The Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) was once a great race that attracted many of the leading Derby contenders. Since the switch to Polytrack it no longer is regarded as a top Derby prep, attracting mostly grass and synthetic horses. It did get eventual Derby winner Street Sense, who pretty much used the race merely to set him up for the big one, and he was beaten in a four-horse photo by longshot Dominican. The three horses in the photo with him would finish 11th, 12th, and 17th in the Derby.
This year proved to be a similar type of race, minus a horse of the caliber of Street Sense. It attracted few dirt horses and was run like a grass race, with form tossed out the window. The first four finishers went off at 19-1, 24-1, 13-1, and 17-1.
So, do we ignore this race or actually try to make a case for the victorious Brilliant Speed, who was strictly a grass horse and was beaten a total of 40 lengths in his two dirt appearances?
We’re not going to attempt to tout Brilliant Speed as a potential Derby winner, but we certainly can for hitting the board and being part of the exotics. If anyone buys into it, they can then take it another step if they wish after looking at the tote board.
First off, let’s address his two dirt races. As a long, lean son of Dynaformer, whose offspring develop late and want to a distance of ground, he had no shot in his career debut going five furlongs at Saratoga. His fourth, beaten 19 lengths, looks terrible on paper, but let’s not forget that the winner, eventual Hopeful (gr. I) winner Boys at Tosconova, won by 12 lengths in a blistering :56 flat, while he broke slowly and raced greenly. So we can certainly give him a pass on that race.
In his second start, going seven furlongs at Saratoga, he again broke slowly, was rushed up to chase a :45 3/5 half, while down on the rail, but was rank and green, and drifted to the outside turning for home before tiring badly.
Did he not like the dirt or was he just extremely green and immature?
Trainer Tom Albertrani switched him to the grass and stretched him out to two turns at Belmont and he ran a pair of solid thirds over yielding courses. Albertrani gave him a couple of months off to grow and mature and brought him back at Tampa.
Breaking from the rail, he swerved a bit at the start, raced along the inside and ran up behind a wall of horses nearing the head of the stretch. When an opening appeared down on the rail, he shot through and drew off to win in hand.
Dropping back from 1 1/16 miles to a mile in the Dania Beach, he broke sharply, but got squeezed back to sixth, some seven lengths off the pace. Nearing the top of the stretch, instead of swinging wide, John Velazquez elected to stay put and wait for racing room. But it quickly became apparent there would be no way through, so he looked over his right shoulder to make sure he was clear and steered Brilliant Speed, who was still stuck on his left lead, to the outside. When he changed leads, he burst to the front, but was just nipped on the wire by the late-charging Adirondack Summer.
In the Hallandale Beach, he broke from the far outside and raced in fourth through the early going, about four lengths off the lead. He swung out widest of all turning for home and was full of run, but his stablemate, King Congie, kept drifting out into his path, continuously forcing him out. Not only did King Congie, who crossed the wire first, hamper his stablemate, his drifting allowed Master Dunker to slip through inside him to get second. That also cost Brilliant Speed the win, as King Congie was disqualified to third, with Master Dunker being placed first.
Albertrani ran both horses back in the Toyota Blue Grass and pretty much gave up on Brilliant Speed down the backstretch, when he dropped back to 12th and last behind snail-like fractions of :50 3/5 and 1:14 3/5. Albertrani just figured he wasn’t handling the Polytrack. But when Joel Rosario asked him to pick it up, Brilliant Speed swung off the rail to the far outside and came charging down the stretch, only to encounter a repeat of the Hallandale Beach, as King Congie again came out into him, forcing him out several more paths. But this time, he wasn’t going to be denied. Despite having to go seven-wide at the top of the stretch and losing his momentum having to deal with King Congie’s antics again, he still managed to fly home his last three-eighths in a sensational :34 2/5, with closing fractions of :22 4/5 and :11 3/5. How this translates to dirt we have no idea, considering the surface, but that is still flying, especially under the circumstances.
“He’s never had a chance to really stretch his legs out before the Blue Grass,” Albertrani said. “He’s always had to check or steady, and even at Tampa he had to steady behind horses, and then found his way through. He’s a really good finisher and I’d love to see if he can run the same race back again in the Derby as he did in the Blue Grass. When I saw him last on the backstretch, I’m thinking to myself there is no way he’s going to close on this track; he’s way too far back. He was farther back than I thought he’d be and I could only think he wasn’t getting hold of the track.
“Then I saw him make his move, and I tell you what, Rosario gave that horse such a good ride. He didn’t lose an inch of ground. He went from the rail and switched right out to the middle of the track in three strides. Then I saw him coming and said, ‘Wow, this horse is rolling.’”
What we really like about Brilliant Speed is his lean, chiseled look and refined head, like a European stayer. He has beautiful action and has shown the ability to overcome bad trips, whether it’s coming inside horses, in between horses, or outside horses. That kind of adaptability and willingness to go wherever he needs to should serve him well in a 20-horse field. And he can really motor once he gets going. In the Dania Beach, he closed his final quarter in :23 3/5 and came home his final sixteenth in :05 and change in the Hallandale Beach.
And for the Beyer pundits, his Beyers have gotten faster in each of his last six starts – 32, 65, 69, 79, 84, and 93.
He has done all his training on dirt, and has handled it well, according to Albertrani. As for his pedigree, Dynaformer sired Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner Barbaro, who also started out as a grass horse. Brilliant Speed’s broodmare sire, Gone West, sired Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Commendable, and his second dam, Daijin, is a full-sister to Belmont and Haskell (gr. I) winner Touch Gold. It is also important to note that Dynaformer’s offspring have won three grade I stakes on dirt and two of them came at Churchill Downs – Barbaro in the Derby and Perfect Drift in the Stephen Foster.
For Albertrani, April has been the proverbial roller coaster of emotions. Two weeks ago, he had no Derby aspirations at all. Then Arthur’s Tale, a son of Albertrani’s greatest horse Bernardini, nearly pulled off a shocker in the Wood Memorial (gr. I), getting beat a neck, and just like that Albertrani had a legitimate Derby contender. A few days after the race, Arthur’s Tale was off the Derby trail with a splint bone injury and so was Albertrani. Now, here he is back on the Derby trail with a grade I winner…all within a week.
“I think it’s great that we’re going to the Derby,” Albertrani said. “This is like a dream come true for Mrs. (Charlotte) Weber.”
From a historical standpoint, Mrs. Weber finished second in the Kentucky Derby nearly 30 years ago when her 18-1 shot Laser Light rallied from 19th under Eddie Maple. Her Live Oak Plantation is the only established long-time stable participating in this year’s Derby, so just maybe the Derby gods have her in their sights this year.