Racing Roundtable: Takeaways from Blue Grass S., Ashland, and more Derby/Oaks prep action

April 10th, 2024

The Racing Roundtable examines the results of the Blue Grass S. (G1) and Ashland (G1), and who stood out from a number of Kentucky Derby (G1) and Oaks (G1) prep races this past weekend.

The Blue Grass S. has not produced a Derby winner since 2007. Will this year's edition be different?

James Scully

This year’s Blue Grass appears poised to become relevant again. Sierra Leone recorded an outstanding win, overcoming a bias against wide closers on Keeneland’s main track opening weekend, and the improving Chad Brown-trained colt has displayed top quality despite facing adverse conditions in all three stakes appearances. It’s easy to envision Sierra Leone having more to offer under the Twin Spires.

Runner-up Just a Touch ran commendably in his first stakes attempt, chasing a fast pace in second before surging to a clear lead off the far turn. Jockey Florent Geroux thought he had it in midstretch, but Sierra Leone turned in a freakish performance to beat him. Just a Touch wound up nearly four lengths clear of third, and his tactical ability may play favorably in a bulky 20-horse Kentucky Derby field.

After frontrunning wins in the Fountain of Youth (G2) and Remsen (G2), Dornoch switched to rating tactics in the Blue Grass and never made an impact recording an even fourth. Trainer Danny Gargan acknowledged that the experiment didn’t work, Dornoch has only one way to go to be successful at this point in his career, and the classy colt promises to send as hard as he can when the gates open at Churchill Downs. At the very least, Dornoch figures to be a pace factor in the Kentucky Derby.

Vance Hanson: Possibly, but there won't be much value to be had on Sierra Leone, though a decent price should be available on runner-up Just a Touch. I wouldn't be a fan of any that finished behind those two.

The problem with the Blue Grass is that no winner of it has won the Derby since Strike the Gold in 1991. That's 33 years! In contrast, there were eight Blue Grass/Derby doubles in the 33 editions of the Blue Grass held before 1991 (when the race was nine days before the Derby). Some of these interim Blue Grass winners lost the Derby but wound up being the best three-year-old, like Prairie Bayou, Holy Bull, Skip Away, and Essential Quality.

Blue Grass winners seemingly tend to get overbet in the Kentucky Derby, given it's been a negative key race for so long. Perhaps we should concern ourselves more with a horse's individuality, rather than what race he ran in most recently, but it's food for thought.

Ashley Anderson: It very well could. Sierra Leone — who closed as the 7-1 second individual betting choice in Pool 6 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager — has been my top Kentucky Derby contender since his nose second in the Remsen (G2). The addition of blinkers improved his focus to help him score a half-length victory in the Risen Star (G2) in February, and he rallied well to win the Blue Grass by 1 1/2 lengths over Just a Touch on Saturday. The Blue Grass runner-up out of Brad Cox's barn could be a contender in the Derby as well, as he makes his third stakes start. But seeing the way Sierra Leone ran down the stretch, it's tough to imagine Just a Touch getting the better of him going the added distance in the Derby. Sierra Leone, a $2.3 million yearling purchase, recorded his best Brisnet Speed figure to date, with a 101, and he's posted Late Pace figures in the upper-90s in his last two. 

Just a Touch's stablemate Catching Freedom, who went from last to first in March's Louisiana Derby (G2), would be my second choice in the Kentucky Derby at the moment, but the Run for the Roses is Sierra Leone's to lose, in my opinion. Post position draw will be the final factor to weigh, but he should get Chad Brown his first Kentucky Derby win.

What do you make of the Ashland and the upset win of Leslie's Rose over the likes of Just F Y I, Candied, and Impel?

JS: Leslie’s Rose rebounded smartly from a third at odds-on in the Davona Dale (G2), and the stalker received a heady ride from Irad Ortiz Jr., who kept the stalker close during the opening stages and split rivals leaving the far turn. Leslie’s Rose registered a fine 98 Brisnet Speed rating for the three-length decision, which will be one of the top numbers in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) field.

I thought Just F Y I performed admirably in her comeback. Unraced since winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1), Just F Y I is eligible to benefit significantly from the experience after coming up three lengths short of Leslie's Rose in second. The champion two-year-old female didn’t receive the proper trip from off the pace in the Ashland, rallying about six-wide into contention, and Just F Y I ran well to reel in to overhaul perfect-trip Impel for second.

VH: Leslie's Rose has been a filly Team Pletcher had been high on for some time, and that was shown by her entry in the Ashland following an odds-on loss in the Davona Dale. She justified that optimism with a convincing score. She had a recency edge over champion Just F Y I, who was forced to withdraw from the Davona Dale due to illness, and she had slightly more experience than Impel. 

Perhaps Just F Y I will take a step forward in the Oaks in her second start off the layoff, but Leslie's Rose really looks like one of the fillies to beat in the Oaks following that performance. The Ashland has been a much more productive prep for the Oaks than the Blue Grass has been for the Derby, yielding three winners of the double since Keeneland reverted back to dirt a decade ago.

AA: The 4-1 third choice on the morning line, Leslie's Rose was bet up to 9-1 at post time, while stablemate Candied (6-1 ML) went off as the 1.64-1 favorite and finished a disappointing fourth in the Ashland. Now 3-for-4 with a third-place finish in the Davona Dale (G2), Leslie's Rose ranks fourth on the Kentucky Oaks leaderboard with 115 points and beat the likes of Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) winner Just F Y I and highly regarded Brad Cox filly Impel in Saturday's prep at Keeneland. 

However, I have my reservations with the Todd Pletcher runner as she takes on the Kentucky Oaks field. The Into Mischief filly had mostly faced small fields at the start of her career, and Saturday's Ashland was her first time facing more than five rivals. There's been a ton of parity in the three-year-old female division, and the Oaks is still a wide-open race. Throw in the wrinkle of Just F Y I scratching from the Davona Dale because of a fever, and missing some training ahead of the Ashland, and we could see a much different result the first Friday in May. I give the Bill Mott trainee, who finished second in the Ashland, a chance to rebound at Churchill Downs. Chad Brown runner Ways and Means, who finished second in the Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2) last out, could improve in her second try at a route distance as well.

Who stood out to you from the other Derby/Oaks preps this weekend?

JS: Resilience’s win in the Wood Memorial (G2) makes him one to consider for at least the minor awards in the Kentucky Derby (G1). He defeated a suspect group, but Resilience progressed nicely off a fourth in a deep Risen Star (G2) and earned a commendable 104 Brisnet Speed rating. Bill Mott added blinkers, and Resilience has the positional speed to make his own trip at Churchill Downs.

Three of the seven winners of Kentucky Derby major qualifiers were exiting the Feb. 17 Risen Star at Fair Grounds. Over the last five years, the Risen Star has yielded a top-three finisher, including a pair of winners, in every Kentucky Derby.

VH: I didn't really love anyone else coming out of the other Derby and Oaks preps, but I thought the odds for Pool 6 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager were interesting. Anyone who grabbed the 7-1 on Sierra Leone has to be salivating as he figures to be around half that on Derby Day. Just a Touch at 22-1, Honor Marie at 26-1, and Resilience at 75-1 were other notable prices.

Bettors who backed Deterministic and Dornoch down to 12-1 took it on the chin due to their lackluster efforts following the pool's closure.

AA: Despite facing the likes of Demoiselle S. (G2) winner Life Talk and Busanda S. champ Gin Gin, Twirling Candy filly Where's My Ring, who was still a maiden entering Saturday's Gazelle, went off as the favorite at post time and prevailed by 4 1/4 lengths against eight rivals at Aqueduct. Winless from seven starts, Where's My Ring had improved in her last two while adding blinkers and finally broke her maiden in her fourth stakes attempt and third start of her three-year-old season. She's now second on the Oaks leaderboard with 125 points and will make her ninth career start on May 3.

An unlikely Oaks hero considering her resume, Where's My Ring posted a whopping 104 BRIS figure in her win on Saturday, giving her the highest speed figure of any filly in the top 20 of the Oaks leaderboard. Her trainer, Val Brinkerhoff, will get his first Kentucky Oaks start with the filly and earned just his second graded stakes victory in a training career dating back to 2008.