Color race green

Ky. Derby hopefuls in desperate run for graded-stakes cash

Blue Grass Stakes

April 10, 2008|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun reporter

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- If you want to know what's important about Saturday's Grade I, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes, just ask Dany Dion, owner of Kentucky Bear, a 50-1 long shot.

"We want to go to the [Kentucky] Derby," he said. "We need money."

A lot of money. Kentucky Bear, the winner of a single maiden race, has no graded-stakes earnings.

Winning the Grade I Blue Grass would be prestigious for any horse in Saturday's field, but earning the $465,000 first-place money, which would instantly qualify the winner for entry into the May 3 Derby, trumps it.

The need for money entraps trainers and owners, whether they're someone such as Dion, who has never had a Derby entry, or a veteran trainer such as Todd Pletcher, who had five horses in last year's field.

Going into Saturday's race, Pletcher's mighty stable doesn't have one horse qualified for this year's race.

To make the field at Churchill Downs three weeks from now, a horse has to be among the top 20 graded-stakes money earners.

With time and stakes races running out, Pletcher has entered Cowboy Cal, who is 39th on the money list with $57,660, and Monba, who is 41st with $50,000.

Like Dion, Pletcher is hoping one of his horses can win and clinch a starting spot.

"Pyro is obviously the horse to beat," Pletcher said. "I'd be surprised if he didn't win."

Left unsaid is the fact that strange things are happening in this Derby prep season. None of the favorites won in three preps last weekend, and last month's Tampa Bay Derby results, in which Big Truck won while War Pass finished more than 27 lengths up the track, seems to have emboldened realists and dreamers alike.

Coming up on the 84th running of the Blue Grass, experts thought it would be a small field because of the presence of Pyro ($1,020,000), the impressive winner of the Risen Star Stakes and the Louisiana Derby. Pyro and Cool Coal Man ($212,767), who drew the No. 1 post and is the second choice at 4-1, are the only horses in the field who don't have to worry about the money.

"This is a solid and much stronger field than we saw at the Florida Derby, where Big Brown dominated," oddsmaker Mike Battaglia said. "If the favorite stubs his toe, [anything] could happen."

And Scott Blasi, assistant to Pyro's trainer, Steve Asmussen, said it could.

"You never know, we're running on Polytrack here," he said of the surface, which will be a first-time experience for Pyro. "Poly is always a question."

By the time it came time to draw for starting positions, the field had grown to 12.

Pyro, the morning line, even-money favorite, drew the seventh post, with Big Truck in No. 6 and Stone Bird, a last-minute entry by trainer D. Wayne Lukas, in No. 8.

The Michael Matz-trained Visionaire drew the outside, No. 12 hole and was named co-third choice at 6-1 with Big Truck.

Dion's Kentucky Bear, who finished seventh in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, will break from the No. 2 post.

"He's a Kentucky-bred, like his name implies," said Dion, a Canadian who owns an oil exploration and mulching business. "I'm just playing a hunch."

As is everyone else.

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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