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2023 Risen Star Stakes Preview & FREE Picks | Can Victory Formation Overcome Tough Draw In Derby Prep?
Victory Formation (Coady Photography)

2023 Risen Star Stakes Preview & FREE Picks | Can Victory Formation Overcome Tough Draw In Derby Prep?

Aaron previews the 2023 Risen Star Stakes (G2) from Fair Grounds, then gives his top picks & long shots from this Kentucky Derby (G1) prep race. The Brad Cox-trained Victory Formation must overcome a tough post draw if he hopes to repeat his last-out success in the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Tell us YOUR thoughts in the Comments section!

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The track press release:

Spendthrift Farms and Frank Fletcher Racing Operations’ Smarty Jones winner Victory Formation, currently eleventh on the Road to the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve with 10 points, headlines a full field of fourteen 3-year-olds for the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes (G2) presented by Lamarque Ford-Lincoln. The finale of 13 races carded on Saturday’s “Louisiana Derby Preview Day” at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, the Derby prep race is run at 1 1/8 miles on the main track. It was extended from 1 1/16 to 1 1/8 miles three years ago and is followed in the sequence of Fair Grounds Kentucky Derby preps by the 1 3/16 miles $1 million Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (March 25).

The Risen Star is the first in the next stage of prep races which offer 50 Kentucky Derby points to the winner, with the rest of the top five earning 20-15-10-5 respectively . Five other Risen Star runners besides Victory Formation have already banked points: Curly Jack (17), Two Phil’s (8), Angel of Empire (4), Sun Thunder (4), and Determinedly (3).

Post time for the Risen Star is 6:14 p.m. CT and it will be the last leg in an all-stakes 15% takeout, 50-cent Pick 5 with a guaranteed pool of $500,000. With a first post of noon CT, Saturday’s program also features the $300,000 Rachel Alexandra (G2) presented by Fasig-Tipton for sophomore fillies. Along with the duo of 3-year-old stakes events, the program includes the $250,000 Mineshaft (G3) presented by Relyne GI by Hagyard, the $150,000 Fair Grounds Stakes (G3) presented by Horse Racing Nation, the $100,000 Albert M. Stall Memorial Stakes, and the $100,000 Colonel Power Stakes.

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Two of the sport’s top trainers, Brad Cox and Steve Asmussen, are on the verge of career milestones. Both have entered a trio of Triple Crown nominated colts in the Risen Star. As of Tuesday morning, Cox is knocking on career win 2,000 with 1,994, and North America’s all-time winningest trainer Steve Asmussen is just three wins shy of being the first ever to reach 10,000.

With a pair of local preps for both the Derby and Oaks already in the books, Brad Cox barn has eclipsed all others, winning the Lecomte (G2) with Instant Coffee, the Silverbulletday with The Alys Look, and the Gun Runner with Jace’s Road. Entering Chop Chop in the Rachel Alexandra (G2) and three colts in the Risen Star, there’s a strong possibility that storyline will remain the same once the dust settles on Saturday. Morning line oddsmaker Mike Diliberto justifiably put targets on the Cox runners’ backs as Victory Formation was made the 3-1 favorite, Tapit’s Conquest the 6-1 second-favorite, and Angel of Empire the third-favorite, one of five runners made 8-1 in the ultra-competitive 51st running of a race that has heavily influenced the “Run for the Roses” starting gate. Since the Road to the Kentucky Derby points system began in 2013, only the $1 million Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) has produced as many Kentucky Derby contenders (33) as the Risen Star. 

After winning his first two races at sprint distances, Victory Formation was tasked with a two-turn mile in the Smarty Jones on New Year’s Day at Oaklawn Park. Breaking from the outside post he took over at the front and cruised away from the field to win by 3 lengths. If he employs similar front-running tactics, the son of Tapwrit will have company, as four other runners in the field are proven to be sharp from the gates and keen to the lead.

“I think he should be able to break well and get a good position,” Cox said. “I’m not too worried about the outside post (No. 13). He’s very quick from the gate and broke really sharp in all three of his starts. Obviously Flavien (Prat) is a great rider; we’re not going to give him too many instructions, and he rode him last time so he does know the horse. Ultimately, it will be up to him where he wants him placed. I think (Victory Formation) will like the mile and an eighth based on pedigree.”

Cross-entered in the Lecomte and a 3-year-old allowance on the Road to the Derby Day undercard, Robert LaPenta, e Five Racing Thoroughbreds and Madaket Stables’ Tapit’s Conquest went in the softer spot, but he could not bid past the winner Determinedly who slowed the pace down out front and had plenty left in the tank through the final stages to stay ahead of Tapit’s Conquest’s rail rally.

“I think he got a lot out of the Lecomte and he hadn’t run since October,” Cox said. “He needed the last race, he’s still learning. He didn’t really get involved as much as we’d like last time, but ultimately came running, and I think he got a lot out of it from an educational standpoint. He should love a mile and an eighth even more.”

The Tapit colt’s lone win in three starts came in early October at Churchill Downs. Cox gave him time off in October before bringing him to Fair Grounds where he has posted all his morning drills. Geroux stays on and will guide Tapit’s Conquest from post No. 8.

Albaugh Family Stables’ Angel of Empire finished second to his stablemate in the Smarty Jones on January 1. His two wins came at Horseshoe Indianapolis, both the first starts in his form cycle. The Classic Empire closer drew post No. 6 and will have a new pilot in Luis Saez.

“He breezed very, very well on Sunday,” Cox said “Five-eighths in 1:01. I think he’s going to like the mile and an eighth based on his physicality, being a big, tall horse with a lot of leg. Hopefully he’ll take another step forward. He’s had plenty of time to recover from the Smarty Jones. The work pattern at Oaklawn has been solid, so we’ll see how it goes.”

Cox won the 2021 Risen Star with Mandaloun, the adjudicated winner of that year’s Kentucky Derby and the 2020 edition with Mr. Monomoy.

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Trainer Steve Asmussen has won the Risen Star three times, including last year with Epicenter, who would go on to win the Louisiana Derby (G2) en route to a second place finish in Kentucky Derby 148. Asmussen also won in 2016 with Gun Runner, one of the top earning Thoroughbreds of all-time. Of the three colts entered by Steve Asmussen, it’s the newcomer to the barn, Harlocap, who gets tabbed at 8-1, ahead of Private Creed and Silver Heist both at 12-1.

The owner of Harlocap, Harlo Stables and Villa Rosa Farm, is the first to transfer their Derby-contender out of Bob Baffert’s barn. Baffert is suspended from entering any race at Churchill Downs, therefore any horse in his care is disallowed from earning Derby points.  Making his third start on Jan. 22, the Justify colt out of the Bodemeister dam Mezinka broke his maiden in front running fashion. Harlocap has breezed twice since and will retain the services of John Velazquez.

“Somebody will point out what number he is, and I hope I put the saddle on the right one,” Asmussen said jokingly “He had a huge work the other day (Feb. 11 at SA, 6 furlongs in 1:11 4/5). He arrived (at Fair Grounds) Monday night.”

Though drawing poorly on the far outside, Mike McCarty’s multiple stakes winner Private Creed has overcome a similar post when winning the Indian Summer in October at Keeneland. That was on the turf, as all the Jimmy Creed colt’s prior starts have been.

“I didn’t want to try the 14-hole, but I wanted to try this (route on dirt),” Asmussen said. “Last year when he won the race at Kentucky Downs, it was a coin flip on whether I’d run him back in the two-turn race at Keeneland (G2 Bourbon) or the one-turn race (Indian Summer) as a prep for the Breeders’ Cup. It’s ironic that Catalano’s horse (Andthewinneris) who just beat him (Private Creed) at Lone Star is also the horse that won the Bourbon. I backed him up to 5 1/2 furlongs (in the Indian Summer), he won that, and then ran solidly in the Breeders’ Cup (Juvenile Turf Sprint, 3rd). That was always too short for him, but it was a great financial opportunity and it was fun.”

Private Creed was a head shy of getting the best of Andthewinneris at the end of January in the Texas Turf Mile at Sam Houston.

“He got a little aggressive (in the Texas Turf Mile) down the backside but still finished up solid with a nice horse (Andthewinneris) and stayed on well for his first two-turn try,” Asmussen said. “We breezed him back. I didn’t think there would be much speed in the Risen Star, but when there are 14 of them, somebody will go. At 1 1/8 miles, with considerably more run into the first turn, you get a fairer shot than if it was 1 1/16 miles. Another concern with the far outside post, horses miss the break at the highest percentage there. A quarter of a step in the wrong direction is not what you want. He’s such a cool horse. He deserves a chance.”

Tyler Gaffalione will climb aboard Private Creed for the first time. Gaffalione teamed up with trainer Mark Casse to win the 2019 Lecomte and Risen Star with War of Will, who would later win the Preakness (G1). He is the perennial leading rider at Churchill Downs. Casse starts Determinedly, who won the two-turn allowance on the Lecomte undercard.

With just two starts under his belt, Whisper Hill Farm’s Silver Heist could be poised for another step forward. Having won his sprint debut, the son of Tapit stretched out and finished a game third going 1 1/16 miles in a 3-year-old allowance on the Road to the Derby Day undercard. Risen Star foes Determinedly and Tapit’s Conquest finished ahead of him.

“He had the six furlong maiden win, and maybe he will benefit greatly from his first two-turn race,” Asmussen said. “We’re not scared of the horses who finished in front of him. If he can stay on, I want him in the 3-year-old (Road to the Derby) mix, and this is the opportunity.”

Corey Lanerie, present on debut, gets the call and will guide Silver Heist from post No. 11.

Here’s the complete field for the Risen Star Stakes from the rail out (with jockey, trainer, and morning line):

  1. Quiet as Midnight (Emanuel Nieves, Bernard Chatters, 50-1)
  2. Single Ruler (Jose Riquelme, Keith Desormeaux, 30-1)
  3. Shaq Diesel (Adam Beschizza, Renaldo Richards, 30-1)
  4. Determinedly (Rey Gutierrez, Mark Casse, 8-1)
  5. Harlocap (John Velazquez, Steve Asmussen, 8-1)
  6. Angel of Empire (Luis Saez, Brad Cox, 8-1)
  7. Sun Thunder (Brian Hernandez Jr., Ken McPeek, 15-1)
  8. Tapit’s Conquest (Florent Geroux, Brad Cox, 6-1)
  9. Curly Jack (Edgar Morales, Tom Amoss, 8-1)
  10. Two Phil’s (Jareth Loveberry, Larry Rivelli, 8-1)
  11. Silver Heist (Corey Lanerie, Steve Asmussen, 12-1)
  12. Crupi (James Graham, Todd Pletcher, 15-1)
  13. Victory Formation (Flavien Prat, Brad Cox, 3-1)
  14. Private Creed (Tyler Gaffalione, Steve Asmussen, 12-1).

Additional Quotes:

Curly Jack (trainer Tom Amoss)

“He’s prepared very well and I’m excited about running him this weekend,” Amoss said. “It’s his 3-year-old debut, and big fields usually translate into traffic issues for horses off the pace and he’s one of those. I don’t want to make it sound like we would not love to win this race because we would. A big effort and taking into account what may or may not occur in the race is what we’re looking for from Curly Jack (in the Risen Star).”

Sun Thunder (trainer Ken McPeek)

“It will be a good test,” McPeek said. “Baffert’s horse (Arabian Knight) freaked on us at Oaklawn and that race wasn’t coming back to us. I think Sun Thunder will benefit from his experience and he should be sitting on his best race. Nine furlongs, the long stretch. Don’t chase. He just needs to get sit and get into a rhythm. We’ll get some clarity as to whether or not he belongs with the top 3-year-olds. It will be fun.”

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