While the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack will be downgraded from grade I to grade II races next season, don’t expect an immediate impact on horsemen’s Triple Crown plans or field quality.
For one thing Churchill Downs Inc. officials said Dec. 2 that they don’t see any changes on the horizon in terms of the points system that awards 100 points to the winners of the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial. Those 100 points to the winner—and really the 40 points to the runner-up in these races—ensure spots in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) field.
And getting to the Derby and the spring classics is the point that time of year. Horsemen will continue to plot their best course and the Blue Grass and Wood—each with million-dollar purses—figure to continue to be options that will receive a long look.
Keeneland officials believe the Blue Grass may have fallen victim to a process that looks at the past five years to determine race quality. Three of those five years were conducted over the track’s former Polytrack. Horses who excelled on that artificial surface didn’t always take to dirt main tracks—or to turf for that matter—and there weren’t many other top-level opportunities for synthetic track runners.
Keeneland officials also noted that two years ago the date of the Blue Grass was moved to four weeks before the Derby, which they believe will continue to work in the race’s favor. Not to mention the purse was bumped from $750,000 to $1 million before the 2015 race—that certainly never hurts when horsemen are looking at race options.
Track officials are confident the changes will help the race soon regain the top grade.
“I think the last couple of years we’ve made a commitment to restoring the race to the prominence it enjoyed when it was producing 19 winners of the Derby,” said Keeneland vice president of racing and sales Bob Elliston. "While we are disappointed, we are optimistic that we will get it restored at some point in the not too distant future. We’ve made investments to try to do that.”
New York Racing Association officials believe the Wood Memorial has been, in part, the victim of bad luck. Verrazano , the 2013 Wood winner, took time off after finishing off-the-board in the Derby and didn’t compete in the final two classics. Last year’s winner Outwork didn’t race after the Derby.
NYRA officials had hoped the success 2015 Wood winner Frosted enjoyed as a 4-year-old this season would help the race keep its top grade, but that was not to be.
Both races face challenges from favored prep-race schedules at other tracks, like the preps leading up to the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) at Santa Anita Park, the Florida Derby (gr. I) at Gulfstream Park, and the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) at Oaklawn Park. Keeneland’s meet is too short to offer prep races, and while Aqueduct offers a lucrative schedule of prep races, racing and training in cold weather often is not the first choice for trainers.
Also, with trainers choosing to race fewer times before the classics, it’s more difficult for all the Triple Crown prep races to offer quality fields each year. In past years the Florida Derby winner certainly would be considered for the Blue Grass or Wood, but with that race being moved closer on the calendar to the Derby, today’s Florida Derby winner is more likely to train up to the Derby.
No Florida Derby winner has raced again before the Kentucky Derby since Empire Maker won the 2003 Florida Derby and Wood Memorial.
While the short Keeneland meet will never be in position to offer a series leading up to the Blue Grass, Elliston thinks the chance to race on a top dirt surface and train in Kentucky in advance of the race will help attract top 3-year-olds.
“These surfaces we’ve invested in, this (calendar) positioning, the purse money we’re giving away—we’re going to get the best outfits here for the Blue Grass and our entire stakes program,” Elliston said. “We’re going to get the best horses and the luck will turn our way.”