An overflow field of 16 runners was entered for Saturday’s $1 million Blue Grass Stakes (GI) at Keeneland, the last main prep in the state for the Kentucky Derby (GI) down the road at Churchill Downs in four weeks. The Blue Grass, for the most part, is cyclical when it comes to its impact on the Run for the Roses and has been a bit quiet recently as far as sending legit runners to Lousiville, but with this year’s field apparently wide open it wouldn’t be a shock to see a real Derby runner emerge.
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 temperatures the next. This week has been a prime example and the warm 60 degrees with thunderstorms experienced mid-week will turn cold, dry and windy, with highs only in the mid-40s by Saturday. Hopefully, the wind will sufficiently dry the track for a fast surface by post time.
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 horses to have completed the Blue Grass-Kentucky Derby double, several Blue Grass winners — Arts and Letters, Honest Pleasure and Alydar to name a few — have performed very well at the home of the Twin Spires.
Horses that lost the Blue Grass have also found success on the first Saturday in May, including Thunder Gulch in 1995 and Street Sense in 2007. And since Keeneland’s 10-year experiment with a synthetic surface ended last year, it makes sense to believe that the Blue Grass is again a race with Kentucky Derby clout.
14 will go postward for the nine-furlong event, including early favorite Zulu. Last seen finishing second to Mohaymen in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII) in February in his first career defeat, trainer Todd Pletcher decided to avoid the Nyquist vs. Moyhamen circus that was the Florida Derby (GI) last week and enter him in the final prep in Kentucky at Keeneland. Though he’s never raced the nine-furlong distance, he’s bred to go all day, being by Bernardini and out of the mare Temporada, a daughter of 1990 Blue Grass winner Summer Squall. And while Pletcher only owns one win in the Derby, it’s hard to discount his ability to get runners ready for big races and the future Hall-of-Famer’s charge needs to be taken seriously with Eclipse winner Javier Castellano in the irons.
An early running type, post position four is an ideal spot for Zulu to gain his preferred early position and, if he gets out of the gate in good order, he will be a tough customer all the way to the wire.
Donegal Moon, another Pletcher-trained runner, has yet to win a stakes race, but enters the Blue Grass off a 13-length allowance romp at Parx a month ago. He’s mostly raced against inferior competition and has gone unplaced in two graded stakes attempts (though in one he fell on his face out of the gate and dropped the rider), but he seems on the improve and has been working well at his winter base of Belmont Park. The odd thing is he’ll be ridden by Martin Garcia, who is normally Bob Baffert’s go-to rider, for the first time, so he’ll be getting to know Donegal Moon in stakes company for the first time. The Malibu Moon colt seems to prefer to be part of an early pace scenario, so expect him up on the engine after his break from post position two.
Brody’s Cause won the Breeders’ Futurity (GI) and was third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) last fall and returns to the scene of the crime after a lengthy winter break and really uncharacteristically poor showing in the Tampa Bay Derby (GIII) last time out. Granted, he had some trouble from the break at Tampa, but he never looked interested, so the race could easily be considered a toss when analyzing his chances here.
He’s been working well since that dismal performance and has experience winning on both fast and off tracks. Luis Saez will be aboard for the first time and it wouldn’t be a shock to see improvement from the son of Giant’s Causeway on his favorite track in his second start off the layoff. Plus, he’s a stone-cold closer who will sit behind what is likely to be a swift early pace, a situation that can only help his chances. He drew post position seven, which won’t make much of a difference for him as long as he breaks cleanly this time.
The Blue Grass “wise guy” horse this year is My Man Sam, an eight-length maiden winner coming off a runner-up finish to the highly regarded, yet also unproven, Matt King Coal. In his last race, he was running late and looked like he simply ran out of room, so the added distance should only help him. He’s had some really good works over the Belmont Park training track this winter and will have perennial Keeneland leading rider Julien Leparoux aboard. And since he’s a mid-pack runner, he shouldn’t have too much trouble finding his comfortable spot from the outside post of 14 (or even a few spots inside if any of his rivals scratch).
Star Hill enters off a third in the Tampa Bay Derby; Cards of Stone romped by 13 lengths in non-winners-other-than company last out; and American Dubai will attempt to redeem himself following a next-to-last finish in the Rebel Stakes (GII) at Oaklawn last out. Loaban and Goats Town are looking for their first wins, but face an uphill battle in a field with proven added-money runners.
Post time for the Blue Grass, which is the day’s 10th race, is set for 6:00 p.m. EDT.