April 9, 2010

Blue Grass to Derby, Still a Viable Route?

Keeneland’s Blue Grass Stakes has long been one of the most prestigious of all roads leading to the Kentucky Derby. Year in an year out, it produced, if not the Derby winner itself, then at the very least, some strong contenders for the blanket of roses. Something has changed though. No longer do I see the Blue Grass as one of the most important preps, or one of the most likely places for a Derby winner to emerge. What changed? In the Fall of 2006, Keeneland went Polytrack. They decided to take out their dirt surface, after seventy years, and replace it with a synthetic surface. It was called a “safer solution.” Whether it is safer or not, is open for debate, but it is not the topic of the day.

Now that the Blue Grass is on Polytrack and three weeks before the Derby, it is the final prep for any horse hoping to run in both the Blue Grass and the Kentucky Derby. It would be unheard of, to squeeze in a race between the two, in this age of lighter schedules for our stars. Because of this, the Blue Grass is becoming a less desirable destination for many of the top contenders, as many do not want to run so close to the Derby, especially if it is on a synthetic surface which is so different than that of Churchill Downs. This situation saddens me. In my mind the Blue Grass should be the preeminent prep. There is no place better to be in the Spring than Keeneland. The weather, the facility, the people, and the surroundings…it truly is a slice of Heaven here on earth. Keeneland has an almost mystical appeal to fans of the horse, and I am no different, and the Blue Grass is, at least in my estimation, the grandest day at the Lexington oval. Maybe I am just a bit nostalgic, but when I first became a regular at Keeneland, I saw horses like Summer Squall defeating Unbridled, and heavy hitters Strike the Gold, Prairie Bayou, and Holy Bull, all winning in the Blue Grass. Those times may be lost.

With all due respect to the Wood Memorial, Santa Anita, and Arkansas Derbies, the Blue Grass holds the most special place in my heart of all Derby preps. I do not know how much longer I will be saying this though. Since the transition to Polytrack, the winner of the Blue Grass has finished 11th, 20th, and 10th in the Derby. In a word dismal. Success in the Blue Grass is no longer a strong recommendation for your chances in the Derby. To be fair, Street Sense did run in the Blue Grass before winning the 2007 Derby, although by losing in Lexington to an inferior field, and then winning in Louisville, Street Sense pointed out the vast difference in the two tracks. Why would horsemen want to run on a surface so different only three weeks before the biggest race of their lives? I honestly do not know.

Despite my sadness in the relative importance of this great race, I am rather upbeat with this year’s edition. There are several horses in the race, who I think have a chance to make some noise at Churchill. Most notably Odysseus and Interactif, whom I definitely both include in my top ten Derby candidates. But still, even with a good field running tomorrow, I have to wonder if the result will mean absolutely anything on the First Saturday in May. Probably not. Maybe they should just run the Blue Grass at Churchill Downs. Ouch! I just bit my tongue.

Polytrack Up Close


Mike Cherello said...

Still no mention of Aikenite! Tisk tisk..

Brian Zipse said...

I have never been an Aikenite for the Derby guy, Mike, and I will not be. I think he has a chance tomorrow, but in the Derby, he would be a huge surprise to me.

malcer said...

Good post.

As overblown much of the artificial surface debate is, the Lexington track is the only one where I agree that the surface really is weird - even in comparison to other Polys such as WO, AP or DM.

Keeneland part-owns the company, so there is no chance of them switching to Pro-Ride or Tapeta (which are currently far better than Poly, IMO), but I guess it should be possible to install a better Poly at this wonderful track.

Steve Munday said...

I agree that with the Polytrack surface, Keeneland's Blue Grass (and Turfway''s Lane's End for that matter) have very little bearing on the KY Derby. You might as well make the prep a turf race. And it's one of the reasons MAKE MUSIC FOR ME, INTERACTIF, and PADDY have good chance to win tomorrow.

But don't forgot that prior to polytrack, Keeneland's dirt surface had a pronounced rail / speed bias that made most Blue Grass winners highly suspect in the Derby as well. Remember Blue Grass dirt winners BANDINI and SINISTER MINISTER?

If I'm not mistaken, the last Blue Grass champion to win the KY Derby was STRIKE THE GOLD way back in '91.

LDP said...

I agree with your assement here. SS had already proven he could run on both surfaces before the Derby, and as we have seen a few years later a synthetic to dirt trasition actually can move a horse up. So personally, I think it is smart to use a synthetic prep, as the final prep, but only if you know that your horse can run on it. Otherwise, it is very unwise, as you said, to run a horse, who has never touched the stuff, in a synthetic race only three weeks before the Derby. Personally for this race I like Aikenite and Interactif. Aikenite closed very well over this very track last year to be second to Noble's Promise, who seems to run on whatever surface you put him on.

Qatmom said...

A few decades ago, the Blue Grass was run 10 days prior to the Kentucky Derby, and the results were far more relevant to the Derby than at present. I suspect the desire to not run horses and somehow "save" them for a major effort in May has been counter-productive. Everybody now seems to think that their maiden winner with some graded stakes earnings is a potential Derby horse, leading to consistently huge, outsized fields with green horses that don't always produce a good winner. As recently as 1969, for example, the Derby field contained a mere 8 starters.