Picking Against War of Will in the Risen Star Stakes

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

Six years ago, a horse named Oxbow obliterated his rivals by 11 ½ lengths in the Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) at Fair Grounds. Although he would later reiterate his talent by scoring a classic victory in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), his dominant Lecomte romp didn't translate to success in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) at Fair Grounds one month later—he finished fourth.

The following year, Vicar's in Trouble had no trouble cruising to an easy 6 ¾-length score in the Lecomte. Off that performance, he should have been an easy winner in the Risen Star, right? He was favored, but he could only finish third.

We saw the same story in 2018 when the promising Instilled Regard was a clear-cut 3 ¾-length winner of the Lecomte. So impressive was his victory that he was favored at less than 3-2 to win the Risen Star... a race in which he finished fourth.

At this point, you probably know what I'm driving at. No matter how impressive War of Will looked while winning the Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) last month, I don't think he's a shoo-in to score a similarly impressive victory in Saturday's $400,000 Risen Star Stakes (gr. II), the first leg of the Road to the Kentucky Derby Championship Series.

Generally speaking, I can't knock what War of Will has accomplished thus far. After starting his career with four solid efforts on turf, including a runner-up effort in the Summer Stakes (gr. I), he switched to dirt and promptly won two straight races by a combined nine lengths. In the Lecomte, he casually rated in third place while racing wide, then swept to the front and pulled away down the homestretch to win by four lengths with a 94 Beyer.

War of Will has drawn post fourteen for the Risen Star, which isn't ideal, but it might not be as bad as it appears at first glance. Scratches should drop him in a slot or two, and he raced so wide in the Lecomte that it would be difficult to secure an even wider trip on Saturday. And at least he shouldn't have to worry about traffic or facing dirt kickback, two obstacles he's never encountered before.

No, the bigger question in my mind is whether War of Will can repeat his Lecomte performance. Although the Lecomte and the Risen Star seem like similar races, the latter offers five times as many Kentucky Derby qualification points than the former, so it tends to be a much tougher race. It's also held a month later, and at this time of year, young three-year-olds can progress (or regress) so quickly that their performances bear little resemblance from one month to the next.

Perhaps that's why, since 2010, eight Lecomte winners have endeavored to double up in the Risen Star, but only one (International Star in 2015) has managed to complete the sweep. Seven others have suffered defeats at odds ranging from 1.40-1 to 4.40-1, and none of them even cracked the exacta.

For the curious, here are the stats:

2010: Ron the Greek, sixth at 3.70-1

2012: Mr. Bowling, eleventh at 3.10-1

2013: Oxbow, fourth at 4.40-1

2014: Vicar's in Trouble, third at 2.40-1 (favored)

2015: International Star, first at 3.80-1

2016: Mo Tom, third at 2.90-1

2017: Guest Suite, fourth at 3.70-1

2018: Instilled Regard, fourth at 1.40-1 (favored)

War of Will is a perfectly logical choice to win the Risen Star, and I won't be surprised if he does so in clear-cut fashion. But at 5-2 in a huge field, I think he's worth playing against in case the combination of his wide draw and ever-changing form cycles (both his own and those of his rivals) conspire to trigger yet another Risen Star upset.

After going over the rest of the field, I'm drawn to the chances of Owendale and Country House. Both have a lot to offer in this competitive race, including their enticing morning line odds—Owendale is 6-1 and Country House is 20-1, though the latter price seems very unlikely to hold up.

A major attraction with Owendale is that he's already proven at Fair Grounds, having prevailed in a one-mile and 70-yard allowance optional claiming race over this track last month. After settling comfortably in third place while saving ground, Owendale shifted out on the far turn, rallied past race favorite Gun It, and finished up well in the final furlong to win by 1 ½ lengths with a 91 Beyer. That was a nice step in the right direction following Owendale's narrow runner-up effort in a similar race one month prior, where he posted an 84 Beyer.

In a race that isn't exactly loaded with front-runners, Owendale's tactical speed should help him work out a perfect pace-stalking trip, and a victory in the Risen Star would mark yet another win for the powerful team of trainer Brad Cox and jockey Shaun Bridgmohan. Cox, the leading trainer at Fair Grounds, is winning at a 22% rate this meet, while Bridgmohan is doing ever better with a 24% strike rate. Together, however, they have been almost unstoppable, winning at a 42% rate over the last two months.

I should probably just side with Owendale and call it a day, but I'm just as intrigued by Country House, a newcomer to the Fair Grounds scene. The son of Lookin at Lucky never really fired in his debut on turf last October, but when he switched to dirt for a one-mile maiden race at Aqueduct, he stepped up his game significantly. After rating near the back of the pack through slow early fractions, Country House unleashed a strong, steady bid to fall just a half-length short of catching Kentucky Wildcat, who came back to finish second in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III) at Tampa Bay Downs last month.

Subsequently, Country House shipped to Florida and contested a 1 1/16-mile maiden special weight at Gulfstream Park, a race in which essentially nothing went right. The Equibase chart comment notes that Country House was "slow early," but that doesn't begin to describe the situation. Breaking from the rail, Country House took a dramatic left-hand turn out of the starting gate and almost collided with the inner rail before straightening out. Replay angles make it difficult to say for certain how much ground Country House gave up at the start, but it appeared to be in the vicinity of five or six lengths.

This would have been challenging to overcome even with a favorable pace setup, but Country House received exactly the opposite. While Country House was busy working his way back into contention, the leaders were waltzing along through slow fractions of :24.22, :49.07, and 1:14.44, which left them with plenty in the tank to accelerate the fourth quarter-mile in :24-and-change.

But remarkably, Country House unleashed a powerful move into the teeth of that strong fraction, gaining 4 ½ lengths to sweep past the leaders and seize a clear lead with a furlong remaining. Never mind the short homestretch of a race that ended at the sixteenth pole; Country House's last-to-first move on the far turn allowed him to cruise home an uncontested winner by 3 ½ lengths.

The slow early pace resulted in an unremarkable 70 Beyer, but Country House finished full of run and clocked the final five-sixteenths of a mile in about :30 flat, an exceptional fraction for a young three-year-old in a two-turn dirt race. It implies that Country House could have posted a faster final time if he'd rationed his speed a little better (or even just broken cleanly from the starting gate!), and if you're a fan of BRIS Late Pace ratings, his 123 jumps off the page as extraordinary. Along similar lines, the ratings produced by RacingFlow.com give Country House plenty of credit for his recent late rallies into strong finishing fractions; he's encountered speed-favoring setups in his last two starts, so if he gets a fair setup in the Risen Star, we could see a breakthrough performance.

It's also interesting to note that trainer Bill Mott rarely ships horses to Fair Grounds, but has enjoyed strong success when he does. Since the start of 2015, Mott has gone 3-for-7 (43%) over this Louisiana oval and 2-for-2 with his dirt runners, including the 2018 New Orleans Handicap (gr. II) winner Good Samaritan.

For these reasons, plus the fact that he's a bigger price on the morning line, I'm going to side with Country House as my top choice in the Risen Star, though I'd be happy to bet Owendale as well if they both start at around 6-1 or higher. For the exotics (including multi-race wagers), I would also strongly consider #12 Frolic More, who gamely chased home Owendale in the latter's allowance victory. Frolic More never gave up down the homestretch and was closing some ground in the final furlong to finish just 1 ½ lengths behind the winner, so it's not that hard to envision a scenario in which this Dallas Stewart-trained colt steps up with a big run and turns the tables on his recent conqueror.

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


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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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