The Kentucky Derby trail is at the same time both long and short. It's a journey that can begin even before a young colt makes his first start, full of potential pitfalls, but also with opportunities to rebound. It can also be gone in the blink of an eye for those not quite sound enough to make it into the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.
This year, we're still awaiting that first breakout performance confirming we're looking at the favorite in the run for the roses. But the strongest run to date this season was turned in when the Mark Casse-trained War of Will blitzed his Lecomte Stakes (G3) competition last month at Fair Grounds.
The same New Orleans oval will play host to this week's top Kentucky Derby prep with the running of the Grade 2, $400,000 Risen Star Stakes on Saturday. While War of Will's previous performance at Fair Grounds announced him as a major player on the Derby trail, the son of War Front will be given little time to rest on his laurels. Ready to take him down a peg will be as many as 13 other sophomores hoping to make a name for themselves.
In a race which in recent years has produced such stalwart winners as Gun Runner and Bravazo, and is the first Kentucky Derby prep race of the year to offer 50 qualifying points to the winner, War of Will drew the far outside post in the field of 14. With Kingly unlikely to make the trip from California, the morning line favorite will move at least one spot farther in. This also makes room for the $2.6 million yearling purchase Gun It to draw into the field and assume the outside post.
Off to a very promising start to his career through four races on the turf, War of Will has been a true find since switching over to the dirt. Breaking his maiden on the slop at Churchill Downs, after finishing fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, the Gary Barber-owned bay romped home a five-length winner in the slop.
Moving smoothly right back into stakes competition, he then looked the real deal, powerfully drawing away to win by four in the Lecomte under rider Tyler Gaffalione. Six of the top seven from that one will be back again for the Risen Star, plus several other interesting options make this no simple task for War of Will.
Chief among his returning LeComte foes will be the runner-up, Hog Creek Hustle, and the third-place finisher, Manny Wah. That same pair had also finished in the second and third positions in the Sugar Bowl Stakes at Fair Grounds, albeit in reverse order. Another from the Lecomte of interest is Plus Que Parfait.
The son of Point of Entry could well improve off a fifth-place finish last time, which was the first off a layoff. He had finished off his juvenile season with a pair of promising results, out-dueling the recent Holy Bull winner, Harvey Wallbanger to the wire in a Keeneland maiden heat, before just missing behind Signalman in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. If the Risen Star winner does not come directly out of the Lecomte, there are several intriguing options to be the one to get the job done.
Owendale is a well-bred son of Into Mischief coming in off a win over the track. Improving with each passing race for trainer, Brad Cox, the Rupp Racing colt proved best in a salty allowance last time in his second start at Fair Grounds. In that race, he defeated a number of well-regarded colts, including the aforementioned Gun It, who was third, while making his third career start, and the runner-up Frolic More, who was making his first start around two turns for trainer Dallas Stewart.
Others primed to make noise on Saturday include Henley’s Joy, a two-time stakes winner on the grass for trainer Mike Maker. The son of Kitten's Joy will be making his dirt debut on Saturday. Maker also has another stakes winner in the field in Dunph, who ran an improved third last time in the Springboard Mile at Remington Park.
A pair of Hall of Fame trainers also look to move closer to a start in the Kentucky Derby with a couple of potentially nice colts. Limonite, a fast-closing third in last fall's Kentucky Jockey Club, will make his season debut for trainer Steve Asmussen, while Country House, a son of Lookin At Lucky and trained by Bill Mott, comes into the test of a rallying maiden win last time at Gulfstream Park.
Finally, trainer Bret Calhoun, fresh off of scoring his 3,000th career victory, accomplished Sunday at Fair Grounds, has a talented son of Goldencents ready to make his 2019 debut in the Risen Star. When last seen, Mr. Money was finishing a solid fourth behind the champion Game Winner in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Talked about in glowing terms by his generally cautious conditioner, and off his stylish victory in the Lecomte, War of Will is the one to beat in the Risen Star. But as you can see, this will be a real test. Any one of a number of other entrants in here looks to have the ability to upset the favorite. And so the Kentucky Derby trail continues.