What’s in a (Race) Name? The Rise of Risen Star

Champion Risen Star won the 1988 Belmont Stakes by 14 ¾ lengths under Eddie Delahoussaye. (Bob Coglianese Photo)

In the history of North American horse racing, there may be no performance more singularly memorable than Secretariat’s 31-length romp in the 1973 Belmont Stakes, in which he set a world record of 2:24 seconds for 1 ½ miles on dirt. Few horses have come even remotely close to equaling Secretariat’s legendary performance … except, of course, his own son, Risen Star.

Born in 1985, Risen Star was a Louisiana sensation that made an unforgettable impression when he ventured into the big leagues. Starting his career at Louisiana Downs – not usually a track where future champions make their debut – Risen Star won the 1987 Minstrel Stakes before finishing second by 15 lengths in the Sport of Kings Futurity.

Then Risen Star began his ascent. First he won a couple of small allowance races at Fair Grounds and ran second in the Lecomte Handicap. Then he rebounded and rallied to win Fair Grounds’ Derby Trial Stakes and Grade 3 Louisiana Derby with impressive late runs.

By then, it was time for a road trip. Shipping north to Keeneland in Kentucky, Risen Star faced his stiffest challenge yet in the Grade 2 Lexington Stakes, in which he stunned the world by defeating champion Forty Niner after a long battle in the homestretch.

Despite his talent, it seemed improbable that a colt from Louisiana could topple a top-notch Kentucky Derby field that included the sensational filly Winning Colors. Risen Star’s trainer, Louis Roussel III, even claimed that Risen Star was winning in spite of – and not because of – his training abilities. As detailed in the book Beyer On Speed by Andrew Beyer, Roussell said before the Derby that “What I know about training you could put under a gnat’s armpit.”

But Roussel may have underestimated himself, for Risen Star rallied strongly to finish third in the Derby, beaten just 3 ¼ lengths despite a very wide trip that might have cost him the victory. In the end, Risen Star proved to be clearly the best horse in his division, for he won the Preakness Stakes by 1 ¼ lengths before turning in a spectacular display of domination in the Belmont Stakes. Surging to the lead with half a mile left to run, Risen Star was six lengths in front turning for home and poured it on down the homestretch, pulling away to win by 14 ¾ lengths in the final time of 2:26 2/5, which ranked as the second-fastest Belmont to that point behind Secretariat.

Not surprisingly, Risen Star received the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male of 1988, and the following year Fair Grounds decided to honor his success by creating the Risen Star Stakes, a Grade 2 event that has since become a prominent prep race on the road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. This year’s renewal is the marquee race on a stakes-heavy Feb. 25 card at Fair Grounds and will feature prominent Kentucky Derby contenders Mo Town and Guest Suite among its scheduled 14 starters.

Risen Star is one of many famous Thoroughbreds being honored with races this weekend. Let’s take a look at some of the others!

Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra Stakes at Fair Grounds

A Horse of the Year… a Preakness Stakes, Haskell Invitational, and Woodward Stakes winner… a record-setting sensation that won two Grade 1 races by margins of 20 ¼ and 19 ¼ lengths... a horse that achieved all of this and more during an undefeated season.

Accomplishments like this would seemingly describe one of the greatest 3-year-old colts of all time, but that would be incorrect. Amazingly, these historic accomplishments were achieved in 2009 by a filly named Rachel Alexandra, who dazzled fans and created indelible memories with her ambitious exploits.

After proving herself to be the clear leader of her own division (her 20 ¼-length victory came in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks!), Rachel Alexandra took on colts in the Preakness Stakes and beat them all in front-running style. Later that summer, she defeated future champion Summer Bird by six lengths in the Haskell Invitational, a precursor to her unforgettable win in the Woodward Stakes, where she beat older males by a head in a performance that ranks as one of the greatest in the long history of Saratoga Race Course.

Grade 3 Mineshaft Handicap at Fair Grounds

In an era where competing in the Breeders’ Cup is almost a requirement for winning Horse of the Year, a 4-year-old colt named Mineshaft managed to break that rule in 2003. A talented son of A.P. Indy that began his career with limited success in Europe, Mineshaft thrived when he was brought to the United States and given a chance at running on dirt. Racing nine times during his championship season, Mineshaft cruised to victory in Grade 1 races like Pimlico Special Handicap, Suburban Handicap, Woodward Stakes, and Jockey Club Gold Cup, winning them all with ease by a minimum of 2 ¼ lengths.

Busher Stakes at Aqueduct

Ask any racing fan to name a filly or mare that won Horse of the Year, and chances are you’ll hear the names of recent stars like Rachel Alexandra (see above), Zenyatta, and Havre de Grace. Another filly that won racing’s greatest award was Busher, a daughter of Triple Crown winner War Admiral. Bred and initially owned by Colonel E. R. Bradley, Busher was the champion two-year-old filly of 1944 when she won five of seven starts, including the historic Matron Stakes at Belmont Park.

The following year, Bradley sold Busher to Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios, and Busher embarked on her Horse of the Year campaign. Racing primarily in California, with a summer spent in Illinois, Busher was almost unstoppable against fillies and beat males in the San Vicente Stakes, Hollywood Derby, Arlington Handicap, and Washington Park Handicap, even defeating older rivals in the latter two races. All told, she went 10-for-13 and was the Horse of the Year choice by both of the major voting panels of the era.

Mine That Bird Derby at Sunland Park

Secretariat, Seabiscuit, Phar Lap – these great horses all had movies produced about their fabled careers, and Mine That Bird recently joined them as the equine star of the film “50 to 1,” which tells the story of Mine That Bird’s improbable upset in the 2009 Kentucky Derby. Coming off of a fourth-place finish in the little-known Sunland Derby (which wasn’t a Derby prep race at the time), Mine That Bird was considered to have little chance in the Run for the Roses and was sent off at odds of 50-1. But with jockey Calvin “Bo-Rail” Borel in the saddle, Mine That Bird sloshed over a sloppy track and rallied up the rail from last place to seize the lead and win by 6 ¾ lengths, one of the largest margins of victory in Derby history!

Tiznow Stakes at Santa Anita Park

The richest race in the United States is the $6-million Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic, a race that has been won by such decorated champions as Zenyatta, American Pharoah, and Cigar. But while many have attempted to win the race in back-to-back years, only Tiznow has completed the feat, showing incredible determination to win the Classic in 2000 and 2001 by margins of a neck and a nose. His victory in 2001 at Belmont Park was nothing short of legendary, as he had dealt with a back injury earlier in the year and was considered a longshot to win the race. Despite being passed in the homestretch by the talented European runner Sakhee, Tiznow battled back courageously to win “for America!” in the famous words of track announcer Tom Durkin.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!