Five things to know about the Blue Grass

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April 7th, 2017

Saturday’s $1 million Blue Grass (G2) could turn out to be the most informative Kentucky Derby (G1) points race. As unbeaten McCraken aims to solidify his position as the early Derby favorite, the surging Tapwrit and J Boys Echo bid to continue their progression, while Practical Joke seeks to answer the distance question. And with a total bonanza of 170 points on the table, the outsiders can put themselves into the Derby frame with an unexpectedly strong performance at Keeneland.

Here are my five things to know:

1. McCraken rates as the 7-5 morning-line favorite in a prep that he’ll need to bring him to his peak for the Derby. Since he missed the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) because of an apparently minor ankle strain, you can make a case for a potential vulnerability in this spot. Trainer Ian Wilkes has emphasized that the Blue Grass is a means to the end, not a must-win, and he’s all about building toward that goal on the first Saturday in May. And as a general rule, it’s not ideal to have to revise plans on the Derby trail.

On the other hand, McCraken was superb off the layoff in the February 11 Sam F. Davis (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs, where he set a track record despite Wilkes’ cautious pre-race expectations. And his subsequent hiccup didn’t cost him that much training time. Right back on the worktab 16 days after the Davis, the Ghostzapper colt hasn’t missed a beat since, and he’s looked great in his breezes over the track. If he’s got room to improve off the Blue Grass, McCraken is still capable of firing a sharp effort on Saturday. He may not be far off his peak.

2. Tapwrit is an improved customer since his last clash with McCraken. A closing second after awaiting room and altering course in the Davis, Todd Pletcher’s $1.2 million pupil showed an eye-catching change of gear to dominate the Tampa Bay Derby.

It’s a fascinating counterfactual to wonder what might have happened had McCraken competed in the Tampa Bay Derby as first intended. Tapwrit won going away in stakes-record time, so McCraken would have had to up his game as well. Yet note that a reappearing McCraken was giving a race-fit Tapwrit six pounds in the Davis. Tapwrit still carried only 116 in the Tampa Bay Derby, and now picks up seven pounds to meet McCraken at level weights (123 pounds) in the Blue Grass.

Of course, with three-year-olds all developing at this time of year, and some taking quantum leaps, such neat arithmetic becomes moot. If McCraken had at least six pounds in hand over Tapwrit in February, the gap is already closing, if not closed. Tapwrit may also get a more favorable set-up than McCraken if reverting to stalking tactics with a modest pace on tap.

3. J Boys Echo is also on the upswing after a breakthrough in the Gotham (G3). After a few tough trips, the Dale Romans trainee finally got an ideal passage at Aqueduct. Perched in the catbird seat in fourth behind a taxing pace, he delivered a powerful punch to draw off by 3 1/2 lengths and notched a field-best 104 BRIS Speed rating.

The caveat is that the Blue Grass probably won’t unfold that way. Nevertheless, J Boys Echo might not be a total pace hostage. The Mineshaft colt looked explosive in his maiden win, off a moderate pace, on this very Keeneland track last fall. Moreover, he did so by shrugging off an incident that would have caused a lesser horse to shrink into self-protective mode. J Boys Echo was shoved into the rail just as he was launching his bid, but he simply picked himself off the mat and dusted them. You’ve got to love that tough attitude, and as a progressive type with a pedigree to blossom with maturity, we haven’t seen his best yet.

4. Practical Joke brings an outstanding juvenile resume, along with distance questions. Last year’s Hopeful (G1) and Champagne (G1) winner is top-class, but at this point, even trainer Chad Brown has commented that the jury’s out on his two-turn ability. Not only have all three of his wins come around one turn, but they’ve also come by ever-shorter margins as he’s stepped from six furlongs, to seven, to a one-turn mile. And in both of his routes, he’s lost ground in the final sixteenth.

At the same time, the Blue Grass may present Practical Joke with his best chance over a route so far. His first two-turn attempt resulted in a troubled third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at Santa Anita. His next try was in his reappearance in the Fountain of Youth (G2), where he may have moved a tad prematurely into the pace before flattening out in second. Although he was never going to outfinish Gunnevera that day, slightly more patient handling may have helped the margin of his loss. Practical Joke is eligible to move forward in this second start off the bench, and with the Blue Grass tempo being softer, he probably won’t face that stiff a stamina test. His class may carry him a little farther.

5. The remaining trio of Wild Shot, It’s Your Nickel, and Irap all have to improve.

Wild Shot has been an admirably consistent placegetter while mixing it up in graded stakes, and trainer Rusty Arnold’s front-running game plan may work to his advantage as the controlling speed. Still, the son of Trappe Shot may find it a stretch to wire this group at this nine-furlong distance. Third after setting the pace in last October’s Breeders’ Futurity (G1) here, Wild Shot forced the issue early in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) before being overwhelmed by McCraken. In any event, hold-up tactics didn’t help him in his last two tries against Tapwrit and McCraken at Tampa, and he’s likely to do his best work on the front end.

It’s Your Nickel deserves a chance at the big leagues after romping in the John Battaglia Memorial over Turfway Park’s Polytrack last time out. He’s also a triple-surface performer, having been awarded a Fair Grounds dirt allowance via disqualification, and having broken his maiden on the Saratoga turf last summer. Although his preferred surface is to be determined, the Ken McPeek trainee has a dirt-oriented pedigree as a son of Dialed In and a Quiet American mare. A bigger concern is the value of his form: the Battaglia runner-up came back to run poorly in a less-than-vintage Spiral (G3), and the demoted winner from his Fair Grounds race was sixth in the Louisiana Derby (G2).

The 0-for-7 Irap will try to become the first maiden ever to win the storied Blue Grass, and his only talking point is trainer Doug O’Neill’s 20 percent strike rate when taking the blinkers off. Otherwise, the well-bred son of Tiznow is up against it. While there’s no disgrace to being best of the rest behind Mastery in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1), Irap was no match for Royal Mo in the Robert Lewis (G3) either, and his two most recent losses at Sunland leave plenty of question marks.

For more details, check out the free Brisnet PPs for the Blue Grass.

McCraken photo courtesy of Keeneland/Coady Photography