Like many of his fellow Kentucky Derby hopefuls, Odysseus's chances for the first Saturday in May probably hinge on his ability to handle an unfamiliar racing surface.
Unlike some of his synthetic-loving counterparts, however, it's not the dirt at Churchill Downs that poses the potential problem for the son of Malibu Moon.
Though Odysseus is a proven commodity over dirt, having captured the Grade III Tampa Bay Derby on March 13, the chestnut colt must show he can conquer the Polytrack in Saturday's Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland if he wants to secure a spot in the Kentucky Derby entry box.
Initially, Odysseus's presence in the $750,000 Blue Grass was spurred by his connections wanting to get in one more — hopefully easy — prep for the lightly raced colt instead of training him up to the Derby off a seven-week layoff.
Now, though, Odysseus has become a victim of the dreaded graded stakes earnings syndrome as his bankroll of $180,000 is only good enough for 22nd on the list — just short of the 20-horse cutoff for the Derby, thus making a top-four finish in his final prep a necessity.
While his owner, Padua Stables, considered shipping Odysseus to Oaklawn for the $1 million Arkansas Derby, also on Saturday, the competitive nature of that field and potentially having to travel again to Kentucky shortly thereafter was more stress than Padua wanted to put on the inexperienced colt.
Odysseus is one of the standouts in the nine-horse Blue Grass field, but how he responds to the synthetic track could be the difference between living a Kentucky Derby dream or watching it fade.
"You really never know how they handle it or take to it unless you actually try it," trainer Tom Albertrani said. "But we just felt we'd try to go where we think the horse would fit into a better spot. So with that in mind, we just think this race would be a little easier on him."
It's hard to imagine Odysseus having an outing more taxing than the one he put in four weeks ago. His win in the 11⁄16-mile Tampa Bay Derby was one of those had-to-see-it-to-believe-it efforts as the colt — who was making just his fourth career start — appeared hopelessly beaten when he dropped to fifth in the stretch under jockey Rajiv Maragh. He rallied between horses to somehow get his nose past Schoolyard Dreams at the wire.
"At the quarter pole, I thought for sure this horse is just not firing today," Albertrani recalled. "And in the blink of an eye he's kind of back in there. I don't know if it was just inexperience or just his determination to come back and run on again."
In addition to showing he can win a dogfight, Odysseus has also flaunted some raw brilliance, capturing an allowance race by 15 lengths at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 17 over eventual Rushaway Stakes winner Exhi.
While he has never raced over synthetics, Odysseus did perform well enough over the all-weather surface at the 2009 Ocala March 2-year-olds in training sale to inspire his owners to buy him for $250,000.
"He was a fantastic mover. He didn't have the fastest breeze of the sale but the way he did it was as impressive as anything," said Sasha Sanan, assistant racing manager for his family's Padua Stables. "I tend to think the way he is training and his style of action is very conducive to getting over (the Polytrack)."
There is some mixed history for horses with strong dirt form who used the Blue Grass over Polytrack as their final prep.
Though Street Sense went on to claim the roses after running second in the 2007 Blue Grass, graded stakes winner Pyro — who had never been off the board in his six previous starts on dirt — finished 10th in the 2008 Blue Grass and proceeded to run a dull eighth on Derby Day.
"The last couple days he seems to be handling the surface with no problem," Albertrani said. "I see him training better and better every day ...so right now we would like to see him peak a little bit this week and then just hopefully he'll continue to peak in the next several weeks."
Conway has long shot
The U.S. Senate Democratic primary isn't the only race involving Attorney General Jack Conway. He'll be part of the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on Saturday as co-owner of Stately Victor.
Stately Victor, who ran sixth in the Dixiana Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland in the fall, is also owned by Conway's father, Thomas Conway. They named the horse after Jack Conway's best friend, Victor Perrone, who was killed in a car accident at age 23.
The colt is 30-1 in the morning line.
Stately Victor is the only horse Conway owns with his father, Conway campaign spokeswoman Allison Haley said.