Girvin takes Risen Star at Fairgrounds

Feb 28, 2017 3:06 AM

As the centerpiece in last Saturday’s stakes-loaded card at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes was the first of eight races on the national schedule to award 50 Derby eligibility points to the winner, Girvin.

Even second place finisher Untrapped earned 20 Derby eligibility points, while third place finisher Local Hero earned the same 10 points earned by the 20 previous Derby prep race winners. As stated in last week’s column, Derby eligibility points are needed for horses to gain the right to draw into the starting gate for the world’s most famous race at Churchill Downs on May 6.

Frankly, I found the 1-1/16 mile Risen Star to be fascinating for reasons horseplayers should consider if they hope to understand the way an aberrant pace can influence the final result or to properly evaluate the impact of jockeys when an unusual pace scenario is in play.

The Risen Star was run in a manner we probably will not see in the longer, richer Derby prep stakes, or in the 1-1/4 mile Kentucky Derby. Very few Derby prospects can match the early speed displayed by front running Local Hero. Breaking from post 3, Local Hero zoomed to a quick lead and extended it to six lengths on the backstretch before he began to weaken bit by bit only to be passed by Untrapped and Girvin in the final 1/16 mile.

While Untrapped gave a traditional stalk-and-go type performance under a well-judged ride by Ricardo Santana Jr., Girvin probably would not have won the Risen Star had it not been for the beautifully constructed ride by jockey Brian Hernandez.

Breaking smoothly from his inside post, Hernandez was content to sit in mid-pack while saving all possible ground, until he moderately encouraged Girvin to advance a bit on the final turn. Remaining inside, Hernandez moved Girvin past a few rivals while Local Hero began to come back to his closest pursuers.

Entering the homestretch, Hernandez eased Girvin to the three path to get a clear, unimpeded run toward the leader. That’s when he pushed his mount to lengthen stride to reach and pass Local Hero. A few moments later, Hernandez realized his work was not quite done.

As Girvin took the lead in mid-stretch, Hernandez felt his mount switch over to his left lead, which could have slowed him down and made him vulnerable to Untapped in the final yards. 

Yet, Hernandez was so focused he pulled on the reins and gave Girvin a tap on the shoulder to get him back on his proper right lead to convincingly win the race.

Beyond the way Girvin won the Risen Star, attentive horseplayers might have gleaned a few more observations from this race.

Guest Suite, who finished fourth with a nice turn of foot in deep stretch, probably would have finished closer had his jockey Robbie Albarado asked for a run on the final turn (as Hernandez did) instead of waiting until Guest Suite reached the top of the stretch.

Consider also that heavily favored Mo Town faded badly in the stretch after Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez properly used his mount’s natural pace-pressing ability to get a good position stalking Local Hero.

Was the favorite’s 10 length defeat due to something physical bothering Mo Town or did this colt prove he needs everything to go his own way in order to compete at this level? Answers will come only when Mo Town comes back to try another Derby prep stakes for trainer Tony Dutrow.

As hinted earlier, all of this detail about this one Derby prep race is spelled out for a reason that continues to be a consistent theme in these columns: Horseplayers hoping to elevate their game to a winning level need to understand much more about the way races are run – beyond the voluminous material contained in result charts, past performance profiles and what is conveyed by reams of jockey/trainer stats.

The Risen Star illustrates how an attentive horseplayer can assess the relative performances turned in by every horse in any race that has an aberrant shape. 

This, of course, covers different ground than the discussion we had a few weeks ago on the way track biases can impact race results.

In both cases horseplayers must realize the need to get a true fix on which horses either ran terrific, were perfectly or imperfectly ridden, those that may have benefited from the way the track was playing or when an unusual pace scenario was involved.

Beyond all of that – to properly evaluate if horses in the Risen Star will deserve support as Derby contenders – we are sure to see many of them race again in one of the 16 remaining Derby preps. 

In the meantime, Girvin earned a 93 Beyer Speed Figure, a new high for the lightly raced Joe Sharp trainee and the average Fig. earned in all but a few Derby preps to date.