The wide-open nature of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) was perhaps best illustrated April 13 at the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) draw at Keeneland. On paper, a decent case can be made for all dozen 3-year-olds entered in the $750,000 event, possibly opening the door for yet another outsider to jump into the Triple Crown mix.
Though Tom Walters’ Santiva—the only Blue Grass starter currently with enough graded earnings to make the May 7 Kentucky Derby—was pegged as the 3-1 morning-line choice, few would consider it a surprise if another under-the-radar horse stole the show. Keeneland’s signature event, the April 16 Blue Grass will be run at 1 1/8 miles on Polytrack with a probable post time of 5:45 p.m. EDT. It is the last of four graded stakes on the program.
Santiva has hit the board in all five of his lifetime starts but has just one win and will be making only his second start of the season. The son of Giant's Causeway was runner-up in the Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) at Keeneland last October while trained by Ken McPeek. He ended his juvenile campaign with a win in the Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II) at Churchill Downs and was second in the Feb. 19 Risen Star at Fair Grounds in his 3-year-old debut.
Julien Leparoux will ride Santiva for the first time. They drew post 3.
“The fact that he ran here in October here on the Polytrack (is an advantage),” trainer Eddie Kenneally said. “We wanted to make sure we had a fresh horse coming into the Blue Grass. I think that’s what we have with only the one race this year. I think that set’s him up well. He’s a fresh horse. I don’t think (distance) will be a problem. He’s a very relaxed horse, easy to manage. And we have Julien riding, so we feel good.”
Santiva was bred in Kentucky by Paget Bloodstock and is out of the Smarten mare Slide. He has earned $255,454.
Joes Blazing Aaron (12-1) enters off a wire-to-wire score in the 1 1/8-mile Palm Beach (gr. IIIT) March 12 on the Gulfstream Park turf course for owner/breeder Joe Witek, and trainer Mike Maker. In fact, the gelded son of Graeme Hall is perfect in both starts on turf, having won an optional claimer Feb. 17 over the same course. Those two starts were a big turnaround from his dirt form, where he won only one of seven starts. This will be his first start on a synthetic surface. Garrett Gomez, who won the 2006 Blue Grass aboard Sinister Minister, was named as the rider.
Gaillardia Racing’s Wilkinson won the Jan. 22 Lecomte (gr. III) at Fair Grounds before finishing sixth in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II). The Neil Howard trainee missed by a head in his racing debut at Keeneland last October.
Three trainers, including Maker, have entered multiple starters, led by Todd Pletcher with three. The most accomplished of the Pletcher trio is Bobby Flay’s Sensational Slam, a Canadian-bred son of Grand Slam who has won three of four lifetime starts. The first two were as a juvenile on the Woodbine Polytrack in restricted stakes sprints. Sensational Slam (10-1) was also victorious in his only try this year when he won the six-furlong Fred Capossela Stakes at Aqueduct. Jose Lezcano will have the mount.
Also starting for Pletcher is Mill House’s Queen'splatekitten (12-1) who was runner-up to Joe’s Blazing Aaron in the Palm Beach one start after taking an optional claimer on turf, and Starlight Partners’ Praetereo (15-1), a two-turn maiden winner on March 12 in his sixth start.
Pletcher has won the Blue Grass twice, the last time with Monba in 2008. The late-running Queen'splatekitten might be his best shot with this group.
“We’ve been thinking about this spot for quite awhile (with Queen'splatekitten)," Pletcher said. "He had success at Woodbine on the synthetic track. We thought even if it wasn’t a Derby prep for him per se, it would certainly put him in position for the Queen’s Plate later on. The horse has always trained very well. Both of his races for us have been very good, and we felt like (the Blue Grass) was a natural fit for him.”
"We could have run him in an allowance race, but he’s doing really well and I think he’ll like this surface," said Starlight’s managing partner Jack Wolf of Praetereo. "Also, Todd has always said that he thinks he would run well over the turf or Polytrack. With the exception of maybe Santiva, I think that we fit in with this group and, if he can move up off his last start, then he should be right there at the finish.”
In addition to Joe’s Blazing Aaron, Maker’s other entry is Twinspired (12-1), who enters off a third-place finish in the March 26 Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (gr. III) at Turfway Park. Earlier in the season the Harlan's Holiday colt won the WEBN Stakes over the same strip.
Trainer Tom Albertrani also entered a pair, sending out West Point Thoroughbreds’ King Congie and Live Oak Plantation’s Brilliant Speed, who knocked heads, literally, in the Feb. 6 Hallandale Beach Stakes on the Gulfstream Park turf. Both will be making their first starts on a synthetic surface.
King Congie, the 5-1 morning-line second choice, crossed the wire first by a head in that race, but was placed third for interfering with his stablemate in the stretch after drifting out. Brilliant Speed, third across the line, was placed second. It would have been the third consecutive win for King Congie, who won the Tropical Park Derby back on New Year’s Day. Rajiv Maragh will be in the irons.
Brilliant Speed (6-1) missed by a nose in the Dania Beach in his season debut. The son of Dynaformer has hit the board in his last five tries. Joel Rosario has the ride for the first time.
Likely to make his move from off the pace is Team Valor International’s Crimson China (10-1), who was second in the March 26 Rushaway Stakes on the Spiral Stakes undercard. The connections were hoping to run the son of Giant’s Causeway in the Spiral but he did not draw into the field. Instead, Team Valor ran Animal Kingdom, who wound up winning and is headed to the Kentucky Derby.
Prior to the Rushaway, Crimson China won a 1 1/8-mile optional claimer on the Gulfstream turf in his first start for Team Valor and trainer Graham Motion. The colt raced as a juvenile in England for trainer Brian Meehan, winning once on Polytrack.
“His (juvenile form) looked good and I like Giant’s Causeway; I’ve bred to him before, bought some of his offspring and have done well with him,” said Barry Irwin, president of Team Valor. “We thought Crimson China was a little closer to winning than Animal Kingdom, who we thought might have needed that race. I don’t know that there is much difference between those two horses.”
Alan Garcia, who was aboard Stately Victor in the 2010 Blue Grass, will have the assignment on Crimson China.
Completing the field is Newsdad, who was third in the Palm Beach, and Willcox Inn, runner-up to Great Mills on turf in the Grindstone Stakes March 12 at Fair Grounds.
$750,000 Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I, Race 10, 5:45 p.m.), 3YO, 1 1/8 Miles (Polytrack) PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer 1. Newsdad (KY), J L Castanon, 123, W I Mott
2. King Congie (KY), R Maragh, 123, T Albertrani
3. Santiva (KY), J R Leparoux, 123, E Kenneally
4. Joes Blazing Aaron (KY), G K Gomez, 123, M J Maker
5. Brilliant Speed (FL), J Rosario, 123, T Albertrani
6. Sensational Slam (ON), J Lezcano, 123, T A Pletcher
7. Twinspired (KY), R Albarado, 123, M J Maker
8. Willcox Inn (KY), R Napravnik, 123, M Stidham
9. Wilkinson (KY), J Theriot, 123, N J Howard
10. Praetereo (KY), E S Prado, 123, T A Pletcher
11. Crimson China (KY), A Garcia, 123, H G Motion
12. Queen'splatekitten (ON), J R Velazquez, 123, T A Pletcher