

So, while all eyes were trained on the Bob Baffert-conditioned and Gary Stevens-ridden Mor Spirit before Saturday’s $400,000 San Felipe Stakes (GII), a slightly overlooked, yet clearly capable colt named Danzing Candy would steal the focus and impressively establish himself as the new leader of the Southern California Derby hopefuls.

Under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, Danzing Candy would break best from the gate and set sail for the lead, establishing all the pace in splits of :22.96, :46.11, 1:11.04 and 1:36.38 before digging in for more down the lane to prevail with room to spare, crossing the wire two lengths in front of favored Mor Spirit. On a track labeled fast, but also a bit heavy from unusually heavy rains the day before, Danzing Candy stopped the Teletimer in 1:43.04 for the 1 1/16 miles.

“He warmed up great, he was on his toes,” an excited Smith said after the race. “Our game plan was to put him on the lead unless he didn’t jump out of there well; we didn’t want to experiment… I left there very aggressive and he didn’t get away with anything. If you go :22 on this track today, you’re smokin’. And for him to hold off the caliber of horses he held off was very impressive.”

Danzing Candy holds off the late charge of Mor Spirit.

Danzing Candy holds off the late charge of Mor Spirit.

Trained by veteran conditioner Cliff Sise Jr., Danzing Candy won two of his first three career starts and earned his chance at the top tier in the San Felipe. Though Sise has never had a Kentucky Derby starter, he came painfully close last year with Prospect Park, who was second in the San Felipe to the highly regarded Dortmund before dropping out after a rough Santa Anita Derby (GI).

This year, Sise is hopeful for a better Santa Anita Derby outcome for his newest star, especially since he has yet to lose a race in three tries over Santa Anita’s main track. The $1 million Santa Anita Derby has been set for April 9, exactly one month before the Run for the Roses.

“We’ll stay for the Santa Anita Derby,” Sise said. “He’s three for three on this track, why would we change now? I don’t see any reason to, but you never know. You’ve got to leave that up to the owners.”

Bred by Ted Aroney’s Halo Farms and owned by the partnership of Halo Farms and Jim and Diane Bashor, Danzing Candy earned $240,000 in his first stakes win and now boasts a hefty earnings ledger of $308,650 from his record of 4-3-0-0. At odds of more than 5-1, Danzing Candy paid $13.00, $5.20 and $3.40.

Mor Spirit, at 8-5, was worth $3.40 and $2.20 while Exaggerator paid $2.40 at 2-1.The exacta paid $18.30 and the trifecta was worth $48.30. Uncle Lino, Smokey Image and I Will Score completed the order of finish after Cupid was scratched the day before in favor of next week’s Rebel Stakes (GII) at Oaklawn Park.

Baffert said Mor Spirit will also be back for the Santa Anita Derby, as will Exaggerator, according to his trainer, Keith Desormeaux.