The 16-race "Kentucky Derby Championship Series" kicks off this weekend with the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds Race Course.
It’s fitting that the kick off was during Mardi Gras week in the Big Easy and the thoroughbred racing world will be tuned in to the Fair Grounds this weekend. Points to the top four finishers of the race will be distributed on a 50-20-10-5 basis.
The 1 1/16-mile race has drawn 10 competitors seeking valuable Derby points and a gate in Kentucky Derby 145 in Louisville. In the past two years, it has taken at least 32 Derby points to secure a gate in the big race.
While the race has yet to produce a Kentucky Derby winner, two of its victors have later emerged as Breeders’ Cup Classic winners. Gun Runner (2016), who recently retired after his $7 million payday and Mucho Macho Man (2011) both won Classics.
The star of this year’s show is Instilled Regard (8-5, 14 Derby points), who was the seventh choice in last weekend’s Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool 2 at juicy 18-1 odds. He won the local prep, the Lecomte Stakes, impressively by 3 3/4-lengths over Principe Guilherme (7-2, 4 points), the second choice on the morning line.
Instilled Regard, a son of Arch out of a Forestry mare, hasn’t missed the board in five career races. His worst finish, a third-place effort in the Los Alamitos Futurity was behind two highly regarded colts both ranked in this week’s Top 10 in the NTRA 3-year-old poll, in Solomini (6) and McKinzie (3). Instilled Regard was ranked fifth, I had him second on my ballot.
With Hall of Fame connections in jockey Javier Castellano and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, leaving the West Coast behind for Louisiana appears to have been the right move, based on his last effort over the Fair Grounds strip. It was the horse’s owner who pushed to ship him from California to the southeast to start the Derby trail.
After a couple of works at Santa Anita, he shipped back into Louisiana this week for another crack on the track he conquered in January.
This time he’ll have a bevy of challengers looking to upset him and capture the points necessary to enter the Kentucky Derby picture. Principe Guilherme will look to improve after having some traffic trouble in the Lecomte and being forced wide at the quarter pole. Will a clean trip be enough to make up the almost four lengths he needed last out?
Trainer Steve Asmussen teams up with his Gun Runner jockey Florent Geroux, who has rode the son of Tapit in his last two races, looking for his third career training victory in the Risen Star. He sports two good workouts since his Lecomte placing and is a fair price at 7-2.
Mr. Derby trail, Todd Pletcher, seems to have a colt in every points race and this one is no different. Noble Indy (5-1), a son of Take Charge Indy, brings his undefeated record onto the prep scene, shipping in from the Palm Beach Downs Training Center in South Florida. He has won his two career races at Gulfstream Park convincingly, but puts his toe in deeper waters in Louisiana.
His pedigree suggests he’ll like longer distances and has already defeated winners in an 8 ½-furlong effort last time out. Pletcher thinks this is a logical spot for him, has confidence based on his efforts in the morning and thinks the step up in class should not present an issue for him.
Wayne Lukas, fondly known on the backstretch as “the Coach” ships in a talented sophomore named Bravazo (8-1), who donned a big speed figure in an allowance at Oaklawn. He seems to be the wild card in the field after popping the big number against an allowance field in Arkansas in mid-January.
“That was a really good race, he got a good number,” Lukas told Ryan Martin of the Fair Grounds media team. “I think we can be competitive. I feel like he’s a competitive horse and a lot of the horses in the race have a lot have similar numbers. The race is fifty points and I think that he merits a chance.”
The 82-year-old Hall of Fame trainer will put current Fair Grounds leading rider Miguel Mena aboard the son of Awesome Again in the Risen Star. He certainly has the class, evidenced by his second-place finish in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland last fall behind the talented Free Drop Billy.
If you throw out his effort in the Grade 2 at Churchill in November, his progression looks logical and he could be sitting on a big race.
It’s tough to look beyond the talent of Instilled Regard in here, but the Lukas entry has me intrigued enough to work him into the exacta and key him around the favorite, Principe Guilherme and Noble Indy in the exotics.
We’re off on the Derby trail for the next two months, it’s time to start looking for that horse to back on the First Saturday in May.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Instilled Regard; 2 - Bravazo; 3 – Principe Guilherme; 4- Noble Indy
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.