At first glance, the discrepancy in odds between the favorite in the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I)—Hansen (6-5)—and the co-second choices—Dullahan and Howe Great (both 6-1)—could be perceived as a little too lopsided in a large field of 13, even given the fact that the 2-year-old champion looks to be on the top of his game.
But after hearing the comments of Howe Great’s owner Barry Irwin at the Blue Grass draw April 11 at Keeneland, perhaps oddsmaker Mike Battaglia was right on the money with his morning lines.
“Hansen is the best horse of the crop,” said Irwin, who knows a thing or two about top 3-year-olds after his Animal Kingdom won last year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). “I don’t think we can beat him to tell you the truth.”
On April 14 at Keeneland, Hansen will indeed get a chance to solidify his status as a top contender, and a win could very well send him to Louisville as to favorite for the May 5 Derby. The son of Tapit will get his first chance to prove he can run nine furlongs and he will try to carve out a winning trip under Ramon Dominguez in a race that has a lot of early speed.
Hansen will break from post 4, and although blazing speed is the name of his game, Dominguez could have him sit off of an early pacesetter, just as they did when winning the March 12 Gotham (gr. III) by three lengths at Aqueduct Racetrack.
“When we saddle up, we know we’ll have Ramon on him, so I’m not going to say a thing; I’m going to keep my mouth shut,” said Dr. Kendall Hansen, who bred the gray/roan colt he now co-owns with Skychai Racing. “I’m sure he’s going to want to test drive him a little bit, and so whatever he’s going to want to employ in the Derby he’s going to want to try here. And with the speed in here, that could include tucking back as far as fourth or fifth. But then again, if his clock says there is a slower pace, I’m sure he’ll have no problem wiring them here.
“He was a little bit knocked out after the Gotham for a couple days, but I think he’s a push button horse that’s ready to go again.”
Hansen last worked an easy five furlongs in 1:00 at Churchill Downs Training Center on April 7.
The early pace pressure that Hansen could be facing includes the lightly-raced Heavy Breathing, who breaks from post 1 for Todd Pletcher, Ever So Lucky, a speed-burner coming off a lightning-fast breeze at Keeneland April 10, Rebel (gr. II) pacesetter Scatman, Palm Beach (gr. IIIT) winner Howe Great, Bob Baffert's California shipper Midnight Crooner, and Politicallycorrect, a colt trained by Keeneland’s "King of Speed", Wesley Ward. And let’s not forget about Hero of Order, a Sharp Humor colt who shocked everyone with his front-running 109-1 victory in the April 1 Louisiana Derby (gr. II).
Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) winner Prospective and Palm Beach runner-up Dullahan are a couple of horses that should race mid-pack as the speedsters duel it out up front, while closers Gung Ho and Russian Greek will likely try to come with their late runs if the race breaks down.
All things considered, it is one of the deepest and most intriguing Blue Grass fields in quite some time. In fact, the 13 horses entered were the most in Keeneland’s signature event since 1974.
The last of four graded races on the program, post time is set for 6:18 p.m. EDT. CNBC will have live coverage from 6-7 p.m.
One thing that Hansen will have to overcome is the string of recent upsets in the Blue Grass. No favorite has won the race since Peace Rules in 2003. The last three years have seen horses at odds of 19-1 (Brilliant Speed ), 40-1 (Stately Victor ), and 14-1 (General Quarters) win the Polytrack race. The last horse to win the Blue Grass and Derby was Strike the Gold in 1991.
Hansen’s trainer, Mike Maker, sent out Stately Victor in 2010, but he won’t be overlooked this time. Racing without blinkers for the first time in the Gotham, Hansen showed a new dimension in being able to rate just behind the early lead. It was a tactic that he did not employ in his first three victories, including the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) last fall at Churchill Downs.
Donegal Racing’s Jerry Crawford finished second to Stately Victor in 2010 with Paddy O'Prado , and will be looking to turn the tables on Maker and company this time with Dullahan. The son of Even the Score notched his biggest victory over this track last October when he won the Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) from off the pace.
Trained by Dale Romans, he was fourth to Hansen in the BC Juvenile and began his 3-year-old season with a good second in the Palm Beach. Dullahan, a half brother to 2009 Derby winner Mine That Bird, will be ridden by Kent Desormeaux, who has seven grade I triumphs at Keeneland.
“It’s a big field but he fits in there great, especially after that last work (a bullet :57 2/5 at Keeneland on April 8)," Romans said. "Even though he’s only had one start this year, that work told me he’s tight enough to run with anybody. He was in hand and galloped out strong. And he really likes this track.”
Howe Great, who will make his first start on Polytrack, Hero of Order, Politicallycorrect, and Prospective are all entering off wins. Politicallycorrect, an optional claiming winner at Gulfstream Feb. 26, is part of an uncoupled entry for Ken and Sarah Ramsey, who will also send out Gung Ho. Ward trains Politcallycorrect, while Maker trains Gung Ho.
"Maybe if the left one won't get him, then the right one will," joked Ramsey of Gung Ho while acknowledging that Hansen is the more talented of Maker's two entrants.
Prospective, the 10-1 fourth choice on the morning-line, already has enough Derby earnings thanks to his wins in the Tampa Bay Derby and Grey Stakes (Can-III), and his second in the Sam F. Davis (gr. III), but trainer Mark Casse said the Blue Grass could set up well for him.
“He has been doing well. I think the post position (3) is good. The speed is good for us. We will be sitting in the second flight and then come running," Casse said.