by Greg Melikov - 04/13/2006
The Blue Grass Stakes has produced the most runners of any major Kentucky Derby prep - 22. Of the 17 winners that hit the board, 11 smelled the roses.
However, not since Strike the Gold in 1991 has a horse scored the double. Of the five that finished in the money, the line runner-up to triumph at Churchill Down was Gato Del Sol in '82.
This year's top four contenders have enjoyed less than a stellar year.
First Samurai, winless except for moved up from second to the winner's circle in the Fountain of Youth when Corinthian was disqualified for interference in the Gulfstream Park stretch, has much to prove.
He debuted in the 7 ½-furlong Hutcheson Stakes on a sloppy track and lost by 1 ¼ lengths to Keyed Entry, but finished 16 lengths ahead of Express News.
Bluegrass Cat, the three-time stakes winner that's one of two horses entered by trainer Todd Pletcher, took the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs by 1 ¼ lengths over Deputy Glitters.
But the runner-up turned the tables on First Samurai when he prevailed by two lengths in the Tampa Bay Derby. However, Deputy Glitters last Saturday finished a dismal sixth in the Wood Memorial on a sloppy surface, beaten 14 lengths.
Pletcher, the defending two-time Eclipse Award top conditioner, also sends out High Cotton, which captured the Rushaway Stakes at Turfway Park. Pletcher's horses triumphed in '00, Balto Star, and in '01, Graeme Hall.
The dark horse is Strong Contender, lightly raced son of Maria's Mon that's trained by John Ward. Those are the same connections as Monarchos, who sprang a $23 upset of the 9-5 favorite Point Given in '01.
Monarchos, however, took a different path to Louisville. After winning the Florida Derby, the colt ran second in the Wood Memorial.
Ward had Strong Contender primed for the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park and he was considered the likely favorite. But something happened on the way to Florence, Ky. - entries exceeded the 12-horse field limit and the horse was left out on the basis of earnings.
Ward skipped the Florida Derby and decided against the Wood Memorial on April 8. So Stronger Contender is an unknown quantity since only 2 for 2.
Any of the four could step at Lexington. So if you believe in hunches, Bluegrass Cat appears to be as good a wager as any in the $750,000 contest at 1 1/8 miles.
The horse to beat in the $1 million Arkansas Derby is Lawyer Ron who stretched his winning streak to five with victories at Oaklawn Park in the Southwest by three-quarters of a length and then easily captured the Rebel by three lengths at 1 1/16 miles.
The next three finishers in the Rebel will try their luck stretching out to 1 1/8 miles: runner-up Red Raymond, third in the Southwest, a neck ahead of Steppenwolfer, runner-up in the Southwest; and Well Said, fourth by two lengths. Private Vow returns from a lackluster 3-year-old debut 7 ½ lengths behind in seventh.
The last two winners dominated the Triple Crown. They won four of the six events: Afleet Alex took the Preakness and Belmont last year while Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. And both were named three-year-old champion and finished second in the balloting for Horse of the Year.
Four horses that hit in the board in the race at Hot Springs scored at Churchill Downs: Grindstone, second, '96; Lil E. Tee, second, '92; Gate Dancer, third, '84; and Sunny's Halo, first in '83 when the purse was raised to $250,000.
Lawyer Ron's pedigree casts a bit of doubt on getting the Kentucky Derby's 1 ¼ miles, he should make the winner's circle, but Red Raymond and Steppenwolfer could spring the upset.