The other, other Brad Cox trainee turned the tables on his stablemate, as Angel of Empire came rallying down the center of the long Fair Grounds stretch to win the Grade 2, $400,000 Risen Star Stakes on Saturday.
The win earned the Pennsylvania-bred son of Classic Empire 50 points on the road to the Kentucky Derby, virtually guaranteeing the colt a starting spot on May 6 at Churchill Downs.
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“He’s a nine-furlong horse, and one of the advantages to prepping at Fair Grounds is you get big fields and distance, so this was great experience for him,” Cox said. “We have five weeks until the Louisiana Derby, so we’ll look at that or maybe the Arkansas Derby (G1, on April 1 at Oaklawn) or even the Blue Grass (G1, on April 8 at Keeneland). We have a lot of options with him now that he’s qualified.”
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As expected, there was a scrum for the front in the 14-horse field. Determinedly fought hard for the lead from his inside position while favorite Victory Formation was forced wide through an opening quarter-mile of 23.34 seconds. The top Cox choice of his three in the Risen Star field raced in the clear but never really threatened to win.
“He broke well and relaxed but never really gave me run after we settled,” jockey Flavien Prat said of Victory Formation.
Two Phil’s made the first move on the pacesetters into a 1:12.21 six-furlong pace but flattened out late to be third in a run reminiscent of his second-place finish behind Instant Coffee last month in the Lecomte (G3).
Sun Thunder stayed on the rail under Brian Hernandez Jr. and finished 1 3/4 lengths clear of Two Phil’s to be second while a non-threatening length behind the winner.
“That was a big run,” trainer Ken McPeek said of Sun Thunder. “This track suits him, and Brian did a good job keeping position.”
McPeek said Sun Thunder would stay at Fair Grounds with Denington, who won an allowance race earlier on the card, and both would target the Louisiana Derby.
“That’s a first world problem, having to run two horses in the same Derby prep race,” McPeek said.
When Victory Formation threw up the white flag, it appeared Cox’s other trainee Tapit’s Conquest might make some noise with a bold move on the outside. But he flattened as Angel of Empire surged past the field, completing the 1 1/8 miles at 1:51.47.
“When we hit the three-eighths, I thought if we keep going like this, we have a shot, but he actually gave me more,” jockey Luis Saez said of Angel of Empire.
Angel of Empire last finished second to Victory Formation in the short-stretch, one-mile Smarty Jones on Jan. 1 at Oaklawn. Jockey Joe Talamo that day galloped out strongly, and Saez said he learned a lot about the colt watching that race back.
“I watched replays to prepare for this, and a big key with him is to follow the right horse,” Saez said. “You get rolling with him then give him run, and he keeps rolling.”
Angel of Empire has won 3 of 5 starts and earned $330,000.