WIth a nod to Winston Churchill, Saturday’s Grade 2 Risen Star signals both the beginning of the end and the end of the Kentucky Derby trail’s beginning. The prelims are over and we’re now at the beginning of the win-and-you’re-in stretch of the Derby trail.

Epicenter-Risen Star
Epicenter’s success in winning December’s Gun Runner here and finishing second in January’s Lecomte at Fair Grounds should serve him well in Saturday’s Grade 2 Risen Star. (Image: Hodges Photography/Lou Hodges Jr.)

That’s because the 1 1/8-mile Risen Star brings in a 50-20-10-5 Derby point valuation, essentially putting the winner into the May 7 Derby. While it’s not the first nine-furlong, two-turn Derby prep, it is the first carrying the extra points.

Saturday’s marquee race of Fair Grounds’ 13-race card also comes with some Derby cred. This century, two Risen Star winners went on to wear roses at Churchill Downs the first Saturday in May: Country House in 2019 and War Emblem in 2002. And should the late Medina Spirit get taken down for flunking a drug test, last year’s Derby runner-up — Risen Star winner Mandaloun — will make it three.

But the Risen Star boasts a pretty good alumni list of Triple Crown runners, never mind contenders. Since 2019, 10 Risen Star runners ran in the Derby. Three of them: Mandaloun, Country House and 46/1 shot Mr. Big News, who finished third in 2020, hit the board.

Six years later, Gun Runner’s progeny return

Three others joined Mandaloun as Derby runners-up: Commanding Curve (2014), Golden Soul (2013) and Tejano Run (1995). And along with Mr. Big News, Gun Runner (2016), Mucho Macho Man (2011) and race namesake Risen Star (1989) wound up third in the Derby.

Both Gun Runner, the 2017 Horse of the Year, and Mucho Macho Man won the Breeders’ Cup Classic as older horses. And we haven’t mentioned 2019 Risen Star winner War of Will, who won that year’s Preakness. Or 2013’s Oxbow, who finished fourth in the Risen Star before winning his Preakness. Or Palace Malice, who won the 2013 Belmont Stakes.

This is the historical path awaiting this year’s 10-horse field, which features the typical mix of Fair Grounds natives and out-of-state invaders. Toward that end, the Risen Star has been a race for locals. Seven of the last 15 winners were based at the Louisiana track.

Epicenter fits the Risen Star leading-colt profile

That puts immediate focus on Epicenter (4/1), who owns a first and a second in two Fair Grounds stakes excursions. He won December’s inaugural Gun Runner, then finished second to 28.50/1 Call Me Midnight in January’s Lecomte Stakes.

Epicenter’s front-running style; he hasn’t been worse than second at any call in his last three races, fits the recent profile of Risen Star winners. In a race lacking a lot of early speed, expect Joel Rosario to send this son of Not This Time out in double time.

It won’t be a slam dunk. Not with two anticipated colts with Grade 2 victories making their 2022 debuts here. Those are Smile Happy and Slow Down Andy.

‘Mattress Mack’ will Smile Happy if Derby favorite wins

The unbeaten winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club last fall, Smile Happy has been the 8/1 individual favorite in all three Kentucky Derby Future Wager pools. Putting aside the cascade of cash Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale threw at the Runhappy progeny, there’s a reason bettors like the 7/2 morning-line favorite. Two of the horses the Kenny McPeek charge beat in that race: White Abarrio and Classic Causeway, won their subsequent Derby preps: the Holy Bull and the Sam F. Davis, respectively. His stalking style can win here, but he hasn’t run since November.

Slow Down Andy (9/2) comes in off his victory in December’s Los Alamitos Futurity. That was his last race, but like Smile Happy, it came with an impressive artifact. One of his victims, runner-up Messier, took out the frustration of that defeat by taking apart the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita by 15 lengths. Slow Down Andy hasn’t finished out of the exacta in three races (2-1-0) and trainer Doug O’Neill has him cranked for this race.

Two others coming to the Risen Star from different points on the compass warrant attention: Pappacap (4/1) and Zandon (9/2). A Gun Runner progeny, California-based Pappacap has a field-best $596,000 in six races. He’s hit the board in five of them (2-2-1), but hasn’t won since taking last August’s Grade 2 Best Pal at Del Mar. He comes in off a third by less than a length in the Lecomte, the same spot last year’s winner, Mandaloun, finished in that race.

Grade 2 Risen Star/Fair Grounds

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)
1. Pappacap, 4/1 (Tyler Gaffalione/Mark Casse)
2. Russian Tank, 50/1 (Jose Vega/Gennadi Dorochenko)
3. Trafalgar, 10/1 (Colby Hernandez/Al Stall Jr.)
4. Tawny Port, 12/1 (Florent Geroux/Brad Cox)
5. Epicenter, 4/1 (Joel Rosario/Steve Asmussen)
6. Pioneer of Medina, 10/1 (Luis Saez/Todd Pletcher)
7. Zandon, 9/2 (Jose Ortiz/Chad Brown)
8. Smile Happy, 7/2 (Corie Lanerie/Kenny McPeek)
9. Bodock, 10/1 (Marcellino Pedroza Jr./Brad Cox)
10. Slow Down Andy, 9/2 (Mario Gutierrez/Doug O’Neill)

Zandon arrives from Chad Brown’s New York barn. He already navigated 1 1/8 miles, finishing a brutal head behind Mo Donegal in the Grade 2 Remsen at Aqueduct. That prompted his connections to unsuccessfully challenge the results based on Irad Ortiz Jr.’s bumper-car trip on winner Mo Donegal.

The fact Brown decided to send the lightly raced (1-1-0 in three starts) Zandon here instead of Florida speaks volumes about the stalker’s chances here.