The Keeneland sales pavilion, which saw the April 2-year-olds in training sale generate more than $9.7 million in gross receipts Monday evening, isn't quite done this week of hosting events that showcase the top end of the Thoroughbred industry.
One could argue the most prominent is set for Wednesday when the arena's Limestone Cafe hosts the post- position draw for Saturday's Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
The $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes has long been recognized as the state's signature prep race heading into the Kentucky Derby. However, Keeneland's sophomore showcase has absorbed its share of hits in recent years as pundits and fans alike questioned its ability to produce legitimate runners for the first Saturday of May.
Thanks to a slated lineup including the likes of juvenile champion Hansen, Grade I winner Dullahan, and graded stakes winners Prospective, Hero of Order and Howe Great, such negative chatter has been replaced by comments of praise for Keeneland putting together what is expected to be the deepest prep race this season.
When the connections of Hansen announced on March 22 the colt was bypassing the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in favor of the Blue Grass, few would have blamed Keeneland officials for denting its racing office with champagne corks. The last time the Blue Grass had Grade I winners pass through its entry box was 2007 when champion Street Sense and Great Hunter lined up for the race.
"Any time you can get the 2-year-old champion and then horses like Prospective, Dullahan, and Ever So Lucky ... this is a deep, deep field," said Keeneland racing secretary Ben Huffman on Tuesday. "I know it's that time of year when everybody is still trying to get graded earnings for the Kentucky Derby, but this is a strong race."
"This is probably as competitive a 3-year-old race as there has been all year as far as top to bottom," added trainer Graham Motion, who will saddle Grade III winner Howe Great.
Since the Blue Grass regained its Grade I status in 1999, only two of its race winners — Menifee in 1999 and Peace Rules in 2003 — have managed to hit the top three come Derby day.
While Street Sense did go on to capture the Derby after running second in the 2007 Blue Grass, the track's decision to switch from dirt to a synthetic Polytrack surface that previous fall prompted more than one observer to think the 11⁄8-mile race had become more suited to producing future Grade I turf performers — like 2009 Blue Grass winner General Quarters and 2010 Blue Grass runner-up Paddy O'Prado — than classic contenders.
Not only does this year's group have more proven dirt form to fall back on in assessing their Derby potential, the stigma of prepping on Polytrack was broken last season when Team Valor's Animal Kingdom won the Grade III Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes over Turfway's synthetic surface en route to capturing the Kentucky Derby in his first try over dirt.
"That was highly important because it's just proof that it can be done (going from synthetic to dirt)," Huffman said. "Street Sense got beat here and came back and won the Derby, but the Animal Kingdom thing was key because there is so much discussion about synthetics leading into the Derby. That myth was proven wrong last year."
Grateful as Keeneland is that the quality of Blue Grass is speaking for itself this year, some believe the race's scrutiny is unfounded.
Although no Blue Grass Stakes winner has won the Derby since Strike the Gold in 1991, fellow Grade I preps like the Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby have racked up infamous streaks of their own. The last three winners of the Wood Memorial have not even made it to the Kentucky Derby starting gate and one has to go back to Sunday Silence in 1989 to find a horse that has pulled off the Santa Anita Derby-Kentucky Derby double.
"There are so many options out there, but the Blue Grass is still a Grade I and it's still one of the most important 3-year-old races in the country," Huffman said. "Just because it's been a while since we've had a Kentucky Derby winner doesn't mean it's a weak race. It's a strong race year in and year out and this year, it's really strong."
Bullet for Ever So Lucky
Augustin Stable's Ever So Lucky, third in the Grade III Swale Stakes in his seasonal debut, put in his final major move in advance of the Blue Grass Stakes, covering 5 furlongs in a bullet :57 at Keene-land on Tuesday morning.
With jockey Julien Leparoux up, Ever So Lucky clicked off fractions of :11.80, :22.80, :34.20, and 45 as he prepares for his second career two-turn start.
"I was very pleased with the way he did it," trainer Jonathan Sheppard said after the move. "He's just so nice and smooth and low to the ground. Sometimes Julien has a tendency to work horses a little bit easy, but I did impress to him that we needed to get a good run into him today because this is a longer distance than he's ever run at before."