If you're on the road to the Kentucky Derby or the Kentucky Oaks, the ante has gone up. The next round of three-year-old preps begins on Saturday at Fair Grounds, with the Risen Star Stakes (G2) and the Rachel Alexandra Stakes (G2). Both of those races offer 50-20-10-5 points, respectively, to their top four finishers -- meaning that the winner is, should previous years be any indication, practically guaranteed a spot in the starting gate should their connections opt to enter them at Churchill in May.
Race 11: Rachel Alexandra Stakes (G2), three-year-old fillies, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 5:29pm 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. Seven 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), Untapable (2014), and Monomoy Girl (2018). 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).
Monomoy Girl began her 2018 season with a victory in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes, and ended it with a triumph over older fillies and mares in the Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1).
This race drew a field of ten to contest for a $200,000 field. However, the field will certainly be no larger than nine, and possibly eight. As reported by the Daily Racing Form's Marcus Hersh CHASING YESTERDAY did not ship, and BELL'S THE ONE is unlikely.
The pace in this race will be honest, at least. SERENGETI EMPRESS has true sprint speed early, though MOLTO BELLA should be trying to stay close from the rail, and LIORA has done her best right on the front as well. Barring a wicked speed bias that unfolds earlier in the day, this race looks well set for a horse to come from at least a little off the pace.
NEEDS SUPERVISION and ERES TU were the top pair in the local prep, the Silverbulletday, and look like key contenders this time around. Some local preps can be dead zones as the shippers and layoff horses come in, but in four of the last ten years, Rachel Alexandra winners emerged from the Silverbulletday or its predecessor, the Tiffany Lass. (Jody Slew, I'm a Chatterbox and Farrell won both; Summer Applause was second in the Silverbulletday.)
NEEDS SUPERVISION won both her maiden special weight and her first-level allowance by daylight, and needed to prove in the Silverbulletday that she had some grit when challenged. She proved that in the Silverbulletday, as ERES TU bore down on her all the way down the lane, but NEEDS SUPERVISION would not let her pass. Now, this daughter of Paynter has a right to improve: the Silverbulletday was her first race in almost two months, so she should be fitter for that effort, but her victory at Churchill last year suggests that there may be even more in the tank from a speed figures perspective.
ERES TU, sent off at 31/1 despite her high-percentage connections (jockey Ricardo Santana and trainer Steve Asmussen), impressed when finishing second in the Silverbulletday. On a day when it was good to be on or near the lead, ERES TU chased midpack and rallied to challenge NEEDS SUPERVISION all the way down the lane. The question -- and the reason why I couldn't pull the handle on picking her on top -- is whether she's going to improve enough to pass. Especially with NEEDS TU being in the middle of a campaign but NEEDS SUPERVISION coming second off the lay in this spot, I'm not convinced she will make up the difference. But, with all the speed in the race, she should be able to get a good run, especially if the track is playing fairly.
Among the invaders, POSITIVE SPIRIT interests the most. She has been freshened two and a half months since her dominant score in the Demoiselle Stakes (G2) at Aqueduct in December. That day, she showed tactical speed off an honest early pace for the mile and an eighths distance; that style should suit her well this time, as well. Her rider from that outing, Manuel Franco, hops the plane to follow her here. The worry comes from trainer Rodolphe Brisset's 3% win rate with horses laid off 45-90 days, but with a consistent worktab and a solid fresh effort last year over a distance that was just too short for a Pioneerof the Nile half to Always Dreaming, POSITIVE SPIRIT may just buck that.
#9 NEEDS SUPERVISION (5/1)
#8 ERES TU (12/1)
#4 POSITIVE SPIRIT (5/1)
Longshot: #2 STREET BAND (20/1) got her nose down in an allowance over this course on January 13, and that earned her a ticket to stakes company. She has a couple of sharp works since that race -- a good thing to see, as she came into the last off a series of sharp drills, as well. STREET BAND showed tactical speed from a relatively inside post in that race, just as she will have to in the Rachel Alexandra. And, the connections appeal. Her trainer Larry Jones is well-proven with three-year-old fillies, and having a 19% meet so far at Fair Grounds. And, though jockey Sophie Doyle may be flying under the radar of those who didn't follow Hawthorne fall or Arlington summer this year, she is winning at a solid 14% clip at Fair Grounds, and has gotten her pictures taken in three of her last ten races for Jones. All in all, STREET BAND has more to like than your average 20/1 morning line horse.
Race 12: Risen Star Stakes (G2), three-year-olds, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 6:02pm CST
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), 2013 Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) winner Mucho Macho Man (2011), and 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner (2016). 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 staves off Forevamo in the 2016 Risen Star Stakes. He would go on to a good three-year-old season -- then emerge as the star of the handicap division at four.
This $400,000 race drew an overflow field: 15, plus 1 also eligible. But, as the DRF's Marcus Hersh reported, KINGLY will not ship (he has entered the El Camino Real at Golden Gate). GUN IT will draw into the field.
This is where the rubber meets the road for WAR OF WILL: it's a tougher field than he faced in the Lecomte, and he has to overcome an outside post. Yet, I thought this horse was the goods coming into the Lecomte, and I remain convinced this horse is the goods. The outside post isn't too much of a worry, given how well he overcame a wide trip in the Lecomte. WAR OF WILL also has some tactical versatility, another positive given the draw. It should be interesting to see how the track plays on Saturday; it was rather speed-friendly on Lecomte day, something rider Tyler Gaffalione was wise enough to note and react to accordingly. There is also a chance of rain on Saturday -- not a huge one, but if it happens, WAR OF WILL is well set, with wins on the slop as well as on a Fair Grounds track that was on the good side of fast last time out. All in all? WAR OF WILL is fast enough and versatile enough, and he is squarely the one to beat.
HOG CREEK HUSTLE tried two turns for the first time in the Iroquois (G3) last fall, in only his second start, but never really kicked on. His pedigree suggested he deserved another shot at the stretch-out, something he got in the Lecomte. With a bit more experience under his girth he took great advantage, rallying for second on a day when speed was the place to be. With that experience underneath him HOG CREEK HUSTLE could move forward, and he could also do better should the track not play quite as well for speed this time around. It's also great to see Florent Geroux return to the irons; Geroux rode in the Lecomte, and has been firing at a solid 20% rate this Fair Grounds meet.
Now we get to a pair of new faces, OWENDALE and COUNTRY HOUSE. OWENDALE makes his stakes debut, a warranted move after two good allowance tries over the Fair Grounds course. Last time he won, comfortably clear of a couple of others in this race (FROLIC MORE and GUN IT). And though he lost two starts back, OWENDALE showed he had some fight in him as he bonked heads with Tackett down the lane. COUNTRY HOUSE is entered for his first start against winners. It took him three tries to do it. In his first start he didn't fire on the lawn, then he finished a late-running second in a one-turn mile at Aqueduct. Third time out he made his first try at two turns on the dirt. He blew the break, but rider Luis Saez settled him well and then got him coming home like a firecracker despite a pressured but not especially fast pace in front of him. Today he should get a bit more to chase than he did that day. Though COUNTRY HOUSE will have tougher foes than the unproven set he beat last time, if he gets a better break he should have plenty left.
Between the two, COUNTRY HOUSE is slightly preferred, only because horses don't typically win the race he won in his maiden race, and because the horse who beat him at Aqueduct (Kentucky Wildcat) came back to run as well as he did in the Sam F. Davis. (It's certainly not on price -- the 20/1 morning line on COUNTRY HOUSE is a pipe dream, since everyone has known about him since the field turned for home in the third race January 17 at Gulfstream.) But, both are worth covering in multi-race wagers -- and if a speed bias presents itself, the balance between these two may shift toward the more forward OWENDALE.
#14 WAR OF WILL (5/2)
#6 HOG CREEK HUSTLE (8/1)
#9 COUNTRY HOUSE (20/1)
Longshot: Trainer Steve Asmussen has a pair in here. Though his usual first-call rider Ricardo Santana goes to the far outside with GUN IT (third in an allowance last out behind OWENDALE), this space is more interested in the "other" Asmussen: #10 LIMONITE (10/1). LIMONITE makes his first start since NOvember, but judging from a strong debut effort (in which he finished a photo-finish third behind eventual G2 winner Signalman), he should be able to fire well fresh. He also has a pair of races at this distance last year in which he hit the board -- and he did so with contrasting styles, one from close to the pace and one from the clouds. In short, he is versatile. The breeding suggests that more time can do him good. And, even though he loses Santana to GUN IT, LIMONITE gets a more than able replacement in Brian Hernandez. Hernandez does not always ride at Fair Grounds -- but has been live when shipping over, with three wins in eight starts on the meet. All in all, LIMONITE looks exactly like the sort of horse who can get lost in the shuffle here, which means you'll get a great price on a consistent, versatile horse.
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