Rising Derby Contenders in Louisiana
By: Nicolle Neulist, Blinkers Off
Race 11: Risen Star Stakes (G2), three-year-olds, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 5:00pm CST
This year's edition of the Risen Star features a purse of $400,000, as well as 50, 20, 10, and 5 Road to the Kentucky Derby points for the top four finishers. Inaugurated in 1973 as the Louisiana Derby Trial Stakes, this race was renamed in 1989 to honour Risen Star. Risen Star won this race in 1988, following it up with victories in the Louisiana Derby (G3) and the Lexington Stakes (G2). Third behind Winning Colors in the Kentucky Derby (G1) that year, the Louie Roussel trainee returned to his winning ways to take the Preakness and the Belmont that year. He took the Belmont by a dazzling 14 3/4 lengths, faster than every Belmont Stakes winner up to that point save one: his sire, Secretariat.
Never has the winner of the Risen Star won the Kentucky Derby, though Master Derby (1975), like Risen Star, won the Preakness. Other notable winners of this race other than its namesake include 2007 Champion Older Horse Lawyer Ron (2006) and 2013 Breeders' Cup Classic (GI) winner Mucho Macho Man (2011). The Risen Star's most recent winner, Gun Runner (2016), has progressed since his victory in this race. He won the Louisiana Derby (G2), finished third in the Kentucky Derby, and closed out his sophomore year by beating older in the Clark Handicap (G1). The race has also had its share of curious winners, such as 135/1 stunner Ive Struck a Nerve (2013), and perennial bridesmaid Dollar Bill (2001), who finished second or third in nine graded stakes (including the 2002 Hawthorne Gold Cup), but captured his sole graded stakes win in the Risen Star.
The Risen Star Stakes drew a field of fourteen horses -- but it is a stratified field of fourteen. There are "obvious" contenders who make a lot of sense...and for the most part, there are runners stepping up from maiden or weaker stakes company that will need to take a quantum leap forward to contend with the best of this field.
With that out of the way, there is one notable exception: a horse stepping straight out of maiden company who looks ready to take on the big boys. That's Local Hero, and that's who this space tabs on top. He raced twice last year, in one-turn maiden special weights on quality circuits, finishing second both times. He got a two-month break, resurfaced at Fair Grounds, and tried two turns for the first time on January 26. He aired. Though that victory came on the front end, he showed enough interest on debut without getting the lead to suggest he may not need the front. Local Hero also gets Florent Geroux back in the irons -- and Geroux hops off Takeoff, who finished third in the Lecomte (G3), to take this call on the less seasoned Local Hero. He looks well-intentioned, and has solid upside. In a competitive field, he gets the nod.
Guest Suite won the local prep, a muddy renewal of the Lecomte, in comfortable fashion over the likes of Untrapped, Takeoff, Arklow, and Shareholder Value. This will be a reasonable step up in company, but he also has a right to step forward second off his winter layoff. On speed, he looks solid. He has two-year-old form over dry tracks, as well, good enough to suggest that he is not just another Slop Monster. On pace, Guest Suite has some tactical versatility, and rider Robby Albarado has been able to sit him either closer or farther from the pace as necessary, and bring him past the wire first. Trainer Neil Howard emphasized after his victory that the Lecomte was just the first step toward future goals -- and given that Guest Suite appeared to win the race well within himself, those claims have a ring of truth. A return to that effort makes him competitive here, and a step forward makes him look even better.
Mo Town has not run since winning the Remsen (G2) in November. The Remsen, admittedly, has been less than franked. Second-place No Dozing was a no-show in the Sam F. Davis (G3) two weeks ago, and third-place Takaful laid an egg in the Jerome (G3) next out. But, Mo Town won that race with authority. Also relevant, Mo Town won the Remsen off a two-month layoff. Combine that with the sequence of bullet works and trainer Anthony Dutrow's 19% win rate with runners laid off for three months or more, and all signs point to Mo Town being cranked for his three-year-old bow. Mo Town also keeps John Velazquez aboard; Velazquez rode him to his Remsen win, as well as his maiden win before that. Expect him to take advantage of Mo Town's tactical speed once again, and get him rolling through the turn. The price won't be great on the win end, but in multi-race wagers, Mo Town merits defensive use.
#3 Local Hero (4/1)
#6 Guest Suite (6/1)
#9 Mo Town (7/2)
Longshot: Barring one of the longshots taking a huge step forward, this field looks stratified. Among the massive bombs, James Graham could possibly have a shot to replicate his Ive Struck a Nerve miracle from four years ago with It’s Your Nickel (with the apostrophe, this time!)...were they not marooned out in the 13-hole. Instead, for its long shot to watch, this space will try the "Asmussen B" angle with #2 Untrapped (10/1). Yes, Local Hero may be the new hotness from the Steve Asmussen barn, but he has a solid claim to do well in the Risen Star. Untrapped finished second behind Guest Suite in the Lecomte, beaten a length and a half. That was his first start in two months, and his first attempt at a route. He has every right to be sharper here, and he has fast dirt form from last fall. He also has tactical speed -- Untrapped won't be right on the front end, but has some versatility in how far off the pace he can be to run well. Finally, on connections, Asmussen isn't the only person he has going for him. He keeps rider Ricardo Santana, Jr. from all three of his previous starts.