02/21/2013 4:07PM

Risen Star lures large, talented field of Kentucky Derby hopefuls


NEW ORLEANS – A niggling problem with talking about the Risen Star Stakes as a Kentucky Derby prep is the race’s minimal historic impact on the Derby. Nine of the last 15 Risen Star winners made it to the Derby. Their average finishing position was 11th. Among that set, only Mucho Macho Man cracked the Derby trifecta, coming in third in 2011.

But don’t think for an instant that this year’s edition of the Risen Star on Saturday at Fair Grounds isn’t still bursting with Derby dreams. The Risen Star is one of the first major stops on Churchill Downs’ Road to the Kentucky Derby, the series of prep races that award points to determine the Derby’s 20-horse field. An overflow field of 15, headed by Normandy Invasion, Oxbow, Palace Malice, and Code West ,was entered Monday. The 50 Derby qualifying points going to the Risen Star winner could easily be enough to guarantee a spot at the big dance.

[FAIR GROUNDS: Get PPs, watch video previews of Saturday's stakes]

The Grade 2, $400,000 Risen Star goes as race 10 on a 13-race card starting at 12:30 Central, and is one of six stakes, four graded. Unlimited Budget will be heavily favored to win the Rachel Alexandra for 3-year-old fillies, while the Mineshaft rematches Infrattini and Mark Valeski, one-two in the Louisiana Handicap. On paper, the Fair Grounds Handicap is a two-horse race between Willcox Inn and Optimizer. The most accomplished horse on the card is Grade 1 winner Daisy Devine, who runs in the Bayou Handicap.

The Bayou and the Fair Grounds Handicap are carded for turf. The grass course here has been wet for months, and with heavy rain forecast Thursday and Friday, there’s a chance the races could be switched to dirt. The rain is supposed to pass by Saturday, with partly sunny conditions forecast.

While 15 were entered in the Risen Star, as few as 12 might run. He’s Had Enough goes in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, and also-eligible Sunbean probably runs in the Gentilly Stakes earlier Saturday. Departing, who has the outside post, also is uncertain to take his spot in the gate.

Florida-based shippers have won the last three Risen Stars, and two horses making that trip, Normandy Invasion and Palace Malice, could be the betting choices Saturday. Normandy Invasion is the more proven of the pair, with a near miss in the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes in his 2-year-old finale, but the connections of Palace Malice eagerly await their horse’s first two-turn start.

Palace Malice, part of Todd Pletcher’s absurdly bountiful 3-year-old crop, raced twice last summer in New York, finishing second and first before a shin injury curtailed his campaign. He returned in a sloppy-track allowance race Jan. 19 at Gulfstream, giving futile chase to mud-loving Majestic Hussar, who beat Palace Malice by 2 1/4 lengths. As in his runner-up debut finish, Palace Malice galloped out well in front.

“The added distance is going to be in his favor,” said Pletcher, who has won the Risen Star two of the last three years, with El Padrino and Discreetly Mine. “Being by Curlin and out of a Royal Anthem mare, we’ve always thought he would be one to go long.”

Palace Malice has tracked the pace in his three sprints. He’s drawn inside the only front-runner in the Lecomte, Oxbow, and should be prominently positioned.

“He’s a very rate-able horse, but we’re not going to take away what comes best for him,” Pletcher said. “I’d be surprised with the speed he’s shown if he wasn’t pretty close.”

If only two front-runners show, and the pace goes slack, the Risen Star race shape might work against Normandy Invasion, who rallied from ninth to lose by a nose to Overanalyze in the Remsen. Normandy Invasion, however, has been working sharply for his 2013 debut and showed in his sprint debut that he possesses speed.

“I would say he can show more of his tactical side,” trainer Chad Brown said. “My approach is to let the horse be where he’s comfortable. He has a burst of speed when you want it.”

Oxbow needed four tries to win a maiden race but has progressed swiftly for trainer Wayne Lukas. His 11 1/2-length Lecomte Stakes win was by far the best performance of his career, and Oxbow did the work easily while galloping out full of energy. Returning to Lukas’s Oaklawn Park base, Oxbow has worked three times for the Risen Star.

“He dominated that field, so it always is impressive, but it will be tougher [this] time,” Lukas said. “There will be more horses, more speed, more everything, but he’s pretty legit.”

Code West’s stock got a boost on Monday when Super Ninety Nine, behind whom Code West finished second in a Jan. 31 allowance race, impressively won the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn. Code West, trained by Bob Baffert, races without blinkers on Saturday for the first time since his debut last summer at Del Mar. A ridgeling half-brother to multiple-graded-stakes winner Charitable Man, Code West has a grinding style that would be aided by honest splits.

Mylute and Proud Strike scored blowout Fair Grounds two-turn dirt wins earlier this meet, but both horses face more demanding circumstances. Proud Strike had a clean outside trip in a fast Jan. 12 maiden win and breaks from the rail in a big field Saturday. Mylute, despite having already raced six times, shied from his rider’s crop while crushing overmatched allowance foes Dec. 26.

“I’m sure this race will be another learning experience for him,” said trainer Tom Amoss.

Departing has started his career with two wins, and answered stamina questions with a two-turn allowance score Feb. 1. Winning again from a wide draw and in such a deep race would mark him as a horse of real quality – Kentucky Derby worthy, in fact.

– additional reporting by Mary Rampellini