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John Clay: Blue Grass needs its winner to show up in Derby

Sad to say, a cold and uninspiring day at Keene-land on Saturday produced another uninspiring Toyota Blue Grass Stakes winner.

We're not talking about the race itself, mind you. The 24,990 who braved the chilly temperatures and wicked wind were treated to a fantastic finish with Brilliant Speed, a 19-1 shot, nipping long shot Twinspired at the wire to capture the $750,000 Grade I race.

But Charlotte Weber, owner of Brilliant Speed, thought so much of her colt's chances, she didn't even attend the race.

"I'm speechless," she said via phone to her cousin George Strawbridge, who was at the race, before conveying she expected the horse to proceed on to the Kentucky Derby.

Not as anything close to the favorite, however. Brilliant Speed has run just two of his eight lifetime races on dirt. Those were his first two races, in which the son of Dynaformer lost by a combined 40 lengths. After being switched to turf, it still took three more races before he broke his maiden, winning at Tampa Bay Downs the day after Christmas.

Brilliant Speed had never run in a stakes race until Saturday. And even after the win on Keeneland's Polytrack, trainer Tom Albertrani admitted that there was no guarantee Brilliant Speed would adapt to the dirt at Churchill Downs.

"Distance-wise, I feel confident," said Albertrani afterward, "but if you ask me about the surface, that's another issue to debate about."

Unfortunately, the importance of the Blue Grass as a Derby prep is growing increasingly debatable.

Only one Derby winner in the past 15 years has even run in the Blue Grass. That was Street Sense, who finished second in 2007. The last Blue Grass winner to go on and win the Derby was Strike the Gold, way back in 1991. And Nick Zito, Strike the Gold's trainer, no longer runs his horses at Keeneland in the spring because of his dislike for synthetic surfaces.

Blue Grass Day itself is a wonderful occasion. The weather failed to cooperate Saturday, causing the brave souls to huddle in or under the grandstand. Most years, however, the place is packed with color and community.

Three weeks later, however, the winners run back in the pack at Churchill Downs. The last four Blue Grass winners have run eighth (Stately Victor), 10th (General Quarters), 20th (Monba), and 11th (Dominican) in the Derby.

To be honest, the bettors didn't expect much better. Stately Victor went off at 20-1 on Derby Day. General Quarters was a 10-1 shot. Monba was 32-1. Even though he beat Street Sense in the 2007 Blue Grass, Dominican was 25-1 for the Derby.

It just so happens that the Blue Grass has been run on Polytrack since 2007. With Santa Anita having switched from a synthetic surface back to dirt at the end of last year, the Blue Grass is now the final major Derby prep to be run on the artificial surface.

Six of Saturday's Blue Grass entrants (Newsdad, King Congie, Joes Blazing Aaron, Brilliant Speed, Willcox Inn and Queen'splatekitten) had run their last race on turf. Two others (Twinspired and Crimson China) had run their last race on the Polytrack at Turfway.

"I don't knock them for changing the surface at Keeneland because they did have some trouble with their track before," Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Derby contender Soldat told the Herald-Leader's Alicia Wincze Hughes recently, "but it's very difficult for us horse trainers to go in there and run on synthetic track knowing the Derby is on dirt.

"It's definitely not as big as a prep race as it used to be, that's for sure."

And that's a shame.

Maybe three weeks from now, Brilliant Speed will change all that. In this wide-open Derby, maybe the winner of a dark and gloomy Blue Grass can produce a brilliant surprise. The Blue Grass could use the help.

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