Head to Head: Handicapping the 2021 Blue Grass Stakes

Head to Head: Handicapping the 2021 Blue Grass Stakes
Photo: Ted McClenning/Eclipse Sportswire

The Grade 2, $800,000 Blue Grass Stakes is the final Kentucky prep for the 2021 Kentucky DerbyThe top four finishers will earn 100-40-20-10 qualifying points.

Last year’s 2-year-old champ Essential Quality remains perfect entering the second start of his 3-year-old campaign. He faces his toughest test yet, facing eight other competitors at 1 1/8 miles. Should he prevail, the pretty gray colt could be the early Derby favorite.

Ashley Tamulonis of Coast To Coast and I weed out the pretenders, but do we agree on the same contenders?




Hidden Stash was steadily closing in the Sam F. Davis (G3) but ran out of real estate. Then in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2), he was incredibly game while having to settle for second, as Helium refused to lose that day. Now the Constitution colt returns to Keeneland, where he snagged his very first career win. The rail draw could be an issue if he gets boxed in, but I think everyone will be gunning for Essential Quality while perhaps overlooking Hidden Stash and jockey Rafael Bejarano.

I liked Hidden Stash in the Tampa Bay Derby, and his performance and speed figures improved in his second start. The Vicki Oliver trainee had every chance to go by Helium but backed off. Hidden Stash has a habit of bearing in, and Bejarano had to correct him in the Sam Davis and Tampa Bay Derby. Constitution’s son does not have gears, but he relentlessly mows down tired competitors in the stretch. I agree that he may be overlooked.



A last-out maiden winner, Untreated will be making his second start for new trainer Todd Pletcher, who already has two Kentucky Derby runners. This is a big step up for the son of Derby hero Nyquist as he will face experienced runners for the first time.

Untreated circled the field to win under a hand ride at Tampa. Two horses from that race have started since, and both won next out, which is encouraging. Pletcher’s last out maiden-to-stakes angle is 8 percent with 48 percent in the money. Worth an exotic look, especially if there is a fast early pace.



Highly Motivated shook the rust off in the Gotham (G3), where he finished third as the favorite, beaten just 1 3/4 lengths for it all. He was also steadied early and took the overland route coming off the far turn. That effort tied his best speed figure, a 102, which he also earned in the Nyquist Stakes. Trainer Chad Brown gets 28-percent winners second off the layoff and 48 percent winners in their second route race. Ignore at your own peril.

Highly Motivated nailed a triple-digit Brisnet speed figure in his first start back. As Ashley noted, he had to overcome trouble. The son of Into Mischief has yet to get away from the gate cleanly in four starts. Additionally, his pedigree leans more toward miler than it does middle-distance runner, and he has not raced around two turns. That being said, Chad Brown horses find their way into the money more often than not.


Champion Essential Quality romped in the Southwest (G3) despite the sloppy conditions Hot Springs, Ark., presented that day. He also flashed a triple-digit late pace figure for an effort he did not have to work hard for. On paper, the Godolphin homebred is absolutely the one to beat.

Does our 2-year-old champ have a chink in his armor? Not that I can see. He has overcome trouble, has tactical speed and excellent speed figures. Additionally, nine furlongs should be in his scope. The similarly bred Eye of the Jedi just won the Ghostzapper Stakes at nine furlongs.



Rombauer is Grade 1-placed on dirt by virtue of his runner-up finish in the American Pharoah, but I think we can all agree that the quality of that field is suspect. In his 2021 debut, he won the El Camino Real Derby, which is contested on an all-weather track. Essential Quality has already trounced him once, so I will take a hard pass here.

Rombauer was all out to beat a really nice filly in the El Camino Real Derby. The last horse to come out of that race and win the Blue Grass was Dance With Fate (2014), way back in the good old days of Polytrack at Keeneland. Pass.



Last out, maiden winner Leblon finished fourth in an allowance race in which Woodhouse, who was fourth behind champion Essential Quality in the Southwest, finished third. This is a tall task for the son of Broken Vow, and I will certainly be placing my money elsewhere.

Leblon’s last race was better than it looked on paper. Racing over a sloppy track, Leblon had to steady early. He was climbing throughout the race while being stuck on the rail. He was behind a wall of horses through the stretch, but he managed to pass a couple once he found running room. The Paulo Lobo trainee never stopped trying. Note that he graduated at nine furlongs last year and that Leblon’s speed figure was the highest of his career. Maybe he can blow up the lower exotics with a decent trip.



In Hush of a Storm’s only dirt start, he finished a well-beaten eighth. Since then, he has won three consecutive races over Turfway Park’s all-weather track, including the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes. The obvious placement for this colt should have been the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) run last Saturday and won by John Battaglia runner-up Like the King. Instead, trainer Bill Morey scratched his charge from the Jeff Ruby in favor of the Blue Grass. I do not like the lack of dirt form, but this could be a wise-guy play.

If this was the Jeff Ruby Steaks, we would be all over Hush of a Storm like a bad rash. Unfortunately, Turfway form does not translate to Keeneland graded stakes. The best finish by a Battaglia Memorial winner was fourth in the Blue Grass. I am willing to toss Hush of a Storm’s debut at Churchill. Since then, he has been a big horse in a small pond. He also zipped recent bullet work over the Keeneland dirt. Speed figures are so-so, yet he is entirely capable of hitting the lower exotics.



Sittin on Go desperately needs to stop sitting on go and actually go. In three of his four last races, he has been beaten by double-digit lengths and checked in behind several that he will see again in this field. Pass.

Let's place a bet on this horse, or rather Dale Romans. How long do you think it will take before Sittin On Go heads for the turf or a drop in class? A horse’s confidence takes a hit when they constantly face superior competitors. Romans should be fined for putting this horse in the race.


I really liked Keepmeinmind in the Rebel (G2), but he just did not fire. He probably needed the race, and trainer Robertino Diodoro is getting 26 percent winners second off the layoff. A hot pace would help him immensely, but he is not likely to get it here. Consider using underneath.

For whatever reason, Keepmeinmind threw a clunker in the Rebel last time out. But maybe he’s not that good. None of the runners in last year’s Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) have lifted a hoof in subsequent starts. Pass.

Final Thoughts

Ashley: This is a pretty unique Kentucky Derby prep field in that there is not one runner in the field that traditionally vies to set the pace. I foresee Essential Quality snagging the lead a la his Breeders’ Futurity (G1) effort. If he gets loose on the lead, he will be going, going, gone.

As for the others, their best bet is to not let Essential Quality put too much space between himself and the field since Keeneland has such a short stretch. Highly Motivated and Keepmeinmind both should be sharper for this race, and Highly Motivated owns the highest dirt speed rating in the field. Hidden Stash should make some noise as he has been consistent thus far in his career.

Laurie: Here is a key to the Blue Grass Stakes: excluding last year when the race was held in July, six of the last eight winners won the Blue Grass in their second start off the layoff. Of those, all but one lost their first start of the season, but most hit the board. No pacesetter has won in a dozen years. The preferred winning style is a presser or closer.







2 UNTREATED (10-1)


7 HUSH OF A STORM (15-1)



Meet Laurie Ross

 HRN Pedigree Analyst 


 Published Author

 Pedigree Research/Consultation/Sales 

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Through hands-on work at barns, I learned valuable lessons about Thoroughbred conformation, gait, and temperament and later worked withThoroughbred rescue/re-train organizations. I have committed my passion for horses to the intensive study of pedigree and breeding theory for the last 20 years. 

I support clients with all aspects of pedigree/breeding analysis, research, sales, catalogue review, and recommendations on claims or private sales. Clients include national leading owners, racing/breeding syndicates, the little guy with one mare, and everyone in between. 10-20% of all proceeds are donated to Thoroughbred rescue & retraining groups. Check out my website, Iron Maidens Thoroughbreds, and the IMTBreds blog.

I welcome your questions regarding pedigree, handicapping, and breeding. If you would like me to cover a specific topic, please contact me. 

Twitter: @IMTBreds
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