Can Gun Runner Upset the Risen Star Stakes?

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Although this weekend is a relatively quiet one in terms of major racing action, racing fans will nevertheless be treated to a stellar renewal of the $400,000 Veterans Ford Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) at Fair Grounds, the first Kentucky Derby prep race of the year that will offer 50 points to the winner. With a spot in the Derby field on the line, thirteen talented three-year-olds have been entered, and the race promises to be a good one--let's take a look at the field!

#HorseJockeyTrainerLast race
1In EqualityJunior AlvaradoLeah Gyarmati3rd Jerome Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
2Mo TomCorey LanerieTom Amoss1st LeComte Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
3DolphusBrian Hernandez, Jr.Joe Sharp1st Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)
4BistrayaEdwin MaldonadoRicky Agarie1st Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)
5ForevamoColby HernandezAlbert Stall, Jr.2nd Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)
6Gun RunnerFlorent GerouxSteve Asmussen4th Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
7It’s All RelevantJoe BravoDominick Schettino1st Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)
8Tom’s ReadyJohn VelazquezDallas Stewart2nd LeComte Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
9LaobanMiguel MenaEric Guillot3rd Sham Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
10AiroforceJulien LeparouxMark Casse1st Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
11ZapperiniFrancisco TorresGregory Foley1st Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)
12Uncle WalterJavier CastellanoMike Maker3rd LeComte Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
13Candy My BoyShaun BridgmohanRoger Brueggemann1st Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)

Note: Laoban is expected to scratch.

The likely favorite is Airoforce, who compiled a stellar record last year, winning the Bourbon Stakes (gr. III) and finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I) before giving dirt a try and winning the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) by 1 ¾ lengths over a sloppy track. In that race, he defeated subsequent stakes winners Mor Spirit and Mo Tom, as well as the talented pair of Gun Runner and Tom's Ready, and he did it the hard way, racing off the pace early on and getting covered with mud before rallying strongly in the homestretch.

But while Airoforce is by far the most accomplished horse in the field, there are a couple of concerns. Most notable is the fact that he has never run on fast dirt, and while he has trained very well over it, we won't know for certain if he can handle it in a race situation until he tries. Additionally, he had a slight training setback at the beginning of the month due to illness, and while he recovered very quickly, it is something to keep in mind. He's also carrying top weight of 122 pounds, conceding six pounds to the majority of his rivals, and for all these reasons I think it's worth playing against him as the 5-2 morning line favorite.

Mo Tom is another runner that figures to receive a lot of support after rallying from ten lengths back to win the January 16th LeComte Stakes (gr. III) at Fair Grounds by 2 ¼ lengths. Visually, he looked great charging to win in decisive fashion, but he also got a great pace setup--the early pace was quick, and the fourth quarter-mile was timed in a slow :26.42 seconds, which benefited late-runners. A quick pace could ensue again this Saturday thanks to the presence of the front-runners Bistraya, It's All Relevant, and Candy My Boy--particularly since the latter has drawn the far outside post and might have to be sent hard for the lead--but Mo Tom may also be at a disadvantage trying to rally past a large field, and since he's likely to go off at 3-1 or less, I'll look to pick against him as well.

My choice to pull off a mild upset is Gun Runner, who finished fourth in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes after overcoming a slightly tricky trip to take the lead in the homestretch. Overall it was a great effort, especially considering that he might not have cared for the sloppy track, and his two previous races--two victories going a mile or longer at Churchill and Keeneland--were very impressive and achieved in professional fashion. The Risen Star will mark his first start of the year, but he has trained very well for his return, posting two six-furlong bullet workouts in 1:12 3/5 on February 1st and 1:12 1/5 on February 8th. He also picks up the services of jockey Florent Geroux, who has been riding very well at Fair Grounds, and Gun Runner gets into the race carrying just 116 pounds, six less than Airoforce and four less than Mo Tom.

Additionally, Gun Runner has shown a lot of tactical speed in his three races to date, and after drawing post six, he should be able to settle a few lengths off the early pace and get first run at the leaders in the homestretch. From there, I think he will be very tough to catch.

Respect must also be given to Tom's Ready, runner-up in the LeComte Stakes after making what looked to be a winning move on the far turn. I like that he was able to stay closer to the quick early pace than Mo Tom did, but he's also been beaten by Mo Tom in all three of their meetings, including a one-length defeat in the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs last November. I wouldn't be entirely surprised if Tom's Ready is able to turn the tables on Mo Tom today, but he might be a better choice to round out the trifecta than to win the race.

I also like the chances of Uncle Walter, who finished third in the LeComte after getting sucked into a fast early pace and making the first move on the far turn. Although he was no match for Mo Tom in the homestretch, he did fight on against Tom's Ready, staying with him through the final furlong and actually gaining back some ground to finish just three-quarters of a length behind him. He might prove to be slightly overmatched today, and he did draw a wide post position, but I think he can out-finish his LeComte conquerors today and finish in the exotics at a nice price.

I'd also like to briefly mention Dolphus and Forevamo. The former was scratched from the LeComte after rearing and falling over behind the starting gate, but returned to win a one-mile and seventy-yard allowance race at Fair Grounds by three-quarters of a length on January 31st. It wasn't a dominating victory, and he only beat three rivals, but he was racing greenly in the homestretch and gave the impression that he wasn't very focused and might have been better than his margin of victory implies. Don't be surprised if he takes a big step forward on Saturday.

As for Forevamo, he won the Jean Lafitte Stakes at Delta Downs last year before finishing sixth in the Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (gr. III), and in his 2016 debut he ran well to finish second in a one-mile allowance race at Fair Grounds despite trying to close from sixth in a slow--paced race. If he encounters a faster pace on Saturday-and he certainly should--I think he has a shot to rally and finish in the superfecta at a big price.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Risen Star Stakes?


To help simplify the process of choosing and keeping track of everyone's prime horse selections in our 2016 Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge, I would like to ask everyone to please submit their prime choice each week by leaving a special comment on the official blog page for the contest. This will greatly reduce the chances of any prime horse selections getting overlooked, and will also make it simpler to double-check the standings. Thanks, and enjoy the racing!


J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website

Recent Posts

More Blogs