04/08/2009 11:00PM

Blue Grass glory days long gone


NEW YORK - Saturday's Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass, the two biggest remaining preps for the May 2 Kentucky Derby, are races that seem headed in drastically different directions. While the Blue Grass remains a Grade 1 race, one official notch above the Arkansas Derby, the recent history of both events suggests those rankings should be reversed.

The last five Arkansas Derby winners - Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Lawyer Ron, Curlin, and Gayego - include four champions, three 3-year-old champions, three Preakness winners, and a Derby winner. The last five Blue Grass winners - The Cliff's Edge, Bandini, Sinister Minister, Dominican, and Monba - are far less accomplished. The quintet of Arkansas Derby winners went on to win a combined 13 Grade 1 races - 13 more than the last five winners of the Blue Grass, who as a group won 3 of their 30 starts after notching what remains their lone Grade 1 victory at Keeneland.

TVG has been advertising the Blue Grass as "America's Biggest Prep Race" all week, a characterization that could generously be called a bit out of date, and certainly not the case this year.

The four favorites for the Derby, in the futures pool that closed last Sunday, are I Want Revenge (winner of the Grade 1 Wood Memorial) at 9-2, Quality Road (Grade 1 Florida Derby) at 6-1, Friesan Fire (Grade 2 Louisiana Derby) at 8-1, and Pioneerof the Nile (Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby) at 9-1. They're followed by Florida Derby runner-up Dunkirk at 11-1, and then the two favorites in the Arkansas Derby - Old Fashioned (12-1) and Win Willy (16-1).

The Blue Grass field of 11, on the other hand, includes four horses from the 23 individual betting interests in Pool 3: Hold Me Back at 24-1, Charitable Man at 45-1, Theregoesjojo at 49-1, and Mafaaz at 73-1. They're an odd quartet of favorites for a supposedly Grade 1 race. Hold Me Back was trounced by Old Fashioned in the Remsen; Charitable Man, idle since September, has yet to run more than seven furlongs; Theregoesjojo was beaten a combined dozen lengths by Quality Road in his last two starts, and Mafaaz, the foreign-exchange student from England, is making his graded-stakes debut.

It's a far cry from the days when Honest Pleasure, For the Moment, Alydar, Spectacular Bid, Rockhill Native, and Proud Appeal won consecutive runnings of the Blue Grass from 1976 to 1981. It was a different game in those olden times: The Blue Grass was run just nine days before the Derby, most of the entrants had already run in one of the three other remaining Grade 1 preps - the Florida and Santa Anita derbies and the Wood and, of course, the race was run on dirt.

This will be the third time the Blue Grass has been run since Keeneland switched from dirt to Polytrack, a move that has diminished its ability to draw top Derby contenders and to produce meaningful form.

Street Sense won the Derby after finishing second in a four-way photo in the 2007 Blue Grass, but that was a race that disguised rather than revealed his quality: He had previously shown himself to be a champion on dirt, his Blue Grass was a paid workout, and the three horses who surrounded him in a blanket finish went on to run 11th, 12th, and 17th at Churchill Downs. Last year, six horses came out of the Blue Grass to run in the Derby and ran seventh, eighth, 12th, 15th, 18th, and 20th.

While the Arkansas Derby seems likelier to produce a serious Derby horse than the Blue Grass, you could argue that Keeneland offers the better gamble. It's hard to see past Old Fashioned and Win Willy at Oaklawn, but the Blue Grass has that anything-can-happen feeling to it and longshots might offer some value. If you're feeling like guessing on who might thrive while switching from dirt to Polytrack, 15-1 on General Quarters sounds more appealing than 4-1 on Charitable Man. Patena looks a lot better than 10-1 if you draw a line through his non-effort in the Louisiana Derby. If you're a fan of Pioneerof the Nile and Chocolate Candy, one-two in the Santa Anita Derby, you will probably be tempted by 12-1 on Massone, a close and gaining second to Chocolate Candy in the El Camino Real.

It's an entertaining and bettable race. It's just not "America's biggest prep race," and it's not even clear that it's a legitimate Grade 1 event any more, especially when the Arkansas Derby continues to be a Grade 2.