Holding court in front of a swarm of media at the post position draw for the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), owner Ken Ramsey was his typical candid self when asked about his reasons for running Pleasant Prince back so soon after his heartbreaking runner-up finish in the Florida Derby (gr. I) three weeks ago.
“The money situation is the primary reason we are in, I’ll be honest,” said Ramsey, an Eclipse Award-winning owner who has seven titles at Keeneland. “If the thumbnail had gone the other way down in the Florida Derby, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. We decided about a week ago we weren’t going to have enough (graded earnings) to get in the (Kentucky) Derby.”
Pleasant Prince, who earned $150,000 for his second-place finish at Gulfstream Park where he was caught at the wire by Ice Box and has $162,500 of graded earnings, was installed as the slight 3-1 favorite against eight rivals in the April 10 Blue Grass, which will be run at nine furlongs on Keeneland's Polytrack. The wide-open race includes three horses entering off stakes wins and three more, including Pleasant Prince, who come off runner-up efforts. Five of the nine entrants have at least one race on turf in their careers. Almost the entire field needs to earn at least some money to make it to the first Saturday in May.
Pleasant Prince has won just once in seven starts, but had the photo gone the other way in the Florida Derby the son of Indy King would have been trained right up to the Kentucky Derby. Ramsey acknowledged he isn’t keen on running his horse three times in six weeks—which is what Pleasant Prince would be doing if he made the starting gate May 1 at Churchill Downs—but he said, “The reward is better than the risk.” Ramsey will also likely have Lane’s End Stakes (gr. I) winner Dean’s Kitten in the Derby.
Julien Leparoux will again ride Pleasant Prince for trainer Wesley Ward. They will break from post 6.
The 7-2 second choice on the morning-line is Padua Stables’ Odysseus, who unlike Pleasant Prince had a photo go his way last out. After looking like he was beaten at the top of the stretch in the March 13 Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), the son of Malibu Moon re-rallied nicely under Rajiv Maragh to catch Schoolyard Dreams in the final jump to win by a nose. It was the third win in as many starts this season for Odysseus, who romped by 15 lengths in a Feb. 17 allowance race at Tampa Bay Downs.
Maragh keeps the mount for trainer Tom Albertrani. Odysseus, who will be making his first start on a synthetic surface, banked $180,000 for the Tampa Bay Derby and likely needs at least a fourth place finish to make it to Churchill. He will break from post 1.
Todd Pletcher, who has dominated the Kentucky Derby prep season, will send out the two 4-1 third choices, Wertheimer and Frere’s Interactif and Dogwood Stables’ Aikenite, who will break side-by-side from the outside posts. Interactif has lost two tough races in both starts as a 3-year-old, missing by a nose in the Hallandale Beach Stakes on the Gulfstream turf, then finishing a half-length behind Sidney’s Candy in the San Felipe (gr. II) on the Pro Ride surface March 13 at Santa Anita in his first start on a synthetic surface.
Already with plenty of earnings to get into the Derby, Interactif will be ridden once again by Rafael Bejarano, who won the Blue Grass back in 2007 aboard Dominican.
Pletcher’s other charge is Aikenite, who ran third to Eskendereya in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II) back on Feb. 20 in his last start. The son of Yes It's True also hit the board in a pair of graded stakes as a juvenile and currently sits right on the Derby bubble with $218,000 of graded earnings. Garrett Gomez flies in from California for the mount and will ride the dark bay colt for the first time. Gomez won the Blue Grass in 2006 aboard Sinister Minister.
Pletcher has won the Blue Grass twice, with Bandini in 2005 and most recently with Monba in 2008 when Cowboy Cal ran second to complete an all-Pletcher exacta.
"I guess Todd is hoping for a Monba-Cowboy Cal repeat," said Pletcher's assistant Ginny DiPasquale. "We know Interactif likes the Polytrack and turf. I don’t think the post position makes a difference. Aikenite likes to be on the outside anyway. He does his best running from the outside. We hope they both get a good trip.”
Also saddling a pair will be Dale Romans. The Kentucky-based trainer will send out Double Diamond Farm’s First Dude, a troubled fifth in the Florida Derby, and Donegal Racing’s Paddy O'Prado, who broke his maiden in the Palm Beach Stakes (gr. IIIT) at Gulfstream last month.
First Dude was a late entrant into the Blue Grass. Romans decided to give him another try after he put himself in contention in the Florida Derby but ran into traffic problems coming out of the final turn. He will make his first start on synthetics with Ramon Dominguez aboard.
“We were between three races for him—the Arkansas Derby, this race, and the Lexington Stakes,” Romans said. “We wanted to stay in Kentucky and we have two chances if we run (in the Blue Grass, where a first or second could get him in the Derby), whereas we would have to win the Lexington Stakes to get in.
“He is a big, long-striding horse and he really got bottled up in the Florida Derby. He finished up strong and really galloped out well. If a guy like Ramon tells you to give him another chance in the big leagues, you listen to him.”
Paddy O’Prado was winless in his first four starts before breaking through in the Palm Beach when drawing clear by 2 1/2 lengths. Romans thinks the son of El Prado is getting good at the right time, and is especially encouraged by his two strong works over the Keeneland Polytrack leading up to the race.
“He had two :59 works here, so we know he likes the surface. We expect him to run well.”
Rounding out the field is California shipper Make Music for Me, the Pasadena Stakes winner on the Santa Anita turf last out; Codoy, who was disqualified for interference after crossing the finish line first in the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes at Turfway Park Feb. 27; and Stately Victor from the barn of Mike Maker.
The Blue Grass will be televised live by NBC during a one-hour telecast which also includes the Arkansas Derby (gr. I).
$750,000 Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I, Race 10, 5:30 p.m. EST), 3YO, 1 1/8 Miles (Polytrack) PP, Horse, Jockey, Morning-line odds, Trainer
1. Odysseus (KY), R. Maragh, 7-2, T. Albertrani
2. First Dude (FL), R. Dominguez, 8-1, D. Romans
3. Stately Victor (KY) , A. Garcia, 30-1, M. Maker
4. Make Music for Me (KY), M. Smith, 6-1, A. Barba
5. Codoy (KY), J. Velazquez, 30-1, M. Hubley
6. Pleasant Prince (FL), J. Leparoux, 3-1, W. Ward
7. Paddy O’Prado (KY) , K. Desormeaux, 10-1, D. Romans
8. Aikenite (FL), G. Gomez, 4-1, T. Pletcher
9. Interactif (KY), R. Bejarano, 4-1, T. Pletcher All horses carry 123 pounds