Triple Crown: “Nice group” to contest Risen Star

American Sailor
Epicenter won the Gun Runner Stakes. Photo Hodges Photography / Amanda Hodges Weir.

Have points? Will travel.

That seems to be the theme this time of year as the Road to the Kentucky Derby heats up with the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes (G2) presented by Lamarque Ford at Fair Grounds Race Course and Slots on Saturday.

The Risen Star, the first “50-point” contest on the calendar, was extended from 1 1/16 miles to 1 1/8 miles in 2020. This year’s field drew 10 talented runners from coast to coast to take on a local contingent that has spent the winter pointing for this race. While the winner will likely seal a starting spot in the gate for the Kentucky Derby, the 20 points offered for second is often enough for a spot in the starting gate as well.  Third place collects 10 points and the fourth-place finisher will receive five points.

“One reason we chose this spot is because there’s more points in this race,” said trainer Kenny McPeek, who will ship in 7/2 morning line favorite Smile Happy from his Gulfstream Park winter base.  

Owned by Lucky Seven Stable, the talented son of Runhappy won the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) in his second and final start of his juvenile season. That race has come back to produce three next out stake winners in Lecomte victor Call Me Midnight, Holy Bull winner White Abarrio and Sam F. Davis winner Classic Causeway.

“I think this is a good first step for Smile Happy,” said McPeek, who hopes to get two quality preps into him before the first Saturday in May. “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.”

[Click here for our Triple Crown Video page with video of every North American points race.]

The race also features two of the top three horses in the current Derby points standings. Pappacap and Epicenter have 14 points apiece and are tied for second. Classic Causeway, winner of last week’s Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, leads the standings with 16 points.

Epicenter and Pappacap share 4/1 morning line odds after finishing in a tight photo for the place spot in the Lecomte at the Fair Grounds Jan. 22 with Epicenter gaining the slight advantage.

[Click here for our Triple Crown page with the latest news and info.]

Pappacap figures to be a little tighter this time around in his second start of the season and will get a jockey change to Tyler Gaffalione breaking from the rail. Owned by Rustlewood Farm Inc. and trained by Hall of Famer Mark Casse, Pappacap is bidding to give his trainer a second Risen Star trophy following War of Will’s victory in 2019.

Casse will appear on Off to the Races Radio Saturday morning.

Winchell Throughbreds’ Epicenter found himself on a contested lead through fast fractions in the Lecomte and will likely be part of the pace again for trainer Steve Asmussen. Asmussen knows the son of Not This Time should improve off that effort and hope he can relax going the extra furlong in the 1-1/8-mile contest.

“We like his chances and he’s doing well,” Asmussen said. “Disappointing he didn’t win last time but he has a chance to prove himself against a nice group on Saturday.”