Will Keeneland's Blue Grass Gambit Pay Off?

Profile Picture:

TwinSpires Staff

December 23rd, 2014

by Laura Pugh

When Keeneland returned its main track to dirt, the first thought I had was, “Boy! Now this means that the Blue Grass Stakes will become a meaningful prep for the Kentucky Derby again!” However, I'm not so sure of that following the news that the Blue Grass will now be four weeks before the Derby instead of three

For decades, the Blue Grass has been the centerpiece of Keeneland’s spring meeting, and its place three weeks before the First Saturday in May and on dirt yielded such names as Holy Bull, Strike the Gold, Skip Away, Pulpit, and Summer Squall.

The installation of Polytrack changed that. Street Sense won the 2007 Kentucky Derby as the favorite following a second-place finish in the first-ever Blue Grass on Polytrack, but the best finish by a Blue Grass winner in the Derby was Dullahan’s third to I’ll Have Another in 2012.

Yes, the Blue Grass was still a good betting race with fantastic finishes, but it had lost its relevancy on the Triple Crown trail and championship three-year-old picture.

The move to dirt will improve the race’s standing in those arenas, but will horsemen respond to the race being the same day as the Wood Memorial Stakes or Santa Anita Derby—both of which are sandwiched between two other 170-point races such as the Florida and Louisiana Derbys the week before and the Arkansas Derby the week after?

At three weeks out, following all the other major preps except the Arkansas Derby, the Blue Grass could have attracted horses that needed another week or two. Now, the Arkansas Derby is the only option for horsemen who want a big points race three weeks from the Kentucky Derby, giving them an extra week of rest since their last start.

And Keeneland offers something Oaklawn does not: it’s already in Kentucky. Sure, that’s in play regardless of the timing of the race, but trainers don’t like shipping much so why would the best of New York or California ship that long of a distance when they have a race in their own back yard, over a track they know their horse enjoys?

The Florida Derby, in this format will be run one week before the Blue Grass, Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby. Typically, trainers either like the five weeks or they don’t. They either like the Gulfstream Park dirt or they don’t. If they don’t like either of those two they ship elsewhere—the Louisiana Derby the same day at Fair Grounds or the Wood Memorial a week later at Aqueduct. Now the Blue Grass is an option, but will it be a popular one among that group?

The biggest winner in all this is not the Blue Grass Stakes, but the Arkansas Derby. It will likely boast an overflow field among the Arkansas-based horses pointing to this race, as well as the horses needing extra time. The Blue Grass could have been an option as well and might hurt because it’s not.

The racing bug bit Delaware native Laura Pugh in 2002 during War Emblem's Triple Crown chase. She began blogging in 2008, and her work has previously appeared on Horse Racing Nation.