04/10/2009 11:00PM

Blue Grass packed with questions

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The multitude of questions that surround the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes might well be answered with even more questions. Such is the nature of the Polytrack surface at Keeneland, which two years ago produced the Kentucky Derby winner in Blue Grass runner-up Street Sense but last year gave the Derby its last-place finisher in Blue Grass winner Monba.

No doubt the 85th running of the $750,000 Blue Grass - which shares the national racing spotlight Saturday with the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park in what shapes up as the final round of major Kentucky Derby preps - will have a tepid favorite, most likely Hold Me Back, a WinStar Farm colt whose terrific run three weeks ago in the Lane's End Stakes suddenly thrust him into the fray for the May 2 Derby. But with both the Lane's End and Blue Grass run over a synthetic surface, even a victory on Saturday would not necessarily make Hold Me Back one of the big names once the show moves 80 miles west to Churchill Downs.

Hold Me Back, one of 11 3-year-olds entered in the Blue Grass, has just one dirt race on his past performances, and it was not very good. So what could anyone reasonably expect if he were to win again Saturday, with a distant fifth-place finish in the Remsen last November at Aqueduct being his only prior attempt on dirt?

Other questions surely would follow the rest of the contenders for the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass.

Theregoesjojo was a distant third to Quality Road and Dunkirk just two weeks ago in the Florida Derby - so wouldn't a win from him translate into the Blue Grass being an inferior prep this year?

Charitable Man was fantastic in winning both starts early in his 2-year-old season, but with this being his first race in seven months, isn't he already too far behind the others in terms of seasoning and race readiness?

Terrain ran creditably when third in his lone start this year, the March 14 Louisiana Derby, but can a horse whose only prior first-place finishes came in a maiden-claiming race and the Mountaineer Juvenile seriously contend for the Derby?

Patena ran poorly in his only start since IEAH Stables bought into him, and even if he were to rebound Saturday, won't his eighth-place finish in the Louisiana Derby stand as a more telling indicator of his abilities on dirt?

Mafaaz already has earned a Derby berth by virtue of his win in the Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes last month at Kempton in England, but his pedigree (Euro grass) and race record (four starts after Saturday, none over dirt) surely would elicit major skepticism toward his Derby chances.

And on it goes. The connections of some horses even admit this running of the Blue Grass is something of a head-scratcher.

"It should be a really interesting race," said Ken McPeek, trainer of Theregoesjojo. "It didn't seem to me like it was that strong, though, which is one of the reasons we went in. I've kind of babied my horse all winter, so right now is the time to see what we've got. I'm a swing-hard-and-high kind of guy, anyway."

Bill Mott, the Hall of Fame trainer of Hold Me Back, clearly would like to win his second Blue Grass in as many tries - Mott's only previous Blue Grass runner, Taylor's Special, won the 1984 running. But even he concedes that another Polytrack victory might not prove a whole lot going forward to the Derby.

"You really never know how they're going to run over the dirt, even if they've trained well and worked well over it," he said.

As usual, a crowd of 25,000-plus is expected ontrack Saturday at Keeneland. Besides the Blue Grass, which goes as the ninth of 10 races, three other graded races will be part of an excellent Saturday card: the Grade 2 Jenny Wiley (race 8), Grade 2 Commonwealth (race 7), and Grade 3 Shakertown (race 6). The four races are linked together in a $200,000-guaranteed all-stakes pick four.

The Blue Grass will be televised live on TVG, with post time set for 5:15 p.m. Eastern. The race also will be shown on tape delay during a one-hour ESPN2 telecast (6-7 Eastern) featuring a live running of the Arkansas Derby.

The Saturday forecast for Lexington calls for mostly sunny skies and a high temperature of 58.

After Saturday, the lone remaining Derby prep of any potential consequence will be the $300,000 Coolmore Lexington, to be run April 18 at Keeneland. The winner of the Lexington, which goes at 1 1/16 miles on the Polytrack, occasionally wheels back two weeks later in the Derby.

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:: (DRF Plus)