04/09/2008 11:00PM

Blue Grass much more than a prep


Fans of Tale of Etaki take heed. No fewer than 11 past winners of the Wood Memorial have gone on to take the Kentucky Derby. The Big Brown bandwagon can play a similar tune, since 11 winners of the Florida Derby came back to win at Churchill Downs as well. And never forget the winners of the good old Blue Grass Stakes, running on Saturday at Keeneland. There have been 11 of those young guns gallop right down the road to Louisville and do it again on Derby Day.

Make that an even dozen if you count Alysheba, who was disqualified after finishing first in the 1987 Blue Grass, then won a memorable Derby nine days later.

It's been a while, though, since there has been a Blue Grass-Derby double. Not since Strike the Gold in 1991, in fact. Furthermore, Blue Grass winners since '91 have been largely swamped in the Kentucky Derby. The list includes Pistols and Roses (16th), Holy Bull (12th), Wild Syn (last of 19), Skip Away (12th), High Yield (15th), Millennium Wind (11th), and Sinister Minister (16th), while only Prairie Bayou, Menifee, and Peace Rules have managed to hit the Derby board.

For purposes of evaluating this year's Blue Grass field, such history is meaningless, at least until the winner emerges from his Derby ordeal. Neither is winning the Blue Grass necessarily the answer, as proven by Keeneland also-rans such as Whirlaway, Decidedly, Proud Clarion, Gato del Sol, Unbridled, Sea Hero, and Thunder Gulch. Last year, Derby hero Street Sense missed winning the Blue Grass by a whisker.

At the same time, the Blue Grass should stand alone as a prize worth winning. Never mind what comes before or after. The same can be said for the Arkansas Derby, the Wood Memorial, the Santa Anita Derby, and the Florida Derby, all of them gems, and all sadly reduced to the category of "preps" in the zero-sum culture of Kentucky Derby first, the rest nowhere.

Certainly, Admiral and Mrs. Gene Markey cherished that moment prior to the 1978 running of the Blue Grass when Jorge Velasquez took their stable star Alydar to the clubhouse rail, where his ailing owners could admire him at close range, before he won by 13 lengths. In 1974, Judger and Laffit Pincay somehow wormed their way between and around 13 other horses to win the 50th running of the Blue Grass, which just happened to sit on the doorstep that year of the 100th Kentucky Derby.

In 1966, with Buckpasser temporarily sidelined, Graustark chased away all but two Blue Grass opponents, but Abe's Hope and Bill Shoemaker still beat the favorite by a nose. And in 1962, Ridan was the first of three Blue Grass victories for trainer LeRoy Jolley, although it wasn't the first for a trainer named Jolley. That honor went to LeRoy's uncle Tom Jolley, who won the 1958 Blue Grass with Edward Potter's resourceful brown colt Plion, Dave Erb in the irons.

"Did you happen to see what the purse was then compared to what it is now?" said Erb, 84, from his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and he said it with mischief, knowing full well that Plion won $21,872.50 from a purse of $33,650, while Pyro and the gang are running for $750,000 a mere half-century later.

No matter what they were worth back then, Erb has plenty of such baubles in his trophy case. He won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont with Needles, the Californian aboard Swaps, and a boatload of major Midwestern events aboard Hall of Famer Swoon's Son. Erb also threw a leg over good ones like Searching, Idun, and Leallah during his 21-year career, and was often found aboard Calumet Farm runners for trainer Jimmy Jones. Erb retired in 1960, when he grew weary of pulling weight, and trained until 1988.

At odds of 14-1, Erb and Plion took the 1958 Blue Grass by three-quarters of a length over Kenny Church and the 17-1 Warren G., with Hasty House Farm's mild favorite Can Trust settling for fourth under Bill Hartack. The track was sloppy, lending to a final time of 1:52 4/5 for the 1 1/8 miles.

"Plion was not a bad colt at all," Erb recalled. "But not a top horse, and not really a Derby contender."

Indeed, Jolley passed the Derby with Plion and waited for the Preakness, where the colt finished fourth. At 4, Plion was good enough to win the Whitney Handicap.

As for the '58 Blue Grass, the result did not faze Hartack, at least when it came to the pending Derby, since he had just ridden Calumet's leading Derby contender Tim Tam to an easy victory in the Forerunner Purse at Keeneland, six days before the Blue Grass.

"Then Hartack broke a small bone in his leg," Erb said, "and everybody wondered who would ride Tim Tam in the Derby. The press even asked Hartack - he said, 'Oh, I'm sure it will be Dave Erb.' Then Jimmy Jones sent to California and got Milo Valenzuela.

"But I had Needles and Swoon's Son, two Hall of Famers," Erb added. "That's not too bad."

And don't forget that Blue Grass.