Tough Field Assembles for Risen Star Stakes

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

We've already encountered some tough handicapping challenges on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, but sorting out the contenders in the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) on February 17th at Fair Grounds could be the toughest task yet.

It's not that the 8.5-furlong race lacks a clear favorite-that honor goes to Instilled Regard, and deservedly so. But even if you think Instilled Regard is a lock (a difficult stand to take in a race like this), sorting out who will finish behind him is easier said than done.

Of the ten entrants, four of them last ran in the January 13th Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) at Fair Grounds, a race in which Instilled Regard was much the best. Tracking the pace while racing wide, the Jerry Hollendorfer colt pounced to the lead around the far turn and drew off in the homestretch, crossing the wire 3 ¾ lengths in front while earning a 92 Beyer speed figure. That figure matched the number he received for his strong run in the December 9th Los Almitos Cash Call Futurity (gr. I), in which he crossed the wire less than a length behind the talented pair of Solomini and McKinzie, two of the most accomplished colts on the Derby trail.

With form lines like that, plus a proven affinity for Fair Grounds and an ideal post draw (he's landed in gate five), it's hard to knock Instilled Regard's chances of winning the Risen Star. He'll be carrying a bit more weight on Saturday (120 pounds, up from 116 in the Lecomte) and facing a tougher field, but he figures to work out a perfect trip settling behind the leaders and getting first run turning for home, a setup that could very well lead to another victory.

Trainer Todd Pletcher has won this race three times since 2010 and will send out Noble Indy in search of a fourth victory. The speedy son of Take Charge Indy is a perfect 2-for-2 thus far, having broken his maiden sprinting seven furlongs at Gulfstream by 8 ¾ lengths before stretching out to a mile and sixteenth and defeating the capable Mississippi in a hard-fought stretch battle. But though the finish was close, it's worth noting that Noble Indy finished with his ears up, a sign that he may have had something in reserve.

The question is, what kind of trip will Noble Indy receive in the Risen Star? He pretty much has to gun for the lead from post two, and I have to think he'll face a challenge on the front end from Principe Guilherme, who hails from the barn of Steve Asmussen. The son of Tapit began his career with a pair of gate-to-wire blowout victories, including an 11 ¾-length romp in a one-mile and 70-yard allowance optional claiming race at Fair Grounds.

But when stepping up in class for the Lecomte Stakes (gr. III), Principe Guilherme endured a tough trip from post ten, getting caught wide on both turns while racing in mid-pack, a significant change in running style. Despite these obstacles, Principe Guilherme rallied gamely in the homestretch to finish second, though he was no match on the day for Instilled Regard. Don't be surprised if Principe Guilherme is asked for more speed in the Risen Star, especially since he'll once again be breaking from a wide draw.

The possibility of a contested pace could play to the strengths of Bravazo, who has shown flashes of major talent during his six starts to date. Trained by D. Wayne Lukas, Bravazo burst onto the scene last year when finishing second at 47-1 in the Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) at Keeneland, four lengths behind the well-regarded Free Drop Billy. Bravazo was subsequently beaten to third in the Street Sense Stakes and tenth without an obvious excuse in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II), but he rebounded in a big way on January 13th to win an allowance optional claiming race at Oaklawn Park in impressive fashion.

Granted, his margin of victory was only a neck, but I loved everything about Bravazo's performance. After settling in fifth place early on, about five lengths off the pace, Bravazo had to make an early move around the far turn to catch up with the front-running Ezmosh, who had secured a clear lead early on and was extending his advantage with ease around the turn. Bravazo had to use his run just to reach even terms at the top of the stretch and had every excuse to flatten out at that point, but instead, Bravazo gamely battled with Ezmosh through the length of the homestretch to win in narrow fashion with the third-place finisher nine lengths behind.

For that effort, Bravazo received a solid 89 Beyer speed figure, putting him squarely in the mix against his Risen Star rivals. As a son of Awesome Again out of a Cee's Tizzy mare, Bravazo is bred to improve with maturity and might just be getting good. He'll need to elevate his game to another level to beat Instilled Regard, but if his 8-1 morning line odds hold up, I think he'll offer a lot of value.

For the top spot, I could go either way between Instilled Regard and Bravazo, but keeping in mind that many impressive Lecomte winners have suffered reversals of fortune in the Risen Star (think Oxbow, Vicar's in Trouble, Mo Tom, and Guest Suite from the last few years), I'll side with Bravazo and hope that he can step up his game at a nice price.

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


The Unlocking Winners Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge is back for the fourth consecutive year! Please be sure to post all entries, prime horses, and stable additions on the 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

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