An excellent field has turned out to contest Saturday’s $1 million, Grade 1 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. The 1 1/8-mile Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race has attracted a dozen entries, led by a Grade 1 winner, a Grade 2 winner, a stakes winner, and five others who have placed at the graded stakes level.
Narrowing down the list of contenders is difficult. There are many entrants with viable win chances. But after analyzing the field, a quartet of contenders stand out as the most likely win threats.
In order of post positions, we’ll focus our attention on the following four horses:
#4 Zandon: Did you happen to catch Zandon’s gallant effort in the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct last fall? After tracking a slow pace from third place, Zandon endeavored to take command, but was forced into tight quarters along the inside by eventual winner Mo Donegal. Even though Zandon was bumped close to the finish line, he was only beaten a nose.
Zandon kicked off his 2022 season on a strong note in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford at Fair Grounds, overcoming a less-than-perfect start to rally and finish third. He was only beaten 3 ¼ lengths by next-out Grade 2 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby winner Epicenter and half a length by Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes winner Smile Happy (see below).
Zandon is trained by Chad Brown, whose Kentucky Derby contenders tend to improve significantly in their second Derby prep runs. Any step forward from Zandon will make him dangerous in the Blue Grass.
#6 Emmanuel: It could be easy to overlook Emmanuel following his fourth-place finish in the Grade 2 Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park last month, but that would be a mistake. Nothing went right for Emmanuel that day. The normally front-running colt failed to make the lead while breaking from an outside post, then got caught extremely wide around both turns. Even while giving up tons of ground, Emmanuel unleashed a challenge around the far turn before flattening out to finish fourth.
If not for the ground loss, Emmanuel might have contended for victory. He’s drawn a better post position in the Blue Grass and figures to either set or stalk the pace while avoiding extreme ground loss, opening the door for a much-improved performance. The fact horses shipping in from Florida have a strong record of success in the Blue Grass adds to Emmanuel’s appeal.
#9 Rattle N Roll: Granted, the form of Rattle N Roll has been a little disappointing this year. He kicked off the season with a sixth-place finish in the Grade 2 Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes, then improved only mildly when rallying to fourth place in the Grade 2 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby.
But there have been extenuating circumstances. In the Fountain of Youth, Rattle N Roll was returning from a five-month layoff and probably wasn’t cranked for a peak performance. Then in the Louisiana Derby, Rattle N Roll was compromised by fast finishing fractions that helped the early pacesetters run 1-2-3. Under the circumstances, the fact Rattle N Roll passed a few rivals to finish just six lengths away from victory is respectable.
Rattle N Roll displayed a clear affinity for Keeneland in the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity last fall, exploding from off the pace to dominate by 4 ¼ lengths. Breeders’ Futurity alumni have won five of the last 10 editions of the Blue Grass, so dismiss Rattle N Roll from consideration at your own risk. If he encounters a contested pace in his third run of the season, Rattle N Roll can outrun expectations at solid odds.
#10 Smile Happy: It’s hard to knock anything Smile Happy has accomplished across three career starts. He won his debut racing 1 1/16 miles at Keeneland last fall in spectacular fashion, surging from off the pace to dominate by 5 ½ lengths. And he was just as impressive in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes one month later, blasting away to defeat future Grade 2 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby winner Classic Causeway and Grade 1 Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa winner White Abarrio by 3 ¼ lengths.
Smile Happy also ran well in his 2022 debut. Facing a deep field in the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford, Smile Happy rallied gamely into fast finishing fractions to finish second, beaten only 2 ¾ lengths by Epicenter. Among Smile Happy’s beaten rivals were Zandon and next-out Grade 3 Sunland Park Derby winner Slow Down Andy.
Smile Happy likely wasn’t cranked for a maximum performance in the Risen Star, so don’t be surprised if he shows meaningful improvement in the Blue Grass. That’s a scary proposition for his rivals, because even the current version of Smile Happy looms as a fearsome win threat on paper.
So how do we take these opinions and formulate them into a betting strategy? We’ll start by favoring Emmanuel and Smile Happy on top of exacta and trifecta tickets. One is a speed horse and the other is a stretch runner, providing us with viable win chances no matter what type of pace scenario unfolds. Then we’ll add Zandon and Rattle N Roll underneath our top choices and cross our fingers for a 1-2-3 sweep by logical contenders.
Wagering Strategy on a $24 Budget
$4 Exacta: 6,10 with 4,6,9,10 ($24)
What to say at the betting window: Keeneland, 9th race, $4 exacta 6,10 with 4,6,9,10
Wagering Strategy on a $48 Budget
$6 Exacta: 6,10 with 4,6,9,10 ($36)
What to say at the betting window: Keeneland, 9th race, $6 exacta 6,10 with 4,6,9,10
$1 Trifecta: 6,10 with 4,6,9,10 with 4,6,9,10 ($12)
What to say at the betting window: Keeneland, 9th race, $1 trifecta 6,10 with 4,6,9,10 with 4,6,9,10
Good luck, and enjoy the race!