Cox’s Stable Ready for Derby Prep’s Risen Star

There is a certain Bob Baffert-esque quality to Brad Cox’s barn of 3-year-old Kentucky Derby prospects, that quality where the two-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer can look in all directions and see a prospect for the May 6 Derby.

Cox can look back at last week’s Grade 3 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct and see Hit Show, who won one of the last of the frosh-soph Derby preps. Hit Show ran to his 6-5 odds, winning the Withers and capturing the 20 Derby qualifying points by 5 ¼ commanding lengths. Hit Show did this just in time to close at 28-1 in the third of Churchill Downs’ five Kentucky Derby Future Wager (KDFW) pool.

Or Cox can look ahead to this week’s marquee Derby prep, the Grade 2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. There, he has three entries in the 1 1/8-mile, $400,000 flagship race on Fair Grounds’ 13-race Saturday card.

The Risen Star is the first “junior varsity” points race on the Derby trail. It offers 50-20-15-10-5 qualifying points to the top five finishers. That means the horse emerging from the 14-horse field has a Derby spot sewn up.

Now, Cox trails the imposing Baffert by five Derby victories (6-1). He’d be the first one to tell you the line forms behind the white-haired face of the sport when it comes to training sophomores. But like Baffert, who built a Hall of Fame career with his peerless conditioning of 3-year-olds, Cox has an armada of talented sophomores lined up for this year’s Derby.

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Cox has Three Impressive Derby Contenders

He’ll send Victory Formation, Angel of Empire and Tapit’s Conquest into the crowded Risen Star field. The first among equals there is Victory Formation, who rides in off a three-length victory over stablemate Angel of Empire in the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas on New Year’s Day. That victory was his third in as many races, but this is his first trek over a mile. Victory Formation and standout rider Flavien Prat also must navigate the far outside Post 13.

Victory Formation closed at 28-1 in the KDFW. (who? Victory Formation?)

Angel of Empire has two wins and that second in four starts. Those wins came at Horseshoe Indianapolis, not exactly the big leagues. He finished an overmatched sixth by 8 ¾ lengths in a key allowance race at Kentucky Downs. Tapit’s Conquest comes in off a neck runner-up finish in an allowance on the Lecomte Stakes undercard last month. He has a victory and two seconds in three races.

He also has Florent Geroux in the irons, which often bodes well for Risen Star contenders. Geroux won this race three times since 2016: piloting Gun Runner (2017), Mr. Monomoy (2020) and Mandaloun (2021) to Risen Star triumphs.

Having Geroux in the irons and his stablemate Victory Formation as the favorite balances out Tapit’s Conquest’s lack of stakes experience. Because favorites don’t often star in the Risen Star. Only three favorites (El Padrino, War of Will and Mandaloun) ran to their odds in the last 15 editions of this race.

As for stakes experience, it’s a good idea to have it here. According to handicapper J. Keeler Johnson, 14 of the last 15 Risen Star winners had a stakes race on the resume. Tapit’s Conquest closed in the latest KDFW at 63-1.

Cox’s armada is so deep that one of his most recognizable Derby stars, Instant Coffee, isn’t entered. Cox is saving the Lecomte Stakes winner for next month’s Louisiana Derby. He’s likely going to see Victory Formation and possibly a few others from the armada, depending how Saturday goes.

Trainers go to great geographic lengths to avoid running their Derby prospects against each other. But Cox’s stable is so deep that this is unavoidable.

Instant Coffee sits at 22-1 in the KDFW. He’s the favorite among Cox’s 10 colts in the pool.

Other Risen Star Contenders

While it seems like Cox is everywhere, there are colts he didn’t train in the Risen Star field. Two of those to watch are Determinedly, who nipped Tapit’s Conquest in that Fair Grounds allowance last month, and Two Phil’s, the Lecomte runner-up to Instant Coffee.

Determinedly closed at 124-1 in the KDFW. His odds won’t be that high, he presents value that this race often rewards. He also presents plenty of experience. The Risen Star will be his ninth race. He’s 2-2-1 in those nine, including two wins and a third (in the Gun Runner Stakes at Fair Grounds) in his last three starts.

Two Phil’s (95-1 in the KDFW) displayed a nice closing kick to take second in the Lecomte, finishing only 2 ½ lengths back of Instant Coffee. He won the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs last October at 7.82-1 with that same off-the-pace style. Whether trainer Larry Rivelli lets him stalk and close or turn the three-time winner loose earlier will be a storyline in this race.

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