Ever since Keeneland tore out its old speed-favoring and rail-biased dirt track and installed the synthetic Polytrack, the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes (post time: 6:18pm ET; TV: CNBC) has become an incredibly difficult race to handicap. It seems like every year, we see colts ship into Keeneland with nothing but a string of impressive dirt wins to their credit, proceed to take a ton of cash at the window and then run up the track after the gates open. You can almost set your watch to that scenario.
The difference between racing over a synthetic surface and racing over dirt is as great as the difference between racing over turf and dirt. Success on one surface doesn't ensure (or preclude) success on another. Most of the time, horsemen, jockeys, owners and handicappers don't really know whether a horse will take to a specific surface until they actually try it.
The horse expected to be the heavy favorite for the 2012 Blue Grass Stakes, Hansen, has already proven he can handle a Polytrack surface when he won two races at Turfway Park as a juvenile. But there are still questions that remain for the morning line choice, namely: how tight will trainer Michael Maker have the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner for this race? Is he looking for a big performance, or one that merely gets him ready for the 2012 Kentucky Derby? The answer to that question is key to determining where to place your money on Saturday.
Let's take a look at the field for the 2012 Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
1-Heavy Breathing (12/1): Showed speed early and tired late in the G3-Sprial Stakes at Turfway on March 24. He's shown that he doesn't hate Polytrack, but it's hard to imagine him beating this field if he couldn't beat the one in the Spiral.
2-Gung Ho (30/1): Another Turfway shipper, this one off of a second-place finish in the ungraded Rushaway Stakes at a mile-and-a-sixteenth. A son of Kitten's Joy and owned by Ken and Sarah Ramsey, Gung Ho shouldn't be completely discounted in this race; he can handle the surface and the distance shouldn't be an issue. Class-wise, he's a step or two below many in this field, but he's an interesting longshot given the success that offspring of Kitten's Joy have experienced on the Polytack at Keeneland.
3-Prospective (10/1): Finished 2nd in the G3-Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs before bouncing back to win the G2-Tampa Bay Derby in his last start. This colt began his career at Woodbine in Canada and found success on both turf and synthetic surfaces. In fact, he's won races over all three surfaces in his career, suggesting a colt with an ability to adapt to a wide variety of situations. It's debatable as to whether he's got enough class to beat a colt like Hansen, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him unleash a top effort in this race.
4-Hansen (6/5): The Champion Two-Year-Old of 2012 and Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner looked very good when winning the G3-Gotham at Aqueduct on March 3. Going into that race, there were major question marks as to whether Hansen could learn to control his natural early speed, instead of bolting to the lead as he did when he finished second in the G3-Holy Bull. He successfully passed the first test when he used a perfect stalking trip to blow away the Gotham field by an easy three lengths.
Hansen began his career at Turfway Park on a Polytrack surface, so there shouldn't be any concerns with him not taking to the footing.
5-Russian Greek (50/1): If this longshot son of Giant's Causeway were to win the Blue Grass Stakes, I think we can safely assume that the race completely fell apart in the final furlongs. Russian Greek finished eight lengths behind Daddy Nose Best in the G3-El Camino Real at Golden Gate Fields and over nine lengths back of Went the Day Well in the G3-Sprial. He needs to show some major improvement, or his rivals all need to throw in serious clunkers, if Russian Greek is to finish on top of this field.
6-Dullahan (6/1): A lot of people that are looking to beat Hansen in this race will likely turn to Dullahan as their best hope. Second in the G2-Palm Beach in his only start of 2012, Dullahan has performed well on turf and synthetic surfaces in his career, something that should aid him in this race. Additionally, Dullahan has previously won a Grade 1 race at Keeneland (G1-Breeders' Futurity; 10/8/11). And finally, he's a closer in a race that appears loaded with speed.
Dullahan is a half-brother to 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird.
7-Politicallycorrect (30/1): Hey, what do you know? This is the second of two sons of Kitten's Joy owned by Ken and Sarah Ramsey in the Blue Grass and neither of them has "Kitten" in their name. That's got to be some kind of record ... or maybe they've run out of "Kitten" names to use.
Politicallycorrect put forth a decent effort in his only start on the Keeneland Polytrack (second against Maiden Special Weight company), but he's facing a serious class test after running against $75,000 optional claimers at Gulfstream Park in his last start. Tough task.
8-Midnight Crooner (15/1): A son of War Chant and a trainee of Bob Baffert, Midnight Crooner dominated a Maiden Special Weight event over the synthetic surface at Golden Gate Fields before finishing third by a length-and-a-quarter in the ungraded Pasadena Stakes on the Santa Anita turf course. He's likely to flash a bit of early speed in this race but it might be asking too much from this colt to expect him to look Hansen and the other speed horses in the eye and come away victorious.
Midnight Crooner is a full brother to 2011 Santa Anita Derby winner Midnight Interlude.
9-Holy Candy (30/1): I love the offspring of Candy Ride (ARG) because they can do just about anything. They can win on dirt, or turf or synthetics. They can sprint or route. And they tend to have a good deal of class in their blood.
Holy Candy's only race on a synthetic surface (a second-place finish against Maiden Special Weights at Hollywood Park last November) might not be completely revealing as to his ability on Polytrack; he was slow out of the gate that day and had to hustle his way into contention within the first half mile. With a clean start, Holy Candy should be better in his second try on synthetics and might make sense if your looking for a price play in the exacta, trifecta or superfecta.
10-Howe Great (6/1): Owned and trained by the same connections as last year's Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, Howe Great will make his first start on Polytrack after ripping off four straight victories on dirt and turf, the most recent coming in the G3-Palm Beach on March 11 at Gulfstream Park. Howe Great has shown a good deal of speed in his prior races so we should expect him to move to quickly move to the front once the gate opens. He's been a much better horse on turf than on dirt, something that suggests the transition to Polytrack won't be a big issue. Given the wide post position, jockey Javier Castellano will have to hustle this colt to the front early to avoid getting caught wide in the first turn.
11-Ever So Lucky (12/1): This colt has made only three starts in his career and just one since the calendar turned over to 2012. He was second to Wood Memorial winner Gemologist in last fall's G2-Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs but was well behind Trinniberg and Hello Prince in the G3-Swale on March 10. Given his breeding (by Indian Charlie out of a Summer Squall mare; none of his siblings ever won a route race (0-for-12)) it's questionable as to whether he wants to run nine furlongs, let alone the Derby distance of ten. Additionally, this is his first start on Polytrack and "dirt only" horses (horses that have never started over a turf or synthetic surface before racing on the Polytrack at Keeneland) have a horrible record in two-turn races at Keeneland since the old dirt track was replaced.
12-Hero of Order (12/1): The 109/1 winner of the G2-Louisiana Derby is back for more in the Blue Grass Stakes, looking to shock the world again in the process. One thing is for certain, he won't go off at odds of 109/1 in this race.
13-Scatman (12/1): It's hard not to like the way this colt has developed over the course of the spring. He started the year with an easy win against optional claimers and then finished just a half-length behind Secret Circle in the G3-Southwest Stakes. He followed that effort up with a third-place finish in the G2-Rebel Stakes on St. Patrick's Day. Throw in a prior win over the Keeneland Polytrack when he was a two-year-old and you've got a very interesting long-shot possibility, despite the awful post position.
Hansen is the class of the field but he doesn't need to run a big race in this spot, making this the very definition of a "prep" race. Additionally, there is a ton of early speed in this field which should ensure fast fractions early and tired horses late. As a result, I'm looking for a closer in the form of Dullahan. He may not be a great play in the Kentucky Derby, but Dullahan fits the winner's profile for this year's Blue Grass Stakes.