Which Horse Will Conquer the Risen Star?

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

One of the most prestigious races taking place this week is also one of the most difficult to handicap. Saturday's $400,000 Risen Star S. (G2) at Fair Grounds awards Road to the Kentucky Derby qualification points on a 50-20-15-10-5 basis to the top five finishers, a prize so lucrative 14 horses have entered the 1 1/8-mile race.

Separating the key contenders is difficult. You can make a case for at least half of the entrants to visit the winner's circle. When a flashy Fair Grounds maiden winner like #2 Single Ruler is listed at 30-1 on the morning line, you know you're looking at a deep field.

The morning line favorite is #13 Victory Formation at 3-1, and his credentials are appealing. The undefeated son of Belmont S. (G1) winner Tapwrit boasts a 3-for-3 resume. After winning maiden and allowance sprints on the Kentucky circuit last fall, Victory Formation stretched out for the one-mile Smarty Jones S. at Oaklawn Park and promptly wired the Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifier by three lengths. Trainer Brad Cox has been on fire at Fair Grounds this meet, winning at a 43% rate, so Victory Formation figures to fire a competitive shot in the Risen Star.

But is Victory Formation unbeatable? Not necessarily. He'll have to use his early speed to avoid a wide trip from post 13, which opens the door for Victory Formation to get caught up in a hot pace. Horses like Fair Grounds allowance optional claiming winner #4 Determinedly and Santa Anita maiden winner #5 Harlocap have plenty of speed and figure to tussle with Determinedly for early supremacy. #13 Private Creed, third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint (G1) last fall, may also assume a forward position to avoid a wide trip from post 14.

In addition, you can make a case that Victory Formation didn't defeat the toughest field in the Smarty Jones. Third-place finisher Denington subsequently finished a distant fourth in the Lecomte S. (G3) at Fair Grounds, while Smarty Jones fourth-place runner Western Ghent came back to finish last of eight in the Southwest S. (G3) at Oaklawn.

Rather than throw my support behind Victory Formation at a short price, I'm going to think a little outside the box with #8 Tapit's Conquest (6-1), another Cox trainee with encouraging credentials.

Runner-up in his sprint debut at Saratoga last summer, Tapit's Conquest thrived when stretching out over 1 1/16 miles for an Oct. 1 maiden special weight at Churchill Downs, tracking the early pace before drawing off to score by 3 1/2 lengths. The son of Tapit then spent 3 1/2 months on the sidelines before returning to action in a 1 1/16-mile allowance optional claimer on Jan. 21 at Fair Grounds, in which he rallied boldly from last place to finish second by a neck against the stakes-placed Determinedly.

Tapit's Conquest gained 3 1/4 lengths through the final furlong of that allowance contest, not bad for his first start off a layoff. He's posted a couple of quick workouts since then and is eligible to move forward in his second start of the season, opening the door for a competitive run. It helps that Tapit's Conquest will be ridden by three-time Risen Star-winning jockey Florent Geroux, a 34% winner at Fair Grounds this meet and a 46% winner teaming up with Cox over the last two months per Brisnet stats.

Underneath Tapit's Conquest, #9 Curly Jack (8-1) and #10 Two Phil's (8-1) are obvious contenders for the minor awards. Curly Jack needs no introduction; he's already earned Road to the Kentucky Derby qualification points by winning the Iroquois S. (G3), finishing fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), and running second in the Kentucky Jockey Club S. (G2). Conditioned by hot trainer Tom Amoss (a 31% winner at Fair Grounds this meet), Curly Jack is versatile in terms of running style and rarely runs a bad race, setting the stage for a top-four finish.

Two Phil's has also accumulated Road to the Kentucky Derby qualification points courtesy of a runner-up finish in the Lecomte S. (G3) at Fair Grounds last month. Lecomte starters have claimed seven of the last 15 editions of the Risen Star, and since Two Phil's is the lone Lecomte alumnus in Saturday's field, he warrants respect by default. The fact he trounced the 1 1/16-mile Street Sense S. (G3) at Churchill Downs last fall adds to the appeal.

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.

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