02/05/2016 1:26PM

Joseph holds fond memories as Risen Star's groom

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NEW ORLEANS – As the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 20 approaches, Harold Joseph said he’ll be thinking about the champion for whom the final Louisiana Derby prep is named.

That’s only natural. In 1988, when Risen Star won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, Joseph was his groom.

“You know what I’m proud of?” Joseph said. “That they even gave me a chance to be around that horse.”

Joseph, 62, said it doesn’t take much impetus to spark his sweet memories of those days and that horse.

Risen Star, of course, provided the highlights of Joseph’s long career as a backstretch worker at tracks throughout the Midwest. He broke into racing as a hot walker at Fair Grounds after he dropped out of a New Orleans high school.

“To rub that great horse, a lot of people want more,” said Joseph, now a hot walker for trainer Jimmy Baker at Fair Grounds. “I don’t want more. The Lord blessed me to be in that horse’s presence. My dad was around the racetrack all his life and didn’t touch a horse like that.”

August Joseph, who died in 1980, groomed and galloped horses in New York and gave his son guidance on horsemanship, Harold Joseph said. He also recalled that his father would tell stories about the great horses he saw – Citation, Armed, and Cicada among them.

Risen Star ran once in New York, winning the Belmont by 14 3/4 lengths. “He was phenomenal,” Harold Joseph said. “How does a horse work three-eighths of a mile on Friday before Saturday’s Belmont in 33 3/5 [seconds] and win by 15 lengths?”

Joseph said he had been a groom for seven or eight years when trainer Louie Roussel III gave him the opportunity to groom Risen Star.

A Detroit native, Joseph’s first job as a groom was in the barn of Michigan trainer John Drumwright. “He used to tell me, ‘I put the rub rag in your pocket,’ ” Joseph said.

In Roussel’s barn, Joseph said, he benefited from advice from a crew of veteran horsemen, including assistant Rene Gebbia, stable foreman Charlie Porter, and exercise rider Jimmy Nichols. “But it was all the horse, and Roussel for letting me rub that horse,” Joseph said.

Risen Star didn’t want to be petted, Joseph said. “He wasn’t a lovable horse,” he said. “He was a business horse.”

Before he could put the tack on Risen Star, Joseph said, he had to have the horse facing the back wall of the stall. Joseph would throw the tack into the corner of the stall before leading the horse to the back.

“I would go to see him at the [breeding] farm at Walmac [International],” Joseph said. “He got up to 1,400 pounds. I wouldn’t go into the stall with him.”

Joseph said he goes online from time to time to watch replays of Risen Star’s races. The trip in the Kentucky Derby hampered Risen Star. After breaking from the No. 1 post in a 17-horse field, he was far back early, made a wide rally, and finished third, 3 1/4 lengths behind front-running winner Winning Colors.

“When I do think about it, I think he should have won the Triple Crown,’’ Joseph said. “In my mind, he was a Triple Crown winner.”