The $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes was restored to Grade 1 for this year’s running and should live up to its billing with a field of 12 3-year-olds all vying for the all-important 100 points the winner will earn on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, which assures said horse of a spot in the starting gate. The 40 points the runner-up will earn should be good enough to propel that horse on to the Derby in four weeks as well.
Many in the group did not run well in their most recent races, with six of the dozen entering the race off finishes of third or worse. That group of horses is likely going to go all out to win this battle and hope to have regrouped when the big race comes calling in one month.
Among the rest, Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes runner-up Smile Happy and third-place finisher Zandon appear to have an edge as both ran well as 2-year-olds and are making the second start of their 3-year-old campaigns. Smile Happy won the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes before his layoff and Zandon was a nose shy of winning when second in the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes in his final race at two. Blackadder won the non-graded El Camino Real Derby on an all-weather track at the distance of the Blue Grass in his most recent race and hopes to step up in class and repeat the effort.
Similarly, Grade 2 Rebel Stakes runner-up Ethereal Road hopes to give Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas a starter in the Kentucky Derby as well as the Kentucky Oaks, where stablemate Secret Oath is headed after a third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby last weekend.
Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby runner-up Grantham hopes to improve from an often disadvantageous extreme outside post, while Tampa Bay Derby fourth-place finisher Golden Glider is looking to earn enough points to move on to the big dance in Louisville. Volcanic was third in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes when last seen and is another hoping to improve and be more competitive in this situation, as is Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes fourth-place finisher Emmanuel. Fenwick just earned his first career win, in his fifth career start and Commandperformance is still searching for his first win. Both are facing significantly tougher competition as compared to their most recent races.
Rattle N Roll won the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland last October but has finished sixth and fourth in his two starts this year. Trademark has finished 12th and fifth in his two races this year.
Analysis and top contenders:
Three-year-old horses at this time of year are maturing rapidly, both physically and mentally. As such, they should be running faster in April than they did in February and March. We measure how fast they have run using speed figures, which compare horse’s times using sophisticated mathematics and include factors we can’t see, like the difference in each track’s surface, weather, moisture and other things.
In looking at this field, many ran slower in their most recent races than the one preceding it. Some ran faster in their most recent race as compared to the one before it, but still much slower than some of the other Toyota Blue Grass Stakes entrants. Looking at the field as a whole and anticipating who is going to improve and run the fastest and therefore win this race, Zandon and Smile Happy come to the fore.
Zandon won his debut last October at six furlongs, after banging the gate at the start to get away poorly. Showing maturity like a horse that was not making his debut, Zandon still rallied and drew off. Next he was stepped way up in class to run in the Remsen Stakes, run at the same 1 1/8-mile distance of the Blue Grass. In that race while running farther than most of the others as he was three paths wide on both turns, Zandon battled head-and-head the length of the stretch before settling for second by a nose.
In the Remsen, Zandon tied the 93 Equibase Speed Figure he had earned in his debut win. Wisely given time off to mature, Zandon returned without a sprint prep first and ran in the Risen Star Stakes, also at this nine-furlong trip. This time Zandon hopped in the air at the start and lost position, finding himself last of 10. Nevertheless he started to pass horses after a half-mile, eventually finishing third and a half-length behind runner-up Smile Happy. Once again Zandon earned a 93 figure. Considering both he and Smile Happy are going to improve in their second starts off long layoffs, but factoring in the trouble Zandon experienced in the Risen Star, I believe he’s going to improve a bit more than Smile Happy and win this year’s Toyota Blue Grass Stakes.
Smile Happy has had a very similar career to Zandon, having run three times. However, whereas Zandon won his debut in a six-furlong sprint, Smile Happy won his debut last October at the distance of 1 1/16 miles. He earned a 95 figure with that victory, which earned him a start in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes the next month. Relaxing in fifth of 11 in the early stages, Smile Happy commenced a rally four paths wide on the turn and drew off to a fairly easy 3 1/4-length win, improving to a 100 figure.
Like Zandon, Smile Happy made his 3-year-old debut and first start after nearly three months off in the Risen Star Stakes, a race in which winner Epicenter had already run in 2022. Rallying from eighth to second in the race and earning the same 93 figure as Zandon, Smile Happy should show a good deal of improvement in his second start as a 3-year-old. Certainly, if he improves as much as he did in his second career start when victorious in the Jockey Club Stakes, he can win. At the minimum he and Zandon will put on a show in this race.
Honorable mention goes to four horses, all with significantly less probability to win but with a chance to finish third, if not second, potentially at high odds.
I’ll start with Fenwick, who ran the best race of his career last month when easily winning with a 91 figure after the addition of blinkers. He’s a son of Curlin, probably the best sire of top 3-year-olds the last few years among this field’s sires. Ethereal Road finishes fast and could be passing a number of horses in the stretch in this race. He did just that in the Rebel Stakes at the end of February when rallying from fifth to lead late in the race, before settling for second with a 90 figure. The horse he beat for second, Barber Road, returned to finish second in the Arkansas Derby last week, somewhat flattering Ethereal Road.
Blackadder is the only horse in the field to have won at this nine-furlong distance, having done so in the El Camino Real Derby in February on the all-weather surface at Golden Gate Fields in California. His Equibase Speed Figures have improved from 67 three races back, to 83 two back, to 85 in the El Camino Real¸ and although the best of those is short of how fast I expect Zandon and Smile Happy to run, it’s not unthinkable Blackadder could improve more than expected and run well at high odds.
Grantham finished a fine second in the Tampa Bay Derby with a 100 figure when last seen. He had the rail for that race and gets the potentially disadvantageous extreme outside post for the Blue Grass which will mean he has to go wide on the first turn or drop back farther in the early stages than he’s been in any of his four races to date. Still, he does appear to have the ability to compete in this field based on his last effort.
The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures, is Commandperformance (102), Emmanuel (98), Golden Glider (99), Rattle N Roll (100), Trademark (99) and Volcanic (97).
Contenders for second and third:
Fenwick, Ethereal Road, Blackadder, Grantham
Toyota Blue Grass Stakes – Grade 1
Race 9 at Keeneland
Saturday, April 9 – Post Time 5:10 p.m. ET
One Mile and One Eighth
Purse: $1 Million
T.V.: NBC 4:30 – 6 p.m. ET
Ellis Starr is national racing analyst for Equibase