The signature race at Lexington's Keeneland Race Course, the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, has undergone a makeover in the name of prominence during the past year.
Saturday will start to tell how successful that transformation turns out to be.
By replacing Keeneland's synthetic surface last summer, the track committed to moving its primary Kentucky Derby prep race to dirt for the first time since 2006, matching the surface on which the first leg of the Triple Crown is run at Churchill Downs.
In December, Keeneland officials announced they were increasing the Blue Grass Stakes purse from $750,000 to $1 million and, most notably, moving the race to a spot one week earlier than usual on the calendar.
That put the Blue Grass Stakes head-to-head with two other Kentucky Derby prep races — the Santa Anita Derby in California and the Wood Memorial in New York.
However, there is another exceptional sporting event Saturday that could end up stealing some thunder from the headline day of Keeneland's Spring Meet.
The first date change for the Blue Grass Stakes since 1989 has resulted in it taking place on the same day the undefeated University of Kentucky basketball team faces Wisconsin in the NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis.
Since the Kentucky-Wisconsin game is not slated to tip off until 8:49 p.m., after Duke plays Michigan State in the 6:09 p.m. semifinal, Keeneland avoids the problem of the Blue Grass Stakes and its 6 p.m. post time going off moments before Big Blue Nation gears up. Still, given that UK fans are as devoted as any when it comes to traveling for their team, Keeneland President Bill Thomason acknowledged there is the possibility its Blue Grass crowd — which has averaged more than 39,000 the past three years — could take a hit.
"This kind of happens every year. Our first two weekends always fall with some kind of challenge, whether it's spring break or Final Four," Thomason said. "This is one of those opportunities for a great double: Keeneland on Saturday and the game on Saturday night.
"No question, we anticipate somewhat of an effect on the crowd, which is to be expected. And that's fine."
The Grade I Blue Grass previously was held on the second Saturday of the spring meet, a spot that put it three weeks out from the Kentucky Derby. With many trainers preferring more time between starts to get their horses ready for the first Saturday in May, Keeneland hopes shifting the race to four weeks out will lure outfits that might have bypassed the Blue Grass in favor of other key preps.
"I'm happy they did that because it gives everyone an option," said trainer Nick Zito whose Frammento will race Saturday. "Especially the way our business is being run, there are so many races — the Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, Blue Grass, Wood. It's good if everyone kind of has what I call a fair shot to prepare their horses correctly."
In terms of entries, the Blue Grass emerged slightly in front of its competition, drawing an eight-horse field compared to the six-horse lineup for the Santa Anita Derby and the seven horses slated to go to post in the Wood Memorial on Saturday.
The Blue Grass enjoyed large fields in recent years, including the past two seasons which featured full fields of 14. But the fact it was contested over a synthetic Polytrack surface since 2007 sparked criticism over its relevance in judging its participants' form going into the Kentucky Derby.
In returning to dirt in time for the 2014 Fall Meet, Keeneland said it wanted to attract an even higher quality of horses while acknowledging its overall field size may suffer. Sure enough, this year's Blue Grass field is the smallest since 2007.
In terms of quality, though, the Blue Grass scored in landing Grade I winner Carpe Diem, widely considered one of the leading Kentucky Derby contenders, and graded stakes winner Ocho Ocho Ocho among its entrants.
The Keeneland Spring Meet begins Friday and runs through April 24. A total of 15 graded stakes will be contested during the meet, including five on Blue Grass day. Friday's opening-day feature race is the Grade III Transylvania Stakes going 11⁄16 miles on the turf.