A little more than an hour’s drive from the famed Twin Spires of Churchill Downs, site of the Kentucky Derby, a handful of the top 3-year-olds in the country compete each spring in the historic Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Race Course. The Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes is one of the last chances for a horse to acquire the necessary earnings to make the Kentucky Derby starting gate.
The Blue Grass Stakes, which dates all the way back to 1911, is somewhat unique among all of the Kentucky Derby prep races because it has been contested on a synthetic track, rather than traditional dirt, since 2007. The impact of the Blue Grass on the Kentucky Derby has been altered some since the track was switched to a synthetic, but that doesn’t appear to be the case in 2012.
The 2012 Blue Grass Stakes, set for April 14, is slated to feature several leading Kentucky Derby contenders, even with the synthetic going. Most notable of these runners is Hansen, last year’s 2-year-old champion colt, who is coming into the race off a sharp win in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.
Also expected to be in the Blue Grass lineup are Grade 2 Louisiana Derby winner Hero of Order, Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby winner Prospective, Grade 1 winner Dullahan, and the well-regarded Ever So Lucky.
A major reason such a strong cast is being pointed to this year’s Blue Grass is presumably the fact that last year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Animal Kingdom, won the Spiral Stakes over a synthetic track at Turfway Park in his final prep race.
The Blue Grass Stakes has produced six Kentucky Derby winners in the last 25 years, which puts it right near the top of all Kentucky Derby preps in terms of production. The last horse to win the Kentucky Derby after running in the Blue Grass Stakes was Street Sense in 2007. Street Sense could only muster a second in the Blue Grass that year, but then responded like a champion when put back on dirt for the Kentucky Derby.
In 1995, Thunder Gulch ran fourth in the Blue Grass before winning the Kentucky Derby. He was preceded by Kentucky Derby winners Sea Hero (fourth in the 1993 Blue Grass), Strike The Gold (won the 1991 Blue Grass), Unbridled (third in the 1990 Blue Grass) and Alysheba (won the 1987 Blue Grass was disqualified and placed third).
Other previous Blue Grass runners that went on to win the Kentucky Derby include Spectacular Bid (1979), Riva Ridge (1972), and Northern Dancer (1964).
Calumet Farm, the legendary central Kentucky operation, has won six Blue Grass Stakes to lead all owners. Jockey Bill Shoemaker won six Blue Grass Stakes between 1959 and 1982 to lead all riders.
Four trainers, all of whom are in the Racing Hall of Fame, have won three Blue Grass Stakes to lead that respective category. They are Nick Zito, who remains active; Leroy Jolley, Woody Stephens and Ben A. Jones.