The stakes go up this weekend for horsemen with Kentucky Derby dreams under the ever evolving points system that determines who gets a place in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.
Saturday’s Risen Star Stakes (Grade 2) at the Fair Grounds is the first prep race of the year to distribute 85 points to the top four finishers, up from 17 in all the previous qualifying races except for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which served up 34 points.
Why does that matter?
Well, you can’t win the Run for the Roses if you don’t get in the race. So while trainers and owners want to save as much horse as possible for the kickoff of the Triple Crown, they have to make sure their charges run well enough along the way to qualify.
In the early years after the points system was adopted in 2013, a total in the low 20s was good enough to secure a spot in the always oversubscribed Derby. But that figure has been creeping into the 30s in the last couple of years and figures to be even higher this year with the addition of nine more scoring races.
Bottom line is that a win in the Risen Star or the other major preps worth 85 points — which award 50 points to the winner — should be enough to guarantee a spot in the Derby while also offering plenty of time for a horse to recover from a top effort.
That’s why the second round of preps, before the races worth 170 points begin with the Louisiana Derby (Grade 1) on March 24, are worth watching closely. If a price horse wins in Louisville, these are often the races that signaled a big effort was forthcoming.
NHC champ crowned
Congratulations to Chris Littlemore, a retired autoworker from Whitby, Ontario, who captured the National Handicapping Championship last weekend at Treasure Island. He’s the second straight Canadian to take home the $800,000 first-place prize and an Eclipse Award as Horseplayer of the Year.
I visited the TI ballroom to get my first taste of the NHC action and came away impressed. The excitement was contagious, and it was great to hang out with players who are as passionate about the game as I am.
If you’re interested in getting involved, get the 411 at NTRA.com/nhc/.
#RJhorseracing featured races
The #RJhorseracing handicappers immersed themselves in the Risen Star, a 1 1/16-mile race for 3-year-olds, as well as the preceding Fair Grounds Handicap, a turf race for 4-year-olds and up run at the “about 1 1/8-mile” distance.
In the latter, a tricky race lacking in obvious speed, the crowd ’cappers heavily favor the 3-1 morning line favorite, Mr. Misunderstood, over Galton (5-1) and defending champ One Mean Man (12-1).
I’ll go with Granny’s Kitten (8-1) to win and also box him in an exacta with the favorite and Catch En Die (8-1).
In the Risen Star, the ’cappers see a three-horse donnybrook, but came down narrowly in favor of the 8-5 favorite, Instilled Regard, over Noble Indy (5-1) and Principe Guilherme (7-2).
They’ll get no argument from me, but I’ll thrown in long shot High North (15-1) and box him with the top three in a $1 trifecta box, for a total of $24.
You can join the fun next week by emailing me or hopping on Twitter and searching for the #RJhorseracing hashtag.
Ellis Starr’s Risen Star analysis
Bravazo is a very interesting horse in this year’s Risen Star, pretty obviously pointed to the race by Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas for historic Calumet Farm. Lukas gave the colt some time off, which really helped as he returned from two and one-half months away to win gamely last month at Oaklawn around two turns, earning a career best 104 Equibase Speed Figure. To put that effort in perspective, when Risen Star favorite Instilled Regard won the LeComte Stakes last month, he earned a 106 figure. Lukas wins with about 11 percent of his dirt route starters, but in this situation when starting a horse in a dirt route second off a layoff, Stats Race Lens shows us Lukas wins 24 percent of the time. This colt has potential for a breakout performance that can help him post the upset win in the Risen Star.
Instilled Regard could be coming into the Risen Star on a three race winning streak if not for being interfered with in the Los Alamitos Futurity one race before last when he finished third then was moved up to second via disqualification of the winner. That effort earned a 106, the same he earned in the LeComte. The colt has every right to run even better in the Risen Star and move forward on the Road to the Kentucky Derby as one of the favorites.
Snapper Sinclair was returning from two and one-half months off in the LeComte so may have had a legitimate excuse for tiring to third at the finish after moving up from second mid-race to lead with about a quarter mile to run. Snapper Sinclair was making his first start ever around two turns on dirt last month and there are many reasons to expect a much improved effort in the Risen Star.
Principe Guilherme is a horse I will consider for second and third on wagers such as the exacta and trifecta, and on some level I do feel he may have a chance to win. The colt has proven to be competitive and as such his chances to run well cannot be discounted.
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.