Pyro may be on fire going into the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland April 12, but 11 other runners will attempt to douse his Derby dreams in the 1 1/8-mile event. Should all 12 horses head postward at Keeneland April 12, the field will be the largest since Play Fellow won over the same number in the 1983 running of the 1 1/8-mile event.
The surprising number of contenders entered April 9 at the Lexington track include Robert LaPenta’s Fountain of Youth (gr. II) winner Cool Coal Man, Eric Fein’s Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) winner Big Truck, Team Valor International and Vision Racing’s Gotham Stakes (gr. III) winner Visionaire, and Zayat Stables’ Lane’s End Stakes (gr. II) runner-up Halo Najib.
Still, as trainer Todd Pletcher remarked after speaking of his two entries – Starlight Stables’ Monba and Stonerside Stables’ Cowboy Cal – Pyro is the horse to beat, even if the Pulpit colt will be racing over Polytrack for the first time.
“I would be surprised if he didn’t take to this surface well, especially considering the way they’ve been teaching him to run and finish through the lane,” Pletcher remarked. “This race should suit him perfectly, and I don’t think there’s any suggesting he’s not the horse to beat.”
Installed as the even-money favorite by morning line odds-maker Mike Battaglia, the Steve Asmussen trainee drew post seven in the prep for the May 3 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). In the final pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, he finished as the 5-1 second choice behind Florida Derby (gr. I) winner Big Brown.
Pyro comes off impressive back-to-back performances for Winchell Thoroughbreds in the March 8 Louisiana Derby (gr. II) and the Feb. 9 Risen Star Stakes (gr. III) and was the runner-up to War Pass in the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) last fall. He was bred by Winchell in Kentucky out of the Wild Again mare Wild Vision. The colt turned in his final major prep for the Blue Grass by working a half-mile solo in :50.60 at Keeneland early April 7, going the last quarter mile in :23.80 under exercise rider Dominic Terry.
“It was a good work, he ran real well to the wire and was very smooth, which is what we needed pointing to this race,” said assistant trainer Scott Blasi. “We’re very happy with it and think he fits the racetrack well.”
Second choice for the Blue Grass at 4-1 on the morning line is Cool Coal Man, whose strong performance in the Feb. 24 Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) came at the 1 1/8-mile distance. The Mineshaft colt, bred in Kentucky by William S. Farish and partners out of the Rubiano mare Coral Sea, was an $850,000 RNA from Fasig-Tipton’s Florida 2-year-olds in training sale. He also tries Polytrack for the first time as trainer Nick Zito opted for an extra week between races instead of running back in the March 29 Florida Derby (gr. I).
“I really wanted a fresh horse,” Zito said last week. “He’s two-for-two this year and he certainly looks good, so I just wanted some kind of chance for this horse in the Derby and I hope we get it. I would prefer to have run on a conventional track like Churchill Downs, but the Blue Grass is a good race and I’ve been lucky in it a lot of times, too.”
The colt turned in a sharp half-mile work at Churchill April 3, working in company with stablemate Chris Got Even to cover four furlongs over a fast track in :47.40 under exercise rider Megan Smillie. His move ranked fourth-fastest of 25 at the distance.
LaPenta and Zito combined to win the Blue Grass in 2004 with The Cliff's Edge.
Co-third choices on the morning line at odds of 6-1 are Visionaire and Big Truck. Both come off surprise victories in their past races – Big Truck as the upset winner over War Pass in the March 15 Tampa Bay Derby, and Visionaire as the strong-finishing victor of the March 8 Gotham Stakes (gr. III).
Much of Visionaire’s performance in the Gotham was obscured due to an extremely heavy fog cover, with announcer John Imbriale calling, “The 3-year olds have disappeared as they move up the backstretch.” When the field emerged off the final turn, Texas Wildcatter had a 4 1/2-length lead on his competitors, but Visionaire came flying up the outside with gutsy strides, gobbling up the sloppy track to win by a head. We may not have seen the colt’s entire performance, but we did see a runner whose determination earns him serious respect going into the Blue Grass. He also breaks from the outside as he did in the Gotham. A son of Grand Slam, he was bred in Kentucky by Reiley McDonald out of the French Deputy mare Scarlet Tango.
Big Truck, a Hook and Ladder colt bred by A. Lakin and Sons out of the Go for Gin mare Just a Ginny, also turned in the most impressive performance of his career last time out when he gutted it down to the wire with Atoned in the final strides of the Tampa Bay Derby. Closing from the back of the pack in the 1 1/16-mile race, the Barclay Tagg trainee figures to relish the extra distance. His only other attempt at nine furlongs resulted in a fourth-place finish behind Court Vision in the Remsen (gr. II) last November, but the colt was in trouble throughout in the Aqueduct event.
“The post position is perfect,” said Tagg of Big Truck’s number six draw. “I think he’ll stalk the pace a little bit, but he can do anything. He’s a pretty nice horse.”
Todd Pletcher’s Blue Grass entries are his final hope at having a starter in the Derby this year. Cowboy Cal ranks 38th on the graded earnings list with $57,660 in earnings while Monba is 40th with $50,000.
“We kicked around the idea of waiting a week and running Monba in the (Coolmore) Lexington (gr. II), but we felt like if we were to run well enough in the Blue Grass the three weeks would be attractive to the Derby,” Pletcher said. “He broke his maiden here last fall so we know he likes the track, and he had a very good work here (April 6, four furlongs in :47.20).”
Monba, a son of Maria's Mon, ran 12th in the Fountain of Youth after getting squeezed on the first turn.
“Things didn’t go well from the beginning in the Fountain of Youth,” Pletcher said. “He got jostled on the first turn and ran poorly, so we’re trying to turn it around here. As far as Cowboy Cal is concerned, I was pleased with the way he breezed on (Keeneland’s Polytrack); he seemed to skip over it well. He’s a horse who doesn’t have a real turf pedigree, he’s by Giant's Causeway out of a Seeking the Gold mare (Texas Tammy), so I don’t think he’s strictly a turf horse. He’s trained well here.”
Cowboy Cal worked four furlongs at Keeneland April 6 in :47.40. His past three starts have been on the turf, with two wins and a second – his most recent effort – in the Feb. 16 Hallandale Beach Stakes over the Gulfstream Park turf.
$750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland April 12, 1 1/8 miles for 3-year-olds, Polytrack
1.Cool Coal Man, Kent Desormeaux, 4-1
2.Kentucky Bear, Jamie Theriot, 50-1
3.Cowboy Cal, John Velazquez, 15-1
4.Stevil, no rider, 30-1
5.Monba, Edgar Prado, 15-1
6.Big Truck, Eibar Coa, 6-1
7.Pyro, Shaun Bridgmohan, even money
8.Stone Bird, Corey Lanerie, 50-1
9.Medjool, Michael Baze, 30-1
10.Miner’s Claim, Patrick Husbands, 20-1
11.Halo Najib, Garrett Gomez, 15-1
12.Visionaire, Jose Lezcano, 6-1