Racing Roundtable: Risen Star, Rachel Alexandra Stakes and other eye-catching performances

February 20th, 2024

This week, the Racing Roundtable weighs in on Sierra Leone's win in the Risen Star S. (G2), Tarifa's stakes debut in the Rachel Alexandra (G2), and notable performances from the weekend.

Is Sierra Leone a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender at this point?

James Scully: Yes, Sierra Leone is the horse to beat following an impressive win in the Risen Star (G2). The long-striding Gun Runner colt finished fast over the sloppy track at Fair Grounds, wearing down a classy rival who had everything his own way on a soft pace and overcoming an extremely wide trip to prevail by a half-length, and Sierra Leone has moved forward at age three. The addition of blinkers appeared to keep the late runner more focused, and while I don’t think the track conditions made a difference, I would like to see Sierra Leone catch a fast track in his final Kentucky Derby (G1) prep, the Blue Grass (G1) at Keeneland on April 6.

Vance Hanson: Over a sloppy track that played surprisingly fair, Sierra Leone turned in a useful first start of the year to win the Risen Star with a patented late close. I like the fact that he finished the job this time and did not repeat his stretch run of the Remsen (G2), evidence of increasing maturity and the addition of blinkers to keep him focused. I wasn't too enthralled with the time, though, as I was expecting more of a step forward off his Remsen figure. I want to see a lot more from him in the Blue Grass in that respect, so for now I view him as underlay in the ante post Derby market.

Ashley Anderson: The addition of blinkers improved the focus of Sierra Leone in his third career start, and the $2.3 million yearling purchase was able to overcome a slow pace set by Track Phantom to rally in the stretch and win by a half-length in the 1 1/8-mile event on a sloppy Fair Grounds track. The Chad Brown trainee is a formidable Derby challenger, but I'd like to see him race one more time, ideally on a fast track, before I am sold on the Gun Runner colt. Only three Risen Star runners have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby, but two of those (Country House in 2019 and Mandaloun in 2021) crossed the wire second in the Run for the Roses and were elevated to first following DQs. Only War Emblem, who finished sixth in the 2002 Risen Star, crossed the finish line first on the first Saturday in May. While the 2024 Risen Star offered the deepest field of any Kentucky Derby prep thus far on the trail, I will wait to see how Sierra Leone handles the Blue Grass at Keeneland before I'm sold on him as the top Derby challenger.

What were your thoughts on the Rachel Alexandra?

JS: Tarifa stepped up with a big-time performance in her stakes debut, drawing away to a 2 3/4-length decision, and she merits serious respect for the Kentucky Oaks (G1) for two-time winner Brad Cox. The Bernardini filly extricated herself from trouble with a sharp turn of foot in upper stretch, altering course and powering her way to the front, and she defeated a nice group of rivals. Intricate, who was favored at 8-5 following a romping win in the Golden Rod (G2) at Churchill Downs, could not match strides with the winner in the final furlong, but she ran well to be a clear second for Brendan Walsh and figures to keep progressing off the comebacker. The Rachel Alexandra once again looks like an important prep for the Kentucky Oaks.

VH: I thought both Tarifa and Intricate ran strong races and perhaps are the fillies to beat going forward in the Kentucky Oaks. Despite Tarifa's solid victory, I still fancy Intricate's chances at turning the tables sooner or later. Given she didn't have the benefit of an earlier prep like Tarifa did, I thought Intricate ran very well to finish second best and I'd expect her to take a step forward, presumably in the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2). This has the makings of a potentially decent rivalry.

AA: I had pegged Alpine Princess to win following her Untapable S. triumph at Fair Grounds in late December, especially with Florent Geroux opting to stick with the Classic Empire filly over Godolphin-bred Tarifa, but ultimately it was the Bernardini three-year-old, in her stakes debut, who came through for trainer Brad Cox. Tarifa may have benefited from her rail draw, with Post 1 winning at a nearly 30% clip at Fair Grounds, and Alpine Princess had never raced in the slop before. But Tarifa and second-place finisher Intricate both looked solid in their performances on Saturday. Godolphin won the Kentucky Oaks last year with Pretty Mischievous, whose connections are interestingly the same as those of Intricate, trained by Brendan Walsh and guided by Tyler Gaffalione in the Rachel Alexandra. Intricate was returning off a three-month layoff after winning the Golden Rod by 5 1/4 lengths in November, and she'll likely step forward in her next start.

Also of note, the morning line favorite V V's Dream, who ended up going off as the third choice at post time, finished fifth of sixth and now has three straight losses since stretching out beyond a mile. The Pocahontas (G3) winner by Mitole seemed to still draw some buzz around the Fair Grounds and was coming off a nearly four-month layoff, but her ability to handle longer distances is becoming a concern.

What else caught your eye from the weekend?

JS: Tuscan Sky is headed to a Kentucky Derby qualifier following a smart performance in Saturday’s third race at Fair Grounds, driving past Nash in the stretch to win by a two-length margin. Now 2-for-2 for Todd Pletcher, the Vino Rosso colt netted a 97 Brisnet Speed rating and has captured both starts by open lengths. 

Drip had reportedly outworked stablemate and Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) winner Honor Marie in the mornings, and the promising three-year-old did not disappoint in his first career start, leading all the way for a convincing triumph in Saturday’s third race at Fair Grounds. The Whit Beckman-trained colt was favored over nine rivals in the six-furlong maiden special weight, and Drip registered a commendable 99 Brisnet Speed rating. His pedigree is geared toward longer distances, as well.

VH: Rising Maryland-bred star Post Time notched his seventh win in eight career starts on Saturday winning the General George (G3) at Laurel by three lengths and earning a 103 Brisnet Speed rating, his second consecutive triple-digit figure. Although his one and only loss to date was his only start outside Maryland (a third in the Perryville S. at Keeneland last October), Post Time is deserving of taking his show on the road more this spring. Either the Carter (G2) at Aqueduct or the Commonwealth (G3) at Keeneland on April 6 look like solid options, and he'd figure to be a threat in either one.

AA: On Sunday, Ramjet won the about-one-mile Hyacinth at Tokyo Racecourse as a 12-1 longshot in the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby prep. The Majestic Warrior son earned 30 points for his rallying triumph, pushing him to the top of the Japan leaderboard for the Run for the Roses. In a record-setting year, more than 40 Japanese runners were nominated to the Triple Crown, and the Hyacinth has produced a couple of Derby starters, including Crown Pride, who finished 13th in the Derby in 2022, and Master Fencer, the sixth-place finisher in the 2019 Derby. Ramjet has the pedigree to enjoy classic distances, with a dam who is a granddaughter of Sunday Silence and Unbridled's Song. Ramjet's sire, Majestic Warrior, also produced 2013 Kentucky Oaks winner Princess of Sylmar.

Outside of Ramjet's win, second-place finisher Unquenchable is another Godolphin homebred who performed well over the weekend. He has now earned 18 points along the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby but was not nominated to the Triple Crown by the early deadline.