Kentucky Derby Report: Late runners step up in Risen Star

February 23rd, 2023

Angel of Empire and Sun Thunder jumped into the Kentucky Derby picture with a 1-2 finish in Saturday’s Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds, rallying from far back in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series qualifier. The late runners benefited from a demanding early pace, which took a toll on the frontrunners, as the top five at the half-mile mark all failed to earn points at the wire. However, the top two finishers remain up-and-coming colts.

A non-threatening second when making his stakes debut in the Jan. 1 Smarty Jones at Oaklawn Park, Angel of Empire moved forward upon that effort and thrived on the stretch out to 1 1/8 miles for Brad Cox, advancing past foes on the far turn before offering a sharp turn of foot into the stretch while wide. The son of Classic Empire determinedly outfinished Sun Thunder in deep stretch to win by a length, easily registering a career-best 97 Brisnet Speed rating, which is tied for the third-best figure from 11 qualifiers in 2023.

Angel of Empire, who left the starting gate at 13.70-1 odds, is a candidate to keep progressing in his final Kentucky Derby prep, and he’s the third sustained closer of merit from the Cox barn in the last four weeks, joining Lecomte (G3) winner Instant Coffee and Withers (G3) scorer Hit Show. All three have something going for them, and Angel of Empire, who earned a 50-point prize in the Risen Star, now tops the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 54 points.

Sun Thunder was among the least experienced entrants, making his fourth career start for Kenny McPeek. The 16.6-1 outsider improved upon a belated fourth in his first stakes attempt, the Feb. 18 Southwest (G3) at Oaklawn Park. By Into Mischief, who has sired two of the last three Kentucky Derby winners, Sun Thunder was still 10th after three-quarters of a mile, after rolling past foes on the final bend, and he altered course at the head of the stretch and surged to the lead.

The deep closer gained valuable seasoning despite coming up short, and Sun Thunder netted an encouraging 96 Speed rating.

Two Phil’s offered a menacing bid from midpack to challenge turning for home, but the Lecomte runner-up and juvenile Grade 3 winner saved third by a half-length after losing ground through the final furlong. Tapit’s Conquest was bet down early, eventually settling as the 5.8-1 third choice, and he closed well from well off the pace before flattening out in deep stretch. The Cox trainee took the overland route in his stakes debut, and Tapit’s Conquest will try to bounce forward in his second stakes appearance like his stablemate.

Fair Grounds allowance winner

Earlier on the Risen Star card, Denington saved his best for the stretch drive of an entry-level allowance at 1 1/16 miles, getting up to win by a neck. The gray son of Gun Runner, who was exiting a third in the Smarty Jones and fourth in the Lecomte, gained confidence in the same allowance next-out Arkansas Derby (G1) winner Cyberknife captured last year, and the McPeek-trained colt showed his versatility angling from the inside in midstretch for running room. Denington registered a 94 Speed rating for the allowance win, the same as Cyberknife.

The winner, overlooked at 8-1, edged last-out maiden scorer Cagliostro, a promising Upstart colt for Cherie DeVaux, and it was another half-length to Tapit Shoes, who raced closer to the pace than expected and kept fighting all the way to the wire. First Defender, a convincing Oaklawn maiden winner for Steve Asmussen, wound up a close fourth after chasing the pace. Banishing came up empty as the favorite in fifth.

Rebel Stakes

Juvenile Grade 1 runner-up Verifying came back strong for Cox this year, recoding a fast 5 1/4-length allowance romp in a two-turn Oaklawn allowance on Jan. 14, and the Justify colt has been installed as the 2-1 morning line favorite over 10 rivals in Saturday’s $1 million Rebel (G2). He figures to be up close from the start with Florent Geroux, and the 1 1/16-mile race awards points on a 50-20-15-10-5 basis to the top five finishers as a Kentucky Derby qualifier.

Reincarnate, who will make his first start for Tim Yakteen after being transferred from Bob Baffert, is a major contender. By Good Magic, the gray colt exits a fine neck win in the Jan. 8 Sham (G3) at Santa Anita, defeating next-out Robert B. Lewis (G3) winner Newgate while earning a 98 Speed rating. John Velazquez will be in to ride the frontrunner.

Both look formidable. Southwest runner-up Red Route One and Lecomte third Confidence Game are a couple of other contenders to consider.