Too bad that a Las Vegas advertising campaign coined the slogan, because it also describes what goes on at the picturesque racetrack in Lexington, Ky. "What happens at Keeneland, stays at Keeneland" contains more truth than its official motto, "Racing As It Was Meant To Be."
The three-week spring and fall meetings at Keeneland Racecourse are among the highlights of the racing year, but no other track's form is as consistently misleading. How often have you seen longshots go wire to wire along Keeneland's golden rail, then finish far back at short odds elsewhere? And how many favorites fail to make the lead and fold on Keeneland's speed-biased main track, only to rebound at big odds in Louisville, New York and California?
Keeneland's major Kentucky Derby prep fits the absurd but predictable pattern perfectly. Not since Strike the Gold in 1991 has a horse pulled off the Blue Grass Stakes-Derby double. For years, four-time Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas has been calling the Blue Grass a throwout race, and he's right. What do Bandini, The Cliff's Edge, Millennium Wind, Harlan's Holiday and High Yield have in common? All won the Blue Grass and were up the track on Derby Day. Expect that to happen again this year, no matter who takes Saturday's Blue Grass. And if you have a future bet on a Blue Grass runner, you'd better root hard for him to lose his final tuneup.
ABC will televise the Blue Grass, plus the Arkansas Derby, live from 5-6 p.m. ET. The leading Blue Grass contenders –- Bluegrass Cat, First Samurai and Strong Contender –- are talented, but I'm not willing to predict any will stay 1? miles on the first Saturday in May. No one in the Arkansas Derby makes me wish I had a future wager on him, either, but horse racing is a game of the day, so let's see if we can make a little money. Besides the Derby preps, I'll play Keeneland's Jenny Wiley Stakes, too.
Last week: Ugh. Went 1-for-4, but only if you're willing to count Brother Derek's odds-on walkover in the five-horse Santa Anita Derby as a win.
7th race, Keeneland, Jenny Wiley Stakes (1 1/16 miles, turf)
Wend is 4-for-4 at the distance and 6-for-7 on firm ground, so if the course is dry, she should win without much trouble. She looked good in her 2006 debut at Gulfstream, when she led all the way in a paceless field. Bill Mott is a master at placing horses where they can win, and he's found another good spot for a filly that can beat anybody but Grade I standouts. Mirabilis, who was competitive with top fillies in France last year, ships from California for Bobby Frankel. Asi Siempre, 2-for-2 on the Keeneland grass, could be in the exacta.
1. Wend 2. Mirabilis 3. Asi Siempre
9th race, Keeneland, Blue Grass Stakes (1 1/8 miles)
The wily John Ward throws Strong Contender into the deep end as he plays catch-up trying to get the foundation for a classics campaign. The gifted colt is 2-for-2 but has no graded-stakes earnings, so this is most likely a make-or-break race if he wants to get into the Derby field. For his sake, he'd be better off not running in Louisville, though he might be good enough to win the Blue Grass.
I'll take a stand against him and go with the appropriately named Bluegrass Cat, who could give Todd Pletcher his second straight win in Keeneland's centerpiece. Bluegrass Cat won a stakes at 1 1/8 miles last fall, and he can be forgiven for regressing in his second start of the year, when he was second at 2-5 odds in the Tampa Bay Derby. He should move forward in his third try off his winter break. I expect him to stalk from close up and pounce in upper stretch.
First Samurai is very fast but looms as a serious underlay. He clearly has distance limitations, and if he makes it to the Derby, I expect him to be a pace casualty. If you like a 3-year-old that stalks or closes, you should hope that First Samurai runs well enough to get to Louisville, where he'll surely juice up the early fractions.
1. Bluegrass Cat 2. Strong Contender 3. First Samurai
9th race, Oaklawn Park, Arkansas Derby (1 1/8 miles)
The big favorite is Lawyer Ron, and even though he's beaten Steppenwolfer twice, I'll take Steppenwolfer. I was impressed with his extended, very wide move for about 5 furlongs last time in the Rebel. Although Steppenwolfer briefly took second in midstretch, he understandably backed up, finishing third to Lawyer Ron. Steppenwolfer, who moves from post 10 to post 2, lost a lot more ground than the 3 lengths he was beaten by, and a clean, inside trip could make the difference. I'll take him to pull an upset and get enough graded-stakes earnings (he has only $30,000) to get to Kentucky.
It would hardly be a surprise if Lawyer Ron won his sixth in a row, but his price will make him unbettable. The wild card is Private Vow, who may have been overrated after he beat a weak field at Churchill in the 1 1/16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes on Thanksgiving weekend. His race in the Rebel (his 2006 debut) was terrible, and he has to move forward to remain on the Derby trail.
1. Steppenwolfer 2. Lawyer Ron 3. Private Vow