November 30, 2020

Five points to ponder: Blue Grass

Enforceable captured the Lecomte on the Fair Grounds Road to the Derby (Hodges Photography)

Saturday’s $600,000 Blue Grass Stakes (G2) was guaranteed to make history just because of its unprecedented July date, a three-month delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. But a new historical angle is provided by Swiss Skydiver, who aims to become the first filly to win Keeneland’s marquee Kentucky Derby (G1) prep.

The Blue Grass shapes up as an open-looking renewal. A dozen males were trying to sort themselves out for Derby points on a 100-40-20-10 scale, and now have Swiss Skydiver parachuting into the 1 1/8-mile affair.

Here are my five points to ponder:

1. Swiss Skydiver encounters a tougher race dynamic.

Already assured of a spot in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) several times over with 310 points in the bank, Swiss Skydiver didn’t necessarily have to seek more in Saturday’s Ashland (G1). And since owner Peter J. Callahan and trainer Ken McPeek added her to the Triple Crown as a late nominee, the idea of her taking on the boys had been percolating. The Blue Grass presented itself as an opportunity for a test spin.

The Brisnet Prime Power stat speaks favorably of her chances, ranking her as the top contender by more than 5 points over Enforceable and Basin. Her career-best 101 Brisnet Speed rating likewise puts her in contention with Art Collector and Rushie’s top of 103.

Yet even aside from venturing into open company, Swiss Skydiver faces a more challenging set-up. You could argue that she was tactically advantaged in her last three. She stole the Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2), tracked and outstayed Venetian Harbor in the Fantasy (G3), and dominated the Santa Anita Oaks (G2) as lone speed. That’s not to knock any of those efforts, for she was plenty good enough to put herself in position to stamp her authority.

Rather, the point is that Swiss Skydiver isn’t likely to have a comparable advantage here. The speedy Shivaree pretty much has to go forward from his rail post. Swiss Skydiver can revert to stalking, but others will relish a true stamina test too. It would be a real achievement if she can track a potentially lively tempo and hold sway. Only the second filly ever to run in the Blue Grass, she hopes to improve on the fifth-place effort by Harriet Sue in 1944.

2. Enforceable takes a page from the Classic Empire playbook.

Trainer Mark Casse made an interesting point in his recent interview with Keeneland’s Tom Leach: Enforceable has thrived physically since regrouping at his training center, much like champion Classic Empire revived there from an early-season setback to win the 2017 Arkansas Derby (G1). In other respects, they’re different types, but the analogy is worth considering.

Enforceable, as a Tapit colt who needed 1 1/8 miles just to break his maiden at two, had the profile of one who would improve with maturity. Thus his third to Maxfield in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland and sneaky fourth in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) boded well for the future. Enforceable duly took a step forward at Fair Grounds over the winter, scoring a breakthrough win in the Lecomte (G3) and rallying for second in the faster Risen Star (G2) division before his weary fifth in the Louisiana Derby (G2).

Casse said that Enforceable needed time off and wouldn’t have made the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May. But that holiday has had the desired result, and he is training sharply for his return. With the Derby postponed, a stronger, stouter Enforceable can reassert himself as a prime player.

3. Basin benefited from landing in the right Arkansas Derby division.

Second to Charlatan at every call in his Arkansas Derby division, Basin showed that he was heading back in the right direction after a pair of so-so races to start the year. And now he might have the trophy handed to him if Charlatan is disqualified due to a positive postrace test.

Still, the lingering question is if Basin has improved enough from two to three. He got a more straightforward trip in the Arkansas Derby than he did in the Rebel (G2) and Oaklawn S., and as a counterfactual, it’s worth wondering how he might have coped in the other Arkansas Derby division. If Basin had drawn into Nadal’s relatively deeper group, does he make the frame? Does he chase Wells Bayou and Nadal early and have enough to outfinish King Guillermo? And Finnick the Fierce?

Granted, this is the kind of speculation that can trip me up, but a more complex task in the Blue Grass raises the question. And at some point, the Hopeful (G1) winner might end up appreciating a cutback in trip.

4. Mr. Big News must back up his Oaklawn breakthrough.

Although Mr. Big News proved his 46-1 odds all wrong in the Oaklawn S., the circumstances leave a smidgeon of doubt. He capitalized most on the pace collapse in the slop, and near-miss runner-up Farmington Road hasn’t exactly advertised the form since. Nor has the third, Taishan.

On the other hand, Mr. Big News has a pedigree to swoon over: by Giant’s Causeway, out of a Galileo mare closely related to Sligo Bay, second dam full sister to Glorious Song, Devil’s Bag, and Saint Ballado. With that pedigree, he’s entitled to prosper as the distances increase, and we probably haven’t seen the best of him yet.

5. Time for the collateral form horses to step up.

Attachment Rate, second to Dr Post in the Unbridled S. two back, wasn’t disgraced when fourth to Maxfield in the Matt Winn (G3). A wide trip throughout was too much to overcome last time, and now he draws post 9 again. Yet his form intersects with the Belmont S. (G1), via Dr Post and Pneumatic (the Matt Winn third) who were second and fourth, respectively, to Tiz the Law at Belmont Park. That collateral form makes Attachment Rate intriguing at 20-1 in the Blue Grass, if he can work out a trip.

Rushie warrants attention for finishing third to Honor A. P. and Authentic in the Santa Anita Derby (G1). At this point, no one in the Blue Grass has the cache of the Santa Anita Derby exacta, so Rushie looks good on paper. But the snarky retort is that somebody had to be third. If that’s unfair, it’s true that he was outmoved before chugging on past tired foes. Connections haven’t nominated him to the Triple Crown either, taking a wait-and-see approach about possibly supplementing. Rushie needs to validate his Santa Anita effort to pay his way.

Art Collector is in a different position since he collected his nifty form in a big win, streaking right away from Shared Sense and Finnick the Fierce in a Churchill allowance. Shared Sense paid him a compliment by coming back to win the Indiana Derby (G3) handsomely from Major Fed. Finnick the Fierce serves as a useful benchmark off a few graded efforts, including his third in Nadal’s Arkansas Derby. Art Collector also has the advantage of tactical versatility, but again has to reproduce that performance in the more intense environs of a major Derby prep.

Likewise, Arkansas-bred class climber Man in the Can raised his profile by capturing a Churchill allowance in his latest over Dean Martini. That result took on new life once Dean Martini upset the Ohio Derby (G3). Interestingly, turf-to-dirt experimenter Tiesto has interlocking form with the Ohio Derby as well. When second in the Palm Beach (G3), he split Vitalogy and future Ohio Derby runner-up South Bend.