Catching My Eye: What Did We Learn from The Risen Star?

February 22nd, 2024

The $400,000 Risen Star (G2)

Billed as the most-stacked Kentucky Derby prep race to date, what did we learn from Saturday’s Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds?

Looking at the market, maybe we didn’t learn much at all, as the bettors’ top choice Sierra Leone nailed the second-favorite Track Phantom just ahead of the wire. Catching Freedom, the 5-1 fourth choice, ran well for third. In other words, we knew who we liked, and they ran to our expectations.

But what about the 7-2 third choice Hall of Fame, who finished seventh after sitting a perfect tracking trip and then falling flat in the stretch? I talked with his jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. after the race and his enthusiasm for the horse was unshakeable.

“I got a good trip,” Santana said. “I thought he was going to finish well. I don't know if it was the track or not, but all I know is this horse can run.”

By Gun Runner, Hall of Fame most likely should have gotten over the wet track just fine. I think it’s simply a matter of being pushed hard to get a ton out of his January maiden win and then regressing off that effort. Not what you want to see, but that talent and connections are there, so I’m not giving up on Hall of Fame just yet.

One horse who ran better than his odds was Resilience. Here’s what Johnny Velazquez told me:

“The distance was good. I think he’s still just very green though. It was very hard for him to pass the horses. When the horse came out on him a little bit, he didn’t know what to do. But he’s a good one, that’s for sure.”

I absolutely think Resilience can continue to be a threat on the Derby trail. His gallop-out was very nice, continuing with the top two and showing energy. His big-neck build has the look of a physically mature Classic-distance horse. Trained by Bill Mott, I trust Resilience is in good hands to continue maturing mentally.

Catching Freedom continues to be game in the afternoons, though his works don’t shout Derby contender. He is handy and has a competitive heart--in other words, the Brad Cox trainee is mentally mature enough to handle tight spots and continues to offer rallies when he encounters trouble. Talk about attributes you want in a 20-horse field. Catching Freedom interests me, and is another lesson in handicapping: if I like what I see in a horse’s races, that should trump other negative narratives that pop up.

As for fifth-place finisher Honor Marie, well, he ran a solid race to come from further back than Sierra Leone. He galloped out with the top two, and I believe Whit Beckman has a Derby contender on his hands, who will run better on a fast track. Missing his final work before the Risen Star due to a mishap at the track, the Honor Code colt has a legit excuse, too.

What about Real Men Violin? Brian Hernandez, Jr. set him up with a nice ground-saving trip and he was moving very nicely at one point along the backstretch, making me think he would threaten late. But the Kenny McPeek trainee’s run was hindered a couple times, and though he didn’t re-rally late, I project he’ll move forward and will be a win candidate wherever he shows up next.

At 223-1, Awesome Ruta ran well, and I wouldn’t fade him from my superfecta if he returns in the Louisiana Derby.

In my mind, the Derby trail ends here for Cardinale, Moonlight, Tizzy Indy, and Bee Dancer.

Coming out of Saturday’s Risen Star, just as he was heading into it, Sierra Leone is one hyped-up horse. Is it deserved?

Track Phantom crawled on the lead, clocking in three :25 checkpoints. Coming from near the back, Sierra Leone overcame this slow pace. And he covered more ground as Tyler Gaffalione fanned him wide and then crossed back in to bring the run at the leaders. In the Remsen, he overcame a forward track to accomplish something similar. For that, he earned a 98 Brisnet Speed figure. However, last Saturday, he earned a 91. A pace-adjusted or ground-loss figure will be more flattering.

One thing we need to keep in mind going forward: Sierra Leone has only been tested on off tracks. Heading into Saturday’s races, Gun Runners have won 25% of their 289 mud starts. On the mud, Sierra Leone is a deserving favorite in the Blue Grass Stakes, but on a fast track, he is a big-time play against. The Future Pool #4 market did not keep this in mind.

Track Phantom had everything his way, yet did not win. Still, I love him going forward. Why? When Sierra Leone swept by him, he quickened. He tried to come back. The advantage that closers have is the forward horse often doesn’t see them coming to engage. A well-timed move is too much to overcome. That’s just how it goes.

Track Phantom proved in the Gun Runner that he doesn’t need a soft pace. In the Lecomte, he demonstrated how straightforward and push-button he is. In the Risen Star, he showed us he can go further and has that competitive heart. Even Epicenter got nailed by a closer (Call Me Midnight) on his Fair Grounds road to Kentucky Derby 148, where he ran the best race, though he did not win.