Just before that milepost on the road to Churchill Downs and the first Saturday in May, the pre-Derby spotlight shone last Saturday on New Orleansâ€™ Fair Grounds, where Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farmâ€™s Gun Runner was successful in the opener of his 3-year-old campaign with a win in the $400,000 Grade II Veterans Ford Risen Star Stakes.
The Steve Asmussen-trained son of Argentine-bred Candy Ride benefited from an inside-out journey in the 1 1/16-mile Risen Star when he held off a pair of late-charging sons of hot first-year sire Uncle Mo in Forevamo and Mo Tom, winning by a half-length.
It was Gun Runnerâ€™s third win in four races, and it came in his first outing since his lone defeat in the $200,000 GII Kentucky Jockey Club (â€œKJCâ€) over sloppy going on November 28 at Churchill Downs. The Risen Star victory under jockey Florent Geroux, who has picked up a good number of mounts for Asmussen over the winter, earned Gun Runner 50 points on Churchill Downsâ€™ â€œRoad to the Kentucky Derbyâ€ (â€œRTTKDâ€) point system.
The points collected in major races through Saturday, May 7 will determine eligibility to compete in the â€œRun for the Rosesâ€ and, for the moment, Gun Runner is atop the RTTKD standings with 51 points.
The inside-out nature of Gun Runnerâ€™s journey in the Risen Star was important on Saturday as it appeared that one and two paths on the rail on the main track were the place to be, while horses outside of those spots struggled. Geroux kept Gun Runner close to the rail for much of the race before he moved outside on the far turn and opened a clear lead.
â€œI thought Florent gave him a beautiful trip with how the track was playing,â€ Asmussen said. â€œHeâ€™s shown talent the whole time and itâ€™s definitely good to see him in the winnerâ€™s circle in a race like this.â€
â€œI wanted to make sure I saved some ground,â€ Geroux said. â€œIt looked like the track was playing a little bit more inside-favoring. I kept him down there until I asked him to go and he ran a great race.â€
The 2-3 Risen Star finishers also impressed, though both appeared to benefit from inside journeys.
Brittlyn Stable Inc.â€™s Forevamo, the Al Stall Jr.-trained runner-up, settled inside and well off the pace before he swung outside for a stretch rally that fell a half-length short.
GMB Racingâ€™s Mo Tom was also inside most of the way, but his strong late charge up the rail was compromised when a tiring horse drifted into his path and forced trainer Tom Amossâ€™ colt to check sharply with just 3/16 of a mile remaining. Mo Tom gathered himself to finish a flying third, beaten by only a length.
All three colts figure to meet again in New Orleans in the 1 1/8-mile Louisiana Derby, the Grade II event on April 2 that is the Fair Groundsâ€™ major Kentucky Derby prep. Gun Runner has likely locked-up a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate with his 50 Risen Star points, but the Louisiana Derby will offer opportunity for its top four finishers, who will be awarded RTTKD points on a scale of 100-40-20-10.
It was mentioned here a few weeks back that last fallâ€™s renewal of the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs appeared to be its strongest in recent memory. Although the results for KJC runners in the Risen Star offered mix results, the runs by two of the top three at the Fair Grounds continued to validate that opinion.
The victorious Gun Runner and third-place Mo Tom, also third in the KJC, reflected the overall quality of the KJC. Back-to-back California stakes wins by Mor Spirit, third in the KJC and the Bob Baffert-trained West Coast leader on the road to Derby 142 served as further evidence.
But there were disappointments among KJC participants, namely C. Oxleyâ€™s KJC winner Airoforce, who faltered to finish 10th as the 8-5 favorite in the Risen Star and GMB Racingâ€™s Tomâ€™s Ready, who faded to seventh.
While Mark Casse said Airoforce appeared to be fine following Saturdayâ€™s race, the poor effort by the colt, his first on a dry dirt course after three turf runs and his win in the slop last fall at Churchill Downs, probably knocked the colt off the trail to the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown.
â€œThe [Kentucky] Derby just doesnâ€™t seem like an option,â€ Casse told the Blood-Horse Sunday after giving Airoforce a thorough post-race exam. â€œThe good thing is, the only thing he hurt yesterday was his feelings â€“ and ours.â€
As for Tomâ€™s Ready, he ran wide during every step of the race. If the track was as biased as it appeared, his effort is a throw-out, and he deserves another chance
Back to Gun Runner â€“ his occupation of the spot in the Road to the Kentucky Derby point standings could be brief. Unbeaten Mohaymen, currently tied for fifth in the RTTKD standings, will be favored in Saturdayâ€™s Fountain of Youth at Floridaâ€™s Gulfstream Park, a race that also offers 50 first-place points. His opponents will include promising rising stars in Awesome Banner and Zulu. VT
With fewer than 75 days until Kentucky Derby 142, hereâ€™s my Derby Top 10 published under the â€œWagerâ€ button at