John Clay

Kentucky Derby hopefuls in Blue Grass Stakes must cash in on last chance

To be honest, Saturday’s Toyota Blue Grass Stakes shapes up as a last-chance race for a group of horses in need of another chance.

Take morning-line favorite Vekoma, who finished third last time out in the Fountain of Youth. Then there’s second choice Win Win Win, coming off a third-place finish in the Tampa Bay Derby. Then there’s third choice Signalman, who after an impressive 2-year-old campaign ran seventh in the Fountain of Youth.

“He needs points,” Signalman trainer Kenny McPeek said Wednesday with regard to a spot in the Kentucky Derby.

Saturday is the day to get those points, with Keeneland’s marquee event being one of three 100-point preps, joining New York’s Wood Memorial and California’s Santa Anita Derby in the final push toward the May 4 Derby. The final 100-point prep, the Arkansas Derby, takes place next Saturday at Oaklawn.

The Blue Grass’s full field of 14 features just two horses that were victors last time out. Somelikeithotbrown won the Jeff Ruby Steaks for trainer Mike Maker on March 9. That race was run on the synthetic Polytrack at Turfway, however, compared to the dirt surface at both Keeneland and Churchill Downs. Chess Chief broke his maiden at Fair Grounds for trainer Dallas Stewart on March 2, but is a 30-1 shot in the Blue Grass.

Not to say the Blue Grass lacks talent. In fact, several of the entrants were thought to have bright futures before regressing in their most recent races.

Somelikeithotbrown swept a pair of races on the Polytrack at Turfway Park this winter on his way to the dirt track at Keeneland for the Blue Grass Stakes. Coady Photography

Take Signalman, who finished second in last year’s Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill and first in the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill. After a three-month layoff, he threw a shoe in the first turn and never got going in the Fountain of Youth. “I do think I undercooked him,” said McPeek of his preparations for that race.

The Blue Grass is a different story, said McPeek, who added he loved the 8-1 morning-line odds — “I’m gambling,” he said at Wednesday’s draw — but is a little leery of the full field.

“Surprised it was 14,” McPeek said. “I think there are some horses that are taking some deep shots. I hope that doesn’t get in my horse’s way and gives him a chance to run his race.”

Vekoma won both his 2-year-old starts, including the Grade 3 Nashua Stakes at Aqueduct. He, too, may have needed a race before his third-place finish in the Fountain of Youth. Trainer George Weaver considered staying in Florida for the Florida Derby, won by Maximum Security, but opted for Lexington instead.

“I thought this would be a little bit easier than the Florida Derby,” Weaver said Wednesday. “And I liked the extra week.”

Win Win Win, trained by Michael Trombetta, set a track record in winning the Pasco Stakes by 7 1/4 lengths at Tampa Bay Downs, then ran third in the Tampa Bay Derby. After that disappointment, Trombetta brought the horse to Fair Hill in Maryland for a re-boot. But then that’s the storyline for plenty others in the full field.

Signalman finished second in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland last October. Matt Goins

“I think it’s a solid group of horses,” said trainer Dale Romans, who has Admire (15-1) and Moonster (30-1) in the field. “I don’t know that there’s a superstar now, but let’s turn around after the Triple Crown and there might be two or three superstars in here.”

He was talking about the full crop of 3-year-olds closing in on Derby Day. To get to Louisville you need the points, admitted Romans, but there’s another incentive.

“It’s a wide-open race,” said the trainer who won the Blue Grass in 2012 with Dullahan and in 2016 with Brody’s Cause. “Everybody talks about the Derby points, let me win the Blue Grass. That’s a stand-alone race on its own, not to mention it’s a million dollars and the second-most prestigious race in Kentucky.


Toyota Blue Grass Stakes

Post time: 6:23 p.m.

Where: Keeneland Race Course

TV: NBC Sports Network

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