By LATT Staff
This year marks the 98th running of the Blue Grass Stakes (GI), the Bluegrass State’s most prominent prep for the Kentucky Derby (GI) every year and a consistent producer of top racehorses, whether they win under the Twin Spires or not on the first Saturday in May. The Keeneland spring meet feature also returns to grade 1 status after a five-year hiatus and for the 27th year carries Toyota as sponsor.
The nine-furlong Blue Grass gets its moniker quite honestly as it’s named for the state in which its run – Kentucky — whose nickname is derived from a famous type of grass found in the region, which is characterized by a bluish-green tint. But most importantly the bluegrass variety of grass holds a solid reputation as ideal for raising horses – especially Thoroughbreds. It is both winter hardy and excellent for horse pasture and also highly nutritious, very palatable and tolerant of close, frequent grazing and is also considered solid pasture footing.
The Blue Grass Stakes was initially contested at the now defunct Kentucky Association racetrack in Lexington in 1911 and was offered on and off there through 1926 before it landed at Keeneland in 1937. In 1943 and 1944, the race was part of the “Keeneland-at-Churchill Downs” meeting and in 1945, it was part of the regular Churchill Downs meeting but has resided at Keeneland as part of the spring season, except during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic delay, ever since.
This year the Blue Grass purse returns to $1 million and still offers 100 points to the winner to make the Kentucky Derby starting gate thanks to its spot on the Road to the Derby qualifying races list, meaning the top-four finishers will be awarded points on a 100-40-20-10 scale. The winner, and likely the runner-up, are virtually guaranteed to be loaded into the Kentucky Derby gate should their connections choose.
Over the years some really good horses have won the Blue Grass before taking the Run for the Roses, including Tomy Lee, Northern Dancer, Lucky Debonair, Forward Pass, Dust Commander, Riva Ridge and Spectacular Bid. And though Strike the Gold in 1991 was the last to accomplish the Blue Grass-Derby double feat, several other top-tier horses have won the Blue Grass before making a significant impression on Derby Day, including Arts and Letters, Honest Pleasure and Alydar, all who were second in the Run for the Roses. Thunder Gulch in 1995 and Street Sense in 2007 are the most recent Blue Grass runners who didn’t win at Keeneland but did go on to win under the Twin Spires on the First Saturday in May.
And since 1997 the Blue Grass has only produced one Derby winner from a total of 92 starters, so it has sent out the most starters for any prep overall yet produced the least amount of Derby winners overall. Regardless, the race is steeped in history and Hall of Fame talent as some other famous Blue Grass winners include Bull Lea, Coaltown, Round Table, Alydar, Chief’s Crown, Summer Squall, Prairie Bayou, Holy Bull, Skip Away and Pulpit.
Three years ago, multiple grade 1 winner Vekoma won the Blue Grass before finishing 12th in the Derby two years ago, Art Collector cruised to a 3 ½-length victory on the July 11 date but was withdrawn from Kentucky Derby consideration a week before the September 5 race after grabbing a quarter while training five days before the race. He went on to finish fourth in the Preakness Stakes (GI) and eighth in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (GI). Last year champion Essential Quality was victorious before crossing the wire in fourth place under the Twin Spires, winning the Belmont Stakes (GI) and Runhappy Travers Stakes (GI). He was crowned 2021’s champion 3-year-old after a fourt-place finish against older horses in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) at Del Mar and is standing his first season at stud at Darley America in Kentucky.
The leading Blue Grass-winning owner with six is the old Calumet Farm regime of Gene and Lucille Markey, who were represented by winners in 1938, 1943, 1947, 1948, 1968 and 1978. California-based Hall of Fame jockey Bill Shoemaker still holds the record for riding the most winners with six in 1959, 1960, 1965, 1966, 1969 and 1982. Five trainers have saddled three winners each – Ben Jones, Woody Stevens and LeRoy Jolley, who have all since passed – and are tied with current and active Hall of Famers Nick Zito and Todd Pletcher in this category.
The great gray Hall of Famer Skip Away still holds the record for the fastest Blue Grass, having stopped the clock in 1:47.20 for the nine furlongs in 1996.
Anybody who knows anything about the weather in Kentucky in the spring knows it’s unpredictable. Hot and humid and dry one minute, cold with rain and thunderstorms the next. And the rain and cold temperatures from earlier in the week are expected to continue on Saturday with a high in the mid-40s under cloudy and rainy skies. Post time for the Blue Grass, which is the 11th on the card, has been set for 6:35 p.m. ET.
This year’s Blue Grass Stakes field of 12, in post position order with jockeys, trainers and morning line odds, is:
1. Commandperformance, Irad Ortiz, Jr., Todd Pletcher, 12-1
Union Rags—Smitten, by Tapit
2. Fenwick, Paco Lopez, Kevin McKathan, 20-1
Curlin—Make the Sun Shine, by Malibu Moon
3. Trademark, Rafael Bejarano, Victoria Oliver, 30-1
Upstart—Creative Trick, by Creative Cause
4, Zandon, Flavien Prat, Chad Brown, 5-2
Upstart—Memories Prevail, by Creative Cause
5. Volcanic, Adam Beschizza, Mark Casse, 20-1
Violence—Pulpit Angel, by Pulpit
6. Emmanuel, Luiz Saez, Todd Pletcher, 9-2
More Than Ready—Hard Cloth, by Hard Spun
7. Golden Glider, Ricardo Santana, Jr., Mark Casse, 20-1
Ghostzapper—Golden Scarf, Orientate
8. Ethereal Road, Luis Contreras, D. Wayne Lukas, 20-1
Quality Road—Sustained, by War Front
9. Rattle N Roll, Brian Hernandez, Jr., Kenny McPeek, 8-1
Connect–Jazz Tune, by Johannesburg
10. Smile Happy, Corey Lanerie, Kenny McPeek, 9-5
Runhappy—Pleasant Smile, by Pleasant Tap
11. Blackadder, Florent Geroux, Rodolphe Brisset, 20-1
Quality Road—Chapel, by Pulpit
12. Grantham, Tyler Gaffalione, Mike Maker, 20-1
Declaration of War—Darby Blush, by Arch