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Submitted by John Piesen on Friday, April 18, 2014 at 12:00 AM

UP FOR A TONY

By John Piesen

Among the phone messages that Joe Bravo received after winning the Arkansas Derby on Danza by a pole last Saturday at Oaklawn Park was one from actor Tony Danza, for whom the horse was named.

"Go get ’em in the (Kentucky) Derby,"  the two-legged Danza advised Jersey Joe about the  four-legged Danza.

"I think I have a helluva shot," Bravo told me. "This is a big-time horse, and he’s on the improve."

Bravo has won more than 4,000 horses — mostly in Jersey — in his 22-year career, but his Triple Crown resume is sadly lacking. He’s never hit the board in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont, and he hasn’t been close in the Derby. He’s shot blanks in three Derby tries, and caught a bad break last year when his Derby mount, Spiral winner Black Onyx, was scratched on the eve of the race due to injury. 

"This (Danza) is by far my best shot," he said, "I can’t wait for Derby Day."

A day after our conversation, Danza’s Derby chances improved dramatically with word that stablemate Constitution will miss the Derby, and the entire Triple Crown, with a cannonbone fracture in the right front.

Before the injury, Constitution, the Florida Derby winner, was regarded by far the best Todd Pletcher prospect for the Derby, with Danza a distant second. Now suddenly with Constitution out, Danza tops the Pletcher pecking order, and his chances improve accordingly.

All you need to know is that Danza was 41-1 in the Arkansas Derby, and no one gave him a shot. And when Bravo gunned Danza up the rail in Hot Springs, he left some solid Derby horses in his wake — Ride On Curlin, Bayern and Tapiture among them.

And so Danza may be no worse than third choice in Louisville behind California Chrome, whose odds plunged in the wake of Constitution’s untimely defection.

But before you rush to the window to bet the chalk, consider two things: 1) no California-born and raised horse has won the Kentucky Derby since Decidedly in 1962, and 2) his sire, Lucky Pulpit,  never won a race beyond 5 1/2 furlongs.

And, most importantly, Chrome is a speed horse...and there is a ton of speed in this year’s Derby. CC won’t be getting loose on the lead as he did in his three California stakes victories.

With the Derby two weeks away, I know I’m going to try to beat the favorite in my online selections at www.nationalracemasters.com and at 1-888-777-4155. My Derby record is second to none — especially during that 11-year stretch when I nailed eight winners and multiple gimmicks.

Thus far, this Derby is known more for the stars missing the race than those who will make it to the gate. Off the top of my head, I can name six major Derby prospects who have landed on the disabled list: Honor Code, Shared Belief, Havana, New Year’s Day, Top Billing, and now Constitution.

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So what’s left?

The consensus second choice is Wicked Strong, who was another no-name before he beat a suspect field in the Wood Memorial. The fact that Wicked Strong, who worked a solid :49 3/5 half-mile Thursday morning over the Belmont Park training track, is by Hard Spun, a personal favorite, moves him up in my thinking.

The loss of Constitution also leaves Javier Castellano, arguably the top jockey in the land, open for the Derby — at least temporarily. I would presume that Matt Muzikar, Castellano’s agent and Julie Krone’s ex, is busy these days sorting out Derby invitations.

As mentioned, there is a world of speed in this Derby, so my first instinct would be to go for a closer, and Wicked Strong and Danza certainly are among those who fit the bill.

One of those speeds is Uncle Sigh, the New York-based colt who gets in the Derby Top 20 with the defection of Constitution.

Keep an eye on Social Inclusion, a strong third as the favorite in the Wood. SI currently stands 26th in the money standings, and will need some help to crack the top 20. 

This is one Derby field that, although it may lack the top-to-bottom quality of previous runnings, sure makes up for it in angles. Good thing we have 15 days to sort them out.  

As for this weekend, the highlight will be the $1.5 million Charles Town Classic, the brainchild of NFL Hall of Famer Sam Huff. Game On Dude won this race last year, and will be odds-on to repeat Saturday evening under Mike Smith.

Fresh off a wire-to-wire victory over Will Take Charge in the Santa Anita Handicap, Game On Dude, a 7-year-old gelding trained by Bob Baffert, will break from post three in the nine-furlong race, which will be run as the 12th race on a 14-race card.

Travers runnerup Moreno, who was scratched from the Big Cap with a sore foot, will be the second choice, with Clubhouse Ride, Long River and Lucy’s Boy Boy major players.

There also are two stakes for 3-year-olds on Saturday’s calendar, but both — the Lexington and Illinois Derby — did not attract any Kentucky Derby prospects.

At Aqueduct, La Verdad will be a short price to win her first graded stake in the $200,000 Distaff Handicap for fillies and mares at six furlongs. The 4-year-old will break from the one-hole in a field of seven under Jose Ortiz.

Finally, I thought it was quite an accomplishment going three-for-three with my selections last Sunday at Keeneland...until Wednesday, when trainer David Jacobson went three-for-three at Aqueduct.

Here’s my Derby Top Ten!

HORSE TRAINER  JOCKEY
1. California Chrome  Sherman    Espinoza
2. Wicked Strong Jerkens Maragh
3. Danza Pletcher Bravo
4. Hopportunity Baffert Smith
5. Samraat Violette J. Ortiz
6. Cairo Prince McLaughlin L. Saez
7. Vicar’s in Trouble Maker Napravnik
8. Candy Boy Sadler Stevens
9. Ride On Curlin Gowan Borel
10. Wildcat Red Garoffalo Bejarano

Notice that Calvin Borel, a three-time Derby winner, will shoot for a home run on Arkansas Derby runnerup Ride On Curlin.

Thanks for tuning in. Have a happy holiday, and see you back here next Friday.

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