Run at 1 1/8 miles at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., the $1 million, Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes is worth 100-40-20-10 Kentucky Derby points.
The last horse to score the Blue Grass-Kentucky Derby double was Strike the Gold way back in 1991.
The Blue Grass was run on a synthetic Polytrack surface from 2007 to 2014. In 2007, Street Sense lost the Blue Grass by a nose to Dominican before winning the Kentucky Derby.
In 2015, Keeneland returned to a dirt main track, but none of the three Blue Grass winners since then – Carpe Diem, Brody’s Cause, or Irap, respectively – proved to be a major factor in the Kentucky Derby.
Despite negligible recent success, the Blue Grass is still second behind the Florida Derby for most Kentucky Derby winners produced with 23.
Last year, the Blue Grass attracted only seven horses, but Saturday’s race is oversubscribed. There are 15 horses on the program (Determinant is the lone also-eligible entrant) and the contenders invade from all over the country.
Trainer Dale Romans (Free Drop Billy and Tiz Mischief) has won two of the last six editions of the Blue Grass (Brody’s Cause, 2016; Dullahan, 2012 on Polytrack) while Todd Pletcher (Marconi), has taken three of the last 13 (Carpe Diem, 2015; Monba, 2008 on Polytrack; Bandini, 2005).
1. Who needs what in the Blue Grass to feel good about earning a spot into the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve?
Not including the filly Rayya, who is expected to target the Longines Kentucky Oaks, and McKinzie, who is reportedly out of the running with a minor injury, there are 12 horses who already have 40 points, and European leader Gronkowski has already earned a spot in the starting gate.
Using 40 points as the cut-off for probable inclusion in the top 20 (it could obviously be less come entry time), here’s what we are looking at (horse with current points).
Quip – 50
Needs a fourth or better (10 points)
Good Magic – 34
Flameaway – 30
Third or better (20 points)
Free Drop Billy – 24
Blended Citizen – 22
Must run first or second
Kanthaka – 10
Tiz Mischief – 6
Machismo – 5
Arawak – 4
Sporting Chance – 2
Marconi – 2
Zing Zang – 1
California Night – 0
Gotta Go – 0
Determinant (ae) – 0
2. Will the real Good Magic please stand up?
When I was in Saratoga last summer for Equestricon, Good Magic was the talk of the backstretch. A million-dollar purchase at the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale, this son of Curlin certainly has the profile to be a top horse. His dam, Glinda the Good, was a successful router who earned roughly $200,000 and she has four stakes-winning siblings.
The runner-up in his career debut sprinting, he would later finish second in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes as a maiden. Dispatched at odds of 11-1 in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he passed his first two-turn test with flying colors, drawing off to a 4 ¼-length win over a deep field.
My top-rated horse on the Kentucky Derby top 10 entering his 3-year-old debut in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes, Good Magic finished a lackluster third behind Promises Fulfilled and Strike Power.
Joe’s answer: You either believe in Good Magic, or you don’t. Well, maybe you’re caught somewhere in between.
Naysayers will point to the poor Fountain of Youth performance and the fact that neither of the top two in front of him that day were much of a factor in the Grade 1 Xpressbet Florida Derby.
Personally, I’m more than willing to give him another chance. With a slow pace over a speed-favoring track, the Fountain of Youth was falsely run, and Good Magic did finish with energy in a race he may have needed.
He should take a solid step forward on Saturday, but the forecasted adverse weather conditions add another layer of uncertainty. Remember, Good Magic probably only needs to run fourth or better on Saturday to earn a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. If he does what he needs to do, but circumstantially doesn’t “wow” us in the Blue Grass, chances are he’ll be a forgotten horse in the Kentucky Derby. Personally, I’d welcome that scenario.
3. Who are the main threats to Good Magic?
Joe’s answer: That’s a good question.
Free Drop Billy was one of my top-rated horses entering the year, but following a promising second behind the beastly Audible in the Grade 2 Holy Bull Stakes, the connections elected to scratch from the Fountain of Youth and run in the one-turn, Grade 3 Gotham Stakes instead. There, he finished a dull third behind Enticed, a horse he was well clear of in the race prior. Free Drop Billy won the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland last fall and, based on his pedigree, added distance should be in his wheelhouse. I’d love to see him bounce back with a big effort and think there’s a good chance that he will.
In his season debut, Sporting Chance didn’t have he cleanest of runs in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes, but he gutted out third in the mud. Hung four wide in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes, he would fail to make a serious impact. He could take a step forward on Saturday, but I’m leaning against.
Quip showed some promise as a 2-year-old, but off a 3 ½-month layoff, nobody could have expected his Grade 2 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby performance. Away alertly, he benefitted from a perfect, pressing trip to defeat fellow Blue Grass contender Flameaway, but I loved the way he galloped out. He wanted to do more. Remember, with 50 Kentucky Derby points already in the bank, chances are the connections will not squeeze the lemon dry on Saturday.
Speaking of Flameaway, his Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes win, albeit against some overrated rivals, was a bit of a surprise, but the second in the Tampa Bay Derby made a believer out of me. Off slowly, he lost about four lengths at the start. Ridden on the turn for home, he had clear aim in the stretch. He leveled off very late and surged, but Quip got to the finish line first.
If for no other reason, based on his third behind the disqualified divisional front-runners McKinzie and Bolt d’Oro in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes, Kanthaka must be respected.
4. Who are your Blue Grass sleepers?
If you recall, even though last year’s Blue Grass attracted only seven horses, it was very top heavy. Entering the race, Tapwrit, McCraken, Practical Joke, and J Boys Echo were all considered to be top Kentucky Derby contenders.
Then Irap happened. He wired the Blue Grass as a 31-1 maiden.
This year, I have two longshots that I love.
Todd Pletcher already has at least three Kentucky Derby bound 3-year-olds in Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby winner Noble Indy; Magnum Moon, who is slated to run in next weekend’s Grade 1 Arkansas Derby; and Florida Derby winner Audible. Off a nonthreatening fifth-place run in the Fountain of Youth, his Blue Grass entrant Marconi most likely won’t get much respect on Saturday, but the running line doesn’t tell the story of how he ran. Off slowly, he lost about five lengths at the start. He was hung five wide on the backstretch and six wide on the turn for home, and yet sustained his bid into a slow pace over a speed-favoring racetrack. A half-brother to 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man, Marconi will be ridden by Mendelssohn’s jockey, Ryan Moore, which adds additional intrigue.
Another sneaky Blue Grass horse is Zing Zang. A belated, yet strong-closing fourth behind Instilled Regard in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes, he didn’t get a fair crack in a pair of stakes runs at Oaklawn. He’s well drawn on the rail here and should relish every inch of the 1 1/8-mile distance. Trainer Steve Asmussen has likened him to 2016 Belmont Stakes winner Creator.
5. Who wins the Blue Grass and why?
Joe’s answer: This race could go so many different ways, and as I mentioned before, the weather/track condition could play a major role in the outcome. Although I’d like to see Good Magic win, given the circumstances, he’s tough to recommend as the probable favorite. The apparent lack of speed in the race would favor the likes of Quip, Sporting Chance, and Flameaway, but chances are California Night will step on the gas early. Marconi ran a sneaky good race in the Fountain of Youth and Ryan Moore is traveling from overseas to ride him. I’m curious what price I’ll get, but I’m willing to take a shot.
Joe’s Blue Grass picks: 1. Marconi 2. Good Magic 3. Quip 4. Zing Zang