June 19, 2024

Blue Grass shaping up to be most interesting of Kentucky Derby preps

J Boys Echo easily pulled away in the Gotham Stakes (G3) stretch on Saturday, March 4, 2017, to earn his first stakes victory (c) NYRA/Chelsea Durand/Adam Coglianese Photography

El Areeb and Irish War Cry were heavy favorites in their respective Kentucky Derby (G1) preps at the weekend, and both suffered ignoble defeats, primarily for trying to do something they hadn’t been doing of late.

On the surface, the loss of El Areeb in the Gotham (G3) at odds of 2-5 was more shocking. Even more surprising, to me, was the decision to send the gray to the front despite an early bobble. Now, El Areeb had won previously in wire-to-wire fashion twice. However, both were in sprints last fall.

In the interim, El Areeb had done quite well employing a stalk-and-pounce strategy in the Jerome (G3) and Withers (G3). But rather than let True Timber lead the way in the Gotham as he had in the Withers, the roles were reversed. That did the favorite no good as he wound up setting a contested pace, with True Timber on his heels, that was considered fast by the standards of Aqueduct’s inner track.

A little while later at Gulfstream, Irish War Cry started as the 11-10 choice in the Fountain of Youth (G2). An off-the-pace winner of his debut in November, Irish War Cry had found more recent success on the front end, including an impressive win in the Holy Bull (G2) as the lone speed.

It’s no surprise Irish War Cry rated slightly off the pace in the Fountain of Youth as the perfect trip he received in the Holy Bull was unlikely to be duplicated with the speedy Three Rules in the field. However, the colt’s failure to mount any kind of serious challenge was telling.

Trainer Graham Motion on Sunday offered various theories on the defeat, from Irish War Cry rating a little too close to the pace to the colt having bounced off his career-best performance in the Holy Bull.

“My instant gut reaction is I would have a hard time running this horse back in four weeks off of that kind of a race,” Motion said Sunday. While it’s certainly too early to read the tea leaves, we might be seeing Irish War Cry in a spot other than the Florida Derby (G1), which is in four weeks’ time.

The Florida Derby will probably include Gunnevera, who won the Fountain of Youth by 5 3/4 lengths, and possibly runner-up Practical Joke, who made a strong rally into contention around the far turn but couldn’t keep up with the winner in what was his first start since November.

As for the Gotham winner, J Boys Echo, he’s likely to make his next start in the April 8 Blue Grass (G2) at Keeneland, which is potentially shaping up to be the most interesting and contentious of all the final Derby preps. It’s certainly ironic given that the historic 1 1/8-mile race was downgraded this year from a Grade 1 to a Grade 2.

Not only is J Boys Echo more or less confirmed for the Blue Grass, but the race is also the next port of call for juvenile champion Classic Empire and the undefeated McCraken, both of whom have had to forfeit starts in recent Derby preps due to (seemingly) minor injuries.

Whether this Blue Grass will turn out to have the kind of long-term implications it potentially could remains to be seen. One ostensible reason for its recent downgrade owed to the fact that no winner of the Blue Grass has gone on to win the Kentucky Derby since Strike the Gold way back in 1991. Since then, only three Derby winners have prepped in the Blue Grass: Sea Hero (1993), Thunder Gulch (1995), and Street Sense (2007).

Thunder Gulch and Street Sense had prepped successfully in Florida before the Blue Grass, but both suffered defeat at Keeneland. Thunder Gulch ran fourth after being stuck behind a false pace set by improbable longshot Wild Syn. Street Sense narrowly missed in what was the first Blue Grass renewal contested on the synthetic Polytrack surface, since replaced.

One could argue Thunder Gulch and Street Sense were basically using the Blue Grass as a way to maintain fitness without losing their edge right before the Derby. Champagne (G1) winner Sea Hero, on the other hand, ran his way back into Derby contention with a solid fourth-place finish following two modest efforts against easier at Gulfstream that winter.

A victory in the Blue Grass by J Boys Echo, Classic Empire or McCraken would certainly be welcome but is unlikely to be crucial. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this potential match-up will be to see who among the three seemingly gets the most out of the race in preparation for the big one four weeks later in Louisville.

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