Is War of Will Vulnerable in the Risen Star?

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

February 13th, 2019

If horses always ran to form and everyone always received a perfect trip, handicapping races would be easy.

Certainly handicapping Saturday’s $400,000 Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) at Fair Grounds would offer no meaningful challenge. After all, doesn’t #14 War of Will loom as a standout on paper? The son of War Front is 2-for-2 on dirt and was a dominant four-length winner of the Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) at Fair Grounds last month, earning a sharp 94 Beyer speed figure. Wash, rinse, repeat, right?

Unfortunately, the handicapping process isn’t quite that simple. There are other factors to consider—form cycles, probable trips, pace fractions, etc. Perhaps that’s why Lecomte winners have gone just 1-for-7 in the Risen Star since 2010, often suffering surprising reversals of fortune at short prices. Remember, this 1 1/16-mile Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race offers 50 qualification points to the winner and tends to be very competitive.

Now, there’s no particular reason to dislike War of Will in the 2019 Risen Star, though drawing post fourteen won’t help his chances, even if he drops in a slot or two due to scratches. The bigger point is that taking a short price on an impressive January prep race winner isn’t necessarily the best idea. War of Will might have already hit his peak, or a lightly-raced up-and-comer might be poised to jump up and run a career-best race at a nice price.

That’s why I’m going to play against War of Will with #8 Owendale and #9 Country House, who are 6-1 and 20-1 on the morning line. Owendale required three tries to break his maiden last year, but has been steadily improving since stretching out in distance and fired off a couple of bang-up allowance efforts at Fair Grounds in his last two starts, most recently winning a one-mile and 70-yard event by 1 ½ lengths with a 91 Beyer. Conditioned by the current meet-leading trainer Brad Cox, Owendale will have high-percentage jockey Shaun Bridgmohan in the saddle and figures to employ perfect pace-stalking tactics while breaking from post eight.

As for Country House, he overcame a dreadful start to win an 8.5-furlong maiden race at Gulfstream last month with an eye-catching turn-of-foot. The son of Lookin at Lucky rallied powerfully into a slow pace, running the final five-sixteenths of a mile in about :30 flat to win going away by 3 ½ lengths. The slow pace contributed to a slow Beyer (70), but Country House had previously run much faster when finishing second behind Kentucky Wildcat in a one-mile maiden race at Aqueduct. Notably, Kentucky Wildcat came back to finish a clear second in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III) last week.

I'm not going to go crazy with the exotics—I think almost anyone could finish third or fourth. Instead, I’ll box them both in an exacta while adding War of Will underneath, and I'll consider betting one or both to win if they start at 6-1 or higher.

$5 exacta: 8,9 with 8,9,14 ($20)

Good luck!