Fourteen three-year-olds are expected to line up in the starting gate for Saturday’s Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, led by morning-line favorite War of Will. Despite his dominant win in the Lecomte, the Mark Casse trainee has not scared off any competitors. Those attempting to upend the favorite have to be encouraged by the fact that he is mired in an outside post position (stall 13 after the expected scratch of Kingly). In addition to the returning Lecomte also-rans, there are a slew of new challengers, including a couple of runners shipping in from other jurisdictions.
The Pace Projector is predicting a fast pace, which is likely to be set by Manny Wah (#7). Kingly, who would have been in close pursuit of that rival, is not going to participate, but also-eligible entrant Gun It (#15) may replace him in a chasing position when he draws into the field. Others likely to make up the second flight of runners are Owendale (#8), Dunph (#11), and War of Will (#14), who notably will be looking to work out a journey similar to his Lecomte trip. Two contenders that should benefit from a fast early tempo are Hog Creek Hustle (#6) and Country House (#9), the latter of which possesses the highest Late Pace Rating in the field, a clear indicator of a horse who will benefit from a fast pace.
Let’s go through the field:
#1, PLUS QUE PARFAIT (10-1): He was regarded as one of the top contenders heading into the Lecomte following his encouraging runner-up effort in the Kentucky Jockey Club last November. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find too many positive aspects to his performance in that 3-year-old debut. While the Lecomte didn’t exactly set up for closers, Plus Que Parfait had better overall position than Hog Creek Hustle, who ran right past him in the lane. He did have to overcome a slight stumble at the start, but it would be foolish to use something so minor as an excuse. I found his dull effort to be such a letdown that I now find myself reassessing my opinion of his Kentucky Jockey Club. Did he just appreciate the sloppy, sealed track that day? Was he merely the beneficiary of an extremely fast pace? Or was the Kentucky Jockey Club just a weak race for all involved? I think it’s worth entertaining those possibilities and I find him difficult to support for a top placing this time. An exotics possibility at best.
#2, ROILAND (20-1): If I’m taking a negative view of Plus Que Parfait, I suppose I’m also expected to downgrade this colt, who finished over 3 lengths behind that rival in the Lecomte. While it’s true that he did not run particularly well last time, he also got the wrong trip. Whereas Plus Que Parfait was tracking the eventual winner in the early stages, Roiland was lagging behind the field in the last position for over half of his journey. It would have been impossible for him to make up the necessary ground on the leaders given the pedestrian early fractions. He also lost to Plus Que Parfait in the Kentucky Jockey Club, but Roiland was unwisely sent inside to weave through traffic in the stretch on that occasion. Due to those excuses, I think the jury is still out regarding his overall ability. I realize that he’s never earned a competitive speed figure, but I still get the sense that he’s an improving sort who is supposed to get a more favorable pace setup this time. There are worse bombs to throw into the exotics. Don’t underestimate.
#3, MR. MONEY (12-1): He rewarded his connections’ seemingly ambitious aspirations with an improbable fourth-place effort in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at odds of 41-1. He never really threatened winner Game Winner that day, but he was put himself squarely in the hunt approaching the quarter pole before fading while still finishing ahead of many talented runners, including Sham winner Gunmetal Grey. It would be tempting to assert that his performance was a significant leap forward, but he had actually hinted at possessing significant ability in his prior start. It would appear that this son of Goldencents has just significantly improved with added distance.
He must now prove that those autumn efforts were not mere flukes, and his preparation has not been ideal. He missed the Lecomte due to illness, which might cause some potential supporters to balk. On the other hand, Bret Calhoun insists that he’s working better than ever ahead of his belated return, and I get the sense that he’s getting lost in the shuffled in the aftermath of the Lecomte. I’m inclined to be optimistic about his chances. A major threat.
#4, CHASE THE GHOST (30-1): He ran the best race of his career in the Lecomte after working out a decent ground-saving trip. It appears that he’s responded well to the stretch-out in his last two starts. I still prefer others out of the Lecomte, but he’s not without some ability so I would not fault anyone for using him at a massive price. Pass.
#5, HENLEY’S JOY (10-1): This turf specialist will transition to the main track in an attempt to satisfy his connections’ Derby dreams. He clearly possesses ability as a grass horse, having fallen just a nose and a neck short of winning four stakes races on that surface, his lone poor performance coming in the Breeders’ Cup. As for his dirt aspirations, I’m fairly skeptical. His dam did win 3 races on dirt, but she was really more of a turf horse during her career. Kitten’s Joy has thrown the occasional dirt performer, but the overwhelming majority of his foals are turf runners. Pass.
#6, HOG CREEK HUSTLE (8-1): While War of Will was clearly best in the Lecomte, this son of Overanalyze deserves a ton of credit for his runner-up finish. While only the first quarter mile of that race featured a blue color-coded pace figure, indicating a slow pace, horses just didn’t seem to be passing each other in the stretch of that Lecomte. I had been convinced that this runner was a closing sprinter following his visually impressive optional claiming score at Churchill Downs in November, but he showed a real affinity for two turns last time. He was rated towards the back of the pack in the early going while never saving much ground. Florent Geroux steered him to the far outside coming off the far turn and he ran right by many of today’s rivals. He couldn’t make inroads into War of Will’s advantage late, but I still believe his effort was better than it seems. This time, the Pace Projector is predicting that he will get a faster pace ahead of him, so he has to be considered a major player once again. A contender.
#7, MANNY WAH (12-1): He was just two lengths behind Hog Creek Hustle at the wire in the Lecomte, but there’s no comparison between their trips leading up to that point. Whereas Hog Creek Hustle was hindered by the lack of pace, Manny Wah worked out an excellent trip through the early portions of that race. Breaking from the far outside post position, he benefitted from Plus Que Parfait’s stumble, as he had no trouble clearing the runners inside of him and angling into the two-path on the clubhouse turn. Considering his pace advantage heading into the lane, I thought he should have offered up a stronger response to War of Will’s acceleration at the quarter pole. I still have concerns about this colt’s stamina and I expect that he will be exposed if the early fractions are legitimate this time. Pass.
#8, OWENDALE (6-1): He’s the second choice on the morning line, which is somewhat perplexing. He was no match for Roiland and Limonite back in October, and neither of those runners will be among the favorites in this spot. Furthermore, Tackett, who defeated him in December, returned to disappoint at a relatively short price in the Lecomte last time out. His supporters will argue that his 91 Beyer Speed Figure in that optional claiming win last time out makes him a serious rival for War of Will, but I have some doubts. It had to be difficult to make accurate speed figures on Jan. 17 at the Fair Grounds, so it’s unsurprising that independent figure-making methods would lead to divergent results. I think it’s worth noting that the TimeformUS Speed Figure for the race is a mere 95, and those numbers are typically about 20 points higher than the corresponding Beyers. If you believe the TimeformUS Speed Figure – and I tend to fall into that camp – then Owendale should be among the longshots in this race. Furthermore, he’s run his best races when he’s been placed up close to the pace, and a fast early tempo in this Risen Star could put him at a disadvantage. Pass.
#9, COUNTRY HOUSE (20-1): First off, let’s address the morning line. There is absolutely no chance that this colt is going to be 20-1. Frankly, I’ll be surprised if his odds are even double-digits, as a price of 6-1 seems far more likely. There’s been plenty of buzz around this horse since he broke his maiden so impressively at Gulfstream last time. It’s true that he earned a speed figure which pales in comparison to those of his rivals, but there’s no doubt that he could have run much faster given a different set of circumstances. It was bad enough that Country House broke far behind the field, but he was put at a further disadvantage when the pace never developed ahead of him, as the blue color-coded pace figures indicate. Luis Saez had to steer him to the far outside to make a run, and I thought this son of Lookin at Lucky was incredibly impressive to draw off and win by over 3 lengths considering the circumstances. Looking at Trakus figures for the race, Country House ran his final 5/16ths of a mile in a remarkable 29.96 seconds.
Despite the impressive nature of that win, I would still be somewhat skeptical if not for his December 1 effort at Aqueduct. Even though he lost that day, his performance demonstrates that he’s capable of running much faster than he did at Gulfstream. The 114 TimeformUS Speed Figure that he was assigned for that runner-up performance is actually the highest such number in the field. While it’s fair to be skeptical of a maiden race receiving such a massive speed figure, we did see winner Kentucky Wildcat return to finish second in the Sam F. Davis last week. Country House possesses the highest TimeformUS Late Pace Rating of any horse in this field, so he should be set to take advantage of the expected fast pace. As long as he breaks cleanly this time, I think he’s going to show up with a big effort. The selection.
#10, LIMONITE (10-1): He ran well in the Kentucky Jockey Club, but I’m starting to doubt the overall quality of that race. His trip was similar to that of Plus Que Parfait, with the main difference being that Limonite saved a bit more ground early and waited longer to make his late run. He passed a remarkable number of rivals in the lane, but he also did so while racing in the clear as others were attempting to weave through traffic inside. You have to be somewhat concerned that he just loved the sloppy going and benefited from a pace that fell apart, since his prior speed figures would suggest that he’s an outsider in this field. These horses can always improve between their two-year-old and three-year-old seasons, but I’d rather take a horse like Roiland, who sports similar form and will be a much more enticing price. A minor award may be the ceiling.
#11, DUNPH (20-1): He looked great winning his first two starts in stylish fashion, but he’s subsequently been exposed against better competition. I suppose you can excuse his Kentucky Jockey Club, in which he was close to the pace and may not have cared for the surface. However, he’s going to have to run a lot better than his performance at Remington Park to have any impact on this field. Pass.
#12, FROLIC MORE (10-1): If I’m against Owendale, of course I want no part of this runner. His runner-up effort behind that rival was fine, but he illustrates what I was referring to with regard to the difference between the Beyer and TimeformUS Speed Figures for that race. His Beyer represents a 24-point jump off his previous best, whereas his TimeformUS Speed Figure represents just a 6-point improvement. The latter is the one that I buy, and it doesn’t make him nearly good enough to contend with horses of this quality. Pass.
#13, KINGLY (12-1): Expected to scratch.
#14, WAR OF WILL (5-2): I’m picking against War of Will at what figures to be a very short price, but I have the utmost respect for this runner’s talent. He showed plenty of ability on turf through the summer and fall of his 2-year-old season, but he has undoubtedly taken a step forward since being switched to the main track. He proved that his visually impressive sloppy track maiden triumph in November was no fluke with that Lecomte win. Whether you’re looking at the Beyer or TimeformUS Figures, he is the horse to beat off his effort that day. He was a little rank into the first turn but he settled well thereafter and finished powerfully through the lane. This horse showed no signs of stopping as he crossed the wire and Tyler Gaffalione had to work hard to pull him on the gallop-out.
Added distance should be no issue for him given all of the stamina influences on the bottom side of his pedigree. His dam is by Sadler’s Wells and she has produced Tacticus, who won a stakes going as far as 1 3/4 miles during his career. Some may be concerned about the outside draw, even though he’s likely to break from post 13 after the scratch. I think it’s something to take into account given his likely short price, but I will not be at all surprised if he’s able to overcome that minor imposition. Simply the horse to beat.
#15, GUN IT (10-1): I’m actually glad that this one is drawing into the race. While I’ve made it clear that I believe in the paltry TimeformUS Speed Figure for that Jan. 19 optional claiming race, I did like his maiden win two back. He earned a 101 that day, which puts him on par with some horses that will be shorter prices. Importantly, he may possess the speed to get over from this outside post position and stalk Manny Wah. Ricardo Santana appeared to have a difficult time handling him in the stretch, as the horse threw his head and shifted about through the lane. Nevertheless, he won geared down and he’s certainly bred to improve with added experience. I think it’s very interesting that Santana is keeping the mount on this colt and giving up a chance to ride Limonite. A fringe player.
While I respect the prohibitive favorite War of Will (#14), I’m taking a shot against him with Country House (#9). This Bill Mott trainee has shown great potential in his two dirt starts, and I believe he can take advantage of a pace that should be honest.
Exacta Key Box: 9 with 2,3,6,14
Trifecta: 9,14 with 9,14 with 1,2,3,6,10,15
Trifecta: 9,14 with 2,3,6 with 9,14