This weekend, stakes get higher on the three-year-old trails. The first 50-point preps show up on the calendar this week, and Picks and Ponderings dives into a pair of hotly contested preps in the Big Easy.
Fourteen runners with Kentucky Derby dreams line up for the Risen Star (G2), led by Lecomte Stakes (G3) winner GUEST SUITE and Remsen Stakes (G2) winner MO TOWN. Fillies have their day in the sun in the Rachel Alexandra (G2), which features the showdown of New Orleans's top sophomore fillies: Silverbulletday winner FARRELL and Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) runner-up VALADORNA.
The preview of the Risen Star Stakes is written jointly for ThoroFan's Handicapper's Corner. This preview was updated on Saturday, February 25 to account for the scratches of TAKEOFF, IT'S YOUR NICKEL, and SO CONFLATED from the Risen Star.
Race 9: Rachel Alexandra Stakes (G2), three-year-old fillies, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 4:06pm CST
First run in 1982 as the Davona Dale Stakes, the race was renamed for Silverbulletday in 2001, then named for Rachel Alexandra in 2011. It was run at a mile and forty yards in its first three editions, and then stretched to its current mile and a sixteenth distance. First named a Grade 3 in 1999, it got a promotion to Grade 2 in 2016. Rachel Alexandra never won the race named in her honour. But, she did win the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) in 2009 on her way to a dominant 20 1/4 length win in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) , and then beat males in the Preakness (G1), Haskell (G1), and Woodward (G1) later that year. Over its history, the Rachel Alexandra has been a productive source of Kentucky Oaks winners. Six winners of this race have taken home the blanket of lilies: Tiffany Lass (1986), Blushing K. D. (1997), Silverbulletday (1999), Summerly (2005), Believe You Can (2012), and Untapable (2014). Another of the most notable winners of this race fell a length and a quarter short in the Kentucky Oaks. Take Charge Lady (2002) won eight graded stakes, including the 2003 Arlington Matron. As a producer, she already has two champions on her direct female line: she is the dam of Will Take Charge (2013 Champion Three Year Old Male), and the second dam of Take Charge Brandi (2014 Champion Two Year Old Filly, via her daughter Charming).
This race has been billed as a showdown between FARRELL and VALADORNA, and for good reason. They not only rank as the classiest horses in the field, but both have form over the surface and both come here second off a break. FARRELL splashed home in a sloppy edition of the Silverbulletday. VALADORNA closed from last to win a five-horse allowance race the next week -- but she finished last year with a second-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1), so she has stakes quality as well.
This space will side with FARRELL over VALADORNA, since she stands to have a tactical advantage at a slightly better price. FARRELL had previously shown her best right on the front, but proved last out in the Silverbulletday that she can rate just off the pace. With others in the field (SHANE'S GIRLFRIEND, UNTAPPED, GRIS GRIS) who have shown speed, FARRELL will be well-served to stay out of a front-end fight. But, FARRELL and not VALADORNA stands to get first run. Could VALADORNA get best run? Perhaps. Her late pace shines in this field, and it speaks well that she closed so well from last in a field of just five, without a wicked pace in front of her, in her allowance prep. But, she faces better horses here, and she will likely have to run down FARRELL. In multi-race wagers, it makes sense to cover these two logical choices. For a win wager, FARRELL appeals just a little more.
Third came between WICKED LICK and UNTAPPED. WICKED LICK rallied for second in the Silverbulletday last out -- turning the tables on a flat UNTAPPED, who soundly beat her two back in an allowance. But, the Silverbulletday came over a sloppy track, and UNTAPPED gets fast going here. On pace, she should be as forward as anyone; she flopped farther off the pace last out, but her previous efforts in a frontrunning or pressing spot have been far better. Expect a renewal of that style, giving her a tactical advantage over WICKED LICK. Of course, we have all by now been disabused of any notion that UNTAPPED measures up to her full sister UNTAPABLE. But, she does represent trainer Steve Asmussen, whose barn has won four renewals of this race already. She also keeps regular rider Florent Geroux in the irons. Geroux has fired at 29% this meet, and has been aboard UNTAPPED for all four of her starts. UNTAPPED will not be the chalk she was last out in the Silverbulletday, and she has upside based on tactical position and track condition.
#2 FARRELL (5/2)
#5 VALADORNA (2/1)
#1 UNTAPPED (9/2)
Longshot: You don't always see the words "colossal upset" in a chart comment, but it happened last year after 74/1 shot Venus Valentine won the Rachel Alexandra. With only seven horses in the field you probably won't see anyone north of 70/1 this time around, but likely longest shot #4 MAJESTIC QUALITY (20/1) intrigues. The lone maiden in the field, the Keith Desormeaux trainee has some speeds close to what she needs to compete against this set. She tried turf last out, but stands to improve on the return back to dirt. And, if the pace gets hot with UNTAPPED, SHANE'S GIRLFRIEND, GRIS GRIS, and perhaps FARRELL, MAJESTIC QUALITY becomes particularly dangerous. Should that happen, it would take a flat effort from VALADORNA for MAJESTIC QUALITY to get all the way there -- but even so, she could round out a trifecta or superfecta at big odds.
Race 11: Risen Star Stakes (G2), three-year-olds, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 5:00pm CST
This year's edition of the Risen Star features a purse of $400,000, as well as 50, 20, 10, and 5 Road to the Kentucky Derby points for the top four finishers. Inaugurated in 1973 as the Louisiana Derby Trial Stakes, this race was renamed in 1989 to honour Risen Star. Risen Star won this race in 1988, following it up with victories in the Louisiana Derby (G3) and the Lexington Stakes (G2). Third behind Winning Colors in the Kentucky Derby (G1) that year, the Louie Roussel trainee returned to his winning ways to take the Preakness and the Belmont that year. He took the Belmont by a dazzling 14 3/4 lengths, faster than every Belmont Stakes winner up to that point save one: his sire, Secretariat.
Never has the winner of the Risen Star won the Kentucky Derby, though Master Derby (1975), like Risen Star, won the Preakness. Other notable winners of this race other than its namesake include 2007 Champion Older Horse Lawyer Ron (2006) and 2013 Breeders' Cup Classic (GI) winner Mucho Macho Man (2011). The Risen Star's most recent winner, Gun Runner (2016), has progressed since his victory in this race. He won the Louisiana Derby (G2), finished third in the Kentucky Derby, and closed out his sophomore year by beating older in the Clark Handicap (G1). The race has also had its share of curious winners, such as 135/1 stunner Ive Struck a Nerve (2013), and perennial bridesmaid Dollar Bill (2001), who finished second or third in nine graded stakes (including the 2002 Hawthorne Gold Cup), but captured his sole graded stakes win in the Risen Star.
Gun Runner begins his three-year-old year on the right foot, holding off Forevamo to take the 2016 Risen Star Stakes.
The Risen Star Stakes drew a field of fourteen horses -- but it is a stratified field of fourteen. There are "obvious" contenders who make a lot of sense...and for the most part, there are runners stepping up from maiden or weaker stakes company that will need to take a quantum leap forward to contend with the best of this field.
With that out of the way, there is one notable exception: a horse stepping straight out of maiden company who looks ready to take on the big boys. That's LOCAL HERO, and that's who this space tabs on top. He raced twice last year, in one-turn maiden special weights on quality circuits, finishing second both times. He got a two-month break, resurfaced at Fair Grounds, and tried two turns for the first time on January 26. He aired. Though that victory came on the front end, he showed enough interest on debut without getting the lead to suggest he may not need the front. LOCAL HERO also gets Florent Geroux back in the irons -- and Geroux hops off TAKEOFF, who finished third in the Lecomte (G3), to take this call on the less seasoned LOCAL HERO. He looks well-intentioned, and has solid upside. In a competitive field, he gets the nod.
GUEST SUITE won the local prep, a muddy renewal of the Lecomte, in comfortable fashion over the likes of UNTRAPPED, ARKLOW, and SHAREHOLDER VALUE. This will be a reasonable step up in company, but he also has a right to step forward second off his winter layoff. On speed, he looks solid. He has two-year-old form over dry tracks, as well, good enough to suggest that he is not just another Slop Monster. On pace, GUEST SUITE has some tactical versatility, and rider Robby Albarado has been able to sit him either closer or farther from the pace as necessary, and bring him past the wire first. Trainer Neil Howard emphasized after his victory that the Lecomte was just the first step toward future goals -- and given that GUEST SUITE appeared to win the race well within himself, those claims have a ring of truth. A return to that effort makes him competitive here, and a step forward makes him look even better.
MO TOWN has not run since winning the Remsen (G2) in November. The Remsen, admittedly, has been less than franked. Second-place No Dozing was a no-show in the Sam F. Davis (G3) two weeks ago, and third-place Takaful laid an egg in the Jerome (G3) next out. But, MO TOWN won that race with authority. Also relevant, MO TOWN won the Remsen off a two-month layoff. Combine that with the sequence of bullet works and trainer Anthony Dutrow's 19% win rate with runners laid off for three months or more, and all signs point to MO TOWN being cranked for his three-year-old bow. MO TOWN also keeps John Velazquez aboard; Velazquez rode him to his Remsen win, as well as his maiden win before that. Expect him to take advantage of MO TOWN's tactical speed once again, and get him rolling through the turn. The price won't be great on the win end, but in multi-race wagers, MO TOWN merits defensive use.
#3 LOCAL HERO (4/1)
#6 GUEST SUITE (6/1)
#9 MO TOWN (7/2)
Longshot: Yes, LOCAL HERO may be the new hotness from the Steve Asmussen barn, but "Asmussen B" #2 UNTRAPPED (10/1) has some seasoning and a solid claim to do well in the Risen Star. UNTRAPPED finished second behind GUEST SUITE in the Lecomte, beaten a length and a half. That was his first start in two months, and his first attempt at a route. He has every right to be sharper here, and he has fast dirt form from last fall. He also has tactical speed -- UNTRAPPED won't be right on the front end, but has some versatility in how far off the pace he can be to run well. Finally, on connections, Asmussen isn't the only person he has going for him. He keeps rider Ricardo Santana, Jr. from all three of his previous starts.