Angel of Empire stepped up for trainer Brad Cox in Saturday’s $400,000 Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds, rallying fastest of all to win by a length. Runner-up in his stakes debut, the Smarty Jones S. at Oaklawn Park on New Year’s Day, Albaugh Family Stables’ Angel of Empire became the latest three-year-old to earn his first stakes win in a Road to the Kentucky Derby series qualifier.

Ten of the 11 qualifiers in 2023 have been captured by first-time stakes victors, and Angel of Empire picked up a 50-point prize for taking the 1 1/8-mile Risen Star. A son of Classic Empire, the bay colt received a heady ride from new jockey Luis Saez, who recorded his third win and second stakes triumph on the 13-race program.

Off at 13.70-1 in the 14-horse field, Angel of Empire settled off the pace in ninth as Determinedly winged his way through opening splits in :23.34 and :47.50. Harlocap, the 7-1 fourth choice, pressed the pacesetter in second before advancing to take the lead on the far turn.

Angel of Empire launched his bid on the final bend, angling around and between foes as he gained momentum, and swept wide into the stretch. Sun Thunder, who was 11th early, closed fast up the inside to take a short lead with about a furlong remaining, but Angel of Empire kept charging and gained the upperhand in deep stretch, edging away under the wire.

Sun Thunder, who was exiting a fourth in the Jan. 28 Southwest (G3) at Oaklawn in his stakes debut, easily held second at 16-1, adding 20 Derby qualifying points to his ledger. It was about two more lengths back 5.70-1 second choice Two Phil’s, who made a move into contention turning for home but lacked the necessary finishing kick. He picked up another 15 points.

Tapit’s Conquest, the 5.80-1 third choice, came next in fourth, and 52-1 outsider Single Ruler was fifth. Next came Harlocap, Crupi, Curly Jack, 9-5 favorite Victory Formation, who never fired after stalking the pace in fourth during the early stages, Shaq Diesel, Silver Heist, Private Creed, Quiet at Midnight, and Determinedy.

A debut winner at Horseshoe Indianapolis last August, Angel of Empire recorded his lone unplaced effort when trying turf at Kentucky Downs the second time out. He rebounded with a convincing one-mile allowance win at Horseshoe Indianapolis in mid-November, and his career record now reads 5-3-1-0.

Bred in Pennsylvania, Angel of Empire was a $70,000 yearling purchase. He’s out of the To Honor and Serve mare Armony’s Angel.

One of 10 individual entrants for Cox in Pool 4 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager recently, Angel of Empire closed at 112-1. He’s the fourth Kentucky Derby qualifier winner from the Cox barn in 2023, joining Victory Formation (Smarty Jones), Instant Coffee (Lecomte [G3]), and Hit Show (Withers [G3]).