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The Return of the Blue Grass Stakes

WinStar Farm and Stonestreet Stables Carpe Diem, shown winning last fall's Claiborne Breeders Futurity at Keeneland, will be favored in Saturday's Toyota Blue Grass at the Lexington track. Photo Courtesy of Coady Photography.

WinStar Farm and Stonestreet Stables Carpe Diem, shown winning last fall’s Claiborne Breeders Futurity at Keeneland, will be favored in Saturday’s Toyota Blue Grass at the Lexington track. Photo Courtesy of Coady Photography.

Following a weekend of the major preps for the 141st Kentucky Derby, and the introduction of a pair of very serious new players, the intensity of the final weeks of the journey to Churchill Downs and the Run for the Roses will be turned up a couple of notches in the coming weekend.

Last week’s triumphs by new faces Mubtaahij in the $2 million UAE Derby at Dubai’s Meydan Race Course, and unbeaten Materiality in the $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, introduced two fresh faces to an already intriguing Derby scene. In New Orleans, Ken and Sarah Ramsey’s New York-bred International Star proved again that he is Louisiana’s best Kentucky Derby hope, with a Louisiana Derby win that completed a sweep of Fair Grounds’ trio of preps for the big race in Louisville.

But the coming Saturday, April 4, should provide even more sizzle as the weekend includes a delicious double at Keeneland in the 2015 renews of the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes for Derby hopefuls and the Ashland Stakes, a huge prep for 3-year-old fillies pointing toward the Longines Kentucky Oaks.

Also set for Saturday is the Santa Anita Derby, which will offer the final pre-Derby performance by unbeaten Dortmund, the Bob Baffert-trained colt who was the close second choice to stablemate American Pharoah in last week’s final pool of the 2015 Kentucky Derby Future Wager. New York’s Aqueduct will host a third major prep Saturday the Wood Memorial, a traditionally strong indicator of Derby success headed by unbeaten Far From Over and Kentucky Jockey Club winner El Kabeir.

The pre-race spotlight in the Toyota Blue Grass will shine on Carpe Diem, who won the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity over the same surface a year ago and returned to competition this year with an easy victory in the Tampa Bay Derby at Florida’s Tampa Bay Downs.

But the key word in any discussion of the Blue Grass, which has served as a prep for 23 Derby winners and 11 horses that have won both races, is “surface.”  With last fall’s return to actual dirt in Lexington, following eight years of racing over a synthetic Polytrack surface, the Blue Grass reclaims its status as a key prep for the Run for the Roses.

During the Polytrack years, the Blue Grass preserved its status as a Grade I race, but it could not be viewed as a prep of consequence for the Derby.

One Kentucky Derby winner did emerge from the race during those years.  Street Sense finished second at Keeneland in 2007 and returned to take the Derby three weeks later.

But Street Sense did not care for the synthetic footing at Keeneland and was beaten by longshot Dominican, who would finish 11th in their Derby rematch. and trailed the winner by 17 lengths. He failed to win in eight post-Blue Grass races.

The Toyota Blue Grass on Polytrack offered horses that preferred grass or synthetic footing a puncher’s chance to claim a spot the Derby starting gate. Dominican’s triumph over Street Sense was followed in succession by Blue Grass victories by Monba (20th in the Derby), General Quarters (10th), Stately Victor (8th), Brilliant Speed (7th), Dullahan (3rd), Java’s War (13th) and Dance with Fate (6th).

The most notable post-Blue Grass efforts by those horses were General Quarters’ win in Churchill Downs’ Woodford Reserve Turf Classic and Dullahan’s third in the Derby and victory over Polytrack in Del Mar’s Pacific Classic.

It is very safe to say that Carpe Diem, who has occupied the top spot on my Kentucky Derby rankings at www.KentuckyDerby.com and was the fourth choice in last week’s final Derby Futures pool, would not be running in the Blue Grass if the Polytrack was still in place in Lexington. His only loss in four races came in a runner-up finish in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita, and it’s sure that trainer Todd Pletcher would have sent his best hope in a very strong hand of Derby hopefuls somewhere else for his final Derby prep.

So welcome back, Toyota Blue Grass Stakes!  One of the great rites of spring in our Commonwealth of Kentucky has remained a great party, but the main event is again a race of substance. Its winner will likely have something to say about what happens at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. VT