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
2nd: Slow Down Andy
3rd: Smile Happy
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, 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.