Can 'Vicar' Avoid Trouble in the Risen Star?

By J. Keeler Johnson

It's an age-old handicapping question—what do you do when the horse you like has drawn a poor post position?

Attempting to answer this question is the key to unlocking the winners of the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) and Besilu Stables Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II), both of which feature well-regarded contenders trapped in far outside post positions. Can they overcome the adversity? Here are my thoughts...

Risen Star

When handicapping races with large fields, it can be very easy to overthink things and miss obvious contenders while searching for value. It is particularly easy to do so when the favorite seems vulnerable due to post position, a step up in class, or other factors.

In many respects, the Risen Star seems primed for an upset. The race has drawn a full field of 14, and the likely favorite, Vicar's in Trouble, has drawn the far outside post position. In addition, Fair Grounds has played host to a pair of incredible upsets during the last two years—who can forget I've Struck a Nerve's 135-1 win in last year's Risen Star, or the 109-1 triumph of Hero of Order in the 2012 Louisiana Derby?

But as tempting as it is to try and find a longshot in this deep and competitive race, I'm not going to overthink things, and I'm going to stick with Vicar's in Trouble. Yes, post 14 is far from ideal, and there is a possibility that he will get hung wide on the first turn and lose the race practically before it's begun. But in my opinion, Vicar's in Trouble towers over this field, not only from a speed figure perspective, but from a tactical perspective as well. Looking over the race on paper, I don't see a lot of early speed, and with a reasonably long run to the first turn (more than a furlong), I believe that Vicar's in Trouble will be able to clear most of the horses to his inside and assume good position entering the turn. From there, he just needs to do what he did in winning the LeComte last month—relax down the backstretch, accelerate coming off the final turn, and play "catch me if you can!" down the homestretch.

Of course, having said that it's tempting to try and find a longshot in this race, it would be cowardly if I didn't at least give it a try. My best candidate for an upset is Gold Hawk, who finished third in the Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) after being reluctant to enter the starting gate. While his performance wasn't bad, he seemed to lack the sparkle he showed in his first two victories, so I'm hoping he will relax a bit better on Saturday and finish stronger in the homestretch. The jockey switch to Corey Nakatani is also encouraging.

Fountain of Youth

In the last three years, the Fountain of Youth has produced three Classic winners—Orb, Union Rags, and Shackleford. That string of success seems poised to continue, for the 2014 edition of the race has drawn a spectacular field of talented colts, headlined by the exciting Top Billing. This son of Curlin is my top-ranked Derby contender at the moment, thanks to his eye-catching allowance victory on January 25th. The sweeping, last-to-first move he made around the far turn was breathtaking to watch, and the fractional splits reflect that he ran his second half-mile in approximately :47.30 seconds—a stellar time, indeed!

Unfortunately, Top Billing has drawn gate 12, and while his late-running style should enable him to take back and avoid too much ground loss, that strategy may also leave him with too much to do in the last half of the race. I expect him to be coming fast at the finish, but perhaps fall short if a rival with more tactical speed is able to get the jump turning for home.

So who might that horse be? There are plenty of talented colts from which to choose, but the one I have my eye on is We Miss Artie. In his only start on dirt thus far, We Miss Artie tracked a very fast pace in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) and looked primed for a top-four finish in the homestretch, but tired late and wound up seventh, beaten four lengths. He returned in January to finish a sharp second in the Kitten's Joy Stakes at Gulfstream, and with the advantage of breaking from post two, he definitely won't get caught wide on the first turn. Maybe I'm crazy, but I think he has a real chance to steal this race at a great price.

Who do you like?


Leave a Comment:


It's great to hear that you're drawn to We Miss Artie too.  I also have thoughts of putting C.Zee and Almost Famous and Top Billing into my mix. What fantastic athletes in the FofY as well as a couple other races on Saturday at Gulfstream. It's going to be a great day, I can't wait!

20 Feb 2014 10:57 PM


It's interesting that you like C. Zee and Almost Famous, because I really wanted to mention them in my analysis, but didn't have enough space. I feel that Almost Famous' fourth-place finish in the Holy Bull was pretty strong, given that it was his first start since early November, and he surely needed the race.

As for C. Zee, I like that he showed a great deal of speed in the Hutcheson Stakes, for that sprinting ability should put him right near the front in the Fountain of Youth. With the race ending at the sixteenth pole, instead of the traditional finish line, the ability to be on or near the lead at the top of the stretch could prove to be a major advantage!

21 Feb 2014 12:03 PM

On this weekend one year ago, we saw all three 2013 Triple Crown race winners in action -- Orb won the Fountain of Youth, while Palace Malice and Oxbow were third and fourth in the Risen Star. Question to all: Are the future stars of the 2014 Triple Crown in action this weekend?

21 Feb 2014 12:33 PM
Minnesota Kid

Wildcat Red wires the FOY field, pays $17.60 to win.

21 Feb 2014 12:33 PM

The ones picking We Miss Artie wouldnt have been convinced by the Pletcher return on investment on the formulator would you.

Just a hunch if you were to go back and study the samples for this stat, I would guess that 1 this angle dosent have many samples and, 2 none of the samples have occurred in a graded stakes race,but with Pletcher I could be wrong because he runs so many horses in stakes competition.Looking forward to any and all replies that are precisely on this topic, nothing related as far as breeding,his pps,etc.Just on the angle that is on the Formulator,if you dont know what it is, then you cant reply with intelligence.

21 Feb 2014 6:31 PM


Thanks for your comment! I assume you're referring to Todd Pletcher's impressive turf-to-dirt statistic? I hadn't seen it when handicapping the race, but I did a bit of checking after reading your comment, and here's what I came up with: Over the last year, fifty of Todd Pletcher's horses have made the turf-to-dirt transition, and sixteen have won, for a win percentage of 32%. Of those sixteen victories, four came in maiden special weights, five came in maiden claiming races, three came in allowance/allowance optional claiming races, one came in a claiming race, two came in ungraded stakes races, and one came in a graded stakes. Six of the victories came in races that got rained off the turf, including the lone graded stakes victory, which was the 2013 National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes (gr. III) at Saratoga.

I hope that helps!

21 Feb 2014 7:22 PM

It might be a surprise, that i question the soundness of Vicars.........look for this horse to be on the shelf soon..........

21 Feb 2014 7:40 PM
Plod Boy Phil


That's a lay-up.

21 Feb 2014 8:38 PM

It's a shame that the author of this article is already creating   excuses for losing for the probable favourites in both of these races.  One might also make the same statement if they drew the rail.  Allow them run their respective races; ultimately the BEST horse at that distance, handling the track conditions on that day will win (barring accident/injury)- that's what makes it horseracing- finding that needle in the haystack.  

That being said, I'm picking Wildcat Red to win and exacta of him General a Rod in the FOY.  Rise Up to win and Vicar's in Trouble exacta for the Risen Star; Gold Hawk, Son of A Preacher, Hoppertunity and Albano in no particular order are giving me agita as to choose to round out super.  

21 Feb 2014 8:43 PM
Plod Boy Phil

Fair Grounds Saturday

The day's best from Flowville is Mister Mardi Gras, regardless of which event they choose.  The Mineshaft (R12) is my personal preference.

21 Feb 2014 9:09 PM
Sail On

Vicar's In Trouble will "win" by runing this race even if he actually loses it. He doesn't need to win, just do his best, learn to race in a crowded field, and earning Derby points would be a bonus.

21 Feb 2014 10:42 PM

Keelerman yes thats the stat with all the samples.BTW where did you get that detailed data?

22 Feb 2014 8:12 AM
El Kabong


I don't think he's making excuses, just pointing out an obstacle that each will have to deal with if they are going to win that the others do not have to face. How many times have we reviewed the Derby and said, So and So got the best trip but Mr. X would have won with a better trip. Point is, getting a good trip is key to any race. As the favorite, they should be able to handle it, but in this case, these are young horses who haven't mastered their own style of running so who knows how they'll react. It's not an excuse, it's a legit concern for those horses in both races. All Keelerman is pointing out is that there is an opportunity for an upset if they don't handle the challenge. I like the Commish in the FOY and I've heard some say he is compromised by his rail post(i don't get that, but I've heard it said). Personally, I think with JV on his back he will take advantage of that spot to set himself up for a perfect stalking trip. In the Risen Star, my pick, Commanding Curve is just inside of the favorite in post 13. At the Fairgrounds I don't think it's a problem because you have a long backstretch and the longest stretch from turn to finish to pick off tiring horses while staying out of trouble. I'll Box 8,9,13,14 in this one.  

22 Feb 2014 9:20 AM


I found it on Formulator. If you click on Todd Pletcher's name, it will bring up his trainer profile, which includes a button near the top-right corner labeled "Modify Filters." If you click on that, you can sort through his trainer statistics in many different ways. In finding the statistic on his turf-to-dirt starters, I selected "Past Year" in the time frame option, and "Turf to Dirt" in the surface category. This will bring up a list of all his turf-to-dirt starters during the last year, which can be sorted by finishing position, Beyer speed figure earned, final odds, and such. Formulator certainly can be helpful for examining trainer statistics in greater detail!

22 Feb 2014 10:04 AM

Just heard that Casiguapo has been scratched from the Fountain of Youth.

22 Feb 2014 10:05 AM

In the fifth race at Gulfstream today -- a nine-furlong maiden special weight for three-year-olds -- I really like the chances of Strong Stipulation. I've had my eye on this Graham Motion-trainee ever since his name showed up in the nominations for last years' CashCall Futurity (gr. I). He made his debut on February 1st, finishing a late-running second in a 6 1/2-furlong maiden special weight at Gulfstream, and given his pedigree, he should love the additional distance of today's race.

22 Feb 2014 12:42 PM
Plod Boy Phil

Host -

Any post race comments on either of the 3 yo Stakes, or Constitution's Alw1x win ?

24 Feb 2014 11:04 AM

I'm glad you asked, Plod Boy Phil! Having taken a day to let the dust settle, here are a few of my thoughts on the results of the weekend races . . .

* I, like many, thought there was enough evidence of a speed bias at Gulfstream on Saturday to consider Top Billing's performance in the Fountain of Youth to be superior to that of the top two finishers. I really think he has the most potential moving forward out of this race. But that said . . .

* Joel Rosario gave Top Billing a virtually perfect ride in the Fountain of Youth, avoiding ground loss on the first turn and maintaining great position around the far turn. While a track bias may have hindered Top Billing's efforts to catch the front-running leaders, he also received as good a trip -- under the circumstances -- as his connections could have hoped for, yet still fell a bit short.

* I was surprised by the odds in the Risen Star Stakes. Prior to seeing the morning line, I assumed that Gold Hawk would be sent off at around 15-1, with Vicar's in Trouble, Intense Holiday, Hoppertunity, Rise Up, Albano, Commanding Curve, and maybe even Emmett Park receiving more support. Yet at post time, Gold Hawk was sent off at 6.70-1, less than half the 13.60-1 price of Albano, who had beaten Gold Hawk fairly and squarely in the LeComte!

* Speaking of the Risen Star, Intense Holiday and Albano put on a nice show in finishing just a nose apart at the wire, but even though they earned a respectable Beyer speed figure for their efforts, the race in general reminded me a lot of the 2012 Risen Star, won in similar photo-finish style by El Padrino over Mark Valeski. Those two colts earned a strong speed figure as well, yet both proved disappointing in their subsequent Triple Crown endeavors. I'm not saying that Intense Holiday and Albano can't be factors as the Derby Trail continues, but given Intense Holiday's previous record in graded stakes races, I'm going to be keeping a close eye on how the Risen Star horses perform in their next starts.

* I will be especially interested in seeing how Vicar's in Trouble fares next time out. I was very surprised to see him so far back early on, and I was impressed with the run that he made around the far turn to get into contention. Sure, he flattened out in the homestretch, but remember how Oxbow won the 2013 LeComte in a romp, came back to finish fourth in the Risen Star (albeit a close fourth), and eventually went on to win the Preakness? I'm not counting out Vicar's in Trouble just yet.

* If you believe there was a track bias at Gulfstream on Saturday, you have to be at least a bit skeptical of Constitution's allowance victory, even if he was impressive. I personally thought that Mexikoma ran rather well in his first start since the Breeders' Cup, and I think he could take a big step forward next time out. But I don't think any of the horses from this race would have challenged for victory in the Fountain of Youth, given that Wildcat Red and General a Rod set a much faster pace in the Fountain of Youth than Constitution did in the allowance race, and that they maintained a good pace all the way to the finish while recording a faster final time.

I'd love to hear your thoughts, Plod Boy Phil, on the possibility of a track bias at Gulfstream on Saturday!

24 Feb 2014 4:53 PM
Plod Boy Phil

Keelerman -

- On the subject of a Speed bias on the Gulfstream dirt track on Saturday:

We detected a speed favoring surface. In other words,  the 'modest bias' is unable to support the upgrading or downgrading of performances on it's own strength, but it does play an important role in supporting those races on the card that also had Speed favoring Flows.

On that note,  if I may. It's important to differentiate between Bias,  a figure calculated on as few as 5 races a day, and Flow,  or race shape,  which is calculated using track and distance specific models derived from hundreds of races.  Imagine trusting the accuracy of 10 rolls of the dice or 500 rolls of the dice in determining the true odds of rolling a 7.  As a result,  the degree to which Flow ranks over Bias is ~ two fold.

- GP, R6, Alw1x, Winner: Constitution -  A speed favoring race Flow combined with the speed friendly surface to create a speed favoring race scenario.  That said, the race falls slightly outside the guidelines for upgrading or downgrading.  Since guidelines are made to be tested, my current stance is to give modest upgrades to Tonalist and Mexicana, and give a thumbs down to Constitution.  

- GP, R11, FOY, Winner: Wildcat Red - a perfectly 'neutral' race Flow more than offsets the speed friendly surface.  As a result, there are no upgrades or downgrades exiting the FOY.  As for Top Billing,  his performance was that of an improving colt lacking speed that steps up into legit Graded stakes. He's no Orb at this stage, nor does not he have the wave of Lasix driven improvement to ride like last year's winner enjoyed for three months.

Bottom-line:  As I blogged on the 'top floor of this Unlocking Winners stack' Sunday morning,  I regard the top two in the FOY as having performed leaps and bounds better than Constitution did in his win.  

- I am of the belief that one of the two engaged in the race long duel in the FOY,  Wildcat Red and General A Rod,  will not recover in time to move forward.

- I'm also of the belief that the energy distribution by Constitution was that of a turf winner, not that of a 9f dirt horse. If pressed to maintain contact with legitimate pace over a distance of ground,  he'll come up empty.  While his debut was pleasing to the eye, it was not special when analyzed using our methods. He may of course develop into an exceptional race horse, but currently, there's nothing to suggest he's capable of maintaining the same high cruising speed and finish.

As for the Risen Star,  there's nothing from Flowville to make any of them anything other than 'just horses' for now.


24 Feb 2014 7:40 PM

Thanks for your thoughts, Plod Boy Phil! I really appreciate that you took the time to write all that up. Your analysis of track and pace biases are very insightful, and I'll be sure to keep your thoughts in mind for the future!

25 Feb 2014 10:57 PM

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