Road to the 2023 Kentucky Derby – The Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes – By Eric Solomon

The first major Derby Prep is the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds on Saturday, with the winner essentially being guaranteed a spot in the starting gate for the 149th Kentucky Derby. Last year, this race drew an excellent field of 10, with Epicenter coming away victorious. Five of the last eight winners of this race have gone on to be Grade 1 winners (Epicenter, Mandaloun, War of Will, Girvin, and Gun Runner). They’ve won races like the Kentucky Derby (via DQ), the Preakness, the Travers, the Haskell, the Whitney, the Pegasus, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, just to name a few. 

This year’s edition is deep and competitive, and it feels like it’s the best betting race of any of the Derby Points races thus far (by a longshot). 14 are entered in this nine furlong contest, hoping to establish themselves as a legitimate contender for the country’s most prestigious race. Victory Formation puts his undefeated record on the line after scoring in the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn last month. He’ll have to overcome a wide post and beat 13 other horses that are last raced at seven different racetracks. Post time for this race is scheduled for 6:13 (CT).

Fair Grounds Saturday 2/18/23, Race 13: The Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes

100 Total Derby points (50/20/15/10/5)


1 – Quiet as Midnight (50-1 ML): This Delta shipper is a serious outsider in this large, graded stakes field. He won his only race two back with $30K maiden claimers. He was a decent second against a soft allowance group last time, but I think he’s way over his head in this spot. 


2 – Single Ruler (30-1 ML): He’s a locally based runner that broke his maiden in his 5th career attempt when facing maiden special weight foes on the Lecomte undercard. That was clearly his best effort as he won going away by over three lengths. While I do see him as a horse that could improve at the nine furlong distance of this race, I’m not sure how deep the field he beat was. I think others are better suited to win this race. 


3 – Shaq Diesel (30-1 ML): He’s a Florida bred who is making his first start outside of the Sunshine State. He’s one of four, three time winners in the field, most recently scoring with starter allowance company at Tampa in his two turn debut. While he handled his business last time, I’m not sure he’s bred to get this kind of distance against this kind of field. 


4 – Determinedly (8-1 ML, 100-1 Circa): Mark Casse dropped him into allowance company last out after falterming as the 11-10 favorite in the Gun Runner Stakes two starts ago. Jace’s Road was able to use his inside position to break on top that day and control the tempo before drawing away. This son of Cairo Prince employed the same tactics when winning his allowance contest on the Lecomte undercard last month, except he was barely able to hang on by a desperate neck. With a full field and Victory Formation drawing a far outside post, I don’t think anyone is going to be able to get an easy lead up front. I’m not sure I see him moving forward enough to win this race, and I’m wondering if he’d be better suited for a longer sprint race at one turn. 


5 – Harlocap (8-1 ML, 225-1 Circa): The first Baffert defector we’ve seen in a Derby Points race is this son of Justify that cost his connections $400K last May. He was beaten by Spun Intended on debut, but has looked better when going two turns in his last two starts, breaking his maiden last month at Santa Anita. In typical Baffert fashion, he drilled a six furlong work in 1:11:4 last week at Santa Anita before joining Steve Asmussen’s barn here in New Orleans. John Velasquez, who has ridden him in all three starts, will make the trip to the Fair Grounds for the first time this meet. He has a considerably better starting position than Victory Formation in his first tilt against winners. He’s an interesting new shooter here who should have no problem getting the added distance, but he’ll have to avoid going too quick in the early stages. 


6 – Angel of Empire (8-1 ML, 225-1 Circa): The first of three from the Brad Cox barn is this son of Classic Empire, who was the runner-up to Victory Formation in the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn last month. He was up against it from a pace standpoint that day, but I thought he ran well to be second at long odds. He should get a stronger pace to close into in this race while going a full furlong longer than he has before. He’ll get a rider upgrade to Luis Saez, who won aboard Litigate in the Sam F. Davis Stakes last weekend in spite of a difficult post. He’s run well in all three dirt starts, with his only off the board effort coming in an allowance race at Kentucky Downs on grass. I think he has some upside again in this race. 


7 – Sun Thunder (15-1 ML, 200-1 Circa): He was fourth, beaten over nine lengths in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn three weeks ago. He was no match for Arabian Knight in the slop that afternoon, and perhaps McPeek opted to send him here to avoid whichever Baffert runner/s he might be planning to send to Arkansas next weekend. His maiden score was impressive two starts back, so he’s another one that could be rolling late with the right kind of trip in this race. He’s not impossible, but I prefer others.


8 – Tapit’s Conquest (6-1 ML, 100-1 Circa): He was hammered down to even money when he narrowly lost to Determinedly in a thrilling conclusion to an allowance race here last month. He was last of five early on in that race where there was absolutely no early speed. All things considered, he ran a decent race that afternoon when he was making his first start since breaking his maiden at the beginning of October. Florent Geroux has won 33% of his races at this meet so far (19-57) and he has connected with Cox at a 42% clip locally since the start of 2022. He’s a tough sell as the second choice in this race, because I do think there are others that are more accomplished. However, I suspect his odds may float up a bit, making him more interesting to me. 


9 – Curly Jack (8-1 ML, 40-1 Circa): He was my pick back in November when he last started in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill. I thought he had enough early speed to set the fractions that day, but he was allowed to tuck in behind the duo that set some soft fractions in that race. As a result, he was covered up for most of the race, never really getting a chance to run until ducking to the inside in the final 1/16 of a mile or so. He did finish well to be second that day, behind Instant Coffee, who came back to win the Lecomte in impressive fashion last month. Red Route One, who also had a less than ideal trip that day, came back to run a strong race behind Arabian Knight in the Southwest Stakes at the end of January. Edgar Morales has ridden well at this meet, and he’s been the regular rider for this Tom Amoss trainee. They teamed up to win the Grade 3 Iroquois in September when going two turns. I think he has enough tactical speed to secure a decent spot in this race, and he could get first run on some of the closers, many of which may be having to pass a lot more horses than they may be used to.


10 – Two Phil’s (8-1 ML, 125-1 Circa): It’s pretty wild to see 14 horses entered in this race here and only one of them came out of the Lecomte Stakes here last month. In year’s past, we have typically seen a decent number of horses run in all the local legs of the local Triple Crown prep races. This son of Hard Spun was a strong second place finisher in that race, but was outkicked by Instant Coffee, who surged past all five rivals that afternoon. He took a nice step forward from his last two year old race to his first three year old race, which is always something encouraging to see. He’s worked well since that race, and he clearly had no problem getting over the local course. He’s another interesting candidate in this wide open puzzle. 


11 – Silver Heist (12-1 ML, 200-1 Circa): He was making his second career start when finishing a length behind Determinedly and Tapit’s Conquest last month. He’s a half to Unbridled Honor, who was the runner up in the Lexington Stakes last year at Keeneland. The dam never raced on dirt, running all severn career races on the turf. He’s bred by Tapit, and he definitely took a step forward when going two turns. I don’t think the distance will be an issue for him, however, I do wonder if being a little light on experience will be a negative in a full field like this. 


12 – Crupi (15-1 ML, 50-1 Circa): Todd Pletcher brings this maiden into town from Aqueduct to make his first start against winners. We’ve seen Pletcher do this before with Commandperformance last year, who was arguably a better horse than this son of Curlin. He was beaten by Instant  Coffee in his second career start, but the other horses that have defeated him aren’t the most impressive names. James Graham rides this course as well as anyone, gets the mount, but it’s a little bit telling that none of the usual Pletcher suspects are riding. I don’t think we’ll get any kind of value on him either. 


13 – Victory Formation (3-1 ML, 27-1 Circa): The morning line favorite comes into town after a strong frontrunning performance in the Smarty Jones Stakes last month. He was pretty much the lone speed in that race, and was able to secure the early lead without conceding much ground loss. The Beyer Speed figures are trending in the right direction, improving with each start. He was a strong winner after dueling all the way around the track in allowance company two starts ago. That effort looks even better now with the strong efforts from Two Eagles River and Lugan Knight in their subsequent races. He’ll likely have to face more adversity than he’s had to deal with so far. He is the one to beat, and I’ll definitely cover with him. However, in a large field, going further than he’s ever gone before, I do see this as a race where this undefeated colt could be tested. I’ll try to beat him with some longer prices.


14 – Private Creed (12-1 ML, 200-1 Circa): The third of three runners from the Asmussen barn draws the far outside stall for his first race on dirt. He’s a two-time stakes winner in turf sprints, winning at Kentucky Downs and Keeneland. He made his first start at two turns on a soft course in the Texas Turf Mile at Sam Houston last month. He’s never finished off the board, but this is a big test today. Tyler Gaffalione has committed to ride, which is a plus. However, I prefer some of the others. 




The Verdict: 9-5-6

Trying to come up with a top three was a daunting task here. If I’m alive in the late multi-race sequences, I’d definitely want to have some coverage here. I ended up making Curly Jack (#9) my top choice. While the speed figures came back low from the Kentucky Jockey Club, I think the form from that race has held up. I liked the subsequent efforts from both Instant Coffee and Red Route One in their recent stakes endeavors. Curly Jack tucked in behind horses and never really got a fair chance to run that afternoon. He looked like he had some run and he’s been working well for his three year old debut. We show both the aforementioned runners take big steps up in their speed figures from that race when making their respective three year old debuts. I think with the right trip, we’ll see the same from him.


Harlocap (#5)  is the X-factor in this race. He’s making his first start for Steve Asmussen, who hasn’t had him for long. He’s followed a very Baffert like work pattern after his maiden score, training like a horse that has more to offer. This is a tough spot to face winners for the first time, but I see him as a forwardly placed horse that should appreciate the distance. He’s likely going to make things difficult for Victory Formation (#13), who also is likely going to be forwardly placed. 


The pace should be lively, so that could set things up for a number of off the pace runners. I think Angel of Empire (#6) is the most interesting of that group. He’s run three strong and improving races on the main track, getting better as the distances get longer. I like Luis Saez taking the mount after a strong second place finish behind his stablemate, Victory Formation, in the Smarty Jones.


I’d want to make sure I ended up being covered to both Two Phil’s (#10) and Victory Formation as well, and if the prices increased on either of these, I’d be more willing to move them up. 


From a Futures wagering perspective, this is an interesting race as there are several runners that feel way overbet, and there are a few that haven’t quite got the players’ attention yet. I think 40-1 is way too low on Curly Jack, who I do like in this race. However getting 225-1 on either Harlocap (#5) or Angel of Empire (#6) feels like it could be worth a small shot. 


Crup (#12), the maiden is unplayable for me at 50-1, as is Determinedly (#4)at 100-1. I find it interesting that Silver Heist (#11), who was only a length behind Determinedly and Tapit’s Conquest (#8), is 200-1, where both of those runners are 100-1. Silver Heist has only two career tries, and while I like Tapit’s Conquest more, I don’t think the odds disparity should not be nearly that big. 


We’ll have coverage of every North American Derby Points Race, along with plenty of coverage leading up to the 149th Kentucky Derby on May 6th, 2023. Current futures odds from Circa or Caesars-William Hill will be provided as they are available. Feel free to reach out on Twitter @EricSolomon718.

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