Seven things to know for Risen Star

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February 24th, 2017

Saturday’s $400,000 Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds is the first of this year’s contests to offer a total of 85 points toward the Kentucky Derby (G1) (not counting the prep race in Japan, with different points rules). The increased point total, on a scale of 50-20-10-5 to the top four, marks the transition from the Road to the Derby “prep season” to the more intense “Championship season.”

Accordingly, the 1 1/16-mile Risen Star serves up a proper test of formlines across geographical regions. First and foremost, it’s a head-on clash between the depth of last fall’s Remsen (G2), represented by the victorious Mo Town (pictured), and the January 21 Lecomte (G3) on this track, with winner Guest Suite heading the posse.

Here are seven things to know when handicapping the Risen Star:

1. Mo Town was decisive in the Remsen, but the placegetters have flopped in their subsequent starts. Remsen runner-up No Dozing was a no-show sixth behind McCraken in the February 11 Sam F. Davis (G3) at Tampa. Remsen third Takaful and fourth Win with Pride were beaten out of sight by El Areeb in the January 2 Jerome (G3) at Aqueduct; Win with Pride was a distant fourth, while Takaful was virtually eased home in last. Although there may have been a variety of explanations for why they all threw in subpar efforts next time, the record isn’t flattering.

Considering that the Remsen form has taken such heavy knocks, and that Mo Town is returning from a three-month vacation as the 122-pound highweight here, you may be inclined to take on the morning-line favorite. On the other hand, see point 2…

2. Mo Town’s trainer, Tony Dutrow, switched to this target in what strikes me as a clever piece of spotting. For a long time after the November 26 Remsen, Dutrow has had the March 4 Gotham (G3) back at Aqueduct as his likely launching pad. So what’s changed?

For one, Mo Town has been training sharply over the deep Payson Park surface, firing three consecutive five-furlong bullets. He appears ready to go for a high-percentage trainer in this situation. According to the Brisnet stats, Dutrow is 19% when returning from 90 days or longer, 20% in graded stakes, and 21% with his shippers. Why bother to wait another week, and as Dutrow noted, hazard the New York weather?

But to my mind, another reason is that the Risen Star looks like a very winnable spot for a horse with easily the field’s best BRIS Speed rating (101 in the Remsen). If Mo Town shipped north for the Gotham, he’d run into the white-hot El Areeb. If he opted for next Saturday’s Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream, he’d catch rising star Irish War Cry. He’ll have to tackle the big guns soon enough, but there’s no rule you have to do so off the bench. If you can find a comeback race without a standout, especially one worth $400,000, why not take advantage?

3. The Lecomte form doesn’t look terribly compelling either. Guest Suite is an improving type who caught the right set-up, and capitalized, but needed only a 93 BRIS Speed to do so. And in his only prior stakes try, he was third, beaten five lengths, by McCraken in last fall’s Street Sense at Churchill Downs. Capable of better? Sure. Still, he’s got something to prove against a better grade of opponent.

Also calling into question the Lecomte’s strength in depth is the fact that Arklow, still a maiden, finished a close fourth. Lecomte third-placer Takeoff may be better on turf, according to trainer Mark Casse (who scratched him from the Risen Star).

Finally, the Lecomte was contested on a muddy, sealed track. While the outcome may have been the same regardless of track condition, sometimes it’s advisable to treat off-track form with caution.

4. Untrapped may offer the most scope for improvement of those exiting the Lecomte. The Steve Asmussen trainee was stretching out to two turns, and facing winners for the first time, off a two-month layoff. His runner-up effort was full of merit.

Traveling nicely in a ground-saving stalking spot, Untrapped had to alter course for room in the stretch. His inexperience showed as he wandered a bit, but he straightened out late and was gaining on Guest Suite in the final yards. He’ll have learned something that day.

Untrapped had shown promise in his two maiden races. An eye-catching second to future Smarty Jones winner Uncontested at Keeneland, he promptly broke his maiden by 5 1/4 lengths at Churchill. Although both were 6 1/2-furlong sprints, Untrapped has the pedigree to handle this trip effectively. That makes him an enticing dark horse at 10-1.

5. Local Hero takes a substantial class hike off a maiden romp in his third try. He’s Asmussen’s top hope – if you go by his 4-1 morning-line odds – and the $500,000 two-year-old in training purchase has the early speed to lead or secure good position.

The son of Hard Spun and Grade 3-winning sprinter Liam’s Dream turned his Fair Grounds, and two-turn debut, into a procession. Local Hero was eager to go early for Florent Geroux, got comfortable on an uncontested lead, and opened up en route to a 7 1/4-length tally.

Aside from the obvious class test here, another quibble is that Local Hero drew off despite slowing down. The rest of the field couldn’t keep up, despite a moderate six-furlong split in 1:12.40. That calls into question the quality of the opposition, although runner-up Blueridge Traveler did come back to break his maiden at Oaklawn. Local Hero is also unlikely to receive as easy a trip. We’ll find out if he’s ready for prime time.

6. Trainer Joe Sharp is double-handed with Cool Arrow and Girvin, both intriguing contenders coming off the road less traveled, at a price.

You might not guess that a horse last seen at Remington Park actually tops the field in BRIS Prime Power. That’s Cool Arrow, who wired the December 11 Springboard Mile. His Prime Power edge isn’t much (136.2 compared to Guest Suite’s 135.6 and Mo Town’s 135.5), but the 15-1 chance is eligible to outperform his odds. Note that Sharp also scratched him from the Southwest (G3) in favor of this spot.

The 6-1 Girvin is employing the turf-to-dirt angle, coming off rallying second in the Keith Gee Memorial over a mile. In his debut two back, he edged impressive next-out winner Excitations on the Fair Grounds dirt.

7. Three Risen Star entrants will scratch (as of Friday afternoon). The Doug O’Neill-trained So Conflated, who drew the far outside post 14, will instead try the Gotham, and outsiders Takeoff and It’s Your Nickel are also out.

Good luck in the Risen Star!

Check out the contests and promotions for Risen Star Day - the $25,000 Kentucky Derby Dream bet and the Split 3 million points!

Mo Town photo courtesy NYRA/Coglianese Photography