Handicappers received a stunning surprise on July 8 when the unheralded Danon Pharaoh posted a nearly 40-1 upset in the Japan Dirt Derby at Oi Racecourse.

Danon Pharaoh’s victory in the final Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race was unexpected on multiple levels. Not only did the outcome mark a significant reversal from Danon Pharaoh’s previous form, it marked a success over a surface (dirt) and distance (2,000 meters) seemingly in defiance on his overall pedigree.

Danon Pharaoh Pedigree
Pioneerof the Nile
American Pharoah
Littleprincessemma
Danon Pharaoh (JPN)
El Corredor
Crisp
Cat’s Fair

Though Danon Pharaoh is a Japanese-bred by technicality, his bloodlines are thoroughly American. Indeed, he’s a son of 2015 Triple Crown champion American Pharoah, North America’s leading debut sire of 2019. American Pharoah’s talent for running long on dirt is well recorded, but at stud he’s shown a surprising proficiency for siring turf horses—four of his five graded/group stakes winners to date have achieved their signature successes on the lawn, including Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint (G2) champion Four Wheel Drive. His graded winner on dirt is Cafe Pharoah, the beaten favorite when seventh behind Danon Pharaoh in the Japan Dirt Derby.

Danon Pharaoh’s obvious affinity for dirt racing is all the more surprising when you consider how the bottom half of his pedigree is likewise geared toward success on surfaces other than dirt.

The dam of Danon Pharaoh is Crisp, whose fondness for the synthetic tracks once widespread in California produced victories in the Santa Ysabel (G3) and Santa Anita Oaks (G1). The latter race saw Crisp defeat future champion Blind Luck in a driving finish, but Crisp failed to replicate her fine synthetic form when trying dirt later in the season, trudging home seventh in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) and eighth in the Acorn (G1).

Crisp’s affinity for artificial going likely came courtesy of her sire, El Corredor. A half-brother to Haskell Invitational (G1) winner Roman Ruler, El Corredor himself was a quality dirt runner, counting the Cigar Mile (G1) among his four graded stakes triumphs on the main track. But at stud, many of El Corredor’s best runners have thrived over turf or synthetic courses—in addition to Crisp, Dominican won the Blue Grass (G1) on Polytrack, Backseat Rhythm claimed the Garden City (G1) on grass, and El Gato Malo nabbed the San Rafael (G3) on Cushion Track.

So where is Danon Pharaoh’s dirt ability coming from? Perhaps it’s coming from American Pharoah, who hails from a long line of classic-caliber dirt stars, including Kentucky Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile and Belmont Stakes champion Empire Maker. We’re still in the early days of American Pharoah’s stud career, and it’s too early to peg him primarily as a sire of grass runners.

But it’s also worth noting that El Corredor has been a bit more versatile as a broodmare sire, with his daughters producing such capable dirt runners as Santa Margarita (G1) winner Let Faith Arise, Acorn (G1) runner-up Sweet Whiskey, and runaway Vanity (G1) champion Iotapa, who was also a Grade 1 winner on Polytrack.

If there’s one common trait unifying El Corredor’s descendants, it’s their tendency to excel over shorter distances than those encountered in the classics. Just as El Corredor was best as a miler, at stud he’s been responsible for an ample supply of successful runners up to 1 1/8 miles in distance, but not much farther.

With this in mind, Danon Pharaoh appears to be defying his breeding in more ways than one. Not only is he thriving on dirt, he’s carrying his speed over 2,000 meters—the metric equivalent of the Kentucky Derby’s 1 1/4-mile distance. For this, we can only assume American Pharoah’s own abundant stamina is shining through in Danon Pharaoh’s genetic makeup.

It’s impossible to say just yet whether Danon Pharoah could extend his unexpected success against the best 3-year-olds in North America, but he has the breeding to reinvent himself as a quality miler on turf or synthetic tracks.