April 1, 2023

Three points to ponder: 2022 Risen Star Stakes

Slow Down Andy and jockey Mario Gutierrez win the Los Alamitos Futurity (Photo by Benoit Photo)

It’s apropos that the Risen Star (G2) ushers in the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, because the $400,000 prize at Fair Grounds could hardly have drawn a better cast. Early Kentucky Derby (G1) favorite Smile Happy would offer cachet all by himself, but factor in serious contenders with California and New York graded stakes form, and the 1 1/8-mile affair becomes a pivotal prep.

The Risen Star’s 50-20-10-5 points will remake the Kentucky Derby leaderboard, and its result will reverberate to other circuits as collateral form.

Here are my points to ponder:

1. Is Smile Happy unbeatable?

Smile Happy has been convincing in both starts, sweeping from just off the pace like a horse who’s not overly dependent on race shape. And the form of his Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) has worked out exceptionally well, so he was beating quality opponents.

Trainer Ken McPeek has had high-profile sophomores beaten at short odds in their comebacks – i.e., Tejano Run and Harlan’s Holiday. But the last time he sent a Kentucky Jockey Club winner to the Risen Star, his Repent (2002) won handily as the 7-10 favorite.

The Risen Star is now a half-furlong longer, which could put more of a premium on fitness. There’s no concern on pedigree. Although by champion sprinter Runhappy, Smile Happy gets plenty of stamina from the well-constructed pedigree of his dam, who is inbred to brothers His Majesty and Graustark, with the bonus influences of Stage Door Johnny and Relaunch.

If there’s one way to nitpick, it’s arguable that Smile Happy brought his A-game to the Kentucky Jockey Club, and his better rivals didn’t. Had Classic Causeway and White Abarrio run up to their recent Sam F. Davis (G3) and Holy Bull (G3) victories, respectively, Smile Happy’s dominance is diminished, if not erased.

Of course, that’s the beauty – and challenge – of the Derby trail. Smile Happy has the profile of one to maintain his upward curve, but his key competitors won’t be static themselves.

2. Look to California or New York for the alternative?

In a typical Risen Star, one invader the caliber of Slow Down Andy or Zandon would be the headline act. So deep is this renewal that they’re instead the supporting players angling to upstage the leading man.

My suspicion is that Slow Down Andy is not getting enough credit for toppling Messier in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2), with a strong 101 Brisnet Speed rating. Granted, that wasn’t the same Messier who came back blinkerless to rout the Robert B. Lewis (G3). But Slow Down Andy spent time gawking around the Los Alamitos stretch, underscoring that he’s far from the finished article himself. From the same Reddam/Doug O’Neill/Mario Gutierrez team responsible for Kentucky Derby winners I’ll Have Another and Nyquist (the sire of Slow Down Andy), the Cal-bred projects a close stalking trip from post 10.

I thought that Zandon should have been promoted to victory in the Remsen (G2), considering the degree of bother that the official winner Mo Donegal caused him. In any event, Zandon ran a mighty race on the stretch-out from a six-furlong debut, especially the poise and resolve he displayed on the inside despite Mo Donegal’s intimidation. On the other hand, Zandon was assisted by tracking a glacial pace, while Mo Donegal had to drop back to swing out and rally. Thus the Chad Brown trainee has experience over the Risen Star trip, but at a tempo nothing like what he’ll find here.

3. Does it matter that Epicenter ran the best race in the Lecomte?

Epicenter suffered a tough beat in the Lecomte (G3), where he set a solid pace, and rebuffed 3-2 favorite Pappacap, only to get mugged by Call Me Midnight. Similar tactics in the Risen Star are apt to produce a similar result. But might Florida shipper Pioneer of Medina insist on the lead with new rider Luis Saez? If so, Epicenter could revert to the pace-prompting role that served him so well in his Gun Runner S. romp two back over this track.

Yet the fact remains that the Risen Star is a substantially stronger race than the Lecomte. And there’s no guarantee that Epicenter maintains his edge over Pappacap, who was just resuming for trainer Mark Casse. In the “Three points to ponder” for the Lecomte, I’d wondered whether it was more of a building block to begin the season. Casse wins 25% of the time with last-out beaten favorites, and the jockey switch to Tyler Gaffalione could be a factor for Pappacap as well. Lecomte fourth Trafalgar has to bridge a bigger gap, but the blinkers-on angle can bring him on a fair bit.