Head to Head: Handicapping the 2023 Blue Grass Stakes

Head to Head: Handicapping the 2023 Blue Grass Stakes
Photo: Keeneland photo

The $1 million Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland is one of the final preps for the 2023 Kentucky Derby. The 1 1/8 mile event offers 100-40-30-20-10 Derby points to the top five finishers, so a few of these 3-year-olds who already own points could find themselves in the starting gate on May 6.  

Three of the last four Blue Grass winners finished second through fourth in the Derby, including last year’s victor, Zandon, who finished third in the Derby.

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

Ashley

Laurie

1. Tapit Trice (5-2)

Tapit Trice won the Tampa Bay Derby (G3) last out in his graded stakes debut. He broke poorly and sat at the back of the pack early, then circled the field before surging to a two-length win. Luis Saez had to really push the colt, and it took him a while to get going, only hitting top-gear strides before the wire. The Todd Pletcher trainee’s last three races have resulted in Brisnet speed ratings of 96, 99, and 95, giving him the best last race speed rating and the best overall dirt speed rating. Pletcher is 25 percent with shippers (55 percent in the money), 19 percent in graded stakes (51 percent in the money), and 25 percent with last race winners (58 percent in the money). Saez retains the mount, and he and Pletcher win together at a 20 percent clip (53 percent in the money). The one to beat.

 

Todd Pletcher’s patience with Tapit Trice has paid off. The pretty gray colt has progressed nicely from maiden to allowance and then to the Tampa Bay Derby (G3). By Tapit out of a stakes-winning daughter of Dunkirk (second in Florida Derby and Belmont Stakes), Tapit Trice has tactical speed and should handle the extra distance. He also breezed a pre-race four furlongs in 49.57 seconds, second-best of 24. Ashley gave you the stats. Contender.

 

2. Clear the Air (30-1)

Clear the Air has just one win in four starts, a six-furlongs maiden special weight over Turfway Park’s Tapeta track. Last out, the son of Ransom the Moon was fifth, 10 lengths behind winner Raise Cain, in the Gotham (G3). Clear the Air was cross-entered in the Wood Memorial, but trainer Will Walden said Thursday that the colt would run in the Blue Grass. Clear the Air earned his best Brisnet speed figure, an 86, in his maiden breaking race. Ricardo Santana Jr. replaces Jack Gilligan. Pass.

 

Clear the Air had trouble in his last two starts, so Will Walden, the son of trainer Elliott, switches to Ricardo Santana Jr. in hopes of a better trip. Clear the Air’s half-siblings are claiming level sprinters, and the class in the family is three generations back. Clear the Air would have to improve his best speed rating of 86 to have a shot. Pass.

 

3. Verifying (3-1)

Verifying failed as the favorite last out in the Rebel (G2), finishing fourth, beaten 5 1/4 lengths. In his prior graded starts, he was sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and second to Blazing Sevens in the Champagne (G1). Trainer Brad Cox is 30 percent with beaten favorites (64 percent in the money) and 22 percent with runners third off the layoff (56 percent in the money). Tyler Gaffalione hops aboard for the first time; he has only one recent start with Cox, and he hit the board. Contender.

 

Verifying broke from the rail in the Risen Star (G2) and drafted in behind the pacesetters. However, rounding the far turn, he was stuck in traffic behind tiring horses with nowhere to go. He didn’t get clear until it was too late but improved his position to fourth place. If Justify’s son gets a clean trip, he should be right there at the end. Contender.

 

4. Classic Car Wash (12-1)

Like Tapit Trice, Classic Car Wash exits the Tampa Bay Derby (G3), where he was the runner-up. He was also third in the Sam F. Davis (G3). With the exception of his debut, this son of Noble Bird always runs his race and hits the board. He’s a one-run type and will profit from some pace to run into. Exotics.

 

Classic Car Wash worked his way to the outside in the Tampa Bay Derby, ensuring a wide, trouble-free trip. He made a sustained drive down the backstretch and lost some ground while circling the field five wide. He was clearly tired but put away the horses to his inside and was caught late. Classic Car Wash is by nine-furlong specialist Noble Bird, and his half-siblings are winners at nine furlongs. Classic Car Wash could clean up if he gets a well-timed ride from Javier Castellano. Live Longshot.

 

5. Hayes Strike (15-1)

Hayes Strike is a horse of the inconsistent variety. One of the most heavily raced in the field, he’s 9: 2-1-1 lifetime but is coming off a victory in the Private Terms at Laurel, where he earned a career-best 94 Brisnet speed rating. In graded company, he is 3: 0-1-1, with a second in the Street Sense (G3) and a third in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2). I’m putting a line through his effort in the Leonatus since that was on Tapeta. I could see him sneaking in for a minor placing, but I’m not counting on it. Pass.

 

Ashley was being polite when she said Hayes Strike was inconsistent. His past performances and speed ratings are all over the place, and he’s the kind who finds trouble; in five of nine starts, he stumbled, bobbled, was off slow, bumped, lugged in, and been stuck in traffic. If he were driving on I-95, I’d probably be swearing. Pass.

6. Scoobie Quando (15-1)

Scoobie Quando is making his dirt debut for Ben Colebrook off a second in the John Battaglia Memorial. This son of Uncle Mo has never been out of the exacta, but his races have all been on Turfway Park’s Tapeta artificial surface. Colebrook is 18 percent with all-weather to dirt runners (36 percent in the money). As a son of Uncle Mo, he could improve on the dirt, but I’m not loving him. Pass.

 

The $1 million question is, “Can the lightly raced Scoobie Quando handle dirt against Grade 1 competition?” He’s felt the sting of Tapeta hitting him, and that’s half the battle. He has good leg and neck extension, without the high-legged motion seen in some turf horses. Additionally, two half-siblings won or placed in dirt sprints, so all signs point to Scoobie Quando's ability to handle dirt. Class-wise, two half-siblings, and his dam are multiple graded winners. His second dam is a full sister to 2011 Kentucky Derby champ Animal Kingdom. In his last start, Scoobie Quando was stuck in traffic until midstretch. Once he saw daylight, he passed the horses to his inside like they were tied to a rail. His Brisnet speed rating improved to 89, and he could be a threat with a good trip. Live long shot.

 

7. Sun Thunder (10-1)

Sun Thunder wheels back off two weeks rest after running a disappointing fifth in the Louisiana Derby (G2). Two starts back he earned a career-best 96 speed rating when second in the Risen Star (G2). He was also a non-threatening fourth in the Southwest (G3) in his 2023 debut. Angel of Empire and Two Phil’s validated their Risen Star win and third place finishes with wins in the Arkansas Derby (G1) and Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3), respectively. They’re obviously trying to ensure their place in the gate in a month as Sun Thunder is currently 19th on the leaderboard, hence the quick turnaround. This colt did encounter traffic problems in the Louisiana Derby, so I’m giving him another shot to hit the board. Exotics.

 

Sun Thunder has a progress/regress cycle in his last four starts. The one-run closer was right there in the stretch of the Risen Star but had to settle for second behind Angel of Empire, who returned to win the Arkansas Derby. If Ken McPeek’s charge continues his progress/regress cycle, he could surprise. Contender.

 

8. Blazing Sevens (6-1)

Blazing Sevens was an incredibly disappointing eighth, beaten 26 lengths, in his 2023 bow in last month’s Fountain of Youth (G2). He is liable to improve here, and trainer Chad Brown hitting at 30 percent with runners second off the layoff (65 percent in the money). Brown is also giving the Good Magic colt first time blinkers, an angle that is successful for him 21 percent of the time (55 percent in the money). Irad Ortiz Jr. hops aboard for the first time, and he and Brown are 43 percent together (57 percent in the money). Contender.

 

Blazing Sevens was body slammed on both sides and had the breath knocked out of him at the start of the Fountain of Youth (G2), so toss that race. The Chad Brown trainee spent the winter breezing at Payson Park and posted some sharp times. My concern is his physical fitness since he didn’t run much in his first start off the layoff. Blazing Sevens is following in his sire Good Magic’s hoofprints and hoping for similar results. Good Magic was third in the Fountain of Youth before winning the 2018 Blue Grass and finishing second in the Derby. Exotics.

9. Major Blue (30-1)

Major Blue comes in off back-to-back victories at Oaklawn Park. In his first two starts, he pressed the pace and failed to hit the board. In his most recent two starts, he wired the field. Being drawn to the outside, he’s going to need to break sharp and clear the field if he wants that lead, but even if he gets it, I doubt he’ll go the distance. Pass.

 

Major Blue could be lone speed unless Verifying, Tapit Trice, or Mendelssohns March want to go with him. By Flatter out of an excellent Claiborne distaff line, Major Blue is bred to handle nine furlongs. Are two previous starts at a mile and a series of four-furlong works enough for the Wayne Lukas trainee to take them gate to wire? Maybe he can hang around for a piece, but I’ll pass.

 

 

10. Raise Cain (9-2)

Raise Cain was the dominating 7 1/2-length victor in the Gotham (G3) last out after being unplaced two starts back in the Leonatus on Tapeta. He also hit the board in both the Bowman Mill Stakes and the Gun Runner Stakes. I have a hard time trusting Aqueduct stakes winners away from the Big A, but Raise Cain is 2: 1-0-1 at Keeneland. Having Joel Rosario aboard also gives me pause. Exotics.

 

Toss Raise Cain’s Leonatus Stakes performance; he obviously didn’t care for the Tapeta surface. Otherwise, he’s been hit-or-miss in his career and hasn’t faced much. He ran the best race of his life in the Gotham, so will he regress? He's hit the board in four of six starts, so he’s consistent. Exotics.

 

11. Mendelssohns March (20-1)

Mendelssohns March is 2: 2-0-0 in his short career, running a close second on the lawn in his debut before being placed first due to interference. He doubled down on that with a smart score in the slop at Oaklawn last month. He wired the field in his debut but pressed the pace last out, earning a career-best 86 Brisnet speed rating. This is a salty field, and I have to pass.

 

Mendelssohns March graduated in his debut on turf via DQ and beat winners in his second start over a sloppy Oaklawn track. At first glance, his pedigree says turf, but his half-brother Mr. Big News (Giant’s Causeway) won the Oaklawn Stakes and was third in the 2020 Kentucky Derby. Still, this seems to be too much too soon. He could be a force this summer, but I’ll pass for now.

 

Final thoughts

Ashley:  Tapit Trice is a legitimate favorite off his three-win streak, but the downside here is that he takes a while to gain a full head of steam. Saez started pushing him along before they even hit the far turn in the Tampa Bay Derby (G3). While the rail post isn’t ideal, he did win from that post at Gulfstream, going a one-turn mile.

Verifying will probably try to wire the field as the inside speed and gets another look after getting caught in traffic in the Rebel (G2). Classic Car Wash consistently runs a solid race, and Sun Thunder also gets another look after also getting caught in traffic in his last race. Blazing Sevens  needs to run at least third to qualify for next month’s Kentucky Derby; he’s currently at no. 36 on the leader board with 16 points.

Laurie: Since switching back to dirt from the fake stuff in 2015, only one favorite didn’t hit the board, and four won. Most of the winners pressed the pace and gained ground in their last start, but only three won.

Can Tapit Trice follow in the hoofprints of the Pletcher-trained Carpe Diem, who pulled off the Tampa Derby-Blue Grass double?

Verifying and Tapit Trice have the pace-pressing running styles to win. Sun Thunder and Classic Car Wash could make up ground late. Call me crazy, but I really like Scoobie Quando to hit the board, but we can’t pick them all.  

Selections

       Ashley         

 Laurie       

1. Tapit Trice (5-2)

3. Verifying (3-1)

3. Verifying (3-1)

1. Tapit Trice (5-2)

7. Sun Thunder (10-1)

7. Sun Thunder (10-1)

8. Blazing Sevens (6-1)

4. Classic Car Wash (12-1)



Meet Laurie Ross


 HRN Pedigree Analyst 

 Handicapper 

 Published Author

 Pedigree Research/Consultation/Sales 

 ThoroFan Board Member

 Member – NTWAB


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
Facebook: IMTBreds
LinkedIn: Laurie Ross

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