The Week in Review: 'Angel' Aided by Pace Meltdown, but Overall Derby 'Empire' Still Hazy

Angel of Empire | Hodges Photography

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Saturday's running of the GII Risen Star S. at Fair Grounds seems unlikely to produce a colt of the caliber of the race's namesake. In 1988, Risen Star captivated New Orleans as the hometown horse owned by charismatic connections, parlaying a win in the then-GIII Louisiana Derby to Grade I scores in both the Preakness S. and Belmont S. before being voted 3-year-old champion colt at year's end.

But $29.40 upset winner Angel of Empire (Classic Empire) at least fits the bill as a hard-trying underdog you can root for.

On a GI Kentucky Derby trail studded with million-dollar horses, the winner of the Feb. 18 nine-furlong leg of the Fair Grounds sophomore series is a Pennsylvania foal who was bred by Forgotten Land Investment and Black Diamond Equine.

He RNA'd for $32,000 at KEENOV, then hammered for $70,000 at KEESEP for owner Albaugh Family Stables.

Angel of Empire's only two previous victories had come at Horseshoe Indianapolis, although he had most recently finished second, beaten three lengths, in the Oaklawn stakes named after the most prolific Pennsylvania-bred of all time, Smarty Jones.

Congratulations if you managed to sniff out Angel of Empire one week ago, when he closed at 112-1 odds in Pool 4 of the Derby Future Wager.

Trained by Brad Cox and ridden by Luis Saez, Angel of Empire capitalized on an old-fashioned pace meltdown to win by a length in 1:51.47. That equates to the slowest clocking of the Risen Star in five runnings (including a spilt division in 2020) since that stakes was extended to nine furlongs from 1 1/16 miles. The Beyer Speed Figure was 87, two points higher than the colt's runner-up effort in his previous start.

Even before the starter sprang the latch, the projected hot pace on paper loomed as the $400,000 question in the Risen Star.

The speed-centric 'TDN Rising Star' Victory Formation (Tapwrit), the 9-5 favorite, was drawn way out wide in post 13. West Coast invader Harlocap (Justify), the 7-1 third choice, rolled into New Orleans with plenty of “1s” in his running lines. The pesky 25-1 Determinedly (Cairo Prince) was drawn inside of both those rivals. He was supposed to be aiming for shorter races as per his connections, but when no suitable race could be found, trainer Mark Casse decided to give him a shot at 1 1/8 miles, with an aim on letting him rip right to the front and see how far he could lead the field.

Those three scrambled for supremacy just necks apart the first time under the finish wire in the early-evening New Orleans darkness. By the time they hit the backstretch, Determinedly had the lead by 1 1/2 lengths, with Harlocap and Victory Formation both backing off a beat, but still very much fixated on the frontrunner.

At this juncture, Saez was content to keep Angel of Empire parked at the fence. But by the half-mile pole, he sensed the pace would be too taxing for the leaders to maintain, and he began slicing through the pack while maneuvering off the inside.

“The key with him is to follow the right horse,” Saez would say post-win. “We got lucky. When he got to the three-eighths  pole, I was pretty loaded. When we got to the top of the straight, I checked if I had the horse. He just kept going, and I just tried to go with him.”

There aren't too many 14-horse fields in the Derby prep series, so it was particularly intriguing to see a line of about eight horses still in it to win it by the upper portion of the long Fair Grounds home straight.

But by the final sixteenth, most of those contenders had faded away like exhausted Mardi Gras revelers, and Angel of Empire chugged by them all with a well-timed late run.

While Angel of Empire's winning final time was slow compared to previous Risen Star runnings, his final furlong of :12.95 was respectable compared to this year's peers. There have been only three nine-furlong Derby qualifying points races so far in 2022-23, and his effort represents the only sub :13 clocking.

State of the Sophomore Division

So we've now reached the 75-day mark to the first Saturday in May. Here's how the state of the 3-year-old division shakes out.

Two clear leaders sit atop the sophomore totem pole. Depending on who's doing the ranking, 'TDN Rising Stars' Arabian Knight (Uncle Mo) and Forte (Violence) are one-two in either order on almost everyone's list.

I've got Arabian Knight slotted on top in the newest installment of the TDN Derby Top 12 that will be published in Wednesday's edition. He's occupied the kingpin spot since the rankings initially got published at the start of January, based at first on his blowout MSW unveiling on the Breeders' Cup undercard, then bolstered by his commanding, control-seizing performance in the slop in the GIII Southwest S.

You can certainly make a strong case for Forte, too, although you'd have to do so without the benefit of having seen him race yet this year. His clout is based on a trio of Grade I wins at age two, including one in the deepest key race of the division in 2022 (the Breeders' Futurity S. at Keeneland) and another in his Breeders' Cup Juvenile smackdown that earned him the Eclipse Award championship.

Right behind the top two, 'TDN Rising Star' Tapit Trice (Tapit) has arguably delivered the single most empathic divisional win since January, an eight-length blowout in a one-turn-mile, first-level allowance at Gulfstream Feb. 4. That assertive effort whets the appetite for what this gray might accomplish when his distance-friendly Tapit (out of a Dunkirk mare) pedigree gets tasked with a two-turn assignment.

But beyond that? The ice remains thin on the Derby prospect pond in late February. There are plenty of horses clustered close together who have posted singularly impressive efforts and could be on the verge of further breakout races. But most of them are very light on actual racing experience, making it a dicey proposition to try and embrace any of them with confidence at this juncture.

In general, the balance of power is centered in Florida (particularly for Todd Pletcher's stable) and California (where a court order from last week will likely result in a number of high-level Bob Baffert trainees shifting to other conditioners).

The Derby preps at Fair Grounds, Aqueduct, and Tampa haven't produced any explosive, top-tier contenders yet. Although Oaklawn's Southwest S. yielded Arabian Knight, he's not nominated to this Saturday's GII Rebel S.

Thinking 'Long Range'

Long Range Toddy (Take Charge Indy) earned a footnote in Derby history back in 2019 when, as a 54-1 longshot already beginning to fade on the far turn, he was forced to check sharply as part of chain-reaction crowding that the Churchill Downs stewards deemed to have been caused by first-across-the-wire Maximum Security.

That incident resulted in the first and only disqualification of a Derby winner for an in-race foul when Maximum Security was placed behind Long Range Toddy, who ended up 17th under the wire.

Now, nearly four years later, Long Range Toddy is one of only three remaining horses from that oddball 2019 Derby to still be racing. (Can you name the other two? Answer below.)

But his streak of longevity is striking for what he hasn't done since before the Derby–win a race.

It's also amazing that the 7-year-old has garnered $1,194,670 in lifetime purse earnings without ever being sent postward as the betting favorite in 35 lifetime races.

On Saturday, in the GIII Razorback H. at Oaklawn, Long Range Toddy checked in sixth at 54-1 odds, adding another $9,000 to his bankroll.

For a large chunk of his career Long Range Toddy was campaigned by his breeder, Willis Horton. Owner Zenith Racing acquired him in the spring of 2022.

Ironically, the horse who beat him in the Razorback, Last Samurai (Malibu Moon), is owned by the limited liability company Willis Horton Racing (Horton himself died at 82 last October).

Long Range Toddy last visited the winner's circle in the 2019 Rebel S. at Oaklawn, which was two prep races prior to his brush with infamy in the Kentucky Derby.

The other two alums from the 2019 Derby to still be in training are Tax (Arch), who won a Delaware stakes last summer off a 1 1/2-year layoff (he's now based out of Palm Meadows with one race at Gulfstream this year), and Gray Magician (Graydar), who on Feb. 8 won a $25,000 claimer at Turf Paradise for his first victory since Oct. 10, 2019.

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