Risen Star Kicks Off Derby Championship Series

Track Phantom | Hodges Photography

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The Road to the Kentucky Derby heats up further still on Saturday, as the $400,000 GII Risen Star S. is the first of six prep races that will offer the winner 50 points, virtually locking up a berth in the field for the Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs on May 4.

Track Phantom (Quality Road) will look to continue his domination among the local 3-year-olds as he looks to remain unbeaten around two turns in trying to add to his victories in the Dec. 23 Gun Runner S. and a front-running success in the GIII Lecomte S. Jan. 20. The $500,000 Keeneland September grad is one of two in the race for three-time Risen Star winner Steve Asmussen.

“It was great to see him win the race against a talented field, but especially with going as fast as they did early and showing enough quality to still respond,” the Hall of Famer commented. “I think the Lecomte was as easy on him as you could have wanted it to be, with him still getting something out of it.”

Joel Rosario will likely get after Track Phantom again from gate 11, but it was Asmussen's other winner on the Lecomte undercard who achieved the faster figure. Hall of Fame (Gun Runner) was trying a route of ground for the first time that afternoon and looked sensational doing it. His final time was 0.46 quicker than the Lecomte while his 94 Beyer was four points superior to Track Phantom en route to earning 'TDN Rising Star' honors.

“He was ridden much more aggressively (in his maiden win) because he's playing a little catch up on a horse like Track Phantom, but the ability is there,” Asmussen said of the $1.4-million Fasig-Tipton Saratoga graduate.

Sierra Leone (Gun Runner) topped the Saratoga Sale on a bid of $2.3 million and came running late to graduate by 1 1/4 lengths at first asking at Aqueduct Nov. 4, also earning the 'Rising Star' designation. When last seen, the dark bay rallied from last to lead into the final furlong of the GII Remsen S. Dec. 2, only to be outbattled to the wire by Dornoch (Good Magic).

“He was the only horse that day that made up any ground and that's an important thing to note,” trainer Chad Brown told Bill Finley earlier this week. “He had every chance to win. I was pleased with the effort, though disappointed by the outcome.”

Brad Cox has won the Risen Star three times in the last four years, including Angel of Empire (Classic Empire) last winter. Albaugh Family Stables' Catching Freedom (Constitution) flies the flag for the barn after posting a 2 1/2-length victory in the Smarty Jones S. at Oaklawn Park Jan. 1.

“We're going to need to improve off the Smarty Jones,” Cox said. “Physically he looks great. He's had a good bit of time between races, he shipped back here and is moving well, so we'll see if he's up for it.”

Rachel Alexandra A Key Oaks Prep

The sophomore fillies' counterpart to the Risen Star is named in honor of the romping winner of the 2009 GI Kentucky Oaks and has been an exceptionally productive steppingstone to the first Friday in May. Dating back to 2014, no fewer than four winners of the Rachel Alexandra have gone on to success at Churchill Downs, including 'TDN Rising Star' Pretty Mischievous (Into Mischief) last year.

Brad Cox saddled Monomoy Girl (Tapizar) to take the 2018 Rachel Alexandra and Kentucky Oaks, and the stable relies upon Alpine Princess (Classic Empire) in this spot. Beaten a long way from home when seventh in the GI Darley Alcibiades S. last October, the bay has since won two straight, both around two turns, including a two-length score over West Omaha (Omaha Beach) in the local Untapable S. Dec. 30. The latter flattered the form with a five-length romp over Perfect Shot (Gun Runner) in the Jan. 20 Silverbulletday S.

“She's always been a pretty good workhorse,” Cox said. “That's how she came to us back in the spring. She likes the track here. It's a step up. We'll give her another opportunity at the graded stakes level and hopefully she can get it done.”

'TDN Rising Star' V V's Dream (Mitole) lived up to that honor with a dominating victory in the GIII Pocahontas S. last September and a runner-up effort in the Alcibiades, but connections elected to pass the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. She was never truly a factor when beaten 9 1/2 lengths into third as the heavy favorite in the Oct. 29 Rags To Riches S., but her trainer has not lost faith in her.

“We're really excited,” Ken McPeek said. “She's been working super. She's as strong as ever right now. [Assistant trainer] Greg Geier has got her here in good order. She's really a high-level filly, and I'd love to think this is just one stepping stone to getting her to the [Kentucky] Oaks.”

With Florent Geroux committed to Alpine Princess, fellow Frenchman Flavien Prat takes over for Cox on the rail-drawn 'Rising Star' Tarifa (Bernardini). A disappointing second in Churchill allowance company behind next-out SW Denim and Pearls (Into Mischief), the Godophin homebred set the record straight with a solid victory in her two-turn debut on the Lecomte undercard.

Stronghold Rates The Marquee In Sunland Derby

A little more than two weeks after opting out of what turned out to be a one-horse race in the GIII Robert B. Lewis S. at Santa Anita, Stronghold (Ghostzapper) ships into New Mexico to tackle Sunday's $800,000 GIII Sunland Derby for trainer Phil D'Amato. A second-out maiden winner over Churchill's one-turn mile, the homebred got a good look at the hind end of 'TDN Rising Star' Nysos (Nyquist) when a distant second in the GIII Bob Hope S. at Del Mar last November and was forced to settle for second in the GII Los Alamitos Futurity in his juvenile finale Dec. 16. Antonio Fresu flies in from California for the ride.

Informed Patriot (Hard Spun) has only a maiden win to his credit from five starts, but has acquitted himself well in stakes company, finishing third in the GIII Street Sense S. Oct. 29 before filling the same spot in the Smarty Jones.

Lucky Jeremy (Lookin At Lucky) won his maiden in a restricted event going a mile on the Street Sense undercard and came away late to best Alotluck (Sir Prancealot {Ire}) by two lengths in the local Riley Allison Derby Jan. 19. It was a large expanse back to Surroundedbyangels (Smiling Tiger) that afternoon.

The Sunland Derby is also a Derby points race, with 20 points going to the winner.

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