J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
it's your turn! Who do you like in the Risen Star Stakes?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.