Run at 1 1/16 miles, the Grade 2, $400,000 Risen Star Stakes presented by Lamarque Ford at Fair Grounds features an overflow field of 3-year-old runners competing for a total of 85 points (50 for the winner) toward a place in the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve starting gate. No Risen Star winner has ever won the run for the roses – however last year’s winner Bravazo turned in a sneaky good effort in the Kentucky Derby and nearly upset Triple Crown winner Justify two weeks later in the Preakness.
This is the second “Five Questions” for 2019, with the next set for the San Felipe Stakes on March 9 at Santa Anita Park. As always, questions are welcome and can be submitted on Twitter by tagging @EmilyOptixEQ.
1. How strong was the local prep, the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes?
Starting off handicapping the race, my first inclination is to assess the favorite, often with only morning-line odds available. The morning-line favorite #14 War of Will (5-2) comes into this race off a dominant performance in the local prep, the Lecomte Stakes on Jan. 19. Many of the horses in this field come out of the Lecomte Stakes, and re-watching and analyzing that race is a good starting off point in the handicapping process. War of Will was given a B+ OptixGrade for his performance, the B+ signifying an effort above and beyond what it takes to just win; and based on the analytics, horses with B+ can often perform well stepping up in class. In addition, he earned an OptixFigure (speed figure) of 91 for that race. The par, and OptixFigure Range for the race was 85-91; his figure on the top end of that race par. This race, the Risen Star Stakes, holds a Range of 87-91. This not only is assessing the chances of War of Will to move forward in this race, but the horses that ran behind him, and their ability to improve off their speed figures and class to turn the tables. He looks to hold an edge over the other runners out of the Lecomte, though there could be upside with #1 Plus Que Parfait with the troubled start and wide trip; the honest #6 Hog Creek Hustle seems to bring his race each time; and a sneaky trip #2 Roiland could be worth a watch and underneath use.
2. “Outside post awaits War of Will in Risen Star” - @BloodHorse
With the expected scratch of Kingly, War of Will moves in just slightly to post 13, though this outside post position still creates an additional handicapping factor. Using a critical eye to look at the pace scenario can help assess the true impact of that post position. Using OptixPLOT, there are a few horses drawn to his inside that have shown to be quicker to the first call. Both #7 Manny Wah and #8 Owendale are expected to be out there early. In addition, #3 Mr. Money (making his 3-year-old debut after a slight illness kept him out of the Lecomte) and #11 Dunph have some early speed, though they are about the same as War of Will to the first call. It is also worth noting, drawn outside of War of Will, #15 Gun It is expected to draw into the race with the scratch, and has some early speed he will be looking to use. The pace should be honest throughout, though not blistering. This will help reduce his energy expenditure early and help him get position from that outside post. With a handful of horses naturally quick early, there is some ground loss to be expected, however not necessarily extreme. Trainer Mark Casse has not been displeased with the post position on record, however, and does prefer this horse to be outside than inside. These comments from the trainer also validate what he has shown on the track and in OptixNOTES, unsure of how he will handle being inside of horses.
3. “Can Country House run with these?” - @SantiniLawrence (Lawrence S.)
Recent impressive maiden breaker #9 Country House will ship in from Gulfstream Park for Bill Mott. He has a nice, improving pattern coming into this race with a gradual step forward with each start. His win on Jan. 17, was the race that really caught the eye of the public and moved him into the spotlight. It was visually impressive for him to recover from the poor start, advance into a slow pace, and continue closing ground with a swift final quarter-mile. He earned a B+ OptixGrade (capable to reasonably step up in class), and an 87 OptixFigure. The question of if he is fast enough has come up quite a bit when discussing his chances in this race. He will, indeed, need to move forward off that number, though he has shown that steady progression and seems capable to take another step forward. A lot of talk about his speed figure has been made, and not enough about his trip for this race. Up to this point, he has not shown much early speed, even with a clean break from the gate. In this full field, pace along with trip will be a major hurdle to overcome, perhaps more than speed-figure progression. Much has also been said of the 20-1 morning line; safe to say it is probably not accurate and to expect much shorter on race day.
4. “Can Henley’s Joy convert from turf to Grade 2 Risen Star?” - @thepressboxlts
He is another coming into this race from Gulfstream Park. Unlike Country House, Henley's Joy has been tested against winners and brings a solid foundation in stakes events. Not only does he bring experience, he also brings a level of class with wins in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile Stakes last summer and the Pulpit Stakes at Gulfstream back in December. In addition, he is graded stakes-placed, finishing second in the Grade 3 Bourbon Stakes last fall at Keeneland. His form has been solid this season, coming into this race off a “better-than-looked” effort in the Kitten’s Joy Stakes last month. He brings a level of class to the race, though is unknown on the dirt. He has been a consistent player on the turf circuit and his connections did not really see the need to rush to the dirt. We will know for sure a bit more after Saturday, and more than pedigree can tell us heading into the race. Even with that unknown, we can handicap his chances based on what we do know about him. He gets the checkmark, with a fit on class. Overall, his speed figures are a bit on the soft side coming into this race and would have to improve to factor. This is where the dirt question mark has the most impact, because not only would he have to handle the surface, but also have the surface move him forward. Trip is another factor altogether. He has been the most effective under ideal “perfect” trips. Hard to see a horse with his running style find another perfect trip in this full field.
5. “Saturday’s Grade 2 $400,000 Risen Star, a 50-20-10-5 points race … who do you like?” - @fairgroundsnola
Even with the outside post position, #14 War of Will is a legit contender in this race. Trip could be his undoing though tough to see him run his race and have one of the others out of the Lecomte turn the tables. One of the “fresh faces” that is worth a look is #10 Limonite (10-1) for trainer Steve Asmussen. He has been training locally for this return, last seen finishing third in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. He ran a sneaky good race that day and was worth a watch off that effort. His improvement since the Saratoga debut has been positive; and with natural age progression looks capable to take the necessary move forward in this 3-year-old debut. Brian Hernandez Jr. is taking over as regular rider Ricardo Santana Jr. will stick with the other Asmussen, the lightly raced though seemingly talented #15 Gun It. Gun It comes out of a local optional allowance race on Jan. 17, with the winner #8 Owendale and runner-up #12 Frolic More both making their stakes debuts here. The speed figures for the race came up strong, and something similar from that trio fits with this race par. Only one horse has raced back out of the race, and it is worth noting the figure did not hold in that next start. Limonite has shown some class, has upside potential, is not compromised on pace to factor, and should be a fair price based on the morning line.
Thanks for reading and as always, good luck horseplayers.