Santiva early favorite in Blue Grass Stakes
The last time Santiva ran on the Polytrack at Keeneland, he finished a strong second in the Breeders' Futurity, a performance made all the more remarkable considering how poorly he broke out of the gate.
Trainer Eddie Kenneally doesn't expect the same to happen in Saturday's $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes, not with a potential trip to the Kentucky Derby on the line.
The lightly raced Santiva will start from post three as the morning line 3-1 favorite in the 12-horse field, where the payday would assure Santiva a spot in next month's Run for the Roses.
The 3-year-old colt is currently 18th in graded stakes earnings barely three weeks to go before the Derby, where the 20-horse field is based on graded earnings if more than 20 are entered.
Not that Kenneally is too focused on the Derby. He's simply hoping for something to build on. Santiva showed he could handle the dirt well in his last start, finishing a close second to Mucho Macho Man in the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds on Feb. 19.
The Blue Grass is a little longer at 1 1/8 miles, though Kenneally is hardly concerned. Not with a horse who's hit the gas just once since winning the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs - home of the Derby - last November.
''I shouldn't think (the distance) will be a problem,'' Kenneally said. ''He's a very relaxed horse. He's easy to manage. Julien (Leparoux) has been riding him and he has a lot of confidence in him.''
The Blue Grass remains one of the last major Derby preps but the move from dirt to a synthetic surface in 2006 has made it more of a crapshoot. Last year Stately Victor stormed the Derby party after winning as a 40-1 long shot.
Street Sense in 2007 is the only horse to run in the Blue Grass and win the Derby since the switch. The field in recent years has been littered with turf horses looking to make a name for themselves on the Derby trail.
This year's field is no exception. King Congie, the 5-1 second choice, has run his last three races on the turf, the last an eventful third at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 6. King Congie actually won the race before being bumped to third after racing officials ruled he impeded other horses in the stretch.
''It's been a roller-coaster ride with this horse,'' said Jeff Lifson of West Point Thoroughbreds.
King Congie is named after former West Point Thoroughbreds communication manager Congie DeVito, who passed away Feb. 16.
''He won his first stakes while our Congie was still alive and then was disqualified when Congie was fighting for his life,'' Lifson said. ''It's been a wild ride for everybody but the horse. It's going to be a very emotional day.''
King Congie would likely need to win to get in the Derby, but other horses would likely skip the first Saturday in May if they hit the wire first.
Willcox Inn trainer Mike Stidham has no intention of running in the Derby if his horse - who has never run on dirt - finds a way to the front.
''His pedigree says turf and Polytrack, and we have stuck with that so far,'' said Stidham, whose horse will start from the eighth post with morning odds of 10-1. ''He is definitely a mile-and-a-quarter horse or more. We are most likely not looking at the (Kentucky) Derby, but never say never.''
That's the lure of the Blue Grass. The changing complexion of the race has the field as wide-open as ever. The longest shot on the board is Newsdad, who is 20-1 while starting from the rail for trainer Bill Mott.
''Santiva is a legitimate favorite, and I think Willcox Inn is the second best in there,'' said Barry Irwin, co-owner of Crimson China, who will start from the 11th post. ''After that, I think we're as good as anybody else in there.''