by Jerod Dinkin
I was fortunate enough to spend this past weekend in Lexington for my first trip to Keeneland. As far as pure horse racing is concerned, I’ve never been to a more appealing location. The natural surroundings are beautiful and serine with an equally perfect paddock. The winning horse and jock are cheered on the gallop back to the winner’s circle, something unheard of say, at the Meadowlands. Put simply, it’s almost a perfect place.
The oft maligned Keeneland Polytrack has an abundant following of detractors. I’ve preferred it to the old Keeneland downhill speed highway from the start as the bias is even more pronounced against speed as the old was toward it. Further, unlike the speed biased dirt track, prices absolutely abound on a daily basis and the longshots are attainable to those that put in the time to carefully profile the trends. Keeneland’s boutique meet is short and sweet, full of high quality runners in a nostalgic setting. What’s not to like?
A common theme I hear out there in the blogosphere as well as in the media is the notion that the best horse doesn’t win on Keeneland’s Polytrack. One of the most important lessons that I always teach newcomers to the game is that in any given race, look for the best horse given the set of circumstances at that juncture (distance, pace, post position, class, weather, human connections, and…..yes, surface). The term best is completely subjective and needs proper context.
Pyro was not the best horse to back (at Even money no less) under the given set of circumstances for the Blue Grass. Remember, the race was run on a quirky surface that favors certain select types of runners, with many accomplished dirt runners not taking well to it. To say that the best horse didn’t win is completely missing the point. The terms “best” and “most accomplished” are mutually exclusive. Pyro was certainly the most accomplished, but not the best horse in that tilt. Notwithstanding the foregoing, the modern day Blue Grass is simply a glorified Lane’s End that provides little help to decipher the Derby. I admire Street Sense even more for running as well as he did over a strip he clearly didn’t care for. Like many of the greats, Street Sense still gave an honest effort despite the adversity. This “new” Blue Grass, the one run over the plastic, is just as suspect a Derby Prep as the old one. Before the chorus starts in with the end of racing (due to synthetics) as we know it, let’s be sure to make sure our memories aren’t of the selective variety. The last winner of the Blue Grass to win the Derby was Strike the Gold in 1991, with such “notable” winners this decade (over the dirt surface) as Sinister Minister, The Cliffs Edge, and Bandini.
The Blue Grass is a nice vehicle for keeping horses sound and building stamina, but it’s time to make it a Grade II and promote the Arkansas Derby to a Grade I with recent winners such as Curlin, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, and Lawyer Ron. Dominican and Sinister Minister have no business sporting a Grade I win on their resume.
With all of that said, what do we make of the Blue Grass? For starters, those backers of Pyro should be wary of him. Let’s be objective and analyze this with positives and negatives
-Visually dynamite in the Risen Star and the Louisiana Derby, both accomplished in different ways.
-He showed some versatility in the LA Derby to prove he’s not a one run closer.
-Will come to the Derby with significant racing experience, including a solid foundation at 2
-This is a weak group of 3 year olds
-His speed figures as a 3 yr old are pretty pedestrian, even by the low standard set by this crop.
-Completely quit in the Blue Grass. Polytrack or not, that was disturbing. Street Sense didn’t love the Poly either…….
-His breeding is suspect for the 1 ¼ distance
Those backers of Pyro will likely get a better price now on Derby Day as a result of the Blue Grass, but there are many unanswered questions for this horse, who will be less than 10-1. I’m skeptical, especially on the win front as much I was completely floored by his finish in the Risen Star. Perhaps he just outclassed severely overmatched foes and the turn of foot was a mirage; “fools gold” if you will…….
Monba is an interesting sort and one to watch. He has been quite consistent throughout his career and sports a win over the CD surface. The distance shouldn’t be a huge hindrance for him either. I don’t like him on top, but he has a shot to crack the exotics.
Cowboy Cal is another one worth a look. His whole career, less his Saratoga debut and strong Blue Grass showing, have all been on the turf. He’s an honest sort out of Giant’s Causeway, who was a versatile runner. I’m a little worried about his only career blemish at the Spa. Was it due to inexperience or the dirt surface? Stay tuned and monitor his works at Churchill prior to the Derby for more clues.
More on the Arkansas Derby later in the week……….