At some point, after decades of watching him stun with results that laugh in the face of whatever was supposed to play out on paper, one would think the racing community would pause before underestimating D. Wayne Lukas and his protégés.
He keeps doing this, after all — unveiling prospects that jump up just when others’ bandwagons seem to be rolling along. He will joke that he has made a career out of running horses where they don’t belong, often cracking that Hall of Fame wit in moments when he has had the last laugh.
The legendary trainer may not have been on hand at Fair Grounds on Feb. 17, but rest assured, he was as tickled as anyone at the Louisiana track after Bravazo stuck his nose at the finish line in the $400,000, Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes presented by Lamarque Ford.
The colt’s odds read 21-1. The past-performance lines said others had far better credentials. The results of the photo finish said the man with the most Triple Crown race wins in history had another live one on his hands.
The 2018 Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve welcomed Calumet Farm’s homebred Bravazo to its ranks Saturday. In his second start this year and third crack against graded stakes company, the Lukas-trained Awesome Again colt tracked pacesetter Snapper Sinclair every step of the 1 1/16-mile race and got his best stride down when it counted, edging the front-runner by a nose after a sustained stretch battle.
Lukas already has one classic hopeful in his barn in Grade 1 winner Sporting Chance, who is scheduled to make his seasonal bow Monday in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park. After earning 50 qualifying points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, it is Bravazo who currently sits atop the leaderboard — not a bad feat for a colt who ended his juvenile season finishing 10th at odds of 30-1 in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in November at Churchill Downs.
Many expected a Hall of Fame trainer to prevail in the Risen Star, they just figured it would be Jerry Hollendorfer, saddling favored Instilled Regard. The dark bay son of Arch already had turned in a visually impressive run at Fair Grounds, taking the Jan. 13 Lecomte Stakes by 3 3/4 lengths. The same day that one was garnering high praise for his potential upside, Bravazo was quietly getting himself back on track with a neck victory in a one-mile allowance test at Oaklawn.
That workmanlike effort got the screws tightened for the upset run he delivered Saturday. With fellow longshot Snapper Sinclair taking command after racing in the two-path to the first turn, Bravazo sat right off that foe’s flank through an opening quarter-mile in :24.15 and a half-mile in :47.96.
Those two were still side-by-side as they reached the final turn, but it appeared 7-5 favorite Instilled Regard was going to hit them with a dose of reality as he advanced from three wide. That momentum went no further entering the stretch, however, with Snapper Sinclair gamely outrunning his 41-1 odds, only to be outdone as Bravazo kept coming to his outside under urging from jockey Miguel Mena, who picked up the mount from Gary Stevens.
“I found out 2-3 days ago that Gary wasn’t coming, and [Lukas] gave me the call,” said Mena, currently the leading rider at Fair Grounds. “I talked to [assistant trainer] Bas [Nicholl] this morning and he told me how much they liked the horse. They told me to ride him with confidence.
“I think they expected me to be fairly close, but I didn’t think I’d be that close. A couple speed horses didn’t show up.”
Bravazo stopped completed the 1 1/16-mile race in 1:42.95 on a fast track as he and Snapper Sinclair went two lengths clear of third-place finisher Noble Indy. Instilled Regard was outkicked in the stretch and ended up fourth, with High North fifth.
After breaking his maiden second time out at Churchill Downs last September, Bravazo was tossed into top-level company in the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, where he ran second by four lengths at 47-1 odds to Free Drop Billy. He returned to finish third in the Street Sense Stakes later that month, but was a nonfactor in the Kentucky Jockey Club won by Enticed.
A Kentucky-bred out of the Cee’s Tizzy mare Tiz o’ Gold, Bravazo improved his record to three wins from seven starts with $426,528 in earnings.