The Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Race Course has long been considered one of the more important Kentucky Derby prep races. In recent years, however, it’s lost some of it’s luster among prospective Derby challengers. For that reason, Keeneland has decided to move the race back a week to better accommodate horses that want to run in the Kentucky Derby.
In many ways, it’s a sign of the times. The trend in horse racing is to give horses a longer layoff between races. That made the Blue Grass Stakes’ scheduled date of three weeks before the Kentucky Derby very problematic. The original date of the Blue Grass Stakes was just 9 days before the Derby–the race was pushed back to three weeks in 1989. The move from three weeks to four weeks before the ‘Run for the Roses’ will make all the difference in the world in terms of the race’s appeal to top contenders.
Also enhancing the race’s appeal–Keeneland has boosted the purse for the Blue Grass Stakes to a cool $1 million. That’s a $250,000 boost from the 2014 purse of $750,000. The race will be held on the April 4 card in 2015 which is the opening weekend at Keeneland and will be the feature event on a card loaded with stakes races. The Grade 1 Madison Stakes for older horses has traditionally been run on this date along with the Grade 1 Ashland, a major prep race for three year old fillies aspiring to the Kentucky Oaks. The addition of the Blue Grass Stakes will make it three Grade 1 races on one card.
While the revamped schedule and added purse money no doubt enhances the appeal of the Blue Grass Stakes as a Kentucky Derby prep race, the biggest factor might be one that wasn’t mentioned in the Keeneland press release. The polytrack surface installed in 2006 has been removed in favor of natural dirt. Synthetic track surfaces are a dying trend in racing anyway and Keeneland was hurt by the perception that racing on polytrack wasn’t a good preparation for the Kentucky Derby held on the dirt track at Churchill Downs. Between 2006 and the present two horses ran on synthetic in their final prep race before winning the Kentucky Derby (Street Sense in 2007 and Animal Kingdom in 2011).