The Toyota Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland is one of three big-time derby preps this weekend. The Bluegrass, Wood Memorial, and Santa Anita Derby all offer big purses and 100 Kentucky Derby points making all three win-and-you’re-in affairs.
Keeneland’s spring meet will host the 1-1/8 mile Bluegrass Stakes, which has been downgraded to a G2 this year. Ten Bluegrass winners have gone on to the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle and this year’s field should not disappoint. Legitimate derby contenders McCraken, Tapwrit, and J Boys Echo all look to claim their share of the $1,000,000 purse.
The Keeneland meet is in it’s first week so recent track bias stats aren’t available. However, in the last six 1-1/8 mile affairs over the dirt course at the fall meet, only 1 was won wire-to-wire, with the inside being the place to be.
7-5 morning line favorite McCraken is coming in with a 4 for 4 lifetime record, but also with a 56 day layoff following an ankle strain suffered while training. Trainer Ian Wilkes has professed that the injury is minor, a note that is backed up by McCraken’s recent workouts. Prior to the mishap, McCraken’s 4 wins were all by more than a length, and he has come from no closer than 6th at the first call, and has never had a torrid pace to run at. He looks like he wants the distance and obviously has the ability so the only question is his fitness.
The biggest beneficiary of McCraken’s layoff was 5-2 morning line 2nd choice Tapwrit. Tapwrit finished behind McCraken in the Sam F. Davis and then took advantage of his adversary’s absence to win the Tampa Bay Derby. His pulling away victory in the TB Derby showed a nice step forward as he posted a career best speed figure.
Then we have J Boys Echo, winner of the G3 Gotham Stakes in his last where he posted the highest career Brisnet speed rating in the field while rewarding his backers with a 6-1 payday. Trainer Dale Romans has won 2 of the last 5 runnings of the Bluegrass and will have his regular rider Robby Albarado back aboard.
The pace setup of this 7 horse field is precarious as the only speed in this race will come from the two outside horses, Doug O’Neill’s 20-1 Irap from gate #6, and Chad Brown’s 7-2 Practical Joke from #7. Both horses have posted fast early pace figures but neither has run on the front end. Irap’s figures were put up at Sunland Park where he was a beaten favorite in an ungraded stake and a well beaten 4th in the Sunland Derby. Practical Joke is making his second start of the year, with a 2nd place finish behind Gunnevera in the G2 Fountain of Youth in his last. This race lost a little luster when Gunnvera ran flat his next time out.
My pick for this race will be the #3, J Boys Echo, and this is with no disrespect to the undefeated McCraken, who I only dismissed due to his recent layoff. I think the pace of this race will be muted enough that McCraken will need to use it as a tightener.
J Boys Echo has enough early foot to be in contention and will relish the extra 1/16th of a mile. His recent workout again showed that he wants more distance as the difference between his 4f works and 5f works is extreme. He has run wide in both of his last two races, and his early stretch move to draw off in the Gotham after being close to a torrid pace was impressive. Before that, in the Withers, he was too far back to a crawling pace and still finished 3rd. If he can maintain his form from the Gotham and come close to that speed figure, J Boys Echo should triumph and be well on his way to the run for the roses.