Everyone at Santa Anita wanted to see how the underdog story would play out. With a horse stepping up big in class, can he knock off the better-known favorites?
The answer Saturday was yes, but it wasn't the horse most people expected. It was Danzing Candy, not Smokey Image, who pulled the upset in the $400,000 San Felipe Stakes and turned the muddled Kentucky Derby picture even murkier.
With Derby favorite Nyquist in Florida, the good news for local race fans is it looks as if the same matchups will occur at the Santa Anita Derby on April 8.
Ridden by Mike Smith, Danzing Candy broke well as a crowd of 27,259 looked on, took the lead quickly and never gave it up. He beat the late-running favorite, Mor Spirit, by two lengths. Exaggerator, the second favorite, made a monster move on the clubhouse turn but then flattened out, couldn't run down the winner and finished third.
After a fast half-mile in 46 seconds, trainer Cliff Sise was guarded in his confidence.
"I knew the horse was capable, but in the back of my mind I kept saying, 'Keep going, keep going, keep going,'" Sise said. "I might have ridden him harder than Mike did."
Both trainer and jockey were rather blase about their roles in getting the horse ready.
Did you do anything to get him to run this well?
Sise: "Not really."
Smith: "We didn't do much with him."
It was Danzing Candy's fourth race, third win and first stakes race.
"For him to hold off the caliber of horses he held off was very impressive," Smith said.
Sise was clear where he wanted to race next.
"We'll stay for the Santa Anita Derby," Sise said. "He's three for three on this track. We're not going to change that and I don't see any reason to. But you never know, you've got to leave that up to the owners."
Danzing Candy paid $13, $5.20 and $3.40.
Trainer Bob Baffert was pretty happy with Mor Spirit's performance over 1 1/16 miles. The Santa Anita Derby is 1 1/8 miles and the Kentucky Derby is 1 1/4 miles.
"He ran well," Baffert said of his colt. "The horse that won was a pretty good horse. I wanted to run first, second or third . … I'm real happy the way he went. We're learning more about him."
Jockey Gary Stevens also was pleased with Mor Spirit's performance.
"I lost a battle today, but I like our position," Stevens said. "We got a lot out of today's race."
Baffert also said he wanted to keep the horse "right here."
One of the disappointments was Exaggerator, who finished third, three-quarters of a length behind Mor Spirit.
"I loved the way it set up," said Keith Desormeaux, Exaggerator's trainer. "He just didn't finish. He might be maxing out at a mile too. That's going through my mind right now. We'll try again in the Santa Anita Derby and try and prove me wrong."
Smokey Image, the California-bred winner of all six starts, was never really in contention. He took a sharp right out of the gate, was a little rank and wide on the first turn and finished fifth of six horses.
The 20 horses that are allowed to enter the Kentucky Derby are decided on a points system off the preps. By winning Saturday, Danzing Candy is assured a spot with 50 points, as is Mor Spirit with 44. Exaggerator, should Desormeaux think he has the distance, is a possible with 26 points. Horses with 30 points are virtually assured a spot.
Follow John Cherwa on Twitter: @jcherwa