03/25/2015 12:50PM

International Star quietly opening eyes

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Lou Hodges Jr./Hodges Photography
International Star won the Lecomte and Risen Star (above), and would make it a Fair Grounds sweep with a Louisiana Derby win.

NEW ORLEANS – He’s won on dirt, synthetic, and turf, won going short and going long, owns wins at Belmont Park and Woodbine, and trains at Gulfstream Park. But it is here at Fair Grounds where International Star has done his best work on a résumé that deserves far more praise than it has garnered.

International Star has won both the Lecomte and the Risen Star, and on Saturday, he will go for a clean sweep of the local preps for the May 2 Kentucky Derby when he competes in the Grade 2, $750,000 Louisiana Derby.

“He’s flying under the radar, but with Baffert’s horses, he should be,” trainer Mike Maker said, referring to Kentucky Derby favorites American Pharoah and Dortmund.

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The time will soon come to see how International Star stacks up with those perceived as the elite of the division. On Saturday, though, he is clearly the horse to beat. His primary rivals are horses he just defeated in the Risen Star – War Story, Keen Ice, and St. Joe Bay – along with some newcomers to this circuit, Mr. Z and Stanford. It is a good intersectional rivalry, with horses shipping in from Arkansas, California, and Florida.

International Star on Wednesday drew the outside post in the field of nine. From the rail out, the field for the 1 1/8-mile race is Stanford, Mr. Z, Defondo, Fusaichi Flame, A Day In Paradise, War Story, Keen Ice, St. Joe Bay, and International Star, who is the 3-1 favorite on the morning line set by Mike Diliberto of Fair Grounds.

The Louisiana Derby goes as race 11 on a marathon 14-race card that begins at 12:30 p.m. Central.

The wins in the Lecomte, Risen Star, and last year’s Grey Stakes at Woodbine have helped International Star amass 71 qualifying points, securing him a spot in the Kentucky Derby. His last two races have been his best two races in terms of how he looked visually – fearlessly knifing through narrow holes with instant acceleration – and on paper, with career-best Beyer Speed Figures. Those performances also coincided with a switch in riders to Miguel Mena.

Maker said the Lecomte was a “pleasant surprise.” International Star had not raced since a fourth-place finish in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill and was 9-1.

“He was stopped at the top of the stretch, but then he got through, and he duplicated that in the Risen Star,” Maker said. “He was more impressive.”

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Maker is based in Florida for the winter but said he chose the Fair Grounds series of Derby preps because he thought this track would best suit International Star’s late-running style.

The spacing of races at Fair Grounds is ideal, too, with five weeks between the Lecomte and Risen Star, five weeks then to the Louisiana Derby, and then another five weeks to the Kentucky Derby.

“He’s a light horse, kind of feminine,” Maker said of International Star, a son of 2000 Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus, “but he’s carrying his weight well now and looks really well.”

International Star arrived here late Wednesday morning. Maker said his deportment has made it easy to ship him to so many different places. Saturday’s race will be the ninth of his career, and he has competed at six tracks, in two countries, and in three different time zones.

“He’s a good shipper,” Maker said. “That gives you plenty of options. He doesn’t get nervous about anything.

“He’s very professional, laid-back around the barn, more playful than trying to hurt you.”

His most entertaining quirk is that he likes to pick at his hay rack, chew on it, and spit it on the ground. Maker joked that it was the equine equivalent of “chewing tobacco.”

If International Star wins, he will give Maker and owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey consecutive wins in the Louisiana Derby. They won it last year with Vicar’s in Trouble. But International Star is going for a hat trick in this series, while Vicar’s in Trouble won the Lecomte, was third in the Risen Star, then rebounded with a victory in the Louisiana Derby.

Vicar’s in Trouble had an up-and-down 2014. He finished last of 19 in the Kentucky Derby, later in the year won the Super Derby, but was injured when finishing last in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and has been off since. He is recuperating at the Ramseys’ farm in Kentucky, and Maker said he is expected to return to racing later this year.

What makes International Star far more intriguing than the speedy Vicar’s in Trouble is that he sits and finishes.

“They’re complete opposites,” Maker said. “Vicar was stockier; this horse is longer, leaner. International Star, you can place him where you need to.”

That tractability has come in handy this winter and will be of paramount importance five weeks hence at Churchill Downs. International Star has been a lot of places, Churchill included, and he’s already booked passage there again.