Kentucky Derby contender profile: Danon Pharaoh

July 9th, 2020

A son of American Pharoah prevailed in the July 8 Japan Dirt Derby (G1) at Oi Racecourse — it just wasn’t the Pharoah bettors expected to see reach the winner’s circle.

The undefeated Cafe Pharoah was a heavy favorite to claim the 2,000-meter event, which served as the final leg of the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby. But after he raced behind runners most of the journey, Cafe Pharoah faded down the stretch to finish seventh, which allowed the unheralded Danon Pharaoh to parlay pace-tracking tactics into a 40-1 upset victory.

The performance was a substantial step forward for Danon Pharaoh, though his pedigree has always hinted at great potential. Bred by Northern Racing, Danon Pharaoh was produced by the In Excess mare Crisp, the winner of the 2010 Santa Anita Oaks (G1) and a competitor in the Kentucky Oaks (G1).

The genetics of a Grade 1-winning mare, combined with a Triple Crown-winning sire, proved popular at auction. Danon Pharaoh sold for $1,629,000 as a yearling to Danox Co.

Under the care of Yoshita Tahagi, Danon Pharaoh showed flashes of early talent. He finished second in his debut over 1,600 meters at Tokyo Racecourse and won a similar race in his second start.

But subsequent efforts were less inspiring. In his previous forays on the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby, Danon Pharaoh finished fifth in the Cattleya Sho and sixth in the Fukuryu Stakes. He weakened down the homestretch on both occasions.

In between, he decisively claimed an allowance event, and later he finished second in the Hyogo Championship (G2), but bettors weren’t keen to back Danon Pharaoh in the Japan Dirt Derby, after they watched him fade to 14th in the May 24 Hosu Stakes.

Yet Danon Pharaoh underwent an extraordinary transformation in the Japan Dirt Derby. Maybe he relished the heavy track conditions at Oi. Or perhaps he is improving with maturity.

In any case, Danon Pharaoh was always prominent under regular rider Ryusei Sakai. He tracked fellow longshot Daimei Corrida through splits of :23.60, 48.70, and 1:13.60, then wore down his rival in the homestretch to score by 1 3/4 lengths. The top two pulled five lengths clear of the rest, and Danon Pharaoh hit the wire in a respectable 2:05.90 over the testing going.

Winning the Japan Dirt Derby secured Danon Pharaoh 40 qualification points on the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby, which ranks him second on the final leaderboard, behind Cafe Pharoah. Should the connections of Cafe Pharoah choose to regroup in the aftermath of the Japan Dirt Derby, the connections of Danon Pharaoh — a Triple Crown nominee — will have to decide whether a trip to Churchill Downs is in the cards for their improving colt.

Only time will tell if Danon Pharaoh has the speed to compete against North America’s best 3-year-olds in the Kentucky Derby. But with his triumph over 2,000 meters in the Japan Dirt Derby, at least he has proven himself over the testing distance of the Run for the Roses.