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...
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?