04/12/2006 12:00AM

Blue Grass's impact on Derby diminished

Strong Contender will get tested against stakes-class runners in Saturday's Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - There once was a time when it seemed the route to the Kentucky Derby was a straight shot down I-64, from Keeneland and its Blue Grass Stakes right to Churchill Downs. From 1963 through 1972, six of those 10 Blue Grass winners repeated in the Derby.

In recent years, though, the Blue Grass result has hardly reflected what happens weeks later in the Derby. The nine 3-year-olds who were entered on Wednesday for Saturday's 82nd running of the Grade 1, $750,000 will have some significant recent history to overcome. The Blue Grass also faces an uncertain future. Keeneland is scheduled to install a synthetic surface this summer, so this year's race could be the last run on a conventional dirt surface.

The last Blue Grass winner to repeat in the Derby was Strike the Gold in 1991, and you have to go back to 1979, and Spectacular Bid, to find the next example. For those scoring at home, that's one Blue Grass-Derby winner in the last 26 years, not counting Alysheba, who was disqualified from first in the 1987 Blue Grass.

The Blue Grass did produce several other Derby winners in the 1990's, but they were horses - Unbridled, Sea Hero, and Thunder Gulch - who ran subpar races at Keeneland and then rebounded at Churchill Downs. Some who won the Blue Grass in recent years - such as Bandini and Harlan's Holiday - were often well-backed failures in the Derby.

In the past six years, of the 18 horses who finished in the top three spots in the Blue Grass, only three of them finished in the money in the Derby.

The last Derby winner to emerge from Keeneland was Charismatic, who in 1999 scored an upset victory in the Lexington Stakes before doing the same at Churchill.

Keeneland's main track, which often has a no-passing sign posted at the quarter pole, frequently plays quite differently from the main track at Churchill Downs, which may account for the inability of Blue Grass form to be mirrored in the Derby. There is also a cyclical nature to Derby preps. In the 1980's, Derby winners frequently came out of the Santa Anita Derby. The wealth has been spread this decade. The last four Derby winners prepped in the Illinois Derby, Wood Memorial, Arkansas Derby, and Santa Anita Derby.

This year's Blue Grass field is surrounded by question marks. First Samurai, the 8-5 favorite on the morning line set by Keeneland's Mike Battaglia, comes off a win via disqualification in the Fountain of Youth, but is viewed as being suspect at the Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles. Bluegrass Cat, the 5-2 second choice, is seeking a breakthrough performance after a couple of workmanlike efforts at Tampa Bay Downs. Strong Contender has displayed plenty of raw ability in two starts, but is unproven against stakes-class runners.

Frank Brothers, who trains First Samurai, has viewed the Keeneland-Churchill phenomena for more than two decades. His theory is that "horses stabled at Churchill Downs seem to run their races at Keeneland, [but] the horses stabled at Keeneland don't necessarily have to run at Churchill Downs.

"That's my own opinion. No stats on that," said Brothers, who has had First Samurai stabled at Churchill Downs for three weeks.

The imminent installation of Polytrack could throw another new wrinkle at the Blue Grass. Will trainers be willing to run a prospect on a synthetic surface in his final prep for the Derby?

John T. Ward Jr., who trains Strong Contender, said yes. He wanted to run Strong Contender in last month's Lane's End Stakes over the Polytrack surface at Turfway Park.

"If a trainer hasn't been associated with Polytrack, he might be skeptical," Ward said. "But if you're familiar with it, you would look at it favorably as a prep for the Derby. It will not take a lot out of a horse, while preparing the horse from a fitness standpoint. It takes a very fit horse to perform well on it, yet it stresses the joints less.

"When I watched the Wood last week," Ward said, referring to the Wood Memorial, which was run on a sloppy track at Aqueduct, "I was thinking that if they were running on Polytrack, how much better those horses would have been protected. Polytrack neutralizes weather conditions."

Not every trainer is enamored of Keeneland's move to Polytrack. Bob Holthus, who trains Lawyer Ron, saw the Arkansas Derby favorite flounder on that surface at Turfway last fall.

"I had some horses who liked Polytrack, and some that did not," Holthus said. "If a horse doesn't like Polytrack, it's not an asset. Some do love it, some don't. It's like turf in that it's a completely different surface. I'd rather see Keeneland spend its money to put in a good dirt course."

Keeneland's board of directors will vote next Wednesday on whether to go forward with Polytrack, and no one expects there to be any hiccups. By the fall meeting, Polytrack - manufactured by a company in which Keeneland has a financial interest - will be in place here. And next year's Blue Grass will be run on Polytrack.

Nick Nicholson, Keeneland's president and chief executive officer, on Wednesday said "there might be an evolutionary period of time" to get trainers to embrace a Blue Grass run on Polytrack.

"I don't know the answer," Nicholson said. "I don't have a crystal ball. I don't know whether it will take some time or not. But we so believe in this because we believe it's in the best interests of the horse. If you do what's in the best interest of the horse in this sport, then sooner or later it's going to work out.

"I'm really excited about next year. This is such the right thing to do. We know we're out in front. We know we've climbed out on a limb, but it's a limb we're willing to climb out on. We're considered very traditional at Keeneland, but one of the traditions we have is that the horse comes first. If we're going to live up to that tradition, and we've found something that's such an improvement for the horse, then even though someone might consider it to be a very progressive thing, it's also a very traditional thing, because it's true to our tradition that the horse comes first."

In other Derby developments:

* The field for the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass, from the rail out, is Little Cliff, Bluegrass Cat, Storm Treasure, Strong Contender, First Samurai, Court Folly, Sinister Minister, Sadler's Trick, and Seaside Retreat. It is part of an all-stakes pick four with one other race from Keeneland, and two from Oaklawn Park, including the Arkansas Derby.

* Lawyer Ron tops a field of 14 entered in the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby. There are five other members of Derby Watch in that race: High Cotton, Private Vow, Red Raymond, Steppenwolfer, and With a City.

3-year-old graded stakes earnings

The leading contenders for the 132nd Kentucky Derby based on earnings in graded stakes races, the tiebreaker if the field exceeds the maximum 20 entries:

1Discreet Cat$1,200,000
2Brother Derek1,114,980
3First Samurai834,900
5Bob and John590,370
6Lawyer Ron340,800
7A. P. Warrior323,185
9Private Vow317,888
10With a City300,000
11Sharp Humor280,000
12Bluegrass Cat237,980
13Keyed Entry205,000
14Point Determined200,000
15Cause to Believe192,500
16Deputy Glitters163,750
18Seaside Retreat125,807
19Like Now120,000
20Mister Triester112,000
21Flashy Bull109,000
23Sacred Light97,300
24Red Raymond93,120
26High Cotton67,820
27Sam's Ace60,000
28Lewis Michael41,000
29Scanlon's Song37,500
31Greeley's Legacy13,750
32Little Cliff12,500
33Saint Augustus8,040
35Bushmill's Best0
36Showing Up0
37Strong Contender0