04/10/2007 11:00PM

Blue Grass enters 21st century

Email

LEXINGTON, Ky. - It snowed on opening day last Friday here at Keeneland, rain arrived on Wednesday, and more was forecast for later in the week. But for the first time in the 83-year history of the Blue Grass Stakes, no one was concerned about what would happen to the main track.

"With the Polytrack, you don't have to worry about the weather or a hard track," said trainer Carl Nafzger, who will send out Kentucky Derby favorite Street Sense in the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass on Saturday. "You can eliminate those factors."

The Polytrack era arrived at Keeneland last fall, a few months after Sinister Minister rolled to a 12o3/4-length victory in the Blue Grass. It was a fitting coda to a race and a race surface that were becoming anachronisms. For years, the Blue Grass was the most important final prep for the Derby. Five times between 1963 and 1970 the Blue Grass winner also won the Derby. Since 1980, however, only one horse - Strike the Gold in 1991 - won both races.

More often than not in recent years, the Blue Grass winner was a wise-guy throw out in the Derby. Keeneland's old main track promoted inside speed to such an extent that horses like Sinister Minister would produce form not seen anywhere else.

So even though the synthetic Polytrack surface is still a work in progress in terms of evaluating form going forward to the Derby, it largely has been embraced by trainers who believe the positives more than outweigh the negatives.

In fact, far more trainers of prospects for the May 5 Kentucky Derby are choosing Keeneland, rather than Churchill Downs, as the place to do their final weeks of training. Todd Pletcher has Any Given Saturday, Circular Quay, Cowtown Cat, and Scat Daddy here. Doug O'Neill, who trains on the synthetic Cushion Track surface at Hollywood Park year-round, has Great Hunter in the Blue Grass, and has Cobalt Blue, Liquidity, and Notional now training at Keeneland.

"The biggest advantage right now, especially this time of year, is you shouldn't have to worry about the weather," Pletcher said Wednesday morning. "You can put a horse on a schedule and stay on a schedule."

Pletcher is still not completely sold on Polytrack. While admiring its safety for training, he is still a traditionalist when it comes to racing. He has the need for speed.

"I really like training on it," Pletcher said. "I'm a little less sure about racing on it. It doesn't suit the style of many of my horses. They like to lay close to the pace and get involved early, and that doesn't seem to be the right style here. It's still a learning curve. Turfway's a little different than here, Hollywood is a little different than Turfway."

Trainer Patrick Biancone, who has the longshot Time Squared in the Blue Grass, was one of the most vocal supporters of Polytrack before its installation. He has supported Kentucky racing by having a string at Turfway Park the past two seasons, and he had horses at Hollywood this winter after installation of its all-weather surface.

"Horses can come back quicker," Biancone said. "That means more numbers in each race. The more numbers there are in each race, the more gambling there is. And the more gambling there is, the more money there is for purses. It's a no-brainer. The key to our job, the key to our business, is having horses last longer."

Trainer Darrin Miller, who has Dominican in the Blue Grass, said he likes Polytrack for "its consistency."

"You can draw up a schedule and keep to it," he said. "You're not affected by the weather. Horses who run hard on it can come back quicker. And any time a horse can train on a surface that's consistent, you have a happier horse."

Polytrack's first meet at Keeneland was last fall. Several horses who ended up winning Breeders' Cup races, including Dreaming of Anna, Round Pond, and Thor's Echo, either raced or did serious training at Keeneland preceding the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs.

But the biggest endorsement for Polytrack came in the BC Juvenile. Street Sense, Circular Quay, and Great Hunter took the first three spots in the Breeders' Cup after taking the first three spots in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland. Six months later, Circular Quay is training here for the Derby, while Great Hunter and Street Sense are racing in the Blue Grass as their final prep for the Derby.

"There's a long list of horses who ran well in the Blue Grass and didn't run well in the Derby, like Holy Bull, Skip Away, Bandini, and Millennium Wind, that the race almost seemed counter-productive," Pletcher said. "And by contrast I had horses like Bluegrass Cat and Invisible Ink who did not run well in the Blue Grass but then ran well in the Derby. Maybe this year the horses who run well in it will come back in better shape."

In other Derby developments:

* The only other major race of the weekend is the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, featuring Derby Watch

members Curlin, Deadly Dealer, For You Reppo, Officer Rocket, and Storm in May.

* The Blue Grass, which will be shown on ESPN beginning at 5 p.m. Eastern, and the Arkansas Derby are part of a pick four wager that includes the Commonwealth BC at Keeneland and the Instant Racing Stakes at Oaklawn.

* Birdbirdistheword, the winner of the Delta Jackpot last year, is out of consideration for the Derby, trainer Ken McPeek said Wednesday. That is a significant development in that Birdbirdistheword had $637,000 in graded stakes earnings, seventh overall among Derby contenders.

His defection aids the likes of Florida Derby third-place finisher Chelokee, who has been near the bubble in terms of graded earnings. If more than 20 horses enter the Derby, graded stakes earnings determines the field.

* Also out of consideration for the Derby is Belgravia, who is scheduled to make his first start of the year on April 21 in the Grade 2, $325,000 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. Biancone, his trainer, on Wednesday said "there's no way" Belgravia will run in the Derby. "If you miss the boat, you miss the boat," Biancone said. "You cannot go with no seasoning."