Run at 1 1/16 miles, Saturday's $400,000 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans is the first non-Japanese race on the road to the Kentucky Derby awarding 50 points to the winner, and it is the local prep for the million-dollar Louisiana Derby, run five weeks later.
No Risen Star winner has ever won the run for the roses, but last year's victor Gun Runner did go on to finish third and race alums Mo Tom and Tom's Ready also made the starting gate.
Fourteen horses have been entered in this year's edition of the Risen Star, including the top five finishers from the locally run Lecomte Stakes – Guest Suite, Untrapped, Takeoff, Arklow and Shareholder Value.
Here are five questions that must be answered about the race.
1. Can Guest Suite continue his winning ways?
The Neil Howard-trained son of Quality Road has shown steady progression throughout his young career. His Lecomte win came over a muddy track, but it was both professional and promising. He's trained forwardly between starts, is well-drawn from post six, jockey Robby Albarado has ridden the colt in his last four starts, and his stalk-and-pounce style should play well against this bunch. His speed figures don't pop off the page and the Risen Star should prove to be a decidedly tougher task than the Lecomte.
Joe's answer: I like Guest Suite, but prefer others, so I would say "definitely maybe."
2. How good is Mo Town?
Installed as the 7-2 morning-line favorite, this Tony Dutrow-trained son of Uncle Mo hasn't run since taking down the G2 Remsen at Aqueduct in late November. Both runner-up No Dozing and third-place finisher Takaful have been follow-up failures, so it's easy to question the strength of what he beat. John Velazquez retains the call and having a nine-furlong win at this stage of the game already on his resume is surely a plus.
Joe's answer: The jury is still out, but I couldn't sink my teeth into him as the favorite.
3. Who is the best of the Steve Asmussen-trained 3-year-olds?
Going into the season, Lookin At Lee was widely considered to be Steve Asmussen's top Triple Crown hopeful. I'm not a fan, although I must admit he did run better than I thought he would in Monday’s Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn. Bothered at the start, he did rally on well to finish a non-threatening third. He has the potential to get better with more ground to work with, but I think Risen Star runner Local Hero may have more raw potential. He kind of reminds me of last year's winner and rising handicap superstar Gun Runner.
A son of Hard Spun out of a Saint Liam mare, Local Hero is naturally fast, and in his recent maiden breaker, which was his first run around two turns, he ran the field off their feet before being geared down late by his (and Gun Runner's) pilot, Florent Geroux. Asmussen's other Risen Star starter, Untrapped, also has plenty of upside. The Lecomte was his first start around a pair of turns, and after being held up on the final turn, he finished with energy to grab second. By Trappe Shot out of a Giant's Causeway mare, he too may relish added distance. Both of these colts will be making only their fourth lifetime starts on Saturday and their best is likely still in front of them.
Joe's answer: Ranking the Asmussen 3-year-olds - 1. Local Hero. 2. Untrapped. 3. Lookin at Lee
4. Will young training stars Brad Cox and/or Joe Sharp earn their first Kentucky Derby berth this year?
Joe Sharp sends out a pair of runners in the Risen Star in Cool Arrow and Girvin. With three wins including a pair of minor stakes victories on his resume, Cool Arrow is the more accomplished of the two, but Girvin might be the horse you want moving forward. A sprint winner at first asking, he lost a tough decision in his follow-up start around two turns on grass. By Tale of Ekati out of a Malibu Moon mare, chances are he's not a turf horse and that race should serve as a perfect springboard to the Risen Star.
Fair Grounds’ leading trainer Brad Cox is represented by Arklow, who swings back off a troubled fourth in the Lecomte. By Arch out of an Empire Maker mare, he may eventually develop into a grass horse, but this time of year it's only prudent to find out what a horse can do on dirt. Cox's other fringe Triple Crown prospect Chief Know It All flopped in Monday's Southwest, finishing 10th.
Joe's answer: It looks like the Derby is just a dream for both Sharp and Cox in 2017, but both are excellent horseman who should be heard from on the Triple Crown trail for years to come.
5. Who wins the Risen Star and why?
Of the 13 horses entered, only Local Hero, Cool Arrow and maaaaaybe Girvin are pace pressing types, so the tempo should be moderate. I think Local Hero may be the most naturally talented horse in the race to begin with and a potential pace advantage only strengthens my conviction. Untrapped, Steve Asmussen's other runner, is a candidate to take a major step forward and you have to respect Guest Suite's proven professionalism. Mo Town should run well, but as a likely underlay I'd rather fade than follow.
Joe's Risen Star picks: 1. Local Hero 2. Untrapped 3. Guest Suite 4. Mo Town
Who do you like in the Risen Star and why? Join the conversation on Twitter using #TripleCrown17
Bob Austin & John Witte