Expectations are already very high for Smile Happy ahead of the three-year-old colt’s season debut in the $400,000 Risen Star S. (G2) at Fair Grounds on Saturday.
The son of Runhappy comfortably won both starts at two for Lucky Seven Stable and trainer Kenny McPeek, including a 3 1/4-length triumph in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) at Churchill Downs. That Nov. 27 heat has subsequently turned into a key race as the vanquished included Sam F. Davis (G3) winner Classic Causeway, Holy Bull (G3) scorer White Abarrio, and Lecomte (G3) upsetter Call Me Midnight.
As the Kentucky Jockey Club form has been franked so far this winter, Smile Happy’s popularity with ante-post bettors has continued unabated. The colt has closed as as the 8-1 favorite among individual choices in all three Kentucky Derby Future Wager (KDFW) pools held so far.
“I think this is a good first step for Smile Happy,” McPeek said. “He’s doing super. He’s done everything right. He’s a very low maintenance horse who makes our job easy. He eats good. He loves to train.”
The 1 1/8-mile distance of the Risen Star wouldn’t seem to be a potential concern for Smile Happy, though Remsen (G2) runner-up Zandon is the only one in the field to have negotiated it thus far. Zandon lost the Remsen by a nose to Mo Donegal, whose jockey, Irad Ortiz Jr., rode the winner in a manner that was borderline disqualifiable. The result was allowed to stand despite some late bumping between the two.
“He’s got to get over the shipping, but the horse couldn’t be training any better,” trainer Chad Brown said.
Invading from California is Slow Down Andy, whose one-length victory in the Dec. 11 Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) was truly flattered when runner-up Messier turned a tremendous performance when taking the Robert B. Lewis (G3) by 15 lengths. Slow Down Andy’s connections have twice won the Kentucky Derby (G1) in the past decade with I’ll Have Another (2012) and Nyquist (2016), the sire of Slow Down Andy.
“With a clean break, he’ll show good tactical speed and he’s got tremendous stamina,” trainer Doug O’Neill said.
A trend going against the aforementioned three is that since 2010 only Gun Runner (2016) has won the Risen Star in his season debut. If that trend continues, the local contingent will bear watching. Although Call Me Midnight was not entered back, Lecomte runner-up Epicenter perhaps ran the better race of the two by setting the pace and leading until just before the wire.
Pappacap, runner-up to champion Corniche twice last fall, finished third by less than a length in the Lecomte, while Trafalgar adds blinkers following his fourth-place run in the same race. The Brad Cox-trained pair of Bodock and Tawny Port both step up in class off allowance wins, as does the Todd Pletcher trainee Pioneer of Medina.
The outsider in the field of 10 is Russian Tank, who’s run off the board twice since breaking his maiden and is not currently Triple Crown nominated.
The Risen Star offers Kentucky Derby qualifying points of 50-20-10-5, with the winner virtually earning an automatic bid into the May 7 classic.