Point values increased from the Feb. 13 Risen Star S. (G2), and Mandaloun likely guaranteed his Kentucky Derby participation by posting a 1 1/4-length victory.

As part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby series, the 1 1/8-mile Risen Star awarded points on a 50-20-10-5 scale, and I have three takeaways from the second of three qualifiers at Fair Grounds.

Mandaloun improves with blinkers, experience

After a close third as the odds-on favorite in the Jan. 16 Lecomte S. (G3), Mandaloun added blinkers and recorded his first stakes win.

Trainer Brad Cox and jockey Florent Geroux were quick to note how blinkers kept the Into Mischief colt focused, and Mandaloun moved forward while stretching out in distance for his second stakes and two-turn attempt.

The Lecomte experience benefitted him – Mandaloun hadn’t been seriously tested in a pair of juvenile sprint wins over maiden and entry-level allowance foes. After being out-finished for second in the latter stages of the Lecomte, Mandaloun certainly had more to offer in the stretch of the Risen Star.

The strong performance puts him back in the mix among leading Kentucky Derby contenders, and Mandaloun’s increasing Brisnet Speed rating profile (84-92-94-100) adds to his appeal.

Fair Grounds preps appear legitimate

Doubts surrounded the quality of the Lecomte, which was a tough read due to the glacial pace and surprising result, with expected stalker Midnight Bourbon leading wire-to-wire.

Proxy added three-time Kentucky Derby winner John Velazquez for the Risen Star, but he wasn’t included in the Pool 3 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager last weekend after finishing second in the Lecomte.

However, the Lecomte looked pretty good as the top three continued to dominate in the Risen Star, with Mandaloun edging past Midnight Bourbon in midstretch and Proxy rallying late to get up for second. A large gap existed between Midnight Bourbon and the rest.

Springboard Mile S. winner Senor Buscador was among the new shooters who failed to make an impact against Mandaloun, Proxy, and Midnight Bourbon, and the top .

“I think you’ll see the top-3 there are extremely tough horses and are going to be heard from again,” said Steve Asmussen, trainer of Midnight Bourbon.

Brad Cox strengthens Derby hand

Mandaloun earned a measure of redemption when bouncing back in the Risen Star. And connections believe he’ll relish longer Triple Crown distances this spring.

“He's got enough speed to be close and he stays on,” Cox said. “He's got the physical make-up of a mile-and-a-quarter horse so we're optimistic he'll get better with more ground."

Cox has unbeaten champion Essential Quality set to make his three-year-old debut in the Southwest S. (G3) at Oaklawn Park. Caddo River emerged as a major player on the Kentucky Derby scene for the barn when posting a 10 1/4-length win in the Smarty Jones S. in late January.

It’s a formidable contingent for Cox, who has never had a Kentucky Derby starter. The Louisville, Kentucky native received his first Eclipse Award for leading trainer in 2020.