Handicappers Debate: 2023 Blue Grass at Keeneland

April 7th, 2023

This week’s debate features a major qualifier in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series, as handicappers Ashley Anderson and James Scully offer differing opinions on Saturday’s $1 million Blue Grass (G1) at Keeneland.

Eleven three-year-olds are set for the 1 1/8-mile race.

James Scully: I like #3 Verifying (3-1) on the front end. The Brad Cox-trained colt doesn’t have any speed near him in the starting gate; the other possible pacesetter, Major Blue, will make his third start in 28 days from post 9; and Tyler Gaffalione will have every reason to send Verifying from the inside.

Grade 1-placed as a juvenile, Verifying opened his sophomore season with a sharp frontrunning allowance score at Oaklawn Park. The Justify colt reverted to stalking tactics in the Rebel (G2), and while he didn’t run poorly finishing fourth, he’s proven more effective racing up close. I expect Verifying to take it to them from the start with a good break.

Who do you like Ashley?

Ashley Anderson: I'm going to go with #8 Blazing Sevens (6-1) as a potential value play for Chad Brown in hopes the Good Magic colt can rebound off a poor effort in the Fountain of Youth (G2), where he was bumped on both sides at the start and never got involved.

The three-year-old has a chance to redeem himself in his second start off the layoff, and he'll add blinkers for the first time, a winning move 21% of the time for Brown, who won the Keeneland feature last year with Zandon as well as in 2018 with sire Good Magic. A rider switch to Irad Ortiz Jr. is another positive change for Blazing Sevens, who has looked sharp in workouts at Payson Park.

He also got up late to beat your pick, Verifying, when notching a Grade 1 win in the Champagne last fall while posting a 98 Brisnet Late Pace figure. If Blazing Sevens can get a good break out of the gate this time, I think he could pull off his second Grade 1 victory.

Do you have any concern with Verifying's ability to stretch out to 1 1/8 miles, considering his distant sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) and fourth-place finish in the Rebel (G2), both at 1 1/16 miles?

JS: Pedigree says distance won’t be an issue. Verifying counts champion older dirt mare and $7-million earner Midnight Bisou as a half-sister, but he still has to prove it. His best races have come at a mile or less, but the bay colt didn’t experience a clean trip in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel and I think his tactical ability will help him negotiate the 1 1/8-mile distance.

The jockey switch to Irad Ortiz Jr. appears favorable, he’s aggressive and will look to establish better early positioning than the last two starts, but I’m worried about the distance for Blazing Sevens. His best efforts have come around one turn, and after Brown waited until March to run, Blazing Sevens got little out of his first prep. It’s a lightly-raced approach with a colt who needs to prove himself at two-turn distances.

Are you worried about fitness, any concern Blazing Sevens may be a little short for this assignment?

AA: You bring up a reasonable concern regarding two-turn distances and the colt's fitness, but his sire also followed a similar path, making his three-year-old debut in March in the Fountain of Youth, where he finished third, then bounced back to record a victory in his next start, the Blue Grass.

Again, I think his break from the gate is key. When bumped at the start of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Blazing Sevens raced back early on but made a bid in the stretch, flashing a 100 Late Pace figure, showing he has the late kick to handle longer distances. He certainly has plenty to prove still, but I'm going to take a chance on a step forward with the equipment and jockey changes. I also feel like I can get a good price on him knowing he's created some doubt in other horseplayers.

It should certainly be an interesting Derby prep, and I hope one of us has at least picked a winner in a field full of intriguing contenders!