Fast Pace Could Determine the Risen Star Outcome

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

Our quest to pick 50% winners in 2021 took some interesting twists last week, but at least we're still on the right track.

Fifth-place efforts from Known Agenda and Greyes Creek impacted our win percentage, but a victory by Jouster saved the weekend and kept us ahead of the line at 54.5%. I have to chuckle, though, at the way Jouster's $2.20 win payoff ironically knocked a few cents off our ROI for the year, which currently sits at $2.53.

After placing a lot of emphasis on Florida in recent weeks, we'll now turn our attention to Fair Grounds, where half a dozen stakes races are on the agenda. The afternoon feature is the $400,000 Risen Star (G2), an important Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race. With a total of 85 qualification points up for grabs, the race has drawn a deep and competitive field with plenty of logical contenders to consider.

Let's dig in!

Risen Star (G2)

Did you know 16 of the 17 Risen Star winners since 2005 had previously contested a stakes races? The lone exception was Modernist, who won the slower of two Risen Star divisions in 2020. Otherwise, this 1 1/8-mile race has been thoroughly unkind to maiden and allowance winners unproven against stakes company.

If this trend holds true in 2021, we can significantly narrow down the list of contenders. With #12 Keepmeinmind expected to scratch in favor of next week's Southwest (G3), that leaves just six stakes-experienced runners in the Risen Star field, including the top four finishers from the Jan. 16 Lecomte (G3) at Fair Grounds.

Certainly respect must be afforded to #6 Midnight Bourbon, who employed pacesetting tactics to win the Lecomte by a length. Conditioned by two-time Risen Star-winning trainer Steve Asmussen, Midnight Bourbon had previously put together an encouraging two-year-old season, highlighted by a runner-up effort in the Iroquois (G3) and a third-place finish in the Champagne (G1).

But Midnight Bourbon benefited from a picture-perfect trip in the Lecomte. The complexion of the race changed significantly when front-running maiden winner #10 Santa Cruiser hesitated at the start and got squeezed back to last place. Without Santa Cruiser to apply pressure, Midnight Bourbon casually waltzed along through slow fractions of :24.68, :48.99, and 1:13.57 before coming home in :24.52 and :06.32 to win by a length.

Midnight Bourbon seems certain to face more pace pressure in the Risen Star. Santa Cruiser is back in the mix after rallying to finish fourth in the Lecomte, and with a clean break on Saturday, he's bound to be forwardly placed. The same can be said of #13 Rightandjust, who has posted gate-to-wire victories in maiden claiming and allowance races at Fair Grounds. Drawing the far outside post position will likely force Rightandjust run hard early to avoid getting caught wide on the first turn.

Lecomte runner-up #2 Proxy and the undefeated allowance winner #1 Starrininmydreams are also quick enough to be prominent from the outset, so right there you have four horses capable of pressuring Midnight Bourbon if they so desire. And a faster pace would almost certainly play to the strengths of #11 Mandaloun, the third-place finisher from the Lecomte.

A Juddmonte Farms homebred conditioned by Brad Cox, Mandaloun showed promise when rallying to victory in his first two starts sprinting on the Kentucky circuit. The son of Into Mischief earned sharp speed figures and was favored at 4-5 to prevail in the Lecomte, which marked his two-turn debut.

But Mandaloun was compromised by a poor setup in the Lecomte, racing wide on the turns while tracking the slow pace. When the tempo accelerated around the far turn and down the homestretch, Mandaloun initially struggled to keep up, but he dug down late to close ground and finish just a length behind Midnight Bourbon.

There are several reasons to believe Mandaloun will take a big step forward in the Risen Star. For one, the pace scenario should be much more favorable. For another, he's been training sharply, breezing a bullet five furlongs in :59 4/5 on Feb. 6. Cox wins at an impressive 37% rate with horses running long for the second time, and the addition of blinkers could further sharpen Mandaloun's speed and focus.

In short, I'm excited to give Mandaloun another try. He'll offer better odds than in the Lecomte, but victory should be well within reach under hot jockey Florent Geroux.

For the exotics, #5 Senor Buscador is an obvious contender. A son of 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft, Senor Buscador unleashed powerful late rallies to win his first two starts by daylight. A victory sprinting 5 1/2 furlongs at Remington Park was followed by a 5 3/4-length romp in the Remington Springboard Mile S., stamping Senor Buscador as one of the fastest horses in the Risen Star field.

Senor Buscador finished legitimately fast in the Springboard Mile, dashing the final furlong in :12.18, and visually speaking he looked fantastic. He was full of run down the lane, so stretching out over 1 1/8 miles shouldn't be an issue. But with rain in the forecast for Fair Grounds this week, I'm left to wonder how this stretch-running colt will handle muddy kickback during the early going.

This isn't so much of a concern for Mandaloun, who is drawn wide within enough tactical speed to stay out of trouble. But Senor Buscador might have no choice but to settle back and rally through the slop. In his first two starts, he broke very slowly before unleashing wide rallies to sweep past his rivals, and replicating this strategy against tougher competition in the Risen Star could be difficult. Victory may rely on rallying through the pack to save some ground, and if this is the case, we'll just have to hope Senor Buscador doesn't mind mud.

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


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, 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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