Although the spring meeting at historic Keeneland Race Course was pushed back to an abbreviated five days in July, its signature prep for the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve remains just that. The Grade 2, $600,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes drew a strong field of 13 vying for the winner’s share of the purse and 100 road to the Kentucky Derby points which are so very important in deciding who can break from the gate the first Saturday in September this year.
The most accomplished horse in the field is a filly, Swiss Skydiver, who has won three graded stakes in a row against her own gender including the Grade 2 Santa Anita Oaks last month. Although she has earned 310 points on the road to the Longines Kentucky Oaks, more than Tiz the Law has earned in the road to the Kentucky Derby points race, those points don’t count in terms of making her eligible for the Derby if her connections choose to run in that race. Among the dozen males who are also trying to gain points and prestige in this field, Mr. Big News is notable as he won the Oaklawn Stakes in April against some top 3-year-olds. Another colt who has been competitive in the division is Basin, who finished second in the first of two divisions of the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby in his most recent start. Enforceable won the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes in January before a runner-up effort in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes but only managed fifth in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby in his most recent effort. Rushie is another who may be approaching form good enough to compete against the best 3-year-olds as he finished third in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby in his last race. We can add Shivaree and Finnick the Fierce to the list of horses who have been knocking at the door at the top level. Shivaree finished second in the Grade 1 Florida Derby in March while Finnick the Fierce finished third in the second division of the Arkansas Derby. Tiesto may be interesting as he tries dirt after four career starts on turf including a runner-up effort in the Grade 3 Palm Beach Stakes in February. Attachment Rate finished third in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes in March and most recently was fourth in the Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes. Art Collector enters the race off three straight wins and tries graded stakes company on dirt for the first time. Man in the Can is also going for his fourth win in a row and may be another improving sort. Hunt the Front and Hard Lighting round out the field and may be overmatched as both have just a maiden win to their credit.
It didn’t take more than a couple of minutes to conclude there are two strong contenders to win this year’s Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, and one very interesting longshot. Additionally, there a number of other horses who have all been second or third at the level and could vie for a spot on exacta and trifecta tickets. The two top contenders are Swiss Skydiver and Art Collector. The longshot is Tiesto.
Art Collector started his career on turf, winning one of three races, then moved to dirt and won his second start on the surface last November. Taking time off to mature until May, Art Collector provides a perfect example of what is happening in the 3-year-old ranks due to a COVID-19-delayed Derby as he has really improved in the late spring, too late for the Derby in normal times. Coming back to the races on May 17, Art Collector won a dirt sprint in “ridden out” fashion after rallying from seventh of 11 early, then when stretched out to two turns on dirt for the first time, won even more easily, earning a career-best 106 Equibase Speed Figure in the process when leading from start to finish. To put that effort and figure into perspective, likely favorite Swiss Skydiver earned 104 and 108 figures, respectively, winning two important stakes in the Kentucky Oaks division in May and June about the same time Art Collector earned 97 and 106 figures, respectively. Trainer Tom Drury may not be a household name but he’s been very good at his craft for some time and knows how to keep a horse fit. According to a STATS Race Lens query, over the last five years Drury has won 20 of 66 races with horses in dirt routes back to back. Considering Art Collector has shown he can win leading from the start or when coming from off the pace and that he is making his third start off a layoff and can improve, he has a big shot to win the Blue Grass Stakes.
Swiss Skydiver is the biggest impediment to Art Collector winning in my opinion. Starting with a win in the Gulfstream Park Oaks in March with a 99 figure when leading from start to finish, Swiss Skydiver improved to a 104 figure winning the Fantasy Stakes in May then easily won the Santa Anita Oaks last month with a new career-best 108 figure. In the Fantasy, Swiss Skydiver sat in second about three lengths from the leader in the early stages so although she won the other two stakes leading from the start she has proven she does not need the lead to win. She also gets a five-pound break in the weight the jockey and saddle will make up because she faces males which could make the difference of a length or two at this 1 1/8 mile trip. Jockey Mike Smith, who was aboard in the Santa Anita Oaks, comes in from California to ride and if she repeats her last effort, or improves upon it, Swiss Skydiver could get on the road to the Derby leaderboard and have her choice of the Kentucky Oaks or Kentucky Derby come the first Saturday in September.
Among a number of horses which may be just a cut below the top two but still may have a chance to be second, third or fourth, I think Tiesto deserves special mention. He won his debut last summer in a two-turn race on turf which is no easy task. After a sixth-place finish in a stakes on grass, Tiesto was given four months off and returned in the Palm Beach Stakes, which was statement of confidence on the part of his Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. Rewarding that confidence with a runner-up effort, Tiesto then found himself far back in 10th in the early stages of a race on May 30 before rallying for third. Mott now tries dirt for the first time, and that’s very intriguing given how well the trainer knows when horses can transition from turf to dirt and the horse’s pedigree. His sire (Tiznow) produced the 2017 Blue Grass winner Irap and his dam produced 2018 Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Promises Fulfilled. Looking at records of previous horses Mott has done this with is really easy using STATS Race Lens and it reveals a record of six-for-23 in the last five years when going from turf to dirt in stakes, including Good Samaritan’s win in the Jim Dandy Stakes, an important race for 3-year-olds in 2017, and Yoshida winning the 2018 Woodward Stakes. Mott also has come in under the radar with 3-year-olds making their second starts off layoffs in Derby preps the last few years, winning twice, with Modernist in this year’s Risen Star Stakes, and with Tacitus in the 2019 Wood Memorial. Additionally, Mott saddled Hofburg to a second-place finish in the 2018 Florida Derby and Country House to a runner-up finish in the 2019 Risen Star. All in all, Mott’s prowess in knowing the quality of his horses has me absolutely wanting to make a bet on Tiesto at high odds in the Blue Grass Stakes.
The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures, is Attachment Rate (99), Basin (96), Enforceable (97), Finnick the Fierce (99), Hard Lighting (96), Hunt the Front (93), Mr. Big News (96), Man in the Can (98), Rushie (101) and Shivaree (106).
Tiesto - longshot