The three-year-old trails are reaching do-or-die time.
This weekend features the second to last Saturday of Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks points preps, and they will run from coast to coast. This piece focuses on the pair of points preps at Keeneland: the Ashland (G1) for the fillies, and a loaded renewal of the Blue Grass (G2) for open company. Each offer 100-40-20-10 points toward their respective goal races, guaranteeing their winner a ticket to Louisville in May, and likely ensuring their second-place finishers berths as well.
In separate pieces, we preview the prep races carded elsewhere: the Wood Memorial (G2) and the Gazelle (G2) at Aqueduct, and the Santa Anita Derby (G1) and Santa Anita Oaks (G2) out west. We also return to Keeneland in a separate piece to discuss Sunday's minor Oaks prep there, the Beaumont Stakes (G3).
Morning line for the Ashland Stakes was unavailable at original publish time. Edited Wednesday, April 4 to add morning lines.
Keeneland Race Course - Saturday, April 7
Race 9: Central Bank Ashland Stakes (G1), three-year-old fillies, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 5:45pm EDT
Henry Clay was not just The Great Compromiser, a well-known statesman. He also owned, bred, and raced horses. His property was named Ashland, hence the moniker for this race. His son John continued the tradition of breeding and running horses from their estate. John was still alive when Day Star (1878) became Ashland Stud's first Kentucky Derby winner. After his death, Ashland produced Riley (1890) and Alan-A-Dale (1902). The name Ashland lives on in Lexington here, through the Ashland Stakes. This race has been a fertile ground for lilies, as eleven fillies have parlayed an Ashland Stakes victory into a Kentucky Oaks triumph: Come and Go (1945), Real Delight (1952), Hidden Talent (1959), Sally Ship (1963), Blue Norther (1964), Sun and Snow (1975), Optimistic Gal (1976), Blush With Pride (1982), Princess Rooney (1983), Silverbulletday (1999), and Lovely Maria (2015).
Emollient wins the 2013 Ashland Stakes. She was a G1 winner on both polytrack and turf; her half-brother Hofburg was second behind Audible in the G1 Florida Derby on dirt last week.
The Ashland drew a field of just seven -- including one of the heavy hitters of the Oaks-boun division, MONOMOY GIRL. The daughter of Tapizar won three of her four starts last year, and her return in the Rachel Alexandra (G2) on February 17 proved she may have come back even better. She has tactical versatility, able to win on the pace or rally from dead last. She has worked out trips in small fields and large ones, on turf and dirt, at one turn or two. With this being a short field, with a couple of other forward horses, it wouldn't be a surprise to see her set up just off the pace. But, if TYFOSHA doesn't fire from the outside and C. S. INCHARGE decides to rate? MONOMOY GIRL could go. Regular rider Florent Geroux returns to the irons, he has ridder her both ways, and he can be trusted to figure out the best way to handle her here. MONOMOY GIRL is the class of the field, but with her speed and versatility, she looks like a single.
In a short field, it often makes sense to look at frontrunning sorts. TYFOSHA has some early speed, but she's on the outside, and has done her better work going short. C. S. INCHARGE appeals more, between the horses likely to go. She led at every call in a sloppy maiden victory, and though she beat washed-off turf horses that day, she returned to stalk and pounce against horses pointed for dirt in the Suncoast Stakes, the only Oaks points race this winter at Tampa Bay Downs. That came over fast dirt, which C. S. INCHARGE should get again here. She gets Luis Saez aboard, a rider who has already won with her already, and who has been riding regularly and well for trainer Dale Romans. C. S. INCHARGE should be good enough to get a piece, and if you're that intent on trying to beat MONOMOY GIRL, she seems the best situated of the spoiler candidates.
The third shot was a close decision between a pair of classy late-running fillies, ANDINA DEL SUR and ESKIMO KISSES. ANDINA DEL SUR gets a great Keeneland rider, and beat a competitive field in the Grade 3 Florida Oaks last out. But, this will be her first attempt on the dirt, and her pedigree suggests she will be best on grass. ESKIMO KISSES appeals just a bit more. She has made all six of her career starts on dirt, and has only run out of the exacta once. She has experience in short fields, repeatedly rallying and running well in fields of seven or eight, whether the pace in front of her is fast or modest. The location also bodes well. ESKIMO KISSES ran well in her only try at Keeneland -- a second-place finish beaten only a head on debut, where she ran the same mile and a sixteenth she covers today. Like everyone else here, it will be a tough ask to beat MONOMOY GIRL, but she is another who should hit the board if she runs her race.
#1 MONOMOY GIRL (4/5)
#4 C. S. INCHARGE (10/1)
#2 ESKIMO KISSES (2/1)
Longshot: #6 IPANEMA BEACH (20/1) is a maiden, the only one of seven in the field. She has to improve here, but as the likely longest shot on the board, there's something to like. She has only raced three times, once this year, suggesting she can take a step forward. IPANEMA BEACH was a credible second on debut at Keeneland, suggesting she likes the course. Though that came at a sprint, between her last-out second at a mile and forty yards and her pedigree it's reasonable to think IPANEMA BEACH will get a mile and a sixteenth. Blinkers-on should have her a bit closer to the pace early, a positive given the short field. And, her barn has sprung a surprise in the Ashland before; trainer Rusty Arnold lit up the tote with another Tampa shipper, Weep No More, in 2016.
Race 10: Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2), three-year-olds, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 6:23pm EDT
As one could surmise, the Blue Grass Stakes takes its name from the Kentucky Bluegrass region where Lexington lies. Run for the 93rd time this year, it has been a fruitful Kentucky Derby prep race over its history -- though less so in recent years, as it was downshifted to a Grade 2 last year. So far, ten winners of the Blue Grass have also won the Kentucky Derby. Of highest local interest is the winner of both the Blue Grass and the Kentucky Derby in 1970: Dust Commander, the only Illinois-bred winner of the Kentucky Derby. In addition to winning a Classic himself, he also sired 1975 Preakness winner Master Derby -- who, himself, also won the Blue Grass. The nine others to have swept the Blue Grass/Derby double include Shut Out (1942), Tomy Lee (1959), Chateaugay (1963), Northern Dancer (1964), Lucky Debonair (1965), Forward Pass (1968, via the DQ of Dancer's Image), Riva Ridge (1972), Spectacular Bid (1979), and Strike the Gold (1991). Among Blue Grass winners who did not win the Derby, we would be remiss to leave out the 1966 edition: Abe's Hope, another Illinois-bred. He had found hard luck down the Derby trail that year, including getting run down by Buckpasser in the Chicken Flamingo, racked up the first win of his sophomore season in that year's Blue Grass.
Chateaugay digs in late to win the 1963 Blue Grass Stakes. He would go on to win both the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont that year.
This year's Blue Grass Stakes was a popular ticket: it drew an overflow field of 13, with last-out maiden winner DETERMINANT relegated to the also-eligible list. In its field, there's no shortage of early gas, especially for a nine-furlong route. CALIFORNIA NIGHT needs the lead, MACHISMO will likely try to gun from the outside, and the more classy trio of SPORTING CHANCE, QUIP, and MACHISMO stands to be forward as well.
Keeneland's stretch is short, but if there's a horse proven to close over it, they're worth a look. That brings us to a closer who is already a Grade 1 winner over the oval: last year's Breeders' Futurity winner FREE DROP BILLY. In winning last fall, he drew relatively wide, got plenty of pace in front of him, and closed; all of that could very well happen again here. Though this is FREE DROP BILLY's first try at a mile and an eighth, his breeding suggest nine furlongs and more should be great: he is a Union Rags half to a pair of horses who have won going even longer than that, multiple G1 winner Hawkbill (a Kitten's Joy son who won the G1 Dubai Sheema Classic at about a mile and a half last week) and Trensita (a Curlin daughter who broke her maiden at about a mile and three eighths). FREE DROP BILLY does a rider who has never taken the call on him before, that rider is Irad Ortiz: one of the best in the country, and one who has been firing in a few mounts for trainer Dale Romans lately. Though FREE DROP BILLY has been the victim of a perhaps questionable prep season -- Gulfstream suits his style poorly, and a mile last out was far too short -- this looks like the perfect prep for him to bring his best.
GOOD MAGIC was a well-beaten third last out in the Fountain of Youth, but has a right to take a step forward here. He comes in second off the lay, off a start where he was perhaps a little short due to some missed training, and should be tighter here. GOOD MAGIC is another who should benefit from having pace in front of him, and Keeneland should play more fairly to his off-pace style than Gulfstream typically does. Though GOOD MAGIC has not yet tried a mile and an eighth yet, he is by Curlin out of a Hard Spun mare who could get two turns, suggesting a mile and an eighth could be in his range of abilities.
Among the more forward brigade, FLAMEAWAY appeals. He has been one of the more consistent horses on the Derby trail this year: after a victory on the Gulfstream grass in January, he had a win and a good second behind QUIP in the pair of dirt preps at Tampa Bay. Though he should be close to the lead, he has enough form battling or even coming from just off the pace -- including a stalking victory in the Bourbon (G3) over sloppy Keeneland dirt last year -- to make him a candidate to survive the hot front end. The connections speak well, as well: Mark Casse has been coming to Keeneland ready to fire in recent times, particularly with horses owned by John Oxley, and they're the team behind FLAMEAWAY. Particularly if Keeneland plays well for speed through the opening days of the meet, it's hard to dismiss FLAMEAWAY.
#10 FREE DROP BILLY (5/1)
#11 GOOD MAGIC (2/1)
#12 FLAMEAWAY (6/1)
Longshot: #7 BLENDED CITIZEN (15/1) should be a price, as he has yet to prove himself on dirt. His dirt form hasn't been great, as he was well beaten on all three tries in California last year. But, since? He broke his maiden over the grass, and has then carried his form onto two different synthetic surfaces. If his strong dirt pedigree (a Proud Citizen half to Lookin At Lee) kicks in here? It stands out that BLENDED CITIZEN is the only horse in the field who has already won at a mile and an eighth, and he comes from the same barn that sent Irap to upset the Blue Grass last year. Demand double digits on BLENDED CITIZEN, but if you get them, there's a lot to like.
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