It was the morning of the 1988 Belmont Stakes and all was not well in the Belmont stakes barn, a four-sided barn encircling an English-style courtyard. In a corner of the barn, Risen Star’s troublesome ankle was being tubbed in ice, and it was still to be determined whether the handsome, strapping son of Secretariat would be able to run in the Test of the Champion.
Risen Star was on the verge of stardom. He had gone into the Kentucky Derby with six victories and two seconds in eight career starts, including scores in the Louisiana Derby, Lexington Stakes (defeating Forty Niner), Louisiana Derby Trial, and a 10-length romp in a Fair Grounds allowance race. He also won his only start on grass; a four-length win going 7 1/2 furlongs.
In the Run for the Roses, the big gray Amazon, Winning Colors, shot out to a huge lead as she had done in her romps in the Santa Anita Derby and Santa Anita Oaks. Risen Star, breaking from the rail, dropped back to last in the 13-horse field, some 15 lengths off the lead. Under new rider Eddie Delahoussaye, he unleashed a powerful run about six-wide on the far turn, and was a good eight-wide turning for home. Despite losing a ton of ground, he came charging down the stretch to finish third behind Winning Colors and Forty Niner, with many people believing he was the best horse in the race.
Risen Star’s story had captured the attention of the American public when the word got out that his unorthodox and a bit eccentric trainer and part-owner Louis Roussel III, who also owned Fair Grounds Racetrack, was donating 10% of Risen Star’s winnings to a group of New Orleans-based nuns belonging to the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Risen Star’s other owner, the flamboyant New Orleans automobile dealer Ronnie Lamarque, wrote a song about the colt, which he auditioned on the winner’s podium on national TV following Risen Star’s victory in the Preakness, in which he tracked the battling pair of Winning Colors and Forty Niner, the latter’s jockey Pat Day utilizing controversial and intimidating tactics, which resulted in his trainer Woody Stephens taking a great deal of heat, including a scathing editorial in the normally placid Daily Racing Form. Risen Star pounced on both of them at the head of the stretch and held off the late charge of Florida Derby winner Brian’s Time to win by 1 1/4 lengths.
The towering Risen Star, with his big long stride, seemed a natural for Belmont Park’s sweeping turns, which helped propel his sire to a jaw-dropping 31-length victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes, in which he shattered Gallant Man’s 16-year-old Belmont track and stakes record. His time of 2:24 broke the record by an astounding two and three-fifths seconds.
Unfortunately, Risen Star, who looked like a million dollars all dappled out, missed several days of training following the Preakness when he kicked himself in the ankle, injuring a suspensory ligament. If the ankle showed enough improvement to allow Risen Star to run, he would likely have to go into the Belmont without a work in the three weeks since the Preakness, which was unheard of.
But Roussel decided to test the ankle by giving him a short three-furlong blowout the morning before the race. There had been a great deal of concern a week before, but things began to look more promising as the race got closer. The swelling had subsided, but there was still a troublesome spot there that needed to be closely watched.
It was an important work that would determine whether the ankle would stand up to pressure. Risen Star’s exercise rider was the former jockey, 60-year-old Jimmy Nichols, who had been on a number of top horses for major stables since his retirement from the saddle.
It was Nichols who recommended to Roussel to purchase Risen Star, who was bred by Arthur Hancock III and Leone J. Peters, as a 2-year-old for $300,000. Nichols had been offered a job at Ellis Park, but turned it down to stay with Risen Star in exchange for a lifetime breeding right to the colt.
So, all eyes were on Risen Star and Nichols as they went out to the track on that Friday morning. No one, not even Roussel, was expecting what would happen next. Nichols set Risen Star down at the three-eighths pole, and the big colt, yearning for action after three weeks of galloping and nursing his injury, took off. He was much too powerful for Nichols to hold, and the rider did all he could to slow him down. Through the stretch, Nichols was practically standing straight up in the irons, pulling as hard as he could. But it was to no avail, as Risen Star was clocked the three furlongs in a scorching :33 3/5.
This was not what you wanted to see the morning before the mile and a half Belmont, especially from a colt nursing a bad ankle. All anyone could do now was wait until the morning and see if the ankle had held up or if it was inflamed again.
Early the next morning, there was Risen Star standing in ice, as his concerned crew looked on. As the races began, no one in the media had any clue what the condition of the ankle was and whether Risen Star would be scratched. Several races later, word came in the press box that Risen Star likely would be scratched. No one knew exactly where it came from, but it was just a matter of time when the announcement would be made.
A scratch would have been a disaster, as only six were entered, and with Risen Star out, it would look like a cakewalk for Winning Colors, with no other speed in the race. The Florida Derby winner and Preakness runner-up Brian’s Time was a closer, as were Blue Grass Stakes winner Granacus and Tampa Bay Derby winner and Jersey Derby third-place finisher Cefis, from the barn of Belmont Stakes guru Woody Stephens. Jim Beam Stakes winner and Derby Trial runner-up Kingpost had some stalking speed, but was well-beaten in the Kentucky Derby and was the longest price on the board at 17-1. He had made history at Churchill Downs by enabling his trainer Dianne Carpenter to become the first female trainer to run two horses in the Kentucky Derby, having saddled Biloxi Indian in 1984.
Conspicuous by their absence were Derby runner-up Forty Niner, Jersey Derby winner Dynaformer, and Peter Pan and Swale winner Seeking the Gold, who was second in the Gotham and Wood Memorial.
As the afternoon crept on, there was still no word about Risen Star being scratched. It was now obvious he was going to run. How he would perform with his bad ankle no one knew.
To demonstrate how close Risen Star, Winning Colors, and Brian’s Time were in the betting, all three went off at 2-1, with Risen Star and Brian’s Time 2.10 to 1 and Winning Colors 2.20 to 1.
The big gray filly, as expected opened a big lead early. Her half-mile fraction of :47 1/5 was a bit fast, as Risen Star and a patient Delahoussaye sat four lengths back. As they continued down the backstretch, Risen Star closed the gap and appeared to move in for the kill. But Delahoussaye was in no hurry and was content to lay off Winning Colors’ flank, knowing how much horse he had under him.
Around the turn, Deahoussaye nudged Risen Star and in a flash the race was over. He blew right on by Winning Colors and just kept extending his lead, reminiscent of his sire. With Delahoussaye just waving the whip at Risen Star a couple of times to keep his mind on business, Big Red’s son coasted under the wire by 14 3/4 lengths, and his time of 2:26 2/5 was the second-fastest Belmont in history behind his sire’s other worldly time. Even now, 30 years later, Risen Star’s time remains the fourth-fastest Belmont ever, with only Hall of Famers Easy Goer and A.P. Indy running faster.
The only horses who won the Belmont by larger margins were Secretariat, Count Fleet, and Man o’War. And by winning the Belmont, Roussel and Lamarque collected the $1 million Visa Triple Crown bonus.
There was no doubt that greatness awaited Risen Star, as he was still improving and filling into that huge frame. But the Belmont did come at a cost. His ankle became inflamed again, and they could never get it right. He was retired to Walmac International, where he died March 13, 1998, 10 years to the day after his victory in the Louisiana Derby. He is buried at Walmac, not far from Sham, another horse deprived of greatness.
Here we are 30 years after Risen Star’s Belmont victory and 20 years after his death. As Justify attempts to sweep the Triple Crown, one of those who will be looking to stop him is Preakness runner-up Bravazo, trained by Winning Colors’ trainer D. Wayne Lukas and whose only stakes victory came in the Risen Star Stakes, the very same race, then called the Louisiana Derby Trial, that launched the all too brief career of one of racing’s forgotten heroes.