By Margaret Ransom
The 97th running of the Blue Grass Stakes (G2), the Bluegrass State’s most prominent prep for the Kentucky Derby (G1), is set for Saturday with a field that includes unbeaten champion Essential Quality – a top contender for the Derby on May 1.
The 1 1/8-mile main track event, in its 26th year with Toyota as the sponsor, returns to its customary spot on the calendar four weeks before the Run for the Roses after a one-year delay by three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The race is named for the state, whose nickname is derived from a famous type of grass found in the region, which is characterized by a bluish-green tint.
Most important, though, is bluegrass variety of grass holds a solid reputation as ideal for raising horses – especially thoroughbreds. It is both winter hardy and excellent for horse pasture, and highly nutritious, very palatable and tolerant of close, frequent grazing and solid pasture footing.
The Blue Grass was initially contested at the now defunct Kentucky Association racetrack in Lexington in 1911 and was offered on and off through 1926 before it landed at Keeneland in 1937. In 1943 and 1944, the race was part of the “Keeneland-at-Churchill Downs” meeting and in 1945, it was part of the regular Churchill Downs meeting but has resided at Keeneland as part of the spring season, except during last year’s COVID-19 delay, ever since.
A field of nine was entered on Tuesday, with Southwest (G30 winner Essential Quality the 3-5 morning-line favorite for trainer Brad Cox. Highly Motivated, the Gotham (G3) winner for trainer Chad Brown, is the 7-2 second choice.
Though the purse has dropped slightly to $800,000, down from $1 million in previous years yet up from the $600,000 offered a year ago, the Blue Grass still offers 100 points to the winner to make the Kentucky Derby starting gate thanks to its spot on the Road to the Derby qualifying races list, meaning the top-four finishers will be awarded points on a 100-40-20-10 scale. The winner, and likely the runner-up, are virtually guaranteed to be loaded into the Derby gate should their connections choose.
Over the years some impressive horses have won the Blue Grass before taking the Run for the Roses, including Tomy Lee, Northern Dancer, Lucky Debonair, Forward Pass, Dust Commander, Riva Ridge and Spectacular Bid. And though Strike the Gold in 1991 was the last to accomplish the Blue Grass-Derby double feat, several other top-tier horses have won the Blue Grass before making a significant impression on Derby Day, including Arts and Letters, Honest Pleasure and Alydar, all who were second in the Run for the Roses. Thunder Gulch in 1995 and Street Sense in 2007 are the most recent Blue Grass runners who didn’t win at Keeneland but did go on to win under the Twin Spires on the first Saturday in May.
And since 1997 the Blue Grass has only produced one winner from a total of 88 starters, so it sends out the most starters for any prep yet produces the least amount of Derby winners.
Some other famous Blue Grass winners include Bull Lea, Coaltown, Round Table, Chief’s Crown, Summer Squall, Prairie Bayou, Holy Bull, Skip Away, and Pulpit.
Two years ago, multiple Grade 1 winner Vekoma won the Blue Grass before finishing 12th in the Derby. Last year, Art Collector cruised to a 3 ½-length victory on the July 11 date, but was withdrawn from Derby consideration a week before the Sept. 5 race after grabbing a quarter while training five days before the race.
The leading Blue Grass-winning owner with six is the old Calumet Farm regime of Gene and Lucille Markey, who were represented by winners in 1938, 1943, 1947, 1948, 1968 and 1978. Hall of Fame jockey Bill Shoemaker still holds the record for riding the most winners with six in 1959, 1960, 1965, 1966, 1969 and 1982. Five trainers have saddled three winners each – Ben Jones, Woody Stevens and LeRoy Jolley, who have all since passed, are tied with Hall of Famer Nick Zito and 2021 Hall of Fame finalist Todd Pletcher in this category.
The great gray Hall of Famer Skip Away holds the record for the fastest Blue Grass, having stopped the clock in 1:47.20 for the nine furlongs in 1996.
Anybody who knows anything about the weather in Kentucky in the spring knows it’s unpredictable. Hot and humid and dry one minute, cold with rain and thunderstorms the next. And the rain and cold temperatures from earlier in the week are expected to subside and give way to a warmer afternoon on Saturday with a high in the mid-60s under mostly sunny skies.
Post time for the Blue Grass, the 11th on the card, is 6:35 p.m. ET.
This Blue Grass field, by post position, with jockey, trainer and odds:
- Hidden Stash (Rafael Bejarano, Victoria Oliver) 20-1
Constitution-Making Mark Money, by Smart Strike
- Untreated (Joel Rosario, Todd Pletcher) 8-1
Nyquist-Fully Living, by Unbridled’s Song
- Highly Motivated (Javier Castellano, Chad Brown) 7-2
Into Mischief-Strong Incentive, by Warrior’s Reward
- Essential Quality (Luis Saez, Brad Cox) 3-5
Tapit-Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality
- Rombauer (Florent Geroux, Michael McCarthy) 15-1
Twirling Candy-Cashmere, by Cowboy Cal
- Leblon (Albin Jimenez, Paulo Lobo) 30-1
Broken Vow-Trade Balance, by Giant’s Causeway
- Hush of a Storm (Santiago Gonzalez, William Morey) 15-1
Creative Cause—Hush Now, by Flatter
- Sittin On Go (Corey Lanerie, Dale Romans) 15-1
Brody’s Cause-Set’n On Ready, by More Than Ready
- Keepmeinmind (David Cohen, Robertino Diodoro) 8-1
Laoban-Inclination, by Victory Gallop