Twelve horses will go to post this Saturday in the Grade 1 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keneeland for $750,000. The winner will garner the lion’s share of the purse and take home $465,000 in earnings – essentially assuring their position in the Kentucky Derby on May 3rd.
A combination of factors has led to the largest field for the Blue Grass in 25 years. Most notably, their are dozens of horses still “on the bubble” trying to pick up graded earnings in order to qualify for the 20 horse field fo the Derby. Additionally, a recent slew of upsets in the major prep races, dating back to War Pass’s debacle in the Tampa Bay Derby and carrying through the 3 “upsets” of post time favorites in last weekend’s prep races (Ilinois Derby, Wood Memorial, and Santa Anita Derby) have left many folks feeling like it’s worth it to take a shot and roll the dice with their respective colts.
To pull the upset this Saturday, they’ll need to get past the vaunted Pyro, who is clearly one of the top two colts in the country. Many folks have him ranked #1, and while I’m slightly higher on Big Brown at the moment, you won’t get any argument from me with those sentiments. The Steve Asmussen trainee has turned in some eye opening victories in the Risen Star and Louisana Derby so far this year. If he gets to run his race, the other colts should be running for place and show.
However, before we’re fully ready to eat chalk here, keep in mind that last year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Street Sense, actually finished 2nd in his final prep in the Blue Grass. Foolishly this was one of the reasons I picked against him last year in the Derby. Like Pyro this year, Street Sense didn’t need to win the Bluegrass last year. Street Sense ran a solid race, but wound up getting nosed by Dominican. I only mention this because a similar outcome is possible this weekend. Sure, Pyro looks much the best on paper, and he’s probably much the best in actual horseflesh as well, but they aren’t going to burn him out here if they can help it. He just needs a good race, not a winning one.
This means we need to take a bit closer look at the field. Let’s start with the post positions, odds, and jockeys.
- Cool Coal Man (Kent Desormeaux) – 4/1
- Kentucky Bear (Jamie Theriot) – 50/1
- Cowboy Cal (John Velasquez) – 15/1
- Stevil (TBA) – 30/1
- Monba (Edgar Prado) – 15/1
- Big Truck (Eibar Coa) – 6/1
- Pyro (Shaun Bridgmohan) – 1/1*
- Stone Bird (Corey Lanerie) – 50/1
- Medjool (Michael Baze) – 30/1
- Miner’s Claim (Patrick Husbands) – 20/1
- Halo Najib (Garrett Gomez) – 15/1
- Visionaire (Jose Lezcano) – 6/1
From a recent form perspective, you’ve got several horses coming off wins in their last starts, including Cool Coal Man (Fountain of Youth winner), Big Truck (Tampa Bay Derby winner) , and Visionaire (Gotham Stakes winner). These would seem to be your logical contenders, but there’s one other factor we haven’t hit on yet. None of these guys, nor Pyro for that matter, have proven anything on the Polytrack. Most have trained on it, but there’s a significant lack of racing experience on the synthetic surface. Cool Coal Man, who just had a brother sell for a hefty chunk of change to Jess Jackson earlier in the week, is probably the most highly regarded of this group. He drew the inside post and will likely try to use a similar stalking style to pounce on the leaders at the top of the stretch. Big Truck is a rapidly improving 3 year old that was the benefactor of War Pass’s meltdown in the Tampa Bay Derby. Visionaire is sort of a mystery horse to me. He won the Gotham over colts like Giant Moon and Texas Wildcatter, but it was tough to get a good look at exactly how he did it since the race was shrouded in heavy fog. He’s an off the pace type, so perhaps the extreme outside post draw won’t limit him as much as if he were a front runner.
As if all of that weren’t enough, consider that relative long-shots Monba, Cowboy Cal, Medjool, and Miner’s Claim are the most accomplished synthetic specialists of the race. Cowboy Cal and Monba are very interesting from this group as they could well represent trainer Todd Pletcher’s last hopes of having an entry for the Kentucky Derby. You may recall that last year seemingly half the field were Pletcher horses. Cowboy Cal has been taking the turf road to the Derby, but desperately needs graded earnings after disapponting in the Hallandale Beach Stakes earlier in the year. Monba was a horse we were expecting more from and looked like a legit Derby contender before having the trip from hell in the Fountain of Youth. Medjool closed from the outside post position to finish a respectable third in the Lane’s End Stakes
It gets even murkier when you consider that another horse we haven’t yet mentioned, Halo Najib, finished ahead of Medjool last time out in the Lane’s End. Need more? Halo Najib also adds jockey Garrett Gomez to the mix.
With so many directions to go, what’s a horseplayer to do? Well, I still think Pyro is good enough compared to the rest of the field that he can win without bringing his A plus game. He’ll need a good trip, and these aren’t chumps he’s facing, but it would be impossible to pick against him. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bounce back effort Monba on Satruday either, and at 15/1 all it will take is a favorable impression in the post parade for me to pull the trigger. If you’re playing exotics I think there’s an infinite number of directions you can go. The only horses in the entire field that don’t interest me at some level (for the moment) are Kentucky Bear, Miner’s Claim, Stone Bird, and Stevil.
This is one that’s going to come down to the wire before I’m willing to actually lay a bet. I’m going to watch everything, including the post parade, before finalizing my selections – which really any horseplayer should be doing anyway.
I also want to scrutinize the past performances a bit more to get a better handle on who the likely pace setters are. I’ve got a hunch that one of them might stick around for a pretty big price on Saturday. My advice is to roll the dice with whatever your gut is telling you. I think this one is wide open despite the fact that Pyro is your likely winner.
If any of you have any thoughts on the race, I’m all ears and would love to hear them. Who do you see setting the pace? What tickets are you thinking of playing?