By Margaret Ransom
Peter Callaghan’s multiple Grade 2-winning filly Swiss Skydiver was among the 13 names dropped into Keeneland’s entry box for Saturday’s $600,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) and she was promptly made the 3-1 morning line favorite in her first starts against the opposite sex.
Swiss Skydiver’s conditioner, Kenny McPeek, also trains the promising Ashland Stakes (G1) contender Envoutante and had expressed his intent to keep the two fillies apart as long as possible. So with Swiss Skydiver riding a three-race win streak that includes the Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2), Fantasy Stakes (G2) and Santa Anita Oaks (G1), which makes her one of the top horses of either sex in the sophomore division, he decided the Blue Grass was a good spot to try her against the boys.
No filly has ever won the Blue Grass and only one filly has run in the race. Hyman Friedberg’s homebred Harriet Sue, who won the Ashland, was fifth to Skytracer in the 1944 Blue Grass. That year, Keeneland’s Spring Meet was held at Churchill Downs. In 1948, future Hall of Famer Bewitch was scratched from the Blue Grass.
The 9-furlong Blue Grass offers 100 points to the winner to make the Derby starting gate thanks to its spot on the Road to the Derby qualifying races list, meaning the top-four finishers will be awarded points on a 100-40-20-10 scale.
This year, the Blue Grass date was pushed back three months when Keeneland’s spring season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it remains the signature event for the track regardless, though the purse has been dropped to $600,000.
This year marks the 25th straight year the race will be carry Toyota as the title sponsor. The meet has been restricted to participation by necessary track staff only, as well as trainers, jockeys and all essential backside workers who care for an exercise the horses. Owners are allowed on a limited basis, and owners with a horse in a stakes are given six guest passes, seating inside and outside and access to a limited food and drink menu.
Anybody who knows anything about the weather in Kentucky in the summer knows it’s unpredictable. Hot and humid and dry one minute, thunderstorms and wet the next. And the thunderstorms that have been hitting the area over the past week are expected to hold off on Saturday, but it will be very hot and very humid with temperatures reaching into the 90s.
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, 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 Vekoma won the Blue Grass before finishing 12th in the Derby, though he has more than rebounded as a 4-year-old having won all three of his races this year, including Carter Handicap (G1) in June and the Met Mile (G1) last week.
However, since 1997 the Blue Grass has only produced one winner from a total of 85 starters, so it sends out the most starters of any prep yet produces the least amount of Derby winners.
Some other famous Blue Grass winners include Bull Lea, Coaltown, Round Table, Chief’s Crown, Summer Squall, Prairie Bayou, Holy Bull, Skip Away and Pulpit.
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 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 holds the record for the fastest Blue Grass, having stopped the clock in 1:47.20 for the 9 furlongs in 1996.
Post time for the Blue Grass, which is the ninth race on the card, has been set for 5:30 p.m. ET.
|1||Shivaree||Ralph Nicks||John Velazquez||8-1||Awesome of Course–Garter Belt, by Anasheed|
|2||Finnick the Fierce||Rey Hernandez||Jose Ortiz||12-1||Dialed In–Southern Classic, by Southern Image|
|3||Art Collector||Tom Drury Jr.||Brian Hernandez Jr.||6-1||Bernardini–Distorted Legacy, by Distorted Humor|
|4||Mr. Big News||Bret Calhoun||Mitchell Murrill||10-1||Giant’s Causeway—Unappeased, by Galileo|
|5||Man in the Can||Ron Moquett||Tyler Gaffalione||12-1||Can the Man—Smeauxkininthelane, by Smoke Glacken|
|6||Hard Lighting||Alexis Delgado||Rafael Bejarano||50-1||Hard Spun–The Magic Stone, by Malibu Moon|
|7||Swiss Skydiver||Kenny McPeek||Mike Smith||3-1||Daredevil–Expo Gold, by Johannesburg|
|8||Basin||Steve Asmussen||Ricardo Santana Jr.||8-1||Liam’s Map—Appenzell, by Johannesburg|
|9||Attachment Rate||Dale Romans||Luis Saez||20-1||Hard Spun—Aristra, by Afleet Alex|
|10||Rushie||Michael McCarthy||Javier Castellano||5-1||Liam’s Map–Conquest Angel, by Colonel John|
|11||Hunt the Front||Nick Zito||Corey Lanerie||20-1||Revolutionary–Best of Times, by Mineshaft|
|12||Enforceable||Mark Casse||Joel Rosario||8-1||Tapit—Justwhistledixie, by Dixie Union|
|13||Tiesto||Bill Mott||Flavien Prat||15-1||Tiznow–Marquee Delivery, by Marquetry|
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 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 Pasadena with her longtime beau, Tony, two Australian Shepherds and one Golden Retriever.