by Margaret Ransom
The names of 14 Kentucky Derby hopefuls were dropped into the Keeneland entry box for Saturday’s $1 million Blue Grass Stakes (GII), the last main prep in the state for the Kentucky Derby (GI).
The Blue Grass, for the most part, has struggled to produce a Derby winner in recent years, but it boasts a storied history and standout list of former winners and also-rans that either won in Louisville or went on to Hall of Fame careers.
The nine-furlong race offers 100 points to the winner to make the Derby starting gate and the 40, 20 and 10 points handed out to the second- through fourth-place finishers respectively, 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 cold temperatures, rain and storms from a week ago and earlier in the week is expected to turn warmer and drier for the weekend. The high for Saturday has been forecast at 70 degrees under partly cloudy skies.
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 to accomplish the Blue Grass-Derby double feat, other top-tier horses have won the Blue Grass before making a significant impression on Derby Day include Arts and Letters, Honest Pleasure and Alydar, who all were second in the Run for the Roses.
Thunder Gulch in 1995 and Street Sense in 2007 are the most recent Blue Grass runners who didn’t win at Keeneland, but did go on to win under the Twin Spires on the First Saturday in May. And a year ago, champion Good Magic was second to eventual Triple Crown winner Justify in Louisville after winning the Blue Grass.
However, since 1997 the Blue Grass has only produced one winner from a total of 84 starters — so, it sends out the most starters for any prep, yet produces the least amount of Derby winners.
The leading Blue Grass-winning owner with six is the old Calumet Farm regime of Gene and Lucille Markey, who had winners in 1938, 1943, 1947, 1948, 1968 and 1978. California-based Hall of Famer Bill Shoemaker still holds the record for riding the most winners with six in 1959, 1960, 1965, 1966, 1969 and 1982. Five trainers have saddled three winners each — Ben Jones, Woody Stevens and LeRoy Jolley, who have all since passed, are tied with Hall of Famer Nick Zito and eventual Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher in this category.
The great gray Hall of Famer Skip Away still holds the record for the fastest Blue Grass, having stopped the clock in 1:47.20 for the nine furlongs in 1996.
- Somelikeithotbrown (10/1 morning line odds) Named (kind of) for the famed Kentucky sandwich, this son of Big Brown is coming off a win in the Jeff Ruby Steaks (GIII) at Turfway and is no doubt searching for more points to make the Derby starting gate. His lone dirt start produced a dismal seventh last summer over the slop at Saratoga, so the surface is definitely a question. His sire was the Derby and Preakness winner and trainer Mike Maker saddled Stately Victory to win this race in 2010. Jockey Tyler Gaffalione hasn’t won a Blue Grass yet in his young career.
- Vekoma (9/5) – this lightly raced son of Candy Ride, who won the Nashua Stakes (GIII), is the 9-5 morning line favorite off a third in the Tampa Bay Derby (GIII) last month in his sophomore debut. Trainer George Weaver, who hasn’t had a Blue Grass winner, says he needed the race and will be much more fit for this event under Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano, who will be aboard for the first time seeking a first Blue Grass trophy to add to his exceptionally packed trophy case.
- Signalman (5/1) – This Kenny McPeek-trained son of General Quarters, who won the 2009 Blue Grass, currently owns 18 Road to the Derby points and enters this race off a somewhat disappointing seventh in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII) early last month. McPeek saddled Harlan’s Holiday to victory in 2002 and Java’s War in 2013, while jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. is winless so far in this Derby prep.
- Market King (20/1) – This son of Into Mischief is trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, who has saddled two previous Blue Grass winners in War in 1987 and High Yield in 2000. Though a distant second in a division of the Rebel Stakes (GII) behind Omaha Beach last out, his connections roll the dice here looking for points. Veteran reinsman Jon Court, who regularly rides Derby contender Long Range Toddy, is aboard looking for a first Blue Grass win.
- Chess Chief (30/1) – This maiden-winning Into Mischief colt finds an ambitious spot to face winners for the first time, but he is in capable hands with trainer Dallas Stewart, so anything is possible. Jockey Paco Lopez hasn’t won a Blue Grass yet in a limited number of mounts.
- Dream Maker (12/1) – John Oxley homebred son of Tapit is one of two Mark Casse trainees and will be attempting to turn around a very dismal and troubled 10th (of 11) in the Tampa Bay Derby (GIII) last out. He was an 8 ½-length allowance winner at Fair Grounds this winter and looked great breaking his maiden at Churchill in June, but when he steps up into stakes company he seems to have trouble getting the job done. Casse and jockey Florent Geroux are, thus far, winless in the Blue Grass.
- Admire (15/1) – Trainer Dale Romans has saddled two Blue Grass winners — Dullahan in 2012 and Brody’s Cause in 2016 — and sends this $360,000 son of Cairo Prince out in search of a third. In two stakes attempts, he hasn’t done a thing, but he did win at this distance in the Churchill slop to break his maiden back in November. Robby Albarado has ridden a lot of winners in his career, which has been based largely in Kentucky, but hasn’t booted home a Blue Grass winner yet.
- Win Win Win (7/2) – this Mike Trombetta-trained colt, who is a Live Oak Plantation homebred son of Hat Trick, has been highly regarded all season, thanks to big figures. But his only major stakes appearance was the Tampa Bay Derby last month, where he was third at 7-5. Trombetta has trained his share of good horses throughout his career, chiefly Illinois Derby (GII) winner Sweetnorthernsaint and this colt may be his best chance to make it to the Kentucky Derby for the first time since 2006. Irad Ortiz Jr. is winless so far in the Blue Grass.
- Sir Winston (15/1) – Trainer Mark Casse’s other runner here, this Tracy Farmer homebred son of Awesome Again has struggled in two stakes starts on dirt after doing well on the Woodbine synthetic. Jockey Julien Leparoux has won the Blue Grass twice, first aboard Java’s War in 2013 and, then, Irap in 2017, and he’s also been Keeneland’s leading rider a time or two, so he knows his way around the oval.
- Lucky Lee (20/1) – Comes from one of the loaded Servis boys, John, who hasn’t won a Blue Grass yet, but who did win the 2004 Derby with a little horse named Smarty Jones. This colt, unfortunately, is no Smarty Jones — at least not at this stage of his career. Jockey Chris Landeros hasn’t won a Blue Grass, either.
- So Alive (15/1) – This son of 2010 Derby winner Super Saver is Todd Pletcher’s hope to win his fourth Blue Grass and join his previous winners Bandini (2005), Monba (2008) and Carpe Diem (2015). He did have a troubled trip before finishing third, beaten 11 lengths, in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (GIII) at Tampa Bay Downs last out, so maybe a clean trip will make the difference here for him. Jockey Luis Saez was aboard Brody’s Cause for the win here in 2016.
- Parsimony (20/1) – This maiden has four seconds from eight career starts and was a well-beaten eighth in a division of the Rebel Stakes (GII) won by Omaha Beach last out. Trainer Doug O’Neill saddled Irap to win this race in 2017 with Julien Leparoux, but brings his go-to rider Mario Gutierrez in to help the son of Dominus tackle the task of breaking his maiden in this race like Irap did… though this one seems a bit behind at this stage of his career.
- Moonster (30/1) – Another for trainer Dale Romans, this colt is also another making a last-ditch effort to earn Road to the Derby points after earning a couple when third in the Jeff Ruby Steaks (GIII) last out. He hasn’t won in six starts since breaking his maiden in September and, most often when he’s beaten, it’s by double digits. John McKee rides.
- Aquadini (30/1) – Trainer Dallas Stewart’s other runner, he makes his stakes debut under Corey Lanierie in what appears to be a tough spot. He is improving and has some decent figures, but the outside post is a killer for this son of Bernardini, who has shown he likes to on or near the early pace.
California native and lifelong horsewoman Margaret Ransom is a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program. She got her start in racing working in the publicity departments at Calder Race Course and Hialeah Park, as well as in the racing office at Gulfstream Park in South Florida. She then spent six years in Lexington, KY, at BRISnet.com, where she helped create and develop the company’s popular newsletters: Handicapper’s Edge and Bloodstock Journal.After returning to California, she served six years as the Southern California news correspondent for BloodHorse, assisted in the publicity department at Santa Anita Park and was a contributor to many other racing publications, including HorsePlayer Magazine and Trainer Magazine. She then spent seven years at HRTV and HRTV.com in various roles as researcher, programming assistant, producer and social media and marketing manager.
She has also walked hots and groomed runners, worked the elite sales in Kentucky for top-class consignors and volunteers for several racehorse retirement organizations, including CARMA.In 2016, Margaret was the recipient of the prestigious Stanley Bergstein Writing Award, sponsored by Team Valor, and was an Eclipse Award honorable mention for her story, “The Shocking Untold Story of Maria Borell,” which appeared on USRacing.com. The article and subsequent stories helped save 43 abandoned and neglected Thoroughbreds in Kentucky and also helped create a new animal welfare law in Kentucky known as the “Borell Law.”Margaret’s very first Breeders’ Cup was at Hollywood Park in 1984 and she has attended more than half of the Breeders’ Cups since. She counts Holy Bull and Arrogate as her favorite horses of all time.She lives in Robinson, Texas, with her longtime beau, Tony. She is the executive director of the 501(c)(3) non-profit horse rescue, The Bridge Sanctuary.