The first of the 50 point prep races starts here in Louisiana with the Grade 2 Risen Star. This prep race is absolutely loaded this year, featuring five horses that were good enough to be in the 3rd Derby Future Pool last week. Three of those five (Pappacap, Smile Happy, and Slow Down Andy) are graded stakes winners. The other two (Epicenter and Zandon) were second in photo finishes in their first try with graded stakes company. Smile Happy is the headliner, making his first start of the year after dominating the deepest Derby prep race from the two year old season (The Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club).
Fair Grounds Saturday 2/19/22, Race 13: The Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes
85 Total Derby points (50/20/10/5)
1 – Pappacap (4-1 ML, 50-1 Circa): On paper, this Grade 2 winner has a top notch resume, hitting the board in three straight graded stakes, including a pair of Grade 1’s. He’s tough for me to figure out, because he seems to create uncomfortable trips for himself. Perhaps that’s why Casse has made the move to switch from Joe Bravo to Tyler Gaffalione. In the Lecomte, I felt like coming off the first turn, he was in a perfect position, sitting 5th, letting Epicenter do all of the heavy lifting on the front end. However, Bravo didn’t seem to be able to get him to relax, and he appeared to pull himself close to the front, advancing along the rail to sit 4th going into the final turn. He was able to get through when a hole opened up on the rail, and every time I watch that race back, I expect Pappacap to blow by Epicenter. However, he never could get by him, finishing a hard fought third. Perhaps he’ll be more fit for his second race off the layoff, but I’m not completely sold that drawing the rail is ideal for him. I’m wondering if that draw will cause Gaffalione to try to take it to Epicenter early instead of letting him dictate terms. While he certainly has a chance, I’m struggling to envision the scenario where he wins this race.
2 – Russian Tank (50-1 ML): This son of Tourist broke his maiden at long odds on the grass three starts back. He tried the N1X level in two races that were taken off the turf, finishing off the board in both. This is an odd spot for him, as he’s clearly better on grass than dirt, and this field is light years better than the off the turf foes he’s seen lately. He’s a massive longshot that feels all but impossible here.
3 – Trafalgar (10-1 ML, 200-1 Circa): He was the 4th place finisher behind Call Me Midnight, Epicenter, and Pappacap in the Lecomte last month. From a speed figure standpoint, he’s pretty much run the same race every time. That kind of effort was good enough to break his maiden at Churchill and clear the N1X condition here. However, he came up short against similar, and this field is significantly deeper when you add Smile Happy, Zandon, and Slow Down Andy into the mix. He might be able to finish in front of a few of these runners, but I don’t think he’s going to be able to beat all five. He’ll need to take a decent step forward to hit the board.
4 – Tawny Port (12-1 ML, 200-1, Circa): He’s one of three colts putting their undefeated records on the line in this race today. He’s handled his business in both races at Turfway, running on the Tapeta surface there. Brad Cox ships him South, which is an interesting move, as he’d likely be one of the favorites in the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes in two weeks, which is a Derby Points Race. He was a $430K purchase for Peachtree Stables in September of 2020, so he’s been well regarded for awhile. He’s sired by 2008 Derby runner-up, Pioneerof the Nile and his dam was the stakes winner sprinter, Livi Makenzie. I’m not convinced 9 furlongs on the dirt will be his ideal surface and distance though. This is a very tough spot for him to make his first start on the main track. I’m passing on him here.
5 – Epicenter (4-1 ML, 25-1 Circa): This son of Not This Time has been very good in both of his local starts, winning the Gun Runner Stakes and just missed in the Lecomte last month. The early pace wasn’t as aggressive in the Gun Runner, and he powered by his overmatched rivals that day, winning easily. He was hounded every step of the way on the lead in the Lecomte. Pappacap had inside position on the turn and was unable to pass his rival. Call Me Midnight was motoring home from the back of the field and just got there in the nick of time. On one hand, he kept fighting after working hard on the lead, showing a lot of grit and tenacity for a horse that was making his fourth career start. There also appears to be less pace signed on for this contest, which is an extra sixteenth of a mile longer. On the other hand, there are horses that are more talented than Call Me Midnight, that will be coming from the back of the pack here. If Gaffalione is aggressive with Pappacap on the rail, that may be his undoing in this race. If he doesn’t and the others allow him an easy lead, I believe he will be tough to run down. How much I play him, will come down to price. At 4-1 or better, I do like him quite a bit, as he feels like the controlling speed. From a Futures standpoint, he’s been holding steady between 25-1 and 30-1 over the last several weeks. His running style has played very well on Derby Day over the last several years, so if you are thinking that he’s going to run well, this might be the price you’ll get on him between now and the Derby.
6 – Pioneer of Medina (10-1 ML, 150-1, Circa): Todd Pletcher brings this son of Pioneerof the Nile back to Louisiana after clearing the N1X condition last month on the Lecomte undercard. He’s never finished off the board in his four career starts and his last was definitely his best. However, he ran with Lasix that day, and can’t do so today. He also had a very easy trip, setting a sensible pace after a slight bobble at the break. He was aided when the race favorite (Stellar Tap) had some serious traffic issues, thwarting his rally. I think Epicenter is faster early, so I’m expecting him to be chasing the leaders instead of setting the pace. While I like his pattern of improvement, I’m not yet a believer of him in a race like this.
7 – Zandon (9-2 ML, 28-1, Circa): Chad Brown brings this son of Upstart to town for his three year old debut today. He was an impressive maiden winner at Belmont in October. He made his next start in the Remsen where he battled with Mo Donegal, coming up a nose short on the wire. He was wide on both turns that day and earned a better Thoro-Graph figure (4) than his rival (6) for that effort. Brown opted for this race instead of the Holy Bull two weeks ago, in part because his running style might play better here than in the short stretch of the 1 Mile and 1/16 races there. He’s been working well at Payson and Jose Ortiz is in town to ride. I think his ceiling is very high, and he’s another one that is a prime contender here.
8 – Smile Happy (7-2 ML, 13-1 Circa): He sure looked the part when he won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes by over three lengths last November. All of the metrics told you that his effort was that of a serious Derby contender. While he hasn’t raced since, his stock has only gone up, as three of his vanquished foes returned winners in Grade 3 company. He’s lightly raced, and facing the deepest field he’s faced yet. I’m not certain he’ll get the same pace scenario on the front end that set him up so well last out. However, I think he might have enough natural talent to overcome that. Going into 2022, he felt like the most likely winner of the Kentucky Derby from the two year olds we saw race last year. We’ll know this afternoon if the same statement is true today, I think he’s the one to beat in this race, and while I’d love to get 7-2 on him, I think closer to 2-1 might be more realistic.
9 – Bodock (10-1 ML, 200-1 Circa): Brad Cox also sends out this lightly raced three year old for Calumet Farm. Like Smile Happy and his stablemate, Tawny Port, he is undefeated, breaking his maiden at 5 and ½ furlongs and Indiana Grand and then beating five rivals in the slop to clear the N1X level on this course in January. He’s sired by Street Boss out an A.P. Indy mare, so it feels like there’s more stamina influence on the dam side. Going from six to nine furlongs is a big jump though, and I’m not convinced he’s up to the task.
10 – Slow Down Andy (9-2 ML, 30-1 Circa): Doug O’Neill liked his time down here so much with Hot Rod Charlie last year, he decided to return with this California bred son of Nyquist. He won the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity back in December, beating Messier, who just turned in one of the fastest performances from a three year old this year. He definitely improved at two turns, despite being a little green in the stretch. He feels like the wild card horse in this race that could be very dangerous, if he’s able to overcome post ten, which is a big if. If he can avoid a wide trip, I think he has the right amount of tactical speed to stalk the early pace and get the jump on the front runners. I’d like to get better than 9-2 on him, and I think that’s a possibility with this deep and competitive field.
The verdict: Top Picks: 8-5-7
Going into the this race, this is one of the best Derby prep races that I can remember. There are five legitimate runners in this field and four other horses that are very nice. While it wouldn’t be a total shock if one of the other four horses stepped up to run a big race and beat this group, I do feel confident that the winner will come from the group of five that are stakes tested.
Smile Happy was so impressive winning the Kentucky Jockey Club last fall. He did get a decent set up, but he dominated a field of talented runners. He’s been doing everything the right way in the morning, and I would be surprised if he didn’t run a strong race. He’ll be my top pick, but I don’t see him as a total lock.
To me, the outcome of this race is going to be affected by what’s going to happen with Pappacap and Epicenter in the early stages. Rail speed was good on Thursday, and I have to think that the rider switch to Gaffalione signals that Casse is looking for a more aggressive ride with this horse. If Gaffalione pushes from the rail, how much pressure will he apply to Epicenter? I think the more pace pressure that is applied, the better the chances Zandon and Smile Happy will have in the long stretch. There isn’t a ton of other legitimate early threats, so if Epicenter is left to his lonesome on the front end, he could be a stubborn horse to pass once again. Pappacap had the better trip last out and couldn’t get by, so going into the race, I think Epicenter has the advantage in that head to head battle. I do think Epicenter is going to be a tough customer for anyone in this race, and Smile Happy will have to work if he’s going to put him away.
Zandon ran such a big race in the Remsen, coming off only one six furlong race, I have to believe this horse has some definite ability. All of his winter preparation has been in Florida, but I respect the decision to come out here. I do wonder if Chad Brown knew how salty this race was going to come up, if he would have planned differently. That being said, I think he is another one that definitely live here.
An interesting story line to follow out of this race, is that the results of this race could certainly be seen as a referendum of the depth of the three year old crop in Kentucky, Louisiana, California, and New York. The Kentucky Jockey Club has produced three graded stakes winner, but if the dominant winner of that race misfires without an excuse, that certainly takes a little bit of the shine off that race. Regardless, as a fan of racing, you should be in for a treat, so make sure you’re tuned in around 6:55 ET/5:55 CT for this early season throw down.
Each week, we’ll have an update on horses and races from the previous week that may produce starters for the 148th Kentucky Derby on May 7th, 2022. Current futures odds from Circa or Caesars-William Hill will be provided as they are available. Feel free to reach out on Twitter @EricSolomon718.