There’s obviously many more important matters to be concerned with right now as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect all aspects of daily life and we search for ways to help our loved ones, our neighbors, and those in need within the horse industry and everywhere else get through this public health crisis.
But for fans of Thoroughbred racing, and especially those residing in Kentucky, the current struggle is made even more difficult by the absence of one of the bluegrass state’s most cherished annual rites of spring: opening weekend at Keeneland.
If you’ve followed America’s Best Racing over the past eight years, you know that covering Keeneland’s spring meet has been an essential “go-to move” in our efforts to bring new fans into the sport of horse racing.
Keeneland, along with Saratoga, Del Mar, Churchill Downs during Kentucky Derby week, and a select few other racetracks, offers the complete package for fans of elite equine competition, social mingling, and generally having a good time. And when the springtime weather is sunny and around 70 degrees – like today and tomorrow (sigh) – there’s nowhere else that can top it.
Opening weekend of Keeneland’s spring meet is always highlighted by the Saturday racecard, which this year was scheduled to feature such storied races as the Central Bank Ashland Stakes, the Madison Stakes and, most of all, the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes.
The Blue Grass is Keeneland’s main prep race for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. First held in 1911, it’s been won by such legends of the sport as Bull Lea, Round Table, Northern Dancer, Arts and Letters, Alydar, Spectacular Bid, and Holy Bull, to mention just a few from the 20th century.
So far in the 21st century, many editions of the Blue Grass Stakes have lodged in the memory of this Kentuckian, for a variety of reasons. There won’t be any spring racing at Keeneland at all this year, but hopefully a quick look back at a half-dozen Blue Grasses from the recent past can lift the spirits enough to carry on through this difficult time and get geared up for what should be an even-more-memorable autumn at the spot where “racing as it’s meant to be” ignites fans’ passions – when the 37thBreeders’ Cup World Championships are held.
2004, The Cliff’s Edge
One of the most popular horses in Kentucky during the early 2000s, The Cliff’s Edge was named after Cliff Guilliams, a mainstay chartcaller and racing writer at his home track of Ellis Park and other venues around the commonwealth who died in 2008. Owned by Robert LaPenta and trained by Nick Zito, who would be voted into the Racing Hall of Fame one year later, The Cliff’s Edge first captured the hearts of racing fans with back-to-back stakes wins at Churchill Downs in fall 2003. He hit the board in both of his Derby preps in the spring before putting it all together in the Blue Grass Stakes, scooting past game pacesetter and 9-10 favorite Lion Heart in the stretch under a well-timed ride by Shane Sellers, and paying a juicy $13.40. The Cliff’s Edge went on to finish fifth in the Kentucky Derby behind Smarty Jones (Lion Heart again set the pace and finished second) and raced well into the summer with runner-up finishes in the Dwyer, Jim Dandy and Travers Stakes.
Bandini gave the Hall of Fame combo of trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez their first respective victories in the Blue Grass with an emphatic six-length score over favorite High Limit (they’d team up again in 2015 with Carpe Diem). This renewal took place in a quintessential Keeneland environment – sun, a sweet breeze, people celebrating, food and drink consumed heartily. And I’ll always remember my late great father giving the winner out to anyone who would listen before the race and then joyfully exclaiming his name afterward: “Ban-DEEN-ee!” (Bandini ran up the track in the Derby, finishing 19th, while Closing Argument, nine lengths back in third in the Blue Grass, nearly pulled off a 71.60-1 upset in the run for the roses, passed in the final strides by fellow bomb Giacomo.)
Keeneland took a big step in 2006 and installed an all-weather Polytrack racing surface on its main track in time for the fall meet. The first Blue Grass run on synthetic the following spring concluded with a crowded rush to the finish line that would become commonplace during the Polytrack era. Street Sense, the 2006 champion 2-year-old male, looked like a winner for a second in deep stretch after edging past Zanjero, but then Dominican, rallying to the outside of Street Sense under Rafael Bejarano, closed to win by a nose. Zanjero was a head behind Street Sense, and a head in front of fourth-place Teuflesberg. Dominican, a synthetic specialist who came into the Blue Grass off of a win in the Rushaway Stakes on Polytrack at Turfway Park, would finish 11th in the Kentucky Derby, while Street Sense, of course, would take the 133rd Derby under a rail ride from Calvin Borel (the first of three wins in four years for the Churchill Downs icon) and become the first champion juvenile to win the run for the roses.
2009, General Quarters
“A good horse can come from anywhere.” So the saying goes, and General Quarters certainly qualified. A $20,000 yearling purchase and the unquestioned star of retired school principal-turned trainer Tom McCarthy’s one-horse stable, General Quarters took a few races to reveal his talent, only to blossom at Tampa Bay Downs over winter 2008-’09 with an upset win the Sam F. Davis Stakes. He then finished fifth in the Tampa Bay Derby and went off in the Blue Grass as a 14.30-1 longshot, but looked like a world beater after rolling into the stretch and powering clear under Eibar Coa to defeat Lane’s End Stakes winner Hold Me Back by 1 ½ lengths. General Quarters finished 10th in a Kentucky Derby won by another champion of the little guy, Mine That Bird, but his inspirational story continued for another couple of years, highlighted by a Grade 1 turf win at Churchill Downs on the 2010 Kentucky Derby undercard. McCarthy passed away in 2016.
2014, Dance With Fate
The last Blue Grass run on Polytrack was as memorable as the first, taking place on a typically gorgeous day that attracted the second-largest attendance in Keeneland’s storied history (39,122). I remember being asked during the Wednesday draw at Keeneland’s sales pavilion by a veteran Lexington TV sportscaster, “What’s the story with this horse from California?” and replying, “He likes the fake dirt.” Indeed he did. Dance With Fate shipped in for trainer Peter Eurton on the heels of a runner-up finish in the El Camino Real Derby on the synthetic track at Golden Gate Fields, and the cleverly-named son of Two Step Salsa out of Flirting With Fate pulled off a textbook Polytrack trip under Corey Nakatani, sitting 11th of 14 after three-quarters of a mile and then sweeping through the turn and driving clear to a 1 ¾-length win. Dance With Fate had already proven to like the real stuff (dirt) too with solid stakes showings as a juvenile, and he ran a creditable sixth after enduring a rough trip in the Kentucky Derby, won by future Hall of Famer California Chrome. Sadly, the striking colt was euthanized after suffering a catastrophic injury later that summer at Del Mar, cutting short what could have been a stellar career.
2018, Good Magic
Street Sense may be the best racehorse to have participated in the Blue Grass Stakes this century (you could make a case for 2013 runner-up and subsequent Belmont Stakes and Met Mile winner Palace Malice), but who’s the best winner? It’s a tough call, but I’ll back Good Magic. Harlan’s Holiday and Peace Rules, winners of the 2002 and 2003 Blue Grasses, respectively, each retired as multiple Grade 1 winners and earners of more than $3 million. Good Magic was a champion, however, earning juvenile male honors for 2017, and after the Blue Grass he finished a very good second behind an eventual Triple Crown winner in Justify in the 2018 Derby and then trained on to win the TVG.com Haskell Invitational Stakes that summer. In the Blue Grass, the Chad Brown trainee ran like an 8-5 favorite should, stalking and then surging past pacesetter Flameaway late to win going away by 1 ½ lengths.