We’ve reached the stage at which the elite three-year-olds that will ultimately play major roles in this spring’s Triple Crown races begin to separate themselves in the vast sea of promising prospects. Airoforce and Mo Tom are both looking to soon take up positions just below Mohaymen and Nyquist on many racing fans’ lists of top Derby contenders. However, first they need to prove themselves superior to a hopeful but largely untested field of nine rivals in Fair Grounds’ Grade 2, $400,000 Risen Star Stakes.
The race originally drew a field of 13, but both Dolphus and Laoban are expected to scratch. This deep group contains the top three finishers from the local stepping stone, the LeComte Stakes, as well as three of the top four finishers in Churchill Downs’ Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes from last fall, not to mention a slew of recent allowance and maiden winners.
The Pace Projector is not predicting a pace that will necessarily favor any type of running style, but it does indicate that favored Airoforce (#10) should be forwardly placed, along with a trio of speedy last-out winners: Its All Relevant (#7), Bistraya (#4), and Candy My Boy (#13). His main rival, the late-running Mo Tom (#2), is unsurprisingly forecasted to take up his typical position at the rear.
Let’s go through the field:
#1, In Equality (30/1): Naturally, we have a slight soft spot for the lone New York shipper in the race. Originally cut out to be a turf horse, this son of Quality Road apparently surprised even his connections when he took to dirt with such aplomb in his third start, gamely wearing down two rivals to get up for the win. As is often the case at this time of year, the temptation to discover exactly what they have on their hands was too great for his connections, and they have embarked on an ambitious path to find the answer. He certainly did not disgrace himself with a third place finish in the Jerome, equaling the 97 speed figure he recorded in his maiden victory. Now In Equality will try his luck at the Fair Grounds while facing a larger, more competitive field. The pedigree is certainly there for him to eventually turn into a nice horse, but Leah Gyarmati does not have a stellar record with horses shipping out of New York, and we wonder if they’re asking too much too soon.
#2, Mo Tom (3/1):
This son of Uncle Mo did everything right in the LeComte. After dropping well off the pace, he used his quick turn of foot to launch himself into contention on the far turn, and he sustained that move through the stretch, racing away to a two-length victory. While the 106 speed figure he earned isn’t the highest last-out number in the race, it’s certainly respectable and is just two points lower than the figure he earned for finishing a closing third in last November’s Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. Airoforce beat him by one and three-quarter lengths that day, but whereas that runner has never raced over a dry dirt surface, Mo Tom has won three of four starts over fast tracks. The inside post position suits him perfectly, since he figures to just drop out to the back of the pack in the early stages. As long as Corey Lanerie is able to work out another decent trip, this colt figures to be charging into the picture in deep stretch. Take notice if the wagering public lets him drift up in price off his 3/1 morning line, since his odds should not be significantly higher than those of his chief rival.
#3, Dolphus (15/1): His connections decided to give him more time between starts, so he is expected to scratch.
#4, Bistraya (15/1): Gelding this son of Haynesfield prior to his effort two races back appears to have been the key to his success. He was a strong second against maiden company in late November and followed that up with a dominant wire-to-wire victory in January. However, the colt he defeated, Hoffenheim, has shown a serious aversion to passing horses in deep stretch, so we’re not sure how much credit he’s due for holding off that foe. On the other hand, it was 10 lengths back to the rest of the field, and he earned a very competitive 108 speed figure for the effort. The waters get much deeper here, but he may still have some upside.
#5, Forevamo (12/1): His lone foray into graded stakes company resulted in a 15-length drubbing in last fall’s Delta Jackpot. He may not have appreciated being pinned down towards the rail for much of the running of that race, but he still had little answer when called upon. In his allowance return here last month, he may have made his move a bit earlier than was preferable, but was still clearly second best to Candy My Boy, who is back in today. Ultimately, Forevamo doesn’t appear to be fast enough to contend for top honors, and his pedigree suggests that a turnback to one-turn races may be in his future.
#6, Gun Runner (6/1):
This colt has done very little wrong in his brief career. Steve Asmussen, who is not known for winning with first-time starters in route races, sent this colt out to a debut win going a mile last September. He followed that up with a facile allowance win at Keeneland, beating eventual Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes runner-up Rafting. Though he faded to fourth in deep stretch of the Kentucky Jockey Club, we were very encouraged by the effort. He responded well to his rider’s encouragement at the top of the stretch, grabbing a slim lead before tiring while battling between Mor Spirit and Airoforce into the final eighth of a mile. The 111 speed figure he earned that day is the highest number in the field by a slim margin. Runner-up Mor Spirit has come out of that race to validate the strength of the field, essentially matching the speed figure he earned while going on to record victories in the Los Alamitos Futurity and Robert B. Lewis Stakes. Progeny of Candy Ride may not be revered for their stamina, but this colt possibly gets a ton of staying power and class from his dam, Quiet Giant, a stakes-winning half-sister to Horse of the Year Saint Liam. Gun Runner must overcome a brief layoff, which is not Steve Asmussen’s strongest trainer move. However, Asmussen did win this race with Pyro off a similar layoff several seasons ago and has put a series of stiff drills into this colt over the past month, suggesting that he has him fit for this return. Gun Runner possesses a versatile running style that should allow him to adjust to any race shape, and the presence of leading Fair Grounds rider Florent Geroux certainly doesn’t hurt. Anything above 7/2 odds would be a generous price on this principal contender.
#7, Its All Relevant (15/1): This stablemate of Champagne winner Greenpointcrusader began his career on turf, but seamlessly made the transition to dirt three starts ago. His preference for this surface should come as no surprise considering his dirt-leaning pedigree. He is projected to play out as the fastest of them all early off the strength of his wire-to-wire maiden victory going a one-turn mile at Gulfstream in the slop. The 102 speed figure that he earned last time is not quite fast enough to make him a top contender here, and it’s asking a lot for this runner to put forth the race of his life in his first stakes try and first dirt start around two turns.
#8, Tom’s Ready (8/1): The LeComte runner-up may have performed a bit better than it appears in that race, considering that he had to race three- to four-wide around both turns. However, we get the feeling that winner Mo Tom has this horse’s number, having beaten him all three times that they’ve met. It’s also fair to question how far he really wants to go, since he’s a son of More Than Ready, especially considering that he’s lacked much of an answer in deep stretch of his two-turn races. It’s encouraging to see John Velazquez take the call, but we’d be somewhat surprised if he were able to come out on top.
#9, Laoban (30/1): He did not ship from California. He will scratch.
#10, Airoforce (5/2):
The morning line favorite came just a neck shy of ending his two-year-old season undefeated, losing only to Hit it a Bomb in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. He successfully made the transition to a sloppy dirt surface in the Kentucky Jockey Club, taking kickback in his face for much of the way before following Gun Runner’s move into contention off the far turn. Once out in the clear, he gamely wore down the leaders to register a decisive victory. While he is clearly the horse to beat, he still must prove that he handles a dry dirt surface. Because he’s a strong favorite, whether or not we can support him in this sport becomes a question of value. He’s a fair price at his morning line odds of 5/2, but we would not be interested in playing him at anything much lower than that. After all, it’s not as if he holds that great of an edge over Mo Tom and Gun Runner, who arguably have fewer questions to answer.
#11, Zapperini (30/1): This colt handled the stretch-out to two turns last time, but earned a speed figure of only 88, which is simply not fast enough to make him a contender in this spot.
#12, Uncle Walter (8/1): He put in a decent effort in the LeComte, finishing just three-quarters of a length behind Tom’s Ready. However, he was not as lucky at the post position draw this time and is set to break from post 10 in an 11-horse field. It’s a positive sign that Javier Castellano gets back aboard, but the feeling is that he would have to improve significantly to turn the tables on his LeComte conquerors. It’s not impossible, but we view others as offering better value.
#13, Candy My Boy (15/1): He has improved by leaps and bounds since getting to the Fair Grounds this winter and is now two-for-two over this track, racing around two turns. He comes off a wire-to-wire win over today’s rival Forevamo, earning a 103 speed figure. He’d had to improve slightly to contend for a placing here, but that’s hardly out of the question considering the rate at which he’s advanced over his last few starts. Shaun Bridgmohan will almost certainly have to send him out towards the front from this wide post position, so his chances may depend on how intent others are on securing the lead. We prefer others on top, but we could certainly use this Candy Ride colt underneath in trifectas.
We respect Airoforce’s (#10) versatility, but we are predicting that a couple of others will offer better value. Mo Tom (#2) would be playable at or above his morning line price of 3/1, but the horse that we believe will be the biggest overlay is GUN RUNNER (#6), who is our top selection.
TRIFECTA: 6 with 2,10 with 1,2,8,10,12,13