02/21/2016 1:07PM

Road to the Derby: Risen Star Stakes

Amanda Hodges Weir/Hodges Photography
Gun Runner earned a 90 Beyer Speed Figure for his victory in the Risen Star.

Grade 2, $400,000 Risen Star Stakes, 1 1/16 miles, Fair Grounds, Feb. 20, 2016

 (50 Derby qualifying points for a win, 20 for second, 10 for third, 5 for fourth)

 Winner: Gun Runner, by Candy Ride

 Trainer: Steve Asmussen

 Jockey: Florent Geroux

 Owner: Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC and Three Chimneys Farm

 Beyer Speed Figure: 90

GUN RUNNER returned to a fast track and returned to his winning ways by capturing the Risen Star, the first race on the road to the Derby that offers 85 points overall, and 50 to the winner, making it essentially a “Win and You’re In” race for the Derby.

Gun Runner won his first two starts last fall, at Churchill Downs and Keeneland, on fast tracks before finishing fourth on a sloppy, sealed track at Churchill in his stakes debut in the Kentucky Jockey Club. I was a bit disappointed with his run that day, because I liked his first two races a lot. He certainly bounced back here, and though he raced on the best part of the track, he is lightly raced, seemingly has plenty of upside, and is trained by one of the game’s best in Asmussen. This, too, was his first start with Geroux, who has become Asmussen’s go-to rider.

 Gun Runner continued to validate the good form of the Kentucky Jockey Club. Second-place finisher Mor Spirit has subsequently won two stakes, the Los Alamitos Futurity and Robert Lewis. Third-place finisher MO TOM subsequently won the Lecomte and had an unlucky trip in the Risen Star. And now Gun Runner. Kentucky Jockey Club winner AIROFORCE was a big disappointment in this race, his first start since the Kentucky Jockey Club, but he had a compromised training schedule earlier this year, and there is still a question over his aptitude on a fast track, as his prior races were either on turf or that sloppy, sealed track at Churchill.

 In the Risen Star, Gun Runner broke a half-step slowly and then was shuffled back between horses heading into the first turn to wind up mid-pack while in the two path between horses, just outside of FOREVAMO and inside of Airoforce. He showed good acceleration entering the backstretch to get away from those two rivals and subsequently slide over to the rail, the best part of the track this day, and advance to third nearing the far turn. He had enough speed on the turn to outrun BISTRAYA to secure a clear lane outside of CANDY MY BOY near the quarter pole, took the lead just outside the sixteenth pole, and was all out to last over Forevamo and Mo Tom. Most encouraging to me was that there were several points in the race where he needed to quicken to improve or hold his position, and he responded each time.

 Forevamo, who was second, was rated mid-pack along the rail around the first turn, followed Gun Runner down the backstretch and around the far turn, got a dream run inside nearing the quarter pole, swung out to take aim on Gun Runner, made no progress on Gun Runner for much of the stretch but was inching closer late.

 Mo Tom, who was third, had no speed and was last early while racing inside, commenced his rally along the inside on the far turn, had to check and alter course when Bistraya drifted into his path in upper stretch, swung out for room and finished best of all. I’m torn regarding his race, for while he definitely was hindered while rallying, he raced on the ideal part of the track almost the whole way, and the sharp early pace of the race benefited his closing style.

 Candy My Boy, who was fourth, showed good speed from his outside post, got to the rail by midway around the first turn, and carved out quick early fractions (22.95 seconds, 46.38) through the first half-mile. He continued to roll along on the front end through the far turn, stubbornly refused to yield when initially challenged by Gun Runner in upper stretch, began to tire in the final furlong – which likely was the reason for him swapping over to his left lead in the closing yards – and only surrendered third very late while well clear of everyone else. He raced on the best part of the track, but ran quite well considering the pace he laid down.

 The rest were well beaten.

 ZAPPERINI, who was fifth, was wrestled back to 10th into the first turn while racing in the three path, followed Mo Tom along the rail into the stretch and went evenly while merely passing tired rivals.

 IN EQUALITY, who was sixth, bobbled slightly leaving the gate, had no early speed and was near the back of the pack early while inside, eased out to the three path nearing the head of the lane, and had no kick.

 TOM’S READY, who was seventh, raced about three paths wide while just behind the leaders around the first turn, never could get over and wound up about four paths wide into the far turn, raced in the middle of the track through the lane and never accelerated. The track profile (good inside, poor outside) was against him, but there was never any point where he looked like a threat.

 IT’S ALL RELEVANT, who was eighth, bobbled a bit leaving the gate but had enough speed to take up a forward position while toward the inside around the first turn. He was three paths wide – outside Gun Runner and Bistraya – on the far turn, then faded through the lane. He has short, choppy action, so distance racing wouldn’t seem to be ideal.

 Bistraya, who finished ninth, left sharply from an inside draw while on his wrong lead, settled into second behind Candy My Boy while in the clear into and down the backstretch, came under a heavy ride with three furlongs to go while just outside Gun Runner, then steadily faded through the lane while drifting to his inside in upper stretch, causing trouble for Mo Tom.

 Airoforce, who was 10th, was three to four paths wide around the first turn while racing mid-pack, raced between horses for much of the backstretch, began to yield with three furlongs to go, and was done before reaching the quarter pole in a dull effort.

UNCLE WALTER, who finished last of 11, could not get over from an outside post and raced four paths wide, just behind the leaders, around the first turn. He started to lose ground to his rivals midway down the backstretch, continued wide into the far turn, and gave way.