I love the Louisiana Derby. It may not hold the ultimate importance towards the Kentucky Derby as the Wood, or Florida, Arkansas and Santa Anita Derbies historically, but what it lacks for in Kentucky Derby winners, it makes up for in other ways. Not only has the race attracted solid, deep fields in recent years, but it also takes place in one of America’s greatest cities to spend a few days. If you’ve never before been to Fair Grounds, or even New Orleans, I highly recommend making the trip a priority. Personally, I’ve spent many great days in New Orleans, some better remembered than others, but that’s neither here nor there. Back to Saturday’s big race; the Louisiana Derby also played host to one of my all-time favorite three-year-olds. His name was Risen Star.
Risen Star was a big powerful dark bay son of the immortal Secretariat. Snatched out of the Calder two-year-old in training sale by a pair of cagey Cajons, Louie Roussel and Ronnie Lamarque, he did not make it to the races until late September of his juvenile season. He wasted no time in validating his purchase by winning a stakes race first out at Louisiana Downs. He followed that by running a distant 2nd in another stakes race at Louisiana Downs to Success Express, who would go onto be one of the best two-year-olds in the nation. It was a good start to his career, but this long legged son of the His Majesty mare, Ribbon, was screaming out for more ground. A four length romp in an allowance route at the Fair Grounds closed his juvenile campaign. Risen Star began his three-year-old season gaining confidence. He ran in one more allowance race the day after New Year’s Day, and it produced a ten length score. He followed that up with a 2nd place finish in his return to stakes competition in the Lecomte Handicap. That would be his only defeat at the Fair Grounds. Risen Star continued on the New Orleans path for three-year-olds, and scored an impressive victory in in the Louisiana Derby Trial (now known by another name) next.
On Louisiana Derby Day, Risen Star signaled his readiness to join the Kentucky Derby trail in earnest. Sent off as the 5-2 second choice in the field of seven, the big colt settled in near the back of the pack before unleashing a strong rally that proved unstoppable. Winning going away by 1 ¾ lengths, it was time for Risen Star to finally leave the friendly confines of Louisiana.
By the time he left New Orleans, he was my selection for the Kentucky Derby. His final prep would be at Keeneland, and in one of the best races of the year, he met the juvenile champion and Derby favorite, Forty Niner, in the Lexington Stakes. Risen Star prevailed in a tough battle to win by a neck. I loved his breeding and his physicality and I now knew he could handle the nation’s best. There were people who still doubted the Louisiana horse, but he arrived in Louisville as a legitimate threat. For those of us supporting him the 1988 Derby, it turned out to be a disappointing renewal. Risen Star had little chance as he was shuffled far back early, swung wide, and was left way too far from the front running winner Winning Colors. She held off Forty Niner, who had not pressured her early. Meanwhile, Risen Star got things rolling late only to finish a fast closing third. The Preakness brought redemption, as Risen Star was much closer to the pace and quickly pounced on the two who had beaten him at Churchill. The 1 ¼ length score was still not proof to many people, though. Risen Star, who almost didn’t run, was disrespected as fans of the filly, Winning Colors, blamed her loss on the ride of Pat Day aboard Forty Niner. Swelling in the leg before the Belmont would raise major concerns, but he was declared fit to run, so it was on to the Belmont to settle things. Everything came into focus at the Belmont Stakes and it was spectacular. Risen Star, like many large horses, was developing and maturing seemingly by the minute. Each race was better than the last and when he crossed the finish line on June the 11th, it was clear that we were looking at something special. For the first time, a son of Secretariat was actually looking like a chip of the old block. The New Orleans guys were overjoyed and it was a pleasure to see that personality effused into the post-race proceedings after his tour-de-force win by nearly fifteen lengths. It was a grand time to be at the races and to be a fan of Risen Star.
The future was bright for this horse that had made his first seven starts in the state of Louisiana. And make no mistake; he was Louisiana through and through. Risen Star was owned by Louisianans, trained by one, and ridden by another, Eddie Delahoussaye. The sky appeared to be the limit, and then…it wasn’t. He came out of the Belmont Stakes with an injury that would sideline him. I hopefully waited through the Summer, eagerly awaiting his return. It never happened. He did not recover quickly and had another setback. He was too valuable for his connections to take a chance on bringing him back at less than one hundred percent. As the great Alysheba dominated the biggest races that fall, I wondered what might have been.
I have seen many horses retire far too early, or who have never returned to the races after the Triple Crown, but none with more potential for ultimate greatness than Risen Star. I honestly believe that he was just beginning to hit his high notes when his song was cut short. Secretariat's best son was on the road to being something very special.
Fair Grounds wasted no time in honoring their great Louisiana Derby winner. They renamed the Louisiana Derby Trial the very next year, and it has been known as the Risen Star Stakes ever since. Very fitting … Risen Star was the greatest of all Louisiana Derby winners.