During the 2010s, few Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races produced as many Derby starters as the Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds, which cranked out Triple Crown contenders like clockwork throughout the decade.
First run in 1973 as the Louisiana Derby Trial, the early years produced a surprisingly steady trickle of quality winners as Master Derby (1975), Run Dusty Run (1977), and Linkage (1982) all went on to win or place in the spring classics. But it was the equine Risen Star who really put the race on the map, winning in 1988 before going on to claim victories in the Preakness (G1) and Belmont Stakes (G1).
Shortly afterward the race was renamed in Risen Star’s honor, and its subsequent ascent has been impressive. Assigned Grade 3 status in 2002, the Risen Star seemingly celebrated by producing War Emblem, who parlayed a sixth-place effort at Fair Grounds into a front-running win in the 2002 Kentucky Derby. Champion Lawyer Ron landed the 2006 Risen Star, and Grade 1 winner Pyro secured top honors in 2008.
The Risen Star achieved Grade 2 status in 2010, and a few years later the purse reached $400,000, a twentyfold increase from the $20,000 prize awarded when the equine Risen Star was racing. The quality of competition likewise increased, and between 2010 and 2019, 28 horses used the Risen Star as a steppingstone to the Kentucky Derby. A small sampling includes 2019 Derby winner Country House, 2019 Preakness (G1) winner War of Will, 2013 Preakness champion Oxbow, 2013 Belmont Stakes (G1) winner Palace Malice, and 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner.
Part of the Risen Star’s success can be attributed to its mid-February date. The race kicks off the Kentucky Derby Championship Series and awards 85 Kentucky Derby qualification points to the top five finishers on a 50-20-15-10-5 basis, virtually guaranteeing the winner a spot in the Derby starting gate.
And it’s safe to say the Risen Star is still growing. In 2020, the distance was lengthened to 1 1⁄8 miles, a change so popular the race attracted 23 entries and was run in two divisions.
By J. Keeler Johnson
Epicenter became the first horse to earn points for two victories on the Road to the 2022 Kentucky Derby with a decisive all-the-way victory in the Risen Star S. (G2) at Fair Grounds Feb. 19.
Able to get away with an unchallenged lead, Epicenter extended as he rounded the final bend and strolled clear in the stretch without Joel Rosario having to ask for much.
At the finish Epicenter had 2 3⁄4 lengths to spare, earning 50 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby table. Once added to the 10 points he secured for winning the Gun Runner S. and the 4 points for finishing second in the Lecomte S. (G3), it took his points tally to 64, topping the leaderboard and guaranteeing himself a start on the first Saturday in May.
Smile Happy, having his first start since winning the Kentucky Jockey Club S. (G2), didn’t get moving until the stretch but ran on nicely for Corey Lanerie to finish second and earn 20 points, moving to second place on the overall table with 30.
Zandon, running for the first time since finishing second in the Remsen S. (G2) in December, came from well back to finish third and earn 10 points. Pioneer of Medina, running in stakes company for the first time, finished fourth and earned 5 points.
It is likely the first three horses, in particular, will continue to be prominent in Derby preps, with each of them having shown class and a degree of stamina. Epicenter clearly has a lot of ability, especially with an unchallenged lead, while Smile Happy and Zandon should be improved by their runs.
By Alastair Bull