While the Grade II Blue Grass Stakes has not run unbroken, its history is deep and firmly connected to the Kentucky Derby. One of the major prep races for the Run for the Roses, it is conducted in early April at Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington, KY.
Currently sponsored as the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, it runs 1 1/8 on dirt and is open to all three-year-old Thoroughbreds. As of 2015, its purse stands at $1 million.
2021 Blue Grass Stakes
The 2021 Blue Grass Stakes is currently planned for its traditional place about five weeks before the Kentucky Derby on April 1, 2021. Since COVID-19 restrictions are constantly changing, it is not yet known if fans will be permitted to attend the race live at Keeneland Racecourse.
Keeneland, the Blue Grass Stakes Racetrack of 2021
A fixture of Kentucky Thoroughbred racing since its opening in 1936, the bucolic and stately Keeneland Racecourse is home to many major stakes races, as well as one of the world’s most important horse auctions.
It also contains North America’s finest library of horse racing. In 1986, Keeneland was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and set aside as a National Historic Landmark.
Keeneland has hosted major movie makers, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Queen Elizabeth II. It holds a spring and fall meet every year, as well as several other events. Its dirt track runs for 1 1/16 miles; a turf oval runs inside it for seven and a half furlongs.
Many great champions have run at Keeneland, among them Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, prominent sire Northern Dancer, and Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Whirlaway.
Understanding the Blue Grass Stakes
The Blue Grass Stakes is open to male and female Thoroughbreds who are three years of age. Its long record and presence at venerable Keeneland Racecourse mark it as a major piece of the three year old campaign.
This race is also a significant stepping stone to the most famous event in American Thoroughbred racing. Not just any horse can show up to Churchill Downs and enter the Kentucky Derby. Qualifying involves a multi-month, complex points system. The Blue Grass Stakes plays a pivotal role in this process.
Worth 170 total points, the Blue Grass Stakes awards 100 points for first place, 40 for place, 20 for third, and 10 for fourth. Although many stakes races which are part of the Run for the Roses system are important, few are as prestigious and difficult to qualify for as the Blue Grass Stakes.
Blue Grass Stakes Qualifiers and Why It Matters
The Blue Grass Stakes continues to cement its status as a classic step in Derby prep. The entrants are nominated with a subscription fee of $200 in mid-February, $1,000 in March, or $30,000 at the time of entry. Entry fees are $5,000 to enter and another $5,000 to start the race.
The colts carry 123 pounds and the fillies 118 in a field capped at 14 entrants. If more than 14 colts and fillies are nominated, the field is selected by how many graded stakes the entrants have won. If this does not clarify the matter, they are then ranked by amount of earnings.
These qualifiers help to limit the field to a safe size and maintain the Blue Grass Stakes’ reputation as a select part of Derby prep. This means that colts and fillies who perform well in their juvenile year as two year olds are favored, along with those who do well early in their three-year-old season.
Blue Grass Stakes History
The Blue Grass Stakes may have wandered through different running locations and even taken a hiatus at times, but it has long stood as one of the most highly regarded Kentucky Derby prep races. Because the area of Kentucky most populated with horse farms boasts bluegrass, which is more blue than green, the race took its name from the ground feeding the state’s many Thoroughbred foals.
It was first run in 1911 at the Kentucky Association, a track in Lexington which no longer exists. Even then, it was a proving ground for the already venerable Kentucky Derby. Its runner up, Meridian, won the Kentucky Derby that year. Others quickly followed.
The Blue Grass Stakes ran at the Kentucky Association location from 1911-1914. It took a break, then returned in 1919, and this time stayed until 1926, when it was discontinued again.
The race resurfaced at Keeneland in 1937. The Blue Grass Stakes became part of the Churchill Downs spring meeting in 1945, but it has run at Keeneland since then. For eight years, 2007-2014, the Blue Grass Stakes was run on a synthetic polytrack surface. Keeneland returned to a dirt track in 2015.
Blue Grass Stakes Historic Races
Not surprisingly, several winners of the Blue Grass Stakes have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby—ten of them to date. The first Blue Grass Stakes winner to win the race and then go on to win the Kentucky Derby was Donerail in 1913, then Bubbling Over in 1926.
Others are Shut Out, Tomy Lee, Chateaugay, Northern Dancer, Lucky Debonair, Forward Pass, Dust Commander, Riva Ridge, Spectacular Bid, Strike the Gold, Alydar, Holy Bull, Skip Away, and Harlan’s Holiday. The most recent Blue Grass Stakes winner to achieve this feat was 2007 champion Street Sense.
One Triple Crown winner, Whirlaway, came in second in 1942. Skip Away, who later won the Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year, took a win in 1996 with a record-setting time of 1:47.20.
The Blue Grass Stakes winningest jockey is Bill Shoemaker with six. Kentucky’s Calumet Farm has saddled the most owner’s wins, also with six. Five trainers are tied for the most wins at five: Ben A. Jones, Woody Stephens, LeRoy Jolley, Nick Zito, and Todd Pletcher.
Filly Swiss Skydiver turned in an impressive second place run in the 2020 Blue Grass Stakes, attracting a great deal of notice. Only a handful of other fillies have entered the Blue Grass Stakes, the first named Harriet Sue. She finished fifth in the Blue Grass, but won the Ashland Stakes in 1944.
Blue Grass Stakes Greatest Upsets
Dust Commander won not only the Blue Grass Stakes, but also the Kentucky Derby in 1969. He started the race as the public’s last choice at 35-1, and won by ¾ of a length. In 1988, winner Granacus paid $33.60.
The 2020 Blue Grass Stakes was an upset. Swiss Skydiver was favored at 3-1, but she came in second to Art Collector.
2020 Blue Grass Stakes Review
Just like nearly every other sporting event which took place past March, the 2020 version of the Blue Grass Stakes, originally scheduled for April 4, was severely disrupted due to the COVID-19 outbreak. While the Blue Grass Stakes is normally conducted in April as part of its function as a Kentucky Derby prep race, in 2020 it was run on July 11. However, it still managed to serve as a “Run for the Roses” proving ground and contributor to the points system since the 2020 Kentucky Derby did not take place until September 5.
The 2020 Blue Grass Stakes contained the names of many racers which became familiar to horse racing fans throughout the 2020 Triple Crown season. The welcome presence of a filly, Swiss Skydiver, presaged her victory at the Grade I 2020 Preakness Stakes with a strong second finish here, recovering from an awkward break and running what the Daily Racing Form called “a sensational race.” No filly has ever won the Blue Grass Stakes.
Several trainers and jockeys who have previously won the Blue Grass Stakes also saddled or rode entrants in the 2020 running, among them Kenny McPeek, Mike Smith, Javier Castellano (the 2019 Blue Grass Stakes winner), Michael McCarthy, Joel Rosario, Nick Zito, Dale Romans, Bill Mott, John Velazquez, Rafael Bejarano, and Jose Ortiz.
Twelve colts joined Swiss Skydiver in the gate. Here is the complete order of finish for the 96th running of the Blue Grass Stakes:
1) Art Collector; trainer Thomas Drury; jockey Brian Joseph Hernandez, Jr.; owner Bruce Lunsford
2) Swiss Skydiver; trainer Kenneth G. McPeek; jockey Mike E. Smith; owner Peter J. Callahan
3) Rushie; trainer Michael W. McCarthy; jockey Javier Castellano; owners Jim and Donna Daniell
4) Enforceable; trainer Mark E. Casse; jockey Joel Rosario; owner John C. Oxley
5) Attachment Rate; trainer Dale L. Romans; jockey Joseph Talamo; owner Jim Bakke and Gerald Isbister
6) Mr. Big News; trainer W. Bret Calhoun; jockey Mitchell Murrill; owner Allied Racing Stable, LLC
7) Finnick the Fierce; trainer Rey Hernandez; jockey Jose L. Ortiz; owner Arnaldo Monge and Rey Hernandez
8) Tiesto; trainer William I. Mott; jockey Flavien Prat; owner LNJ Foxwoods and NK Racing
9) Hard Lighting; trainer Alexis Delgado; jockey Rafael Bejarano; owner Partner Stable, LLC
10) Basin; trainer Steven M. Asmussen; jockey Ricardo Santana, Jr.; owner Jackpot Farm
11) Shivaree; trainer Ralph E. Nicks; jockey John R. Velazquez; owner Jacks or Better Farm, Inc.
12) Hunt the Front; trainer Nicholas P. Zito; jockey Corey J. Lanerie; owner Dream Walkin Farms, Inc.
13) Man in the Can; trainer Ron Moquett; jockey Tyler Gaffalione; owner JRita Young Thoroughbreds, LLC, and Robert V. LaPenta
Final Thoughts on the Blue Grass Stakes
If the Blue Grass Stakes is a bellwether for the Kentucky Derby, keep an eye on Breeders’ Cup Juvenile races and early Road to the Kentucky Derby races to see who is competitive for the Blue Grass Stakes. It’s a lovely spring tradition at a beautifully classic track, is one of the best horse racing moments of the year, and is certainly a can’t-miss moment in the Triple Crown season.