The "Kentucky Derby Championship Series,” comprised of 16 prep races, kicks off this weekend with the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans.
Coming off the 19-race “Prep Season,” the qualifying points start to grow in value. Points to the top four finishers of the Risen Star will be distributed on a 50-20-10-5 basis.
The 1 1/6-mile race has drawn a full field of 14 seeking valuable Derby points and a gate in Kentucky Derby 146 in Louisville. Gun It will draw into the field from the also-eligible list after Bob Baffert scratched his shipper, Kingly, from the race.
The winner is almost assured of a spot in the Run for the Roses and the second-place finisher takes a big step toward that same goal. Post time for the race is 7:02 ET and is the final race on the 12-race Fair Grounds card. The race will stream online on the TVG Network.
The race has yet to produce a Kentucky Derby winner, however two of its winners have later emerged as Breeders’ Cup Classic winners. Gun Runner (2016), who retired last year after his Pegasus win, and Mucho Macho Man (2011) both won Classics. Last year’s Risen Star winner, Bravazo, finished second in the Preakness Stakes behind Triple Crown winner Justify.
Could this be the year that trainer Mark Casse gets off the duck and produces his first Kentucky Derby winner? He’ll put the local prep winner War of Will, the 5-2 favorite, in the gate attempting to further his chances.
It took him a long time to gather his first Queen’s Plate in Canada, after dominating the Woodbine racing scene for years, finally winning it on his 20th attempt with the filly Lexie Lou in 2014. It’s been a lifetime goal to wear the roses on the first Saturday in May.
Before that monumental Plate win with Lexie Lou, he confided that there is just one other race on his radar. "There's only one other race that I'd rather win, Kentucky on the first Saturday in May,” Casse told the News at the 2013 Plate breakfast.
After winning the Lecomte over the Fair Grounds oval in January by a resounding four lengths, the son of War Front drew outside for the 8 ½-furlong race. He’ll face five of the rivals he faced in that prep race, but Casse isn’t concerned with the post.
“Obviously, the post is outside, but we’d rather be out there than inside,” Casse told Ryan Martin of the Fair Grounds media staff. “He’s got enough speed so he’ll get over and if he’s as good as we think he is it shouldn’t matter.”
Tyler Gaffalione will be in the iron.
Casse flamed out of last year’s Derby when the pacesetter Flameaway faded to 13th. His best Derby finish was in 2017, when Classic Empire finished just out of the money in fourth.
War of Will is highly regarded and sits third in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s weekly 3-year-old poll and was 17-1 in the recently completed Derby Future Wager Pool No. 2. That’s a lofty spot for a horse coming out of the Fair Grounds. He sits behind Game Winner and Improbable, two Bob Baffert runners with some lofty Grade 1 wins.
The outside post will surely test him Saturday, and the competition didn’t shy away from taking him on down in New Orleans.
One horse returning from the Lecomte to take on the favorite is the rail horse, Plus Que Parfait (10-1). The son of Point of Entry had valid excuses for his fifth-place finish last time out. A stumbled start and then a bumping with a rival ruined his chances early, but he finished up his mostly wide trip respectfully.
He has some interesting previous races. He finished a neck behind the highly regarded Signalman in a Grade 2 affair at Churchill Downs two races back and defeated recent longshot Holy Bull winner Harvey Wallbanger three races back at Keeneland. He could be sitting on a big one with Julien Leparoux up for trainer Brendan Walsh.
Stepping up in class is Rupp Racing’s Owendale (6-1), who looks like he has some early speed to flash for trainer Brad Cox and jockey Shaun Bridgmohan. The son of Into Mischief out of a Bernardini mare has shown the ability to go two turns and the added distance shouldn’t be an issue.
He beat a decent group of winners on Jan. 17 over the Fair Grounds strip, several running back in the Risen Star. If he gets out to the early lead, he might be the one to catch.
Henley’s Joy (10-1) is a sharp Kitten’s Joy colt who will try the dirt for the first time in his seventh career race for trainer Mike Maker. His numbers don’t support this angle, but he’s run against some top quality horses on the turf and has held his own. He could be the longshot exotics play underneath with Manny Franco aboard.
The News will be on the Derby trail for the next two months trying to assist in mining that golden nugget come Derby day in May.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Plus Que Parfait; 2 – War of Will; 3 – Owendale; 4- Henley's Joy
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.