The path to the Kentucky Derby enters a new phase with the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans this weekend. This is the first domestic race with 50 Derby qualifying points available to the winner. That has been more than enough to get into the Derby field ever since this new qualifying format was launched, so this is the first of the de facto win-and-you're-in races.
It hasn't produced a winner of a Triple Crown race since Risen Star himself won this race back in 1988 when it was called the Louisiana Derby Trial Stakes en route to Preakness and Belmont wins. There have been some outstanding winners, though - Lawyer Ron and Mucho Macho Man went on to great careers, and last year's winner Gun Runner is establishing himself as one of the stars of the older horse division this year.
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So, is this the year that we get another Triple Crown race winner? Does the road to the Derby go through Louisiana in February this year? Let's take a look at how the highlights of the field set up (odds are track morning line odds):
Mo Town, p.p. 9, 7/2, John Velazquez: This is the biggest star in the field at this point - though there is obviously no guarantee that will still be the case after the race. He is making his three year old debut after winning two of three last year, including a big win in the Remsen at Aqueduct last time out. His maiden win his first time out was stunning and led to racing mega-powers Coolmore buying a majority share in him. Trainer Tony Dutrow was an original owner and still has a piece. I can't back it up with numbers, but I am a big fan of horses that are partly owned by their trainers in big races - more skin in the game brings out the best. With Uncle Mo, who sired last year's Derby winner Nyquist, as his sire, and the great Bernardini as his damsire, there is no real questions about his breeding. He's the one to beat, but with 14 horses in the field, and without having seen him run lately, I sure wouldn't bet my mortgage payment on him.
Local Hero, p.p. 3, 4/1, Florent Geroux: This horse is indeed a locally-based hero - or at least a potential hero. His status as second choice in this field, though, shows the big problem with this field - there are lots of nice horses but few that have proven anything besides Mo Town. This horse is making his stakes debut in his fourth race. He took three tries to break his maiden, but when he finally did so over this same track in January it was impressive - he won by more than seven lengths. Trainer Steve Asmussen won this race last year with Gun Runner, and in 2008 with Pyro. With more than 7,000 career wins he certainly knows how to win, and big races don't intimidate him. This is a son of Hard Spun out of a Saint Liam mare, so the breeding works, too. I like the potential of the horse but sure wish the price was about twice what it is.
Girvin, p.p. 1, 6/1, Brian Hernandez, Jr.: This is another horse making his graded stakes debut, but he has a win and a second in overnight stakes to his credit in his two career starts. Trainer Joe Sharp is a guy with a very bright future in this business, but he's probably best known as the husband of retired jockey Rosie Napravnik. This horse has some nice talent. It concerns me, though, that he was run on the turf last time out - I don't like it when connections are trying to figure out what they have in a horse on the fly. Again, I like a fair bit about the horse, but I sure don't like the price.
Guest Suite, p.p. 6, 6/1, Robby Albarado: This is both one of the most experienced horses in the field and one of just two graded stakes winners - he took the Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds in January. He has three wins and two thirds in his five starts, so he is always relevant. He is a son of Quality Road out of a Ghostzapper mare, so he continues the trend of really strong breeding in this race. Trainer Neil Howard has three wins in this race but none since 2004. The horse posted a bullet work on Tuesday as a final sharpener for this race, so he is in solid form. The thought of backing a horse ridden by Albarado these days leaves me in a cold sweat, but there is more value here than we have seen anywhere else so far. If I was making one win bet it would likely be on him as long as this price basically holds.
Takeoff, p.p. 10, 10/1, Julien Leparoux: This horse has graded stakes experience - he was third in the Lecomte. He needs to take a big step forward in this one. If this price holds, though, he's an intriguing long shot. The biggest reason I like him is trainer Mark Casse. He's had a great 12 months or so, and I have nothing but respect for him. He laid an egg last week with two year old champion Classic Empire, so he'll be hungry for more here. I wish he'd worked a little faster leading into this race, but you always need a longer shot in your arsenal, and this one fits.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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