This is the second installment of “Kentucky Derby: Full Court Press,” which centers on Albaugh Family Stable’s 3-year-old colt J Boys Echo and his team. The series is written by veteran turf journalist Jennie Rees and provided courtesy of the Kentucky division of the Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Trainer Dale Romans and owner Albaugh Family Stable would rather that Saturday’s $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes was designated a Grade 1 race rather than Grade 2, a demotion handed down by the American Graded Stakes Committee in early December.
But that distinction wasn’t going to change their plans for J Boys Echo, who in his last start won New York’s Gotham Stakes and was among seven 3-year-olds entered Wednesday for the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass. Romans is a life-long Louisvillian who ranks second all-time in victories at Churchill Downs. Keeneland is sacred to him as well, the highlight being winning the Blue Grass twice, including last year with Albaugh’s Brody’s Cause.
“You’re talking horse country of the world, and the biggest (pre-Derby) race for 3-year-olds in Kentucky and you’re downgrading it as a Derby prep?” said Jason Loutsch, co-owner and manager for father-in-law Dennis Albaugh’s racing and breeding operation. “I just don’t get it. It was frustrating. I disagree. The Wood Memorial is the same thing. They’re both great races. Everyone has looked at those races for a long time as big prep races for the Kentucky Derby. To me, it doesn’t matter particularly if it’s Grade 1 or 2. It’s still one of the most coveted races for me every year.”
Romans said the Grade 2 label “doesn’t diminish the race in my mind at all.”
“The Blue Grass has been good to me,” he said. “We’ve won it two of the last four years. One ran third back in the Derby. A horse that ran second in the Blue Grass was third in the Derby. Brody ran all right in the Derby. So it works for me. In its own right, the Blue Grass means a lot to me.”
The Blue Grass and the Florida Derby, which last year produced Kentucky Derby-winner Nyquist, are tied for the 3-year-old prep producing the most winners at 23 apiece, according to Churchill Downs’ online media guide. The Wood is next at 20.
The stripping of Grade 1 status did not seem to deter horsemen. While only seven horses were entered, the reason might be that the Blue Grass is shaping up as perhaps the strongest prep race of the year, including unbeaten Kentucky Derby favorite McCraken. Five of the seven entrants are stakes-winners; four are graded-stakes winners, including Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapwrit and two-time Grade 1 winner Practical Joke. The two that haven’t won stakes have been second or third in multiple graded stakes, including Grade 1 races.
Like J Boys Echo, who is ridden by Robby Albarado, McCraken is trained (Ian Wilkes) and ridden (Brian Hernandez Jr.) by Louisvillians.
“I told Dale, ‘This Blue Grass is turning out to be a little mini Derby. You’ve got four of the top six horses,’” said Loutsch, along with Dennis Albaugh lives near Des Moines, Iowa. “I’m like ‘Holy Cow! We don’t have to win this race. If we do, great. If we don’t, I just want to move forward and show that we belong in this group.’ Dale goes, ‘Don’t worry about that. I’ll handle that.’ He sees him train every day, and he’s very confident in the horse. It’s going to be a tough race. Hopefully we’ll have some racing luck again. We don’t have to win it, but I want to have some confidence going forward.”
Romans says the Blue Grass and the Wood should have had perpetual Grade 1 status grandfathered in.
“It doesn’t diminish the race at all,” Romans said of the grading. “I don’t care if it was five years of being weak. For 100 years it’s been strong.”
Here’s a factoid that Romans and Loutsch were glad to hear: The last time the Blue Grass was downgraded from a Grade 1 to 2 — in 1990, the first year that the race was moved from nine days before the Derby to three weeks, since moved to four — it produced Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Unbridled and Preakness winner Summer Squall.
“I didn’t know that, but that’s pretty good,” Romans said. “Even if they look at a five-year period, they should take out Keeneland’s five years of being on Polytrack. Even then, you had nice horses in the race. It’s ridiculous.”
J Boys Echo drew post 3, just outside of McCraken. Said Romans: “Post position can’t be an excuse. The 3 is about as good as you can get in a seven-horse field.”
McCraken is the 7-5 favorite, with Tapwrit 5-2, Practical Joke 7-2 and J Boys Echo 4-1.
“It’s an even group of horses,” Romans said. “I don’t know if we’re fourth-best. It seems like a little high to me, but it doesn’t really matter. We’ll all find out Saturday afternoon.”
J Boys Echo had his final serious training move this past Saturday at Gulfstream Park, working five-eighths of a mile in company in 1:00 3/5. He flew to Louisville from South Florida on Sunday, and trained at Churchill Downs Tuesday for the first time since leaving late last fall. With all the Blue Grass horses required to be at Keeneland by noon Thursday, J Boy will van over the 75 miles to Lexington after training that day.
The Blue Grass is race 10 with a 6:17 p.m. ET post. It will be part of NBC Sports Network’s 5:30-7:30 p.m. telecast that includes the Wood and the Santa Anita Derby.