04/11/2013 3:03PM

Blue Grass Stakes: Top two finishers will earn ticket to Kentucky Derby

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Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
Uncaptured (right), winning the Kentucky Jockey Club last fall, is among multiple contenders in a wide-open Blue Grass Stakes.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – With college basketball and horse racing being as wildly popular as they are here, folks may find delight – along with a touch of irony – in recognizing a tournament-style elimination being a part of the racing game Saturday at Keeneland.

This is the home of the 2012 NCAA champion University of Kentucky, where 3-year-old Thoroughbreds will try earning a berth three weeks hence in a certain race at a certain racetrack that borders the University of Louisville, Kentucky’s arch-rival and the newly crowned 2013 NCAA champion.

Indeed, the discussion goes hoops-to-hooves Saturday when a successful run over 1 1/8 miles of Polytrack in the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes will translate to 72 miles’ worth of pavement to Churchill Downs, where a spot in the 139th Kentucky Derby awaits.

[BLUE GRASS STAKES: Get Keeneland PPs, watch video previews]

“This is a huge test for everybody involved,” said Mark Casse, who has two horses among the 14 entered in the 89th Blue Grass, including Uncaptured, the tepid morning-line favorite at 7-2. “Making it into the Derby has come down to this one race – just like we’ve been expecting for months.”

Lacking any of the consensus favorites or top point-earners for the May 4 Derby, the Blue Grass could have its top two finishers proceed to Louisville, but that might be all. The race is worth 170 points on the new eligibility system in use toward the Derby, with 100 to the winner and 40 to the runner-up. All that drama will play out during a 90-minute NBC broadcast (4:30 p.m. Eastern), with post time set for 5:40.

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

Uncaptured, with Miguel Mena riding from post 7, had what Casse termed a “critical” outing three weeks ago when he returned from a four-month layoff to finish second in the Grade 3 Spiral Stakes over the Polytrack surface at Turfway Park. The Ontario-bred Uncaptured is 6 for 8 lifetime.

“Getting him back to that race was a really tough deal this winter,” said Casse, referring to minor injuries that interrupted the colt’s training. “But now that he ran so big at Turfway and came out of the race as well as we did, we’re full speed ahead into this one.”

The other Casse starter, Dynamic Sky, does not have the splashy record of his stablemate, but the late-running colt does have the advantage of post 1 and will be ridden by Joel Rosario, the leading jockey so far at the spring meet.

“We’d just love for him to run his way into the Derby because we really think he could be very effective with the [1 1/4-mile] distance,” said Casse.

Dynamic Sky is listed at 10-1 on the morning line, with the good news being that long-priced horses have dominated the Blue Grass since it was first moved to Polytrack for the 2007 running. Only Dullahan, a 3-1 shot last year, has won the race at lower than 8-1 in those six runnings. The last favorite to win the Blue Grass was Peace Rules in 2003.

Still, the logic of past performances say that if Uncaptured does not come through Saturday, it will be one of the other likely favorites, Java’s War or Rydilluc, or one of the fringe contenders, such as the uncoupled Todd Pletcher duo of Palace Malice and Charming Kitten.

Java’s War (post 4, Julien Leparoux) was a decent third on the Polytrack here last fall in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity behind Joha and Dynamic Sky, and trainer Ken McPeek is eager to see how the late-striding colt fares in his return. Java’s War was second to the highly regarded Verrazano in his only start so far this year, the March 9 Tampa Bay Derby.

“He’s a tough horse,” said McPeek. “He really tries. With a good trip, I expect him to be moving fast at the end.”

Rydilluc (post 13, Edgar Prado) has been a terror in winning his last three races, all on grass, and New York trainer Gary Contessa is pumped about having such a talent in his barn.

“The good thing about him is obviously he has speed, but he’ll also rate if you need to,” said Contessa, responding to inquiries about how the race shape may affect his chances.

Palace Malice (post 5, Garrett Gomez) encountered considerable traffic when finishing seventh behind his Pletcher stablemate, Revolutionary, two weeks ago in the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds. The fact Palace Malice had such a poor trip led Pletcher and the colt’s ownership group at Dogwood Stable to quickly settle on giving him another chance by running back as quickly as they are.

Charming Kitten (post 8, Joe Bravo), second to Rydilluc in the Palm Beach Stakes on the Gulfstream Park turf last month, is a Ken and Sarah Ramsey homebred with no experience in dirt races – not that Ramsey cares.

“I know the Derby is on the dirt, but I’ll get there any way I can,” he said. “There’s 100 [Derby] points here to the winner. We’ll sure take ’em if we can get ’em.”

Prado, with three, has the most prior Blue Grass victories among jockeys in this edition, while Pletcher and his former boss, D. Wayne Lukas, lead the trainers with two wins each. Lukas is represented here by Channel Isle.

Twenty-three Kentucky Derby winners have prepped in the Blue Grass, with Street Sense, the 2007 Blue Grass runner-up, being the latest to use the race as a springboard to Derby victory. The last of 11 horses to win both races was Strike the Gold in 1991.

The Blue Grass is directly preceded by four straight graded stakes as the 10th of 12 Saturday races and ends a 50-cent pick four wager (races 7-10) with a guaranteed pool of $250,000. Those other stakes are the Grade 3 Commonwealth (race 6), Grade 3 Shakertown (race 7), Grade 1 Madison (race 8), and Grade 1 Jenny Wiley (race 9). First post is 1:05.

The Saturday weather forecast calls for sunny skies and a high temperature of 55. Last year, the all-time Keeneland records for ontrack attendance (40,617) and all-sources handle ($21.6 million) were set on Blue Grass Day.