Making Sense of Murky Risen Star

February 19, 2024

Sierra Leone splashes home a winner in the Risen Star (Hodges Photography)

By Laura Pugh

The sloppy surface at Lousiana’s Fair Grounds this past weekend did little to clarify the picture leading into Kentucky Derby 2024. In fact, if anything, it only created an even murkier scenario.

For the last several years, the road to the Kentucky Derby that runs through the Fair Grounds has been extremely productive in determining not only Kentucky Derby success, but the success within the division as a whole. Maybe not always through the winner of the preps, but through the top three to four finishers.

Palace Malice, Gun Runner, Revolutionary, Epicenter, Zandon, and War of Will all competed through the Fair Groud’s prep series and went on to have success in the Triple Crown and in subsequent key divisional races. This particular Road even has a bit of unique history, in that two horses that used it went on to win the Kentucky Derby via disqualification.

However, these facts do little to help us decipher the results of this past Saturday’s running of the Risen Star.

The winner, Sierra Leone, trained by Chad Brown made what looked to be a strong late move to nab the win from Track Phantom in the closing strides. This has several proclaiming him to be a legitimate Kentucky Derby threat, but I still have my doubts.

Sierra Leone’s speed figure of a 90BSF and a 113 (estimated) TFUS are very underwhelming. From Equibase’s standpoint, the race wasn’t even a move forward from his Remsen Stakes, where he was out-nosed by Dornoch. Interestingly enough, the track that day was listed as Muddy (sealed), meaning that to this date,Sierra Leone’s biggest performances have come over off tracks, which don’t always give us the truest look into the form of those that don’t relish the surface.

In both of these races, the Risen Star and Remsen, the horse moving best at the end was easily Sierra Leone. Given that this is his second strong showing in a row on an off-surface, we can deduce that he handles the surface well, but what about Dornoch and Track Phantom? Do they actually enjoy running over an off-surface, or just tolerate it like good, versatile horses tend to do?

I am leaning towards the latter.

Dornoch and Track Phantom, both have only one other race each, in their past performances, that came over off tracks. Both horses lost their respective start. They still ran well, but considering the level of those respective starts came at the maiden level, we can assume that the level of competition was not as strong. This leads me to believe that Sierra Leone, while impressive looking, is getting the advantage of the off-surface over his opponents.

Dornoch was able to overcome not having that advantage, but Track Phantom didn’t.

Sierra Leone’s trainer is also not one that has experienced a lot of Kentucky Derby success. Chad Brown has brought several to the Kentucky Derby in recent years that fit the mold Sierra Leone is stepping into. More questions than answers left by early preps, rerouted to an easier final target, typically in the Blue Grass Stakes, where they leave an explosively good impression (Zandon), only to flatten out in the Kentucky Derby and tail off during the later stages of the year.

Track Phantom, on the other hand, is conditioned by Steve Asmussen, a man who, while still looking for his first Kentucky Derby, has been getting closer and closer. He conditioned Curlin and Gun Runner to third-place finishes, and Epicenter came so close just a couple years ago, if not for a record-fast opening quarter and lucky little colt named Rich Strike.

Track Phantom had reeled off three wins in a row, prior to his defeat on Saturday. His pedigree isn’t great for the Kentucky Derby distance, at least on paper, but in reality, the race has been won by horses not only with his style of running, but a similar pedigree. The reality is, tactical speed, coming from horses with middle-distance pedigrees has translated to Kentucky Derby success in recent years.

Moving forward, I need to see more, on a fast track, from Sierra Leone. Two strong races coming over off-tracks is not enough to convince me he is the real deal. The horse I think was best in the Risen Star might come as a surprise, and might even be seen as a bad take, but on a fast, dry track, I think Track Phantom will prove to be the best coming from the Fair Grounds.

Hopefully, we’ll get to see a rematch to determine whether I’m right, in the Louisiana Derby.

Contributing Authors

Laura Pugh

Laura Pugh

Laura Pugh got her first taste of Thoroughbred racing when she watched War Emblem take the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 2002. At that...

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