Risen Star Hero Could Be a Local One

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

The road to the Kentucky Derby will get serious on Saturday when Fair Grounds hosts the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes (gr. II), the first Derby prep race offering 50 qualification points to the winner. A total of fourteen promising three-year-olds have been entered in the 8.5-furlong race, although one--So Conflated--is expected to scratch after drawing post fourteen.

The Risen Star has produced some very good horses in recent years, including Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner Oxbow, Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Palace Malice, Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) winner Mucho Macho Man, and Clark Handicap (gr. I) winner Gun Runner. Only time will tell if a horse of similar talent emerges from the 2017 Risen Star, but it certainly wouldn't come as a surprise. Let's start handicapping!

Risen Star Stakes (gr. II)

The morning line favorite, and certainly the horse that most Derby handicappers will have their eyes on, is the promising Mo Town. After finishing second in his debut at Saratoga last summer, Mo Town crushed a one-mile maiden special weight at Belmont, romping to victory by seven lengths over a muddy track. Two months later--after missing a prep race with a minor setback--Mo Town stretched out to nine furlongs in Aqueduct's Remsen Stakes (gr. II) and rallied from just off the pace to win going away by 2 ½ lengths.

Since that effort, Mo Town has been training sharply at Payson Park for his comeback, and trainer Tony Dutrow is strong with horses returning from layoffs--according to statistics from the Daily Racing Form, Dutrow wins at a 21% rate with a $2.96 ROI for every $2 bet.

But there are a couple of reasons to hesitate about picking Mo Town on top. For one, several of the horses he has beaten have not run as well in subsequent races--Remsen runner-up No Dozing came back to finish sixth in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III), Remsen third-place finisher Takaful finished last as the favorite in the Jerome Stakes (gr. III), and Everybodyluvsrudy (second in Mo Town's maiden win) was fifth in the Jerome before finishing a distant second in the Miracle Wood Stakes at Laurel.

Also, for what it's worth, it's generally been wise to play against Remsen Stakes winners when they make their three-year-old debuts. From 2009 through 2015, only one Remsen winner (Mohaymen) proved victorious in his next race, with the beaten Remsen winners including future Grade 1 winners such as Honor Code, To Honor and Serve, and Overanalyze. Add in the fact that Mo Town will be carrying top weight of 122 pounds (conceding six pounds to several talented up-and-comers), and I think you have a recipe for an upset.

One colt that has really caught my eye is Local Hero, who races for the powerful team of trainer Steve Asmussen and jockey Florent Geroux, who won the 2016 Risen Star Stakes with Gun Runner. After finishing second in his first two starts (both going seven furlongs) at Keeneland and Churchill Downs, Local Hero shipped to Fair Grounds and stretched out to a mile and seventy yards in a maiden special weight on January 26th. Showing significant improvement, Local Hero had to be urged a bit to hold his position on the rail and was briefly in tight quarters heading into the first turn, but shrugged off his challenger to take a clear lead early in the race, a lead that he kept extending as the race went on. The pace was on the quicker side for Fair Grounds (:47.19 and 1:12.40), but Local Hero had his ears pricked the whole time and drew off under the lightest hand ride to lead by ten lengths in the homestretch. He was eased up late and just cruised across the wire, but still recorded a sharp final time of 1:42.49, which translated to a Beyer speed figure of 89, the best of any horse in the Risen Star field.

From a visual perspective, Local Hero looked fantastic and strikes me as a colt with a lot of potential. He completed his serious preparations for the Risen Star by breezing five furlongs in 1:00 4/5 on February 12th, followed by a maintenance half-mile in :50 1/5 on February 19th. Under the conditions of the Risen Star, Local Hero will carry just 116 pounds, and drawing post three should give him an opportunity to sprint to the lead or tuck in behind the leaders and save ground, depending on whether a fast or slow pace unfolds. I believe Local Hero is the horse to beat.

A bit of a wildcard in the Risen Star is Girvin, who will break from the rail. After showing impressive speed to win his debut at Fair Grounds on December 16th (defeating next-out winner Excitations), Girvin missed the LeComte Stakes due to the EHV-1 quarantine at Fair Grounds and also dealt with a minor hoof issue, but got back on track with a big run in the February 4th Keith Gee Memorial Stakes going a mile on turf, rallying to finish second by less than a length to the talented Cowboy Culture.

Given that the Keith Gee Memorial was strictly a prep for the Risen Star, Girvin's performance was exceptional and bodes well for his chances in the Risen Star. Having proven himself very versatile in terms of running style, Girvin should have no trouble adapting to whatever pace scenario unfolds, and drawing the rail--while it could potentially lead to a tricky trip--should help him save ground.

Also warranting respect is Guest Suite, who unleashed an eye-catching late rally to win the LeComte Stakes (gr. III) at Fair Grounds last month by 1 ¼ lengths. Guest Suite is 3-for-5 and has never finished out of the trifecta, but he did receive a good pace setup in the LeComte and appeared to relish the muddy, sealed track.

I'm actually a little more intrigued by the LeComte fourth-place finish Arklow, who should offer a substantially higher price. He was closing ground with interest in the LeComte but got jostled and bumped in the homestretch, which might have cost him third or even second place. Although he's still a maiden, he's got a strong pedigree (by Arch out of an Empire Maker mare) that suggests he could improve with the benefit of maturity and longer distances. I don't think it's out of the question that he could take another step forward and turn the tables on some of his LeComte conquerors.

So to recap, Local Hero is my choice to win the Risen Star, with utmost respect to Girvin, a horse I would play in equal strength with Local Hero in multi-race wagers. Mo Town and Guest Suite are both logical contenders that could be a little vulnerable, while Arklow strikes me as a live longshot with a shot to hit the board.

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


Trainer Bob Baffert already holds a strong hand on the Derby trail with Mastery and American Anthem, but his stable of Derby contenders grew even deeper on Saturday when Bronze Age delivered a huge performance in a one-mile maiden special weight at Santa Anita.

After getting burned up setting fast fractions in his first two starts (both sprints), Bronze Age clearly relished the opportunity to stretch out in distance and set a slower pace. Cruising along on the lead through fractions of :23.89 and :47.35, the Juddmonte Farms runner blew the race wide open with a third quarter-mile in :23.55 and a seventh furlong in :11.77, which gave him a four-length lead at the eighth pole. Stablemate West Coast closed the gap in the final furlong, but Bronze Age was never in danger of being caught and crossed the wire 1 ½ lengths in front while recording a final time of 1:35.29, good enough for a Beyer speed figure of 93.

With this impressive performance behind him, I wouldn't be surprised if we see Bronze Age jump into stakes company next time out. A possible goal could be the $800,000 Sunland Derby (gr. III) on March 26th, although if Baffert would like to get a couple more runs under Bronze Age's belt before the Triple Crown, races like the March 11th San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) and March 18th Rebel Stakes (gr. II) could come into play, even though Baffert already has runners slated for those races.

Another notable win last weekend came from Souper Tapit, who won his debut at Fair Grounds in eye-catching fashion. Sent off as the favorite in a one-mile and seventy-yard maiden special weight, Souper Tapit broke slowly and was reserved at the back of the pack early on, but somehow managed to rally from last to first around the turn to take the lead at the top of the stretch. After pulling clear, he was challenged by the late-charging Multiplier, but Souper Tapit dug deep and held on to win by a neck.

Souper Tapit's final time wasn't all that quick (1:43.59, which earned a Beyer of 76), but it was solid enough for a horse making his debut in a two-turn race. Trained by Mark Casse, Souper Tapit has been nominated to the Triple Crown and was even nominated to the Louisiana Derby before the "Early Bird" deadline. Souper Tapit appears to have a lot of potential and could be bound for a Derby prep race in the near future.


FRIDAY UPDATE: While it’s very rare that I’ll issue an addendum to an Unlocking Winners blog post, I felt it was necessary this week after I spent some time handicapping the $200,000 Rachel Alexandra Stakes (gr. II) at Fair Grounds on Saturday.

The 8.5-furlong event is a major prep race on the road to the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I), and the Rachel Alexandra has drawn a quality field led by Valadorna, Farrell, and Shane’s Girlfriend. All three warrant respect in this competitive race—Valadorna ran second in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) and subsequently won a one-mile and seventy-yard allowance at Fair Grounds, while Farrell won the Silverbulletday Stakes here last month and Shane’s Girlfriend was an impressive winner of the Delta Downs Princess Stakes (gr. III) in December.

Of the trio, I prefer the stretch-running Valadorna, who overcame a slow pace in a small field to win her seasonal debut by a well-measured half-length. She should get more pace on Saturday thanks to the presence of Farrell, Shane’s Girlfriend, and the longshot Gris Gris, as all three have shown significant front-running speed during their careers

But while Valadorna might be the most likely winner, I’m siding with the longest shot on the board, that being the 20-1 maiden Majestic Quality. Trained by Keith Desormeaux, Majestic Quality is 0-for-7 but has steadily improved since her debut at Del Mar last August, and I have a hunch that she’s much better than her record suggests.

Two starts back, Majestic Quality competed in a one-mile maiden special weight at Santa Anita on December 30th. Facing five rivals, Majestic Quality found herself boxed in behind horses while racing on the rail, and as the early pace slowed to a crawl (six furlongs in 1:12.06), Majestic Quality had to repeatedly tap on the brakes and appeared to be a bit uncomfortable with her position.

Turning for home, Majestic Quality moved up along the rail to look for racing room, but the front-running Mopotism drifted in slightly at that point, narrowing the gap and intimidating Majestic Quality, who hesitated just a bit while jockey Kent Desormeaux had to stop asking her for her best. Even still, Majestic Quality was beaten just a length while running her final quarter-mile in slightly less than :24 3/5, a solid fraction.

All told, it was an impressive performance given that the dynamics of the race favored the front-running winner Mopotism and the wide-rallying runner-up Spooky Woods. For her effort, Majestic Quality received a Beyer speed figure of 73, just four points less than Valadorna’s lifetime best.

Furthermore, the quality of that maiden race has grown more and more apparent in the months since it was run. Mopotism returned to finish second in the Las Virgenes Stakes (gr. II), ahead of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) winner and Eclipse champion Champagne Room, while runner-up Spooky Woods won her next start by 3 ¾ lengths with a 73 Beyer and fourth-place finisher Bernina Star came back to romp by 9 ¼ lengths with a 78 Beyer.

Majestic Quality has also run once since then, finishing a respectable fifth in a nine-furlong maiden race on the turf course at Santa Anita. On February 19th, she breezed five furlongs in company with the accomplished graded stakes winner Dalmore and posted the bullet time of :59 3/5, a fifth of a second faster than Dalmore. Visually, Majestic Quality’s workout looked solid, as she accelerated nicely when urged a bit in the homestretch and more than held her own against Dalmore, who was also under a bit of urging to finish.

Obviously, this is a big step up for Majestic Quality, but with the exception of Kentucky Oaks favorite Unique Bella, the fillies of this generation have not been running particularly fast, and we’ve already seen some big upsets in major races. I also can’t help but think back to last year, when maidens from California like Laoban, Trojan Nation, and One More Round shipped east and ran second in the Gotham Stakes (gr. III), Wood Memorial (gr. I), and Lexington Stakes (gr. III), respectively.

Granted, this is a different year and a different group of horses, but I’m not underestimating Majestic Quality just because she’s a maiden. She’s kept good company in California, is training well, and gets into the Rachel Alexandra Stakes carrying just 116 pounds, which is not only six pounds less than Farrell and four pounds less than Shane’s Girlfriend, but also a significantly lighter assignment than Majestic Quality is accustomed to carrying (she’s never carried less than 120 pounds and has carried 122+ in her last three starts).

Maybe she won’t win, but at 20-1, I think Majestic Quality could be a major overlay in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes. I’m going to pick her on top and see if she can step up.


The Unlocking Winners Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge is back for a third consecutive year! Please be sure to post all entries, prime horses, and stable additions on the official contest page. 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 www.theturfboard.com.

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