Risen Star Stakes does nothing to clarify Derby picture

It's important to remember that the road to the Kentucky Derby is not linear. We are not going to have a Derby prep season that sequentially builds on what previously transpired in terms of quality and strength. Sure, it would be nice if things were all nice and neat like that, but it doesn't work that way.

This is a good time to remind oneself of that, on the morning after a head-scratching Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds that threw one of the first big monkey wrenches into a 2018 Kentucky Derby prep season that will almost certainly see a few more.

The 2018 road to the Derby got off to an exciting start on the first weekend of January with McKinzie's compelling victory in the Sham. In fact, yours truly commented in this space how refreshing it was to see such a high-quality Derby candidate in action and doing well in the initial days of a new year.

In the weeks that followed, we saw Instilled Regard win big in what everyone agreed was by far the strongest Lecomte Stakes ever, Mourinho score an emphatic and quick (a winning Beyer Speed Figure of 99) victory in the Smarty Jones in his first start around two turns, and Audible register what seemed to be a breakthrough score in the equally quick Holy Bull.

But last week saw the highly regarded Remsen Stakes winner, Catholic Boy, lose at odds-on and without an excuse in the Sam F. Davis Stakes to a colt in Flameaway who wasn't even a $600 first-stage Triple Crown nominee. And on Saturday, we saw a Risen Star that was even more difficult to process, with the 21-1 Bravazo edging the 41-1 Snapper Sinclair by the narrowest of margins and the aforementioned Instilled Regard and the highly regarded Lecomte runner-up, Principe Guilherme, both -- BOTH -- coming up empty.

(As an aside, I'm glad I haven't seen much talk about how the winning Risen Star exacta came up light at $603 and change. On the face of it, that is a light return for a 21-1 over a 41-1. But I think that Bravazo and Snapper Sinclair were serious overlays in the win pool -- they were both 8-1 on the morning line, for what that's worth -- and were probably closer to the right prices in the exacta pool.)

One of the baffling things about the Risen Star is that Bravazo and Snapper Sinclair went at each other from the start, going head and head for the lead most of the way, and yet none of the seven others made any sort of meaningful run at them. Okay, the pace wasn't that fast; it was slower than the fractions 3-year-old fillies posted in the Rachel Alexandra, but it was in line with what older males went early in the Mineshaft, so it wasn't exactly glacier-like. And Fair Grounds's main track seemed bias free to me, so Bravazo and Snapper Sinclair weren't carried by the track either.

In their defense, Bravazo and Snapper Sinclair did come into the Risen Star off the best races of their careers. Bravazo did hit the board in the Breeders' Futurity and the Street Sense Stakes last year, but they were slowly run races, and his first-level allowance win last month at Oaklawn was much better, at least in the context of his record. Snapper Sinclair finished third in the Lecomte and was clearly only third-best that day, yet that still represented a major step forward for him.

But what most makes this Risen Star unsatisfying for me is that no one else ran, which is the primary reason why Bravazo and Snapper Sinclair owned the race from the outset. And the two main no-shows were Instilled Regard and Principe Guilherme.

Instilled Regard pulled a trip in the Risen Star that was nearly identical to the one that worked so well for him in the Lecomte. He had every chance to win but had zero punch this time, settling for an uninspiring fourth. This was a distinct step backward for Instilled Regard, and that's trouble for a colt who wasn't that fast to begin with, with a previous best Beyer of only a 92. And Principe Guilherme had a trip not unlike his not-great trip in the Lecomte, but instead of gamely fighting through it like he did last month, he was out of gas turning for home and wound up seventh of nine.

* In contrast to the Risen Star, Monomoy Girl's victory in the Rachel Alexandra was most impressive. No one expected Monomoy Girl to be the trailer early - her best performances last year, including a lengthy romp in the Rags to Riches Stakes and a sharp second in the strongly run Golden Rod Stakes - came when she was on the early lead. But after missing her break, a clear last of seven early is where Monomoy Girl was. Maybe that was a good thing because if Monomoy Girl had a good trip, she might have won by 20. As it was, she circled her field with a strong far-turn move and won by enough - 2 1/2 lengths, to be precise.

* Certainly, Monomoy Girl's Rachel Alexandra score flatters Golden Rod winner Road to Victory, who won a maiden turf sprint at Woodbine in her only other start. Road to Victory has not made the work tab yet this year.

* Monday's Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn can save the holiday weekend for Derby preps. Mourinho, impressive in the Smarty Jones even if he did control a moderate pace, will be the favorite, and Sporting Chance, who, like Bravazo, is a member of the D. Wayne Lukas barn, will have his supporters in his first start since he won the Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga on Labor Day weekend.

It should be noted that Sporting Chance held on in the Hopeful despite ducking out sharply late, and beat the subsequent (even if it was a slow race) Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity winner, Free Drop Billy, as well as the subsequent Grade 1 Champagne winner, Firenze Fire.

Another note regarding Sporting Chance: According to DRF Formulator, Lukas over the last five years has surprisingly had only three starters in graded stakes routes on dirt off layoffs of 61 to 180 days like the one Sporting Chance brings into the Southwest. None of those three won, but two of them did finish second.

I suspect Smarty Jones runner-up Combatant would be the one to prevent Mourinho from winning back. Combatant has improved his Beyers from start to start with substantial 13-, seven-, and 10-point jumps, and there figures to be more pace Monday to keep Mourinho occupied early.