Saturday’s $400,000 Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds ushers in the Road to the Kentucky Derby Championship Series. The points on offer now increase to a 50-20-15-10-5 structure to the top five.
A full field of 14 has entered the 1 1/8-mile contest, the final local stepping stone to the Mar. 25 Louisiana Derby (G2). Trainer Brad Cox has won the first two scoring races at Fair Grounds, the Dec. 26 Gun Runner S. and Jan. 21 Lecomte (G3), with different horses. He’ll try to make it a hat trick with a fresh set of prospects, led by Victory Formation.
Here are five talking points for the Risen Star.
1. Victory Formation faces his biggest test yet, both tactically and in depth of competition.
Undefeated Victory Formation has shown excellent tactical speed, heart, and the ability to go two turns while compiling a 3-for-3 mark. This is a stiffer test, though, than the one-mile Smarty Jones S. at Oaklawn, where he was in control throughout.
Not only is he stepping up another furlong, but Victory Formation is drawn all the way out in post 13, with other speed to his inside. He could have to expend too much energy early to get across, or risk getting stacked out wide, or find himself dropping farther back than he’s ever been to save both energy and ground. Jockey Flavien Prat will do his best to work out a decent trip.
Victory Formation is also facing the deepest field he’s encountered so far. Curly Jack represents a solid yardstick of established form for trainer Tom Amoss. The winner of the first scoring race on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, the Sept. 17 Iroquois (G3), Curly Jack was fifth to champion Forte in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and runner-up to Instant Coffee in the Nov. 26 Kentucky Jockey Club (G2). And there’s no shortage of rivals on the upswing.
2. The added distance could be the key for a colt on the verge of a breakthrough.
Although Victory Formation is bred to handle extra distance himself, several others are entitled to improve in these conditions, including his stablemate Tapit’s Conquest. The son of Tapit broke his maiden over 1 1/16 miles at Churchill Downs before finishing a hard-charging second in a Fair Grounds allowance at the same trip. As a talented colt still figuring out the game mentally, Tapit’s Conquest is vaguely reminiscent of Cox’s Cyberknife at this point on the trail last year. Yet another stablemate, Angel of Empire, was a rallying second in the Smarty Jones, and he’ll have a better scenario to try to bridge the gap.
Todd Pletcher, a three-time Risen Star winner, sends the well-bred maiden Crupi. The son of Curlin has hooked some tough company in his maiden races – most notably Instant Coffee – and he is getting progressively closer to winning. Last time at Aqueduct, Crupi came up just a head short of Slip Mahoney, who was coming off a near-miss to highly-regarded Tapit Trice.
Sun Thunder comes off a fourth to the brilliant Arabian Knight in the Southwest (G3) at Oaklawn, and trainer Ken McPeek has emphasized that he needs more ground. Single Ruler just upset a Fair Grounds maiden in first-time blinkers for Keith Desormeaux, and the Empire Maker colt should appreciate the distance.
3. Harlocap is the most intriguing of Steve Asmussen’s trio.
Steve Asmussen has trained three Risen Star winners – Pyro (2008), future Horse of the Year Gun Runner (2016), and eventual champion Epicenter (2022) – and all three turned the double in the Louisiana Derby. If any of his current trio prevails on Saturday, he’d warrant serious respect in Fair Grounds’ marquee race next month.
Harlocap, who just switched from the barn of Bob Baffert, wired a Santa Anita maiden in style. And John Velazquez makes the trek to ride him again. By Triple Crown winner Justify, Harlocap is out of a mare with close ties to two runners-up in the Kentucky Derby (G1). His dam, Mezinka, is a half-sister to multiple Grade 1 star Pioneerof the Nile, second in the 2009 edition and later the sire of Triple Crown champ American Pharoah. Mezinka’s sire is by Bodemeister, second in the 2012 Derby.
Silver Heist raced in the same allowance as Tapit’s Conquest, finishing third, and as a fellow Tapit, he could move forward from that experience. Private Creed, a multiple stakes winner on turf, experiments on dirt here. Distance is another question mark for the colt who spent his entire two-year-old season sprinting, culminating in a third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint (G1). Private Creed missed narrowly in his two-turn debut in the Jan. 28 Texas Turf Mile, on soft going, but this is a significant step up.
4. The form of the first two Fair Grounds preps is under scrutiny.
The winners of the first two scoring races at Fair Grounds are not here, but the respective runners-up are back to represent the form. Determinedly, the 9-10 favorite in the Gun Runner, wound up a distant third to Jace’s Road. He rebounded by winning the hot allowance race over Tapit’s Conquest, but Determinedly just scraped home by a neck after enjoying an easy lead. Indeed, trainer Mark Casse’s initial idea was to cut back in trip, not stretch out further, so Determinedly needs to step up considerably to stay on the trail. Adding to the uncertainty, Jace’s Road didn’t run well next out in the Southwest, checking in fifth, although the sloppy track was against him.
The Lecomte arguably shaped up as a stronger race, with Instant Coffee rallying past Two Phil’s. As Instant Coffee freshens up for the Louisiana Derby, Two Phil’s will try to give him a form boost in the Risen Star. He figures to be fitter than last time, considering he hadn’t raced since romping in the Oct. 30 Street Sense (G3). Trainer Larry Rivelli boasts a 32% strike rate in the “second start off a layoff” category, according to Brisnet.
5. The Risen Star isn’t the only race with Louisiana Derby implications.
The fantastic Saturday card at Fair Grounds features a total of six stakes races, including the Rachel Alexandra (G2) on the Road to the Kentucky Oaks. If unbeaten Hoosier Philly wins, she could hop onto the Derby trail.
Also, the eighth race is a 1 1/16-mile allowance brimming with Triple Crown nominees likely auditioning for the Louisiana Derby. Smashing maiden winners Banishing, First Defender, and Cagliostro meet Denington, the Smarty Jones third and Lecomte fourth.