A field of 15 was entered for Saturday’s $1 million Blue Grass Stakes (GII) at Keeneland, the last main prep in the state for the Kentucky Derby (GI) down the highway at Churchill Downs in four weeks. The Blue Grass, for the most part, has been a bit quiet recently as far as sending legit runners to Lousiville for the Run for the Roses, but this year’s field is not short on talent and potential and includes the reigning juvenile champion.
The race offers 100 points to the winner to make the Derby starting gate, but depending on who finishes second, third and fourth the 40-20-10 points handed out for those respective positions could have a solid impact when connections start planning their Derby Day wardrobe.
Anybody who knows anything about the weather in Kentucky in the fall knows it’s bipolar. Sunny and warm one day, snow flurries and freezing temps the next. This week has been a prime example and the warm 70 degrees with thunderstorms experienced mid-week will turn cold and, by Saturday, a solid snowfall — not just flurries — is expected. Hopefully, the track will be dry by post time after the rain forecasted for Friday. Post time for the Blue Grass, which is the 10th race on the card, has been set for 6:23 p.m. ET.
Over the years, some really good horses have won the Blue Grass before taking the Run for the Roses, including Tomy Lee, Northern Dancer, Lucky Debonair, Forward Pass, Dust Commander, Riva Ridge and Spectacular Bid. And though Strike the Gold in 1991 was the last, top-tier horses have run in the Blue Grass before making a significant impression on Derby Day, including Arts and Letters, Honest Pleasure and Alydar.
The recently deceased Thunder Gulch in 1995 and Street Sense in 2007 are the most recent Blue Grass runners to win under the Twin Spires on the First Saturday in May and now that Keeneland is back to a dirt surface, it makes sense to believe it’s again a race carrying legitimate contenders.
A year ago, the maiden Irap won and defeated a short, but talented, field that included a couple of Grade 1 winners and while at the time a lot was made out of the colt’s win and how the race could be tossed, the ill-fated Irap went on to have a pretty good summer, winning the Ohio and Indiana Derbys before finishing second behind champion West Coast in the Pennsylvania Derby.
This year, all eyes will be on eFive Racing and Stonestreet Racing’s Eclipse Award winner Good Magic, who broke his maiden in the Breeders’ Cup and after a winter freshening could only muster a third-place finish as the 3-5 favorite in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII) at Gulfstream Park last month. Though trainer Chad Brown offered no excuses, it’s a good bet after the colt’s break he was a little short and will benefit from his last race and the steady stream of nice works, including a bullet four-furlong drill in :48 at his winter base of Palm Meadows last Saturday. The son of Curlin’s 105 Brisnet speed figure is the best here and the best of his crop. He’s a stalker/mid-pack type who we know will get a pace to run at, and if he shows any of the form he exited last season in, he’ll be dangerous under regular jockey Jose Ortiz Jr. from post position 11. He’s never raced the distance, but is bred for it and was impressive at a sixteenth shorter with room to grow.
Tampa Bay Derby (GIII) winner Quip is another talented Derby-bound runner owned by the partnership of China Horse Club, WinStar Farm and SF Racing and marks the first big-time runner for longtime Bill Mott assistant Rodolphe Brisset. The well-bred son of Distorted Humor has won three of his four career starts overall, his only poor performance coming in a troubled seventh in last fall’s Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (GII). He’s a two-time winner around two turns and is bred for the added distance. His numbers overall have been improving with each start, so if he continues that upward trend he could be dangerous for a small upset here. Florent Geroux returns and the pair, who will likely stalk just behind the early pace, will break from post five.
Albaugh Family Stables’ Free Drop Billy, who won the Breeders’ Futurity (GII) over this track last fall before a dismal ninth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, hasn’t exactly achieved the expectations his connections had for him entering the year, but that’s not to say the flashy Dale Romans trainee has been ineffective, with a second and a third in the Holy Bull Stakes (GII) and Gotham Stakes (GIII), where he was the beaten 8-5 favorite. Romans is never one to give up on a promising colt, so he enters the son of Union Rags here off a pair of decent works at Gulfstream Park. Numbers-wise, his best is certainly good enough to win here and, aside from the Breeders’ Cup, Free Drop Billy has been pretty consistent. He’s a son of a Belmont Stakes winner in Union Rags, so distance isn’t an issue, and as a later runner will have the pace he likes to run at. Back on his favorite track under new jockey Irad Ortiz, a win would not be a surprise at what will probably be a decent price against a vulnerable favorite.
Sam F. Davis Stakes (GIII) winner Flameaway was a nice second behind Quip at Tampa last out and an argument can be made he was inhibited by a poor start and is likely to improve here. His 101 speed figure for his Sam Davis win is among the best here and if he gets his preferred trip setting the pace he may be tough to run down in the lane. Jose Lezcano rides for Mark Casse.
Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas has said that Grade 1 winner Sporting Chance will set sail for the front right from the start under Luis Saez. This colt is loaded with talent and back for his third start off the layoff from surgery to remove a knee chip, and he’s not missed a beat either training or racing all winter. After a couple of trips that were troubled and out of his comfort zone up on or just behind the lead, hopefully he’ll have less trouble here. His numbers and pedigree show the son of Tiznow belongs here. Lukas last won this race in 2000 with High Yield (he also saddled 1987 winner War)
Romans’ other runner is Grade 2-placed Tiz Mischief, who hasn’t done a whole lot this year racing against the top choices here. The son of Into Mischief has reportedly been training well down at Gulfstream all winter and his connections, which include owner Frank Jones and jockey Corey Lanerie, believe he belongs here. He’s another one who will be rolling late.
Kanthaka made a brief statement by upsetting the seven-furlong San Vicente and then was third in the San Felipe behind the dueling Bolt D’Oro and the sidelined McKinzie. He’s talented and improving, but the handsome chestnut son of Jimmy Creed may have some distance issues. He does have Eclipse winner Julien Leparoux aboard and has Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer at the helm — two things that can only help.
The Doug O’Neill-trained Blended Citizen returns to the dirt looking for valuable Derby points after winning the synthetic Jeff Ruby Steaks (GIII) two weeks ago. He earned triple-digit speed figures in his last two races, which includes a third in the El Camino Real Derby (GIII), and is a talented horse on the improve. The question is if he’s talented against a tough field like this on the dirt. He’d need to finish at least second to make the Derby gate since he only has 22 points so far.
Arawak makes his first start for O’Neill after a third in the Jeff Ruby Steaks for Wesley Ward. His only dirt start was a fifth in last summer’s Best Pal Stakes (GII) at Del Mar and while that was a sprint, he’s also shown his preference for an all-weather track. O’Neill was at the helm for Irap’s win last year, so this one should get a good, long look.
Todd Pletcher, who is already loaded with at least three promising Derby runners, sends out the maiden winner Marconi off a wide, come-from-behind fifth in the Fountain of Youth last out. The Magnier, Tabor and Smith colorbearer is on the improve and will have the benefit of Ryan Moore, who was aboard UAE Derby (GII) winner Mendelssohn last week, in the saddle. Bookmakers already have Moore choosing the Derby over the 2,000 Guineas and Saxon Warrior on the same day, so this one — win, lose or draw — would likely be just a backup.
Determinant makes his first start against winners after breaking his maiden at third asking a month ago, and the $550,000 son of Tapit carries some strong connections in owner John Oxley and trainer Mark Casse. He’s found a deep pool to dive in for his stakes debut, but stranger things have happened in this race when good, improving horses are involved.
Machismo was a decent fourth in the Fountain of Youth last time, but the competition isn’t getting any easier and this one seems in deep.
Gotta Go seems in tough and is probably better suited to the shorter distance judging by his runner-up finish in the Swale Stakes (GIII) two back.
Zing Zang hasn’t done a lot since breaking his maiden — all in graded company — last December. Overall his numbers are below the top runners here and his inside post doesn’t do him any favors. California Night is an allowance/optional claiming winner and is a good, improving horse. He will have a lot of improving to do to finish in front of the top choices here.