Will Blackberry Wine Win the Risen Star?

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

The $400,000 Risen Star Stakes (G2) at Fair Grounds has been growing steadily in popularity and prestige. Case in point? No fewer than 23 horses have been entered in Saturday's edition of the 1 1/8-mile race, prompting Fair Grounds to split the Risen Star into two divisions.

The second division looks fairly straightforward on paper. #8 Anneau d'Or, narrowly beaten in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) and Los Alamitos Futurity (G2), brings strong speed figures to the equation and figures to be tough to beat while wearing blinkers for the first time. Hot jockey Joel Rosario takes over the mount, and Anneau d'Or is bred to relish 1 1/8 miles, so anything less than a victory will leave me disappointed.

Of course, Anneau d'Or is 9-5 on the morning line, so he won't offer much value in the wagering. In contrast, the first division of the Risen Star looks like a more competitive event with the potential to produce a mild upset. Here's how I see the race unfolding:

Risen Star Stakes, Division #1

Here's a bit of trivia for you—when was the last time a horse without any stakes experience managed to win the Risen Star?

If you answered "Gradepoint in 2004," give yourself a pat on the back. The son of A.P. Indy used a narrow allowance win at Fair Grounds as a prep for victory in the Risen Star. The same approach was utilized by Badge of Silver in 2003.

In short, since the Risen Star became a graded stakes in 2002, just two horses have won the race while making their stakes debut. Historically, it has paid to support experienced runners in the Risen Star, particularly those exiting the Lecomte Stakes (G3) at Fair Grounds. #8 Enforceable, #2 Silver State, and #9 Mr. Monomoy—who ran 1-2-3 in the Lecomte—look like the obvious candidates for victory.

So why in the world am I siding with #7 Blackberry Wine? Well, history doesn't always repeat itself, and Blackberry Wine might just have the talent to defy the general trends and spring a mild upset in the Risen Star.

Trained by Joe Sharp, who won the 2017 Risen Star with Girvin, Blackberry Wine has always had the potential to be a Triple Crown prospect. A son of 2013 Preakness winner Oxbow out of a mare by 1992 Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy, Blackberry Wine is bred top and bottom for stamina and should have no trouble negotiating the extended 1 1/8-mile distance of the Risen Star.

Yes, Blackberry Wine has yet to contest a stakes race. But he's 2-for-2 running long on dirt and has already tackled stakes-caliber rivals. After cruising to a gate-to-wire maiden victory at Churchill Downs last fall, Blackberry Wine contested a 1 1/16-mile grass allowance race at Fair Grounds, finishing third after vying for the early lead. This defeat was hardly disappointing when you consider the quality of horses who beat him—the victorious Hieronymus returned to crush the Randy P. Romero Memorial Stakes at Fair Grounds by 9 3/4 lengths, while runner-up Bodecream produced a spectacular rally to win the Texas Turf Mile Stakes by 3 1/2 lengths.

As for Blackberry Wine, he returned to dirt for a 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Fair Grounds and turned in an eye-catching performance. After carving out steady fractions of :24.20, :48.40, and 1:12.89, Blackberry Wine was headed at the top of the stretch by promising Fair Ground maiden winner Digital. But Blackberry Wine had something left in the tank, sprinting the fourth quarter-mile in :23.91 and the final sixteenth in :06.42 to reclaim the advantage and win by a length in 1:43.22.

Blackberry Wine's final time was especially noteworthy since he ran 0.50 faster than Enforceable did while winning the Lecomte later in the afternoon. This shouldn't have been the case; the pace of the Lecomte was faster than the pace of Blackberry Wine's allowance race, which should have translated to a quicker final time.

But the Lecomte fell apart late, and RacingFlow.com assigned the race a Closer Favorability Ratio (CFR) of 96 on their 1-to-100 scale, indicating an event that played strongly in favor of late runners. This was partly attributed to a closer-favoring track, which simultaneously makes Blackberry Wine's front-running victory and strong finish all the more noteworthy.

There isn't much speed in the first division of the Risen Star, so Blackberry Wine—drawn perfectly in post seven—should have every chance to work out a clean trip setting or stalking the pace. He's trained sharply since his allowance victory, most notably blazing a half-mile in :46 3/5 over a wet-fast track on Jan. 31. And if he keeps improving with maturity—just as he's bred to do—he can defy the general trends of history and land in the Risen Star winner's circle on Saturday.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the two divisions of 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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