After an admirable second to loose-on-the-lead stablemate Victory Formation in the Smarty Jones S. at Oaklawn Park, Angel of Empire thrived with added ground, and a contested pace, in Saturday’s $400,000 Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds. The Albaugh Family Stables runner propelled himself to the top of the Kentucky Derby (G1) points leaderboard and capped a banner day for trainer Brad Cox, who celebrated his 2,000th career win earlier on the card.
Hitherto unbeaten Victory Formation was sent off as the 9-5 favorite, but faced a tough trip from post 13. Stacked out wide in fourth, he chased a demanding early pace set by Determinedly through fractions of :23.34 and :47.50. That tempo was marginally quicker than the older horses in the 1 1/16-mile Mineshaft (G3) three races prior, and these three-year-olds had to negotiate 1 1/8 miles.
Harlocap, who had been attending in the opening half-mile, took over passing six furlongs in 1:12.21. A new transfer from the Bob Baffert barn, Harlocap had hopes of giving trainer Steve Asmussen a 10,000th career win. But he was weary from his exertions by upper stretch, and Asmussen’s milestone would be impending for another day.
Two Phil’s, the 5.70-1 second choice, was the first to pounce on Harlocap from just off the pace, only to be outkicked late himself. Sun Thunder burst through on the inside, and another Cox hopeful, the 5.80-1 Tapit’s Conquest, was revving up wider out.
But Angel of Empire finished best of all. Under a well-judged ride by Luis Saez, the 13.70-1 shot settled in ninth early, began to pick it up rounding the far turn, and found plenty of room inside of Tapit’s Conquest. Angel of Empire drove past Sun Thunder and a tiring Two Phil’s to score his first stakes win in 1:51.47 and paid $29.40.
With 50 Derby points to his credit plus the four from the Jan. 1 Smarty Jones, Angel of Empire now sits atop the leaderboard with 54. Sun Thunder earned 20 points for checking in a length back in second, upping his total to 24. Two Phil’s took home 15 points in third, another 1 3/4 lengths adrift, and his overall tally stands at 23. Tapit’s Conquest flattened out another half-length away in fourth, good for a deposit of 10 points, and Single Ruler rallied to get five points in fifth.
Harlocap hung tough in sixth, a commendable effort considering his proximity to the pace. Crupi closed belatedly from last of the 14-horse field to snare seventh, followed by Curly Jack, Victory Formation, Shaq Diesel, Silver Heist, Private Creed, Quiet as Midnight, and Determinedly.
Angel of Empire advanced his scorecard to 5-3-1-0, $330,000. A debut winner over a mile at Horseshoe Indianapolis, the son of Classic Empire was sixth when shortening up on turf at Kentucky Downs. He rebounded in a Nov. 14 allowance back at the same track and trip of his maiden victory, and outperformed his 18.10-1 odds when runner-up in the Smarty Jones.
Bred in Pennsylvania by Forgotten Land Investment and Black Diamond Equine Corp., Angel of Empire RNA’d for $32,000 as a Keeneland November weanling. His Albaugh connections purchased him for $70,000 at the same venue as a September yearling.
Angel of Empire was produced by the To Honor and Serve mare Armony’s Angel, who is a half-sister to Grade 2 scorer Conquest Big E. This is the family of Victory Formation, so the rival stablemates have a maternal tie as well.
Speaking of Cox stablemates, Instant Coffee has already been penciled in for the Mar. 25 Louisiana Derby (G2). The trainer is leaving options open for Angel of Empire as he plots the course for several Derby contenders across the map.