The deepest, most competitive Kentucky Derby prep is shaping up to be the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes April 14 at Keeneland.
With standout horses heading to Keeneland from California, Florida, the Southwest and points elsewhere in Kentucky, "That's basically the Derby," remarked one participant yesterday.
This was Dennis O'Neill, brother and assistant trainer to Great Hunter's trainer, Doug O'Neill, who echoed what others have been saying about the outlook for the Blue Grass Stakes.
The unanimous assessment of the race: It's going to be a tough one to win. Moreover, to try too hard to win might cause a horse to run out of gas before reaching Churchill Downs.
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The formidable quartet confirmed for the race are Street Sense, the juvenile champion who won his only race this year; Hard Spun, impressive winner of the Lane's End Stakes on Saturday; Any Given Saturday, who lost the Tampa Bay Derby by only a nose to Street Sense, and Great Hunter, winner of the Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita -- and of the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland last fall.
Other Blue Grass starters are expected to be Ketchikan and Zanjero, second and third in the Louisiana Derby.
With the mighty four all headed to the same race for their final Derby prep, fans can expect to see some action.
"This could be suicidal going into the Derby. It could take the Derby out of them. That would be my concern now," remarked Hard Spun's trainer, Larry Jones.
O'Neill likened the way the Blue Grass Stakes is shaping up to the NCAA finals, when "a lot of times ... the games before that are the best games.
"That's probably a race we don't need to win," O'Neill added. "If we run a good second or third ... we'll feel like we're in really good shape for the Derby."
Looming large for the Blue Grass is Street Sense, 10-length winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall and a determined winner, by a nose, over Any Given Saturday when Street Sense returned to the races this year.
"Put it this way, I plan on winning it," said the trainer of Street Sense, Carl Nafzger. But like others, he agreed yesterday that "it's going to be a tough race."
The way the Blue Grass is drawing three of the top five Derby hopefuls, as rated by the Daily Racing Form, answers the question that arose when Keeneland converted to a synthetic racing surface last fall.
Would the turn to Polytrack diminish the significance of the Blue Grass because horses would have to switch back to dirt racing in the Derby?
Case closed. Great Hunter and Street Sense both raced in the Breeders' Futurity, then switched back to dirt at Churchill Downs and finished one-three in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. That race alone might have convinced the connections of Derby hopefuls that the Polytrack will not skew either training patterns or the outcomes of subsequent dirt races.
"The way Turfway Park looked last Saturday, the track wasn't favoring one type of horse or another," Nafzger said about the Polytrack in use at the Northern Kentucky track. "I think they've learned something about it."
Street Sense will leave Florida for Kentucky on Saturday. After his plane lands in Lexington, he will be vanned to Churchill Downs.
"I think you've got a more balanced field than in a long time," Nafzger said, looking toward the Derby. "All five top 2-year-olds came back this year."When: April 6-27 (no racing on Mondays, Tuesdays or Sunday, April 8)
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Blue Grass Stakes: Saturday, April 14
Four top Kentucky Derby contenders are confirmed for the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland on April 14:
Street Sense (Carl Nafzger, trainer; Calvin Borel, jockey): The Tampa Bay Derby winner is bidding to become the first Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner to take the Derby.
Great Hunter (Doug O'Neill; Corey Nakatani): The Robert B. Lewis winner has been training over Hollywood Park's synthetic track.
Any Given Saturday (Todd Pletcher, John Velazquez): It's tough to fault three wins and two close runner-up finishes in last five races.
Hard Spun (Larry Jones, Mario Pino): The Pennsylvania-bred cruised back into contention with Lane's End win -- boosting his record to 5-for-6.
NTRA 3-year-old poll
The NTRA three-year-old thoroughbred poll, ranking leading 3-year-old contenders. Horses are ranked on a 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 point scale based on the votes of thoroughbred racing media representatives with first-place votes in parentheses, records through Sunday and points (Sex: C-colt, G-gelding, F-filly, M-mare):
S St-1-2-3 Pts Pvs
1. Street Sense (7) C 1-1-0-0 156 1
2. Circular Quay (5) C 2-1-0-0 140 2
3. Great Hunter (4) C 1-1-0-0 126 3
4. Any Given Saturday (1) C 1-1-1-0 106 4
5. Nobiz Like Shobiz (1) C 2-1-0-1 88 6
6. Scat Daddy C 2-1-0-1 87 5
7. Stormello C 1-0-1-0 59 9
8. Rags To Riches F 3-3-0-0 53 8
9. Notional C 2-2-0-0 44 10
10. Curlin C 2-2-0-0 35 --
Other horses receiving votes: Hard Spun 29, Cobalt Blue 20, Bwana Bull 15, Teuflesberg 7, Cotton Blossom 5, Cowtown Cat 5, Liquidity 4, Adore the Gold 3, King of the Roxy 3, Song of Navarone 3, Ketchikan 2.
Saturday: $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream
April 7: $750,000 Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita
April 7: $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct
April 14: $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn
April 14: $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland