Keeneland Racecourse opens its spring meeting today and the Derby trail comes marching through tomorrow afternoon in the $1 million Grade 1 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. The Blue Grass, which will be raced at 1 1/8-miles, features a full field of 14 sophomores looking to add Derby qualifying points to their resumes. A total of 170 points are in play with the top four finishers earning 100-40-20-10 points, respectively.
The race will be part of a two-hour telecast on NBC Sports Network from 5-7 p.m. EDT on Saturday afternoon.
Trainer Todd Pletcher will enter three horses, including the morning line favorite Zulu (5-2, 20 Derby points), who decided to head to Kentucky to avoid last weekend’s big matchup between Nyquist and Mohaymen. He finished second versus Mohaymen in the Fountain of Youth in late February at Gulfstream Park placing him on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard. Pletcher has won the Blue Grass three times, including last year’s edition with Carpe Diem.
Tristan Barry, Pletcher’s assistant, has spent a lot of time with the son of Bernardini over the winter at Palm Beach Downs in Florida. “He’s a very talented horse. He’s high energy,” said Barry. He just likes his job. He enjoys what he’s doing and appears to want to go a route of ground,” he told the Keeneland racing office.
Let’s take a look at the competition (post position, trainer, jockey, odds, and Derby points in parenthesis):
Keeneland – Race 10 – Post Time 6:00 p.m.
1 – Lookin for a Kiss (Tomlinson, Gaffalione, 50-1, 0 pts). He had a solid maiden breaking effort for the son of the former Preakness-Haskell winner at Gulfstream. A not so solid effort facing winners for the first time projects that he may be in over his head here. Too much talent for this lightly raced colt to overcome.
2 – Donegal Moon (Pletcher, Garcia, 4-1, 0 pts). It’s due or die for this $220K Malibu Moon colt trained by Pletcher. Has struggled in all three of his graded stakes, one in which his jockey fell off him at the gate. I’m not buying what they’re selling, especially at 4-1.
3 – Cherry Wine (Romans, Lanerie, 12-1, 5 pts). A very impressive late run in the Rebel earned him 5 Derby points after being caught in traffic early in the 14-horse field. The late running son of Paddy O’Prado, a third-place finisher in the Derby, could benefit from a hot pace with several likely to go to the front. Late developing colt sure looks interesting at that price. Dangerous.
4 – Zulu (Pletcher, Castellano, 5-2, 20 pts). The favorite has been impressive in his three career races, hanging on for second in the Fountain of Youth. The son of Bernardini has arguably the best jockey in the land aboard in Javier Castellano and Pletcher hand-picked this spot as his ticket to the Derby. Pletcher puts the blinkers on his expensive ($900K) colt in hopes he’ll deliver valuable Derby points. He’s either going to win by a pole or come in fourth. With the full field, I’m leaning toward the latter.
5 – Crescent Drive (Amoss, Graham, 20-1, 0 pts). Did not draw into last weekend’s Spiral, but makes the field here for trainer Tom Amoss. He wouldn’t be the first Flower Alley to upset my betting apple cart. Puts the blinkers on for the first time and could easily pick up a piece underneath with the right pace and trip. He’s worth throwing a few shekels on him to hit the board at 20-1.
6 – Brody’s Cause (Romans, 4-1, 14 pts). A top three showing likely puts him in a spot to earn a Derby gate. Didn’t fire in the Tampa Derby as the post time favorite and is looking to regain his form from 2015 where he won the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity on this very track and finished a respectable third in the BC Juvenile behind Nyquist. Not sure he’s the same horse from last year and willing to play the higher priced Romans horse.
7 – Laoban (Guillot, Lezcano, 12-1, 22 pts). This Uncle Mo colt picked up valuable points finishing behind Shagaf in the Gotham at Aqueduct. Guillot likes to send his horses to the front and this one’s no different. This will be his fifth race on his fifth different race track. Hoping he makes the Derby just to have his trainer involved purely for entertainment value.
8 – Twizz (Maker, Murrill, 30-1, 0 pts). The son of Twirling Candy broke his maiden in the mud at the Fair Grounds, in his fourth career attempt. The gate-to-wire victory is working well but is up against it in here. Maker upset last weekend’s Spiral at 23-1, can he do it two weeks in a row? Doubtful.
9 – Goats Town (Lukas, Albarado, 20-1, 0 pts). Long shot son of Dublin has yet to win a race in five tries, although his latest second-place effort came against the improving American Pioneer at Oaklawn. Running for venerable Calumet Farm which sits next door to Keeneland makes him a home town favorite. That was a good allowance race, he’s improving and as the distances lengthen it wouldn’t be a total shock if he caught a piece.
10 – American Dubai (Richards, Landeros, 20-1, 2 pts). He ran a clunker in the Rebel after finishing third in the Southwest at Oaklawn. He’ll need at least a third-place finish to sniff the Derby and will need his best effort. Looking elsewhere.
11 – Cards of Stone (Pletcher, Lopez, 20-1, 0 pts). The third Pletcher starter will look to become the seventh gelding to win the Blue Grass, the last coming in 2007 when Dominican upset Street Sense on the Polytrack. Good chance that this son of Bustin Stones goes right to the front from his outside post to set the pace. Impressive 13-length allowance win on the inner at the Big A in his last warrants a second look.
12 – Zapperini (Foley, Torres, 30-1, 0 pts). He ships up from New Orleans after finishing fifth in the Risen Star for son of Ghostzapper out of a Smart Strike mare. Others seem faster and more accomplished. Pass.
13 – Star Hill (Arnold, Jaramillo, 10-1, 10 pts). How good was that Tampa Derby? We’ll find out Saturday with Outwork running in the Wood and third-place finisher Star Hill in here. This Calumet runner that will likely be coming from off the pace. Being saddled with an outside post certainly didn't help the cause. Usable underneath in the exotics.
14 – My Man Sam (Brown, Leparoux, 10-1, 0 pts). Son of Trappe Shot ran huge in an allowance race won by Wood hopeful Matt King Coal. Steps up in class after posting big speed figure in that race at the Big A. Not keen on the outside post and the quick run to the first turn at Keeneland. Leparoux assumes the irons and he knows the Keeneland oval as well as anyone. Contender.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Cherry Wine; 2 – Zulu; 3 – My Man Sam; 4 – Crescent Drive
Check tomorrow's print edition for a column on tomorrow's big Derby preps in New York and California.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.