By Richard Rosenblatt
The world’s richest day in horse racing – $31 million Saudi Cup Day – is a week away and contenders from around the world are arriving at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh. But let’s try to stay focused this weekend on a significant race in New Orleans – the $400,000 Risen Star (G2), a prep that would give the winner a berth in the Kentucky Derby (G1) on May 7.
The Risen Star is the first of the Derby’s “championship series” of 16 prep races, with qualifying points for the 1 1/8-mile test at the Fair Grounds on Saturday jumping to 50-20-10-5 to the first four finishers.
From the East and the West, promising 3-year-olds are in New Orleans, with a field of 10 entered led by slight favorite Smile Happy for trainer Kenny McPeek.
At 4-1 are Pappacap for Hall of Fame trainer Mark Casse and Epicenter for Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen.
All three trainers have something more in common – all three are looking for their first Kentucky Derby victory.
While a Risen Star winner has yet to go on to take the Derby (2021 Derby runner-up Mandaloun could become the first if Medina Spirit is disqualified from finishing first due to a post-race positive drug test), some mighty good 3-year-olds fared well in Triple Crown races.
The road to the Kentucky Oaks (G1) on May 6 continues Saturday as well at the Fair Grounds with the $300,000 Rachel Alexandra (G2), also with qualifying points of 50-20-10-5.
With six stakes races on the card, the Fair Grounds is calling its big day “Louisiana Derby Preview Day.” The Louisiana Derby (G2) is March 26.
Smile Happy, winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) on Nov. 27, has been training with stablemate and fellow Derby prospect Rattle N Roll in Florida, but McPeek will try to keep them apart over the next two months.
“I think this is a good first step for Smile Happy,” McPeek said. “He’s doing super. He’s done everything right. He’s a very low maintenance horse who makes our job easy. He eats good. He loves to train. We’re trying to keep him and Rattle N Roll separated, with Rattle N Roll pointing for the Fountain of Youth.”
From the West Coast, two-time Derby winning trainer Doug O’Neill sends Slow Down Andy into the Risen Star following a victory over Derby prospect Messier in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2).
“He really hasn’t missed a beat out of his last race,” O’Neill said. “We’re coming into this race really optimistic he is going to run a big race. With a clean break, he’ll show good tactical speed and he’s got tremendous stamina. For $400,000 at Fair Grounds, you expect it to be a tough spot. We knew entering that we were jumping into some deep water, but we think Slow Down Andy can swim with them.”
The locals include Epicenter and Pappacap, the 2-3 finishers, respectively, in the Lecomte (G3). A finish in the top 3 on Saturday would likely clinch their Derby spots.
“We like his chances and he’s doing well,” Asmussen said of Epicenter. “Disappointing he didn’t win last time but he has a chance to prove himself against a nice group on Saturday.”
TVG will have live racing on Saturday from tracks around the country, including the Fair Grounds. FOX Sports’ “America’s Day at the Races,” will have live racing from 1-6:30 p.m. on FS2.
A sunny day is forecast for New Orleans, with high temperatures in the mid-60s.
Here’s a look at some of the stakes races:
$250,000 Mineshaft Stakes (G3), 1 1/16 miles, 4-year-olds and up
Post time: 5:25 p.m. (race 10)
Any why not? With the Winter Olympics winding down, Olympiad is the 3-1 favorite for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott in a field of 11.
Junior Alvarado has the mount leaving from post 4. A 4-year-old son of Speightstown, Olympiad ran fourth in the Cigar Mile (G1) in 2021 and opened his 4-year-old campaign with an allowance optional claiming win on Jan. 15 at Gulfstream.
Miles D, trained by Chad Brown, is the 7-2 second choice. Third in the 2021 Travers (G1), the 4-year-old son of Curlin won his final two races last year, an allowance and the Discovery at Aqueduct on Nov. 27. Jose Ortiz rides from post 5.
$300,000 Rachel Alexandra Stakes (G2), 1 1/16 miles, 3-year-old fillies
Post time: 6:27 p.m. (race 12)
Hidden Connection is the 3-1 favorite for trainer Bret Calhoun in this Kentucky Oaks (G1) prep offering 50-20-10-5 points to the first four finishers.
Fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1), this will be Hidden Connection’s 3-year-old debut. She will be ridden by Reylu Gutierrez from the outside No. 11 post.
La Crete is 8-1 for Steve Asmussen, who trained Rachel Alexandra and won last year’s edition with Clairiere – La Crete is a half-sister to Clairiere.
“It’s a special race named for a very special filly,” Asmussen, a six-time winner of this race since 2005. “La Crete is doing really well. We were extremely impressed with her effort in the Silverbulletday and look to build off that race in here.”
La Crete breaks from the rail under Eclipse Award winner Joel Rosario.
$400,000 Risen Star Stakes (G2), 1 1/8 miles, 3-year-olds
Post time: 6:58 p.m. (race 13)
Not much more to say about this one – the field of 10 looks evenly matched with Smile Happy, Pappacap, Epicenter, Zandon and Slow Down Andy all capable of a breakout performance.
Longshots include a pair from Eclipse Award winner Brad Cox – Bodock (10-1) and Tawny Point (12-1). Cox-trained Mandaloun won the 2021 Risen Star.
“Both will have to step up,” Cox said. “It’s been a while since he (Bodock) has run, and we need to get a run in him. We’re hopeful he’ll get the 1 1/8 miles. It’s a big ask but hopefully he’ll step up.
“The other colt, Tawny Port, two-for-two on synthetics, both around two turns. I think he’ll get the 1 1/8 miles.
“They are both happy, healthy, and well, so I expect them to run good races, and we’re going to see if they can swim at this end of the pool.’’
Smile Happy will be ridden by Corey Lanerie out of post 2.
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.