Picks for the Risen Star and Sunland Derby

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

A pair of prominent Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifiers will take place this weekend: the $400,000 Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds and the $400,000 Sunland Park Derby (G3) at Sunland Park.

Let's take a look at both races:

Risen Star (G2)

As usual, the 1 1/8-mile Risen Star is absolutely loaded with talent. High-profile juveniles of 2023, including Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) 1-2 finishers #3 Honor Marie and #6 Real Men Violin, Remsen (G2) runner-up #4 Sierra Leone, and Street Sense (G3) second-place finisher #5 Moonlight are slated to make their three-year-old debuts.

Among those four, I strongly prefer Sierra Leone. The Chad Brown trainee debuted in a one-mile maiden special weight at Aqueduct and stormed home from off the pace to win by 1 1/4 lengths over Change of Command, who returned to win his next two starts. Then Sierra Leone stepped up in class for Aqueduct's 1 1/8-mile Remsen on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, in which he rallied boldly from last place over a strongly speed-favoring track to finish second by a nose.

Any way you slice it, Sierra Leone's Remsen effort was strong. He pulled 4 3/4 lengths clear of third-place finisher Drum Roll Please, who returned to dominate the Jerome S. The winner of the Remsen, Dornoch, led essentially all the way over the biased track, so on a fair surface Sierra Leone might have won convincingly.

All that said, there are a couple reasons why Sierra Leone might not be the most likely winner of the Risen Star. Over the past 15 years (encompassing 16 editions of the Risen Star), only one horse-future Horse of the Year Gun Runner-has managed to win the Risen Star in his first run of the season. Furthermore, this isn't the first time Brown has saddled a narrowly beaten Remsen runner-up to start his sophomore season in the Risen Star. Brown did the same with Normandy Invasion in 2013 and Zandon in 2022; they finished fifth and third before improving to finish second in the Wood Memorial (G1) and first in the Blue Grass (G1), respectively.

In other words, there's a history of Brown using the Risen Star as a starting point for accomplished juveniles with Kentucky Derby aspirations. However Sierra Leone performs on Saturday-and I do think he'll run well-I expect him to improve in his second run of the season, and perhaps again in the Kentucky Derby.

That's why, in the Risen Star, I'm going to back #11 Track Phantom, who has rattled off three straight victories for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. The speedy colt survived a duel to win the 1 1/16-mile Gun Runner S. by 1 1/4 lengths, and he followed up with a gate-to-wire 2 3/4-length score in the 1 1/16-mile Lecomte (G3).

The Lecomte is by far the most productive prep for the Risen Star, and since the majority of Track Phantom's key Risen Star rivals are stretch runners, I'm confident his speed (and fitness advantage) will win the day.

#8 Catching Freedom, a deep-closing winner of the Smarty Jones S. at Oaklawn Park, and #7 Hall of Fame, a runaway maiden winner at Fair Grounds, are other logical contenders. Hall of Fame in particular is bound to attract attention after recording a faster winning time in his maiden score than Track Phantom posted in the Lecomte on the same card, though Hall of Fame's contest unfolded at a much faster early pace, which made recording a strong winning time easier.


1st: Track Phantom
2nd: Sierra Leone
3rd: Catching Freedom

Sunland Park Derby (G3)

Eight horses have assembled for the Sunland Park Derby, which has been shortened this year from 1 1/8 miles to 1 1/16 miles. There are several talented runners in the entries, but in my opinion #5 Stronghold (5-2) is a standout.

Stronghold has shown strong form right from the start. He debuted in a six-furlong maiden special weight at Ellis Park and finished second behind Awesome Road, the fourth-place finisher from the Southwest (G3) two weeks ago. Then he stretched out for a one-mile maiden special weight at Churchill Downs, where he scored by 1 1/2 lengths over a field containing the above-mentioned Lecomte (G3) and Gun Runner S. winner Track Phantom.

Stronghold has continued his ascent even while stepping up against graded stakes competition. In the seven-furlong Bob Hop (G3) at Del Mar, he ran second behind Nysos, an unbeaten colt who subsequently obliterated the Robert B. Lewis (G3). And in the 1 1/16-mile Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) at Los Alamitos, Stronghold battled gamely to finish second by half a length.

Four starts, four strong performances at four different tracks. Southern California shippers have enjoyed plenty of success in the Sunland Park Derby, and Stronghold should be tough to deny while taking his talents to Sunland Park. It helps that he owns by far the highest Brisnet Speed rating in Sunday's field.

Second place looks like a battle between #4 Lucky Jeremy (4-1), a Churchill Downs maiden winner who took the one-mile Riley Allison Derby at Sunland last month, and Informed Patriot (3-1), a Steve Asmussen trainee who has finished third in the Street Sense (G3) and Smarty Jones S. on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. I'll narrowly favor Informed Patriot, partly because Asmussen has won the Sunland Park Derby twice.


1st: Stronghold
2nd: Informed Patriot
3rd: Lucky Jeremy

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


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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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