BLUEGRASS STAKES RETURNING TO PROMINENCE
A little dirt never hurt anybody. And in this case, it is probably going to be a big help…at least for horse racing fans and some prime time ponies.
With historic Keeneland Race Course switching its main course from synthetic to a traditional dirt surface, their signature Spring meet race will certainly carry more significance. For many years, the Bluegrass Stakes had been one of the most logical stops for three-year olds on the road to the Kentucky Derby. Just down the road from Churchill Downs, Keeneland offered up a great opportunity to prepare for a run at immortality. With its first running coming in 1937, 1942 (Shut Out) marked the first time a winner used the race as a stepping stone to the winner’s circle on the first Saturday in May. Between 1963 and 1972 six Kentucky Derby winners won the Bluegrass and one other finished second before taking the blanket of roses. Included in that bunch were legends Northern Dancer (1964), Lucky Debonair (1965), Dust Commander (1970), and Riva Ridge (1972). Other Derby greats like Spectacular Bid (1979) and Strike the Gold (1991) also went from the Keeneland winner’s circle to glory beneath the twin spires.
As the calendar continued to turn and the 21st century opened, prime-time contenders continued to prep at Keeneland, but none found their way to the winner’s circle in both races. In 2007, the quaint course located in the Lexington countryside switched to a synthetic racing surface on the main course. Considered the wave of the future for many reasons, Keeneland was attempting to be “cutting edge”. That first year, Street Sense used the Bluegrass as his final prep (2nd place finish) before putting on a stunning last to first run in winning Derby 133. Trainer Carl Nafzger had used the Bluegrass as a final stepping-stone in 2007 just as he had in 1990 with Unbridled (3rd in Bluegrass).
With the success of Bluegrass runners fading and questions surrounding the synthetic surface, more and more of the top horses chose to make other tracks their final prep place before heading to Churchill. The Bluegrass was still a grade 1 race worth $500,000, but mainly turf runners or horses that had an affinity for surfaces other than dirt used it as a springboard to the Kentucky Derby. Now with the dirt back and a million dollar purse, look for the Bluegrass to be back among the major final preparation places.
“The Bluegrass will be back as a prominent prep race,” says Nafzger. “The dirt will certainly make a difference. We used the race for Street Sense and Unbridled because it is close and you don’t have to worry about shipping a long way. Keeneland is a great track and it just makes sense to race there before running in the Kentucky Derby.”
The 2015 edition already has the makings of perhaps the biggest of the big final preps. Nominees for the April 4 race includes top names like American Pharoah, Dortmund, Texas Red, International Star, and Far Right. Obviously the points system now used to determine Derby starters will play a role in who leaves the starting gates. Top horses needing points may look elsewhere if the race looks to be too tough, but early indications are the Bluegrass Stakes will be back on familiar dirt come April 4.