The Derby trail turns to the Crescent City and the Fair Grounds for the first 50-point qualifying race of the year. A large field of 13, including four sons of Uncle Mo will run 1 1/16-miles around the New Orleans oval in search of valuable Derby points in the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes on Saturday afternoon.
The morning line favorite is Airoforce (5-2), a son of Colonel John, who won the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs after a second-place in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. The win at Churchill for the Mark Casse-trained colt was his first on dirt, albeit on a sealed, sloppy track.
According to the Fair Grounds barn notes, Casse feels the jury is still out whether Airoforce can handle the dirt. “You never can tell if they’ll handle the (fast) dirt with works, but he has a dirt pedigree,” Casse said. “The only reason he originally ran on the turf was because the purse of the Kentucky Downs maiden was $120,000. Once he ran so well and broke his maiden it was hard to take him off the grass. After the Breeders’ Cup we wanted to find out how he would handle dirt and even though it was sloppy, you couldn’t ask him to do much more than he did that day. It should have worked to his disadvantage, but he took a lot of slop and still won.”
Heading to New Orleans instead of Miami and a showdown with the talented Mohaymen, makes a lot of sense for the sophomore’s first race of 2016. “I would rather deal with Mohaymen on the first Saturday in May,” said Casse.
Local prep winner Mo Tom (3-1) is the second choice after his impressive victory in the Grade 3 Lecomte last month, where he picked up 10 qualifying points for Derby 144. He finished third behind Airoforce and the talented Mor Spirit in the Kentucky Jockey Club, but he is maturing into a very nice colt. Trainer Tom Amoss’ colt drew post 2 in Wednesday’s draw, a spot that should serve the one-run horse well to set up for his late move.
A horse that is intriguing is long shot It’s All Relevant (15-1), who turned in a monster maiden-breaking win at Gulfstream for trainer Dominick Schettino. The Hard Spun colt has faced talent before in Shagaf, the Pletcher colt who has raised a lot of eyebrows at Palm Meadows, finishing second behind him in November at Aqueduct.
“He ran a big number when he broke his maiden last time and we want to see what he has,” Schettino told the Fair Grounds notes team earlier in the week. “We’d like to see if he’s good enough to be on the Derby Trail or not. There was the Sam Davis at Tampa, but the points at the Risen Star made the difference. It’s a big step, but he has ability. I’d like for him to run a good 1-2-3.”
Other runners that fancy a look are Gun Runner (6-1) and Tom’s Ready (8-1), two colts that can challenge the favorites. Gun Runner will have Flo Geroux in the irons, a jockey who is winning at a 26 percent clip at the Fair Grounds. He is making his 2016 debut after finishing fourth, beaten 3 1/4-lengths in the aforementioned Jockey Club race at Churchill.
Tom’s Ready will go to the gate for trainer Dallas Stewart with Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez aboard. The More Than Ready colt should favor a chance as the distances lengthen and he ran second to Mo Tom in the local prep.
It looks to be a highly competitive race in the bayou and we’ll take a shot at beating the favorite off the layoff.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Gun Runner; 2 – Airoforce; 3 – It’s All Relevant; 4 – Mo Tom.
Post Time future plays this week at the Wynn Las Vegas:
Cocked and Loaded (75-1)
Frank Conversation (125-1)
It’s All Relevant (150-1)
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.