Although the field is short, Keeneland’s Kentucky Derby prep race boasts the deepest lineup of talent since the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November. The Toyota Blue Grass Stakes — the premier race of the Keeneland spring meet — will consist of seven colts going to the starting gate competing for as many as 100 points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby points system.
With 100 points being awarded to the winner, 40 to the runner-up, 20 to the third-place finisher and 10 to the horse finishing fourth, the 1 1/8-mile featured race on the opening Saturday card in Lexington may also very well anoint the winner as the morning line favorite to win the Run for the Roses on the first Saturday in May.
After being downgraded to Grade II status this year, it’s sweet vindication for Keeneland that the Blue Grass will be far and away the most important Derby prep on Saturday — and, arguably, the entire calendar year. The Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby also are contested on Saturday, with only next weekend’s Arkansas Derby as the remaining prep of the Kentucky Derby Championship Season.
Here is a detailed look at each of the contenders:
1-IT’S YOUR NICKEL (20-1 morning line odds)
Locally-based trainer Ken McPeek sees his versatile Dialed In colt draw the rail for the biggest test of his career. Having won three races (including one through disqualification) in four starts, It’s Your Nickel has raced (and won) on dirt, grass, and synthetic turf. He broke his maiden last August on firm Saratoga turf going 1 1/16 miles, while showing a nice late kick in Maiden Special Weight company. Although his speed figures aren’t on par with some of the other contenders, his post position and the fact that there is not a lot of speed subscribed to this race lends one to believe that McPeek will send this one out early, and he could be an influencing factor regardless of where he finishes.
Trainer Ian Wilkes may have dodged a bullet after his undefeated Ghostzapper colt strained his left front ankle during a workout at the Palm Meadows Training Center on Feb. 27 while preparing for the Tampa Bay Derby. The winner of this year’s Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa and last year’s Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs, this multiple graded stakes winner would run his record to a perfect 5-for-5 by capturing the Blue Grass and would become the most logical Kentucky Derby morning line favorite. But the question will remain: how much did that slight injury take away from McCraken? At short odds, that question may best be answered without backing this one at the windows.
3-J BOYS ECHO (4-1)
Dale Romans is the only trainer in this race with a colt that has won previously at Keeneland. J Boys Echo broke his maiden at the Lexington track by 5 ½ lengths in a maiden special weight affair at 1 1/16 miles in October. Although he couldn’t finish better than third in either of his next two races, this Mineshaft colt put in his finest career performance last out in the Grade III Gotham at Aqueduct, where he was clearly the best. He recorded a 102 Beyer Speed Figure for his effort in that race, which is the highest career figure for all runners in the Blue Grass. He will be backed accordingly as one of the three top contenders on Saturday, along with McCraken and Tapwrit.
In Todd Pletcher’s quest to saddle half of this year’s Kentucky Derby field, he’s sitting on another good one in Tapwrit. After getting off to an inauspicious start last September (when, in hindsight, he was not ready to race), this son of legendary sire Tapit is peaking at the right time — and is a force to be reckoned with this Saturday. The biggest question is how he will handle facing McCraken again. McCraken beat Tapwrit in the Sam F. Davis when they last met at Tampa, but McCraken has missed time due to injury and Tapwrit has been progressing. Pletcher has been on fire lately and Tapwrit is my choice to take the Blue Grass. Bet him with confidence.
5-WILD SHOT (15-1)
Maiden winner Wild Shot is deserving of his double-digit morning line odds, as he has proven to be a cut below fellow Blue Grass competitors McCraken and Tapwrit. Having finished near the top of the field in races won by the two aforementioned runners as well as Classic Empire, trainer George Arnold’s son of Trappe Shot may not have what it takes to win on Saturday, but his late kick and his familiarity with the Keeneland track may make this one a valuable play underneath in the exotics. Last year, he finished third to Classic Empire and Lookin’ at Lee in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at odds of nearly 43-to-1. The $2 exacta paid $82.20, while Wild Shot’s third-place finish made the $2 trifecta pay $1,742.60. He will be an overlay in this race as well, but one with a legitimate chance to hit the board, something he’s only failed to do once in six career starts. Play underneath.
In order for Irap to take home the 100 Derby points this Saturday, he would have to do something he has yet to accomplish in seven career starts — win a race. Yes, Irap is still a maiden, but that doesn’t mean that the Doug O’Neill-trained Tiznow colt has been languishing against other non-winners. This one has been running in graded stakes company, finishing second in the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity, as well as the Grade III Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita, before finishing a disappointing fourth in the Grade III Sunland Derby last out. Irap isn’t a contender to take the Blue Grass, not because of his maiden status, but because he simply doesn’t have the talent. Although Mine That Bird did win the Kentucky Derby after failing to perform well in the Sunland Derby, Irap’s fourth-place finish by nearly nine lengths to Hence garnered him a 79 Beyer Speed Figure, meaning he would have to improve by leaps and bounds in thirteen days. Not likely — at all.
7-PRACTICAL JOKE (7-2)
The real wild card in this race is Practical Joke. Trainer Chad Brown is one of the premier conditioners in North America and he has a contender in this Into Mischief colt. Practical Joke won his first three starts before finishing a well-beaten third behind Classic Empire and Not This Time in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita. But he’s only had one start since then — in the Grade II Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park on March 4. Brown, who has yet to win the Blue Grass in three previous tries saddled runner-up My Man Sam in last year’s edition of the race and Practical Joke’s training regimen in preparation for this one is very similar. Practical Joke could legitimately finish anywhere from first to sixth here, making him a true wild card indeed. I’ll take the stance of “let him beat me”, and leave Practical Joke off the top of my tickets.