Handicapping an Epic(enter) Risen Star Stakes

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

Let's say you're a handicapper, and you're unaware that Saturday's $400,000 Risen Star S. (G2) at Fair Grounds is the most lucrative Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race so far this year, awarding five times as many qualification points (50-20-10-5 to the top four finishers) as other recent races.

Even if you're unaware of this fact, you would still recognize the Risen Star as something special, because the field is stellar. The 1 1/8-mile race has drawn 10 horses, including four stakes winners. Some of the biggest names on the Road to the Kentucky Derby have been entered, because the winner is virtually guaranteed a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. Why wait until the last minute to lock up a qualifying berth?

Plenty of support will be afforded to the three graded stakes winners in the Risen Star field: #1 Pappacap (4-1), #8 Smile Happy (7-2), and #10 Slow Down Andy (9-2). The Grade 2-placed #7 Zandon (9-2) is bound to be a popular play as well.

But the established standouts have potential chinks in their armor. For example:

  • Pappacap scored his signature victory in the Best Pal S. (G2) sprinting six furlongs as a juvenile. He's placed against tough company running long, evening finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), but he's lost ground from the eighth pole to the finish line in all three of his route runs. In the Lecomte S. (G3) at Fair Grounds last month, Pappacap looked like a winner after rallying inside at the top of the stretch, but he ultimately flattened out to finish third. Will the 1 1/8-mile distance of the Risen Star prove too far?
  • Smile Happy was sensational at age two, going 2-for-2 with a blowout victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club S. (G2) coming at the expensive of next-out graded stakes winners Classic Causeway and White Abarrio. But Smile Happy hasn't run since Nov. 27-can he fire a peak effort off the layoff? Over the last decade, trainer Kenny McPeek has saddled 11 juvenile graded stakes winners who went on to compete at age three. Some achieved high levels of success (including Grade 1 winner Daddys Lil Darling), but all were defeated in their sophomore debuts, suggesting Smile Happy won't necessarily be cranked for a peak effort on Saturday.
  • Zandon ran too good to lose in the 1 1/8-mile Remsen S. (G2) at Aqueduct 2 1/2 months ago, battling gamely to finish second by a nose after getting bumped close to the finish. But as with Smile Happy, the layoff is a question mark for Zandon. Over the last decade, trainer Chad Brown has saddled such accomplished juvenile dirt campaigners as Good Magic, Practical Joke, Normandy Invasion, and Highly Motivated. All went on to compete in the Kentucky Derby, but all performed below expectations in the sophomore debuts. If the Derby is the end goal, then the Risen Star is a starting point, and we shouldn't necessarily expect Zandon to produce his A-game this early in the season.
  • It's hard to knock the form of Slow Down Andy, who was last seen beating Messier by a length in the Dec. 11 Los Alamitos Futurity (G2). That effort was flattered when Messier returned to trounce the Robert B. Lewis S. (G3) by 15 lengths. But Slow Down Andy has a couple of historical challenges to overcome-California shippers have gone 0-for-6 in the last 10 editions of the Risen Star, and only two of the last 15 Risen Star winners (future Horse of the Year Gun Runner and established Grade 1 star Pyro) have won the Risen Star in their sophomore debut.

So what does all this mean? It means I'm keen to support #5 Epicenter (4-1) for a mild upset in the Risen Star.

Like many recent Risen Star winners, Epicenter has experience racing at Fair Grounds. On Dec. 26, he dominated the Gun Runner S. on the Road to the Kentucky Derby by 6 1/2 lengths. And on Jan. 22, he was beaten only a head in the Lecomte S. (G3) after carving out the pace.

Epicenter's Lecomte effort was better than it appears at first glance. The fractions he set (:23.40, :47.01, and 1:12.16) were legitimately quick for a two-turn dirt route at Fair Grounds, and Epicenter showed tenacity to turn back an inside bid from Pappacap down the homestretch. Only a desperate late charge from the deep-closing Call Me Midnight prevented Epicenter from visiting the winner's circle.

There isn't a crazy amount of speed in the Risen Star, so Epicenter should be able to secure a comfortable trip setting or pressing the pace. His Beyer and Brisnet speed figures are solid, and the fact he's exiting the Lecomte is significant, since six of the last 14 Risen Star winners used the Lecomte as a prep race. If Epicenter drifts up from his 4-1 morning line odds, I think he'll make a great value play on Saturday.


1st: Epicenter
2nd: Slow Down Andy
3rd: Smile Happy

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


Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contests page—there's a new challenge every week! (Please note: older contest entries can be found here.)

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.

Recent Posts

More Blogs