Thursday, February 17, 2011

Risen Star: At the Heart of the Matter

This weekend marks the running of the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, a race for three-year-olds on the Kentucky Derby trail. The Risen Star was previously known as the Louisiana Derby Trial Stakes, before being renamed in honor of the son New Orleans will always be proud to call their own.

Here is a more detailed background on Risen Star, the horse who won two-thirds of the Triple Crown in 1988:

John Galbreath’s Darby Dan Farm acquired Risen Star’s Irish-bred great-great-granddam Bibibeg from the Aga Khan in 1954. Thirteen at the time, she was a year-younger half-sister to Nasrullah (grandsire of Secretariat), by British Triple Crown winner Bahram. From Bibibeg, Galbreath bred Quaheri, by Olympia, in 1959. Quaheri was unplaced and further disappointed as a broodmare, producing below her family’s high standard. 

But her winning Hail to Reason daughter Break Through was stakes-placed once at three in 1973 in Ireland for Galbreath. Bred to Darby Dan sire His Majesty, she foaled the bay filly Ribbon in 1977. Harry Trotsek trained Ribbon for Arthur Hancock III and Leone J. Peters. She won nine times in 27 starts, with seven seconds and five thirds, at two and three. Her four stakes wins came in the Grade 3 Pucker Up Stakes at Arlington Park, the $100,000 Golden Harvest Stakes at Louisiana Downs, the Arlington Oaks, and the La Troienne Stakes at Churchill Downs, all as a sophomore. 

Ribbon’s third foal, born on March 25, 1985, was a dark bay or brown colt with four white ankle socks, sired by Secretariat. The colt was linebred 4x5 to the great producing mare Mumtaz Begum, a daughter of “The Flying Filly” Mumtaz Mahal, and he was her last foal for the partners, who sold the broodmare to Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley Stud Management at the Keeneland November sale. In foal to Danzig, she brought $2-million. 

Ribbon, who I met in 1990.
In 1986, her yearling colt was offered under the Stone Farm banner at the Keeneland July sale. By then, Ribbon had produced a graded stakes-placed winner in Premier Partner, and Secretariat’s daughter Lady’s Secret was midway through what was to be her Horse of the Year campaign. Those two things helped make Ribbon’s colt the second most expensive of his sire’s yearlings that season, attracting a final bid of $210,000 from Harold McKenzie. However, it transpired that it was a buy-back, and the colt reappeared in the Fasig-Tipton February sale next year, consigned by Albert Yank on behalf of his breeders Hancock and Peters. 

Louie J. Roussel III, a law school graduate from Louisiana who trained horses instead of practicing law, bought the horse for $300,000 at the two-year-olds-in-training sale for himself and partner Ronnie Lamarque, a singing Ford car salesman from New Orleans. (Years later, in 1994 or so, I was shocked to see a feature on a news show describing how Lamarque had been the target of a botched murder-for-hire plot hatched by his estranged wife in 1993.) 

A bout with throat cancer had left Roussel a deeply religious man. So he named the horse Risen Star and took him home to New Orleans, where Roussel’s family had a majority stake in Fair Grounds Race Course. In a generous gesture, Roussel pledged 10% of Risen Star’s earnings to a local charity, the Little Sisters of the Poor. 

Risen Star skipped conditions and made his debut on September 24, 1987, in the 6½-furlong, black-type Minstrel Stakes at Louisiana Downs. He won by a length. He was second in his next start, the Sport of Kings Futurity in October, and closed out his juvenile season with an allowance win at Fair Grounds going 7½ furlongs on December 6. 

The Secretariat colt opened his three-year-old account in similar fashion, registering an allowance victory at the same track on January 2, stretching out to a mile and a sixteenth. 

Returned to stakes company in the Lecomte Handicap on February 6, Risen Star could only finish second to Pastourelles, whom he defeated by a length in their next start, the Louisiana Derby Trial, on February 27. Risen Star stepped up to graded stakes level and won the Grade 3 Louisiana Derby in March on his next outing. 

After seven lifetime starts in Louisiana – five consecutive at Fair Grounds – the colt traveled to Kentucky where he won the Grade 2 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland in his final prep race for the Kentucky Derby. Forty Niner, champion two-year-old the previous year and considered all but “a sure thing” in the Lexington, was a head behind in second. 

The field that lined up for the 1988 Kentucky Derby included undefeated favorite Private Terms, narrow second choice Winning Colors, Seeking the Gold, Canadian juvenile champion Regal Classic, Brian’s Time, and Proper Reality. Winning Colors grabbed an early lead and held on by a diminishing neck from a flying Forty Niner. Risen Star had raced wide after encountering traffic problems, running on to take third without threatening the top two home. 

Drama ensued in the two weeks leading up to the Preakness. Roussel had canceled two post-Derby workouts for his colt, prompting speculation that something was physically amiss with Risen Star. Then when it poured for days in Maryland, Roussel told the press his horse was ‘99% certain not to run’ and only decided not to scratch him – he’d had the card already filled out – about an hour before the race. 

As fourth choice, Risen Star and jockey Eddie Delahoussaye redeemed their Kentucky Derby loss to win by 1¼ lengths over Brian’s Time in a pedestrian 1:56 1/5 over a good track. Roussel and Lamarque’s black silks with a cherry cap – in homage to the Phipps silks – with gold stars down the sleeves and a gold cat on the back (for the superstitious Roussel) were painted on the jockey atop the cupola at Pimlico and Ronnie Lamarque was singing his praises in the winner’s circle. Literally! 

To the tune of “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” he sang something like this: 

Way down yonder in New Orleans, 
Risen Star is the king of kings. 
He’s the talk of the town there, 
You know what I mean! 

There was more, of course, but that’s all I recall 23 years later. No trace of it survives on YouTube, but to give you an idea, here’s a commercial Lamarque recorded in support of the New Orleans Saints football team:

The headline stories after the Preakness were less about Risen Star and more about the tactics employed by Pat Day on Forty Niner, whose trainer Woody Stephens sacrificed his colt’s natural running style to keep Gary Stevens and Winning Colors from getting their typical, free-running lead. The two horses bumped all the way down the backstretch. Winning Colors held on for third, and Forty Niner faded to seventh. 

Wayne Lukas, who trained Winning Colors, and Stephens erupted into a war of words in which Stephens dubbed Lukas’ filly “Whining Colors.” Up against the very public Lukas/Stevens/Winning Colors versus Stephens/Day/Forty Niner affair, Risen Star emulating his sire’s feat of winning the Preakness was barely acknowledged. 

The scene switched over to the Empire State, where Lamarque changed his tune to “New York, New York.” He transformed the line about vagabond shoes into: “These lucky horse shoes / will run away / from the rest of the field / in old New York!” 

But Risen Star had hurdles to clear first. During a routine gallop on May 28, he rapped his right front ankle and missed two days of training due to a strained suspensory. As such, he had only one workout in the three weeks between the second and third races of the Triple Crown, and during that work he was so bullish that he pulled a shoulder out of his exercise rider/assistant trainer Jimmy Nichols’s socket and zipped three furlongs in :33 3/5 the day before the Belmont. Again, his trainer considered scratching the colt, worried that Risen Star may have left his race on the track Friday morning with that fast move. 

Judge for yourself: 

The nuns from the Little Sisters of the Poor were celebrating Risen Star’s victory. In addition to the regular purse of the Belmont, he had earned a $1-million bonus for garnering the highest point total in all three Triple Crown races. That 10% earnings pledge from Roussel was changing a lot of lives. 

Risen Star’s official margin of victory was 14¾ lengths, which while significant pales in comparison to Secretariat’s 31-length rout. The time of 2:26 2/5 was the second-fastest Belmont, after only Secretariat’s 2:24, and Risen Star had run the last quarter in :24 4/5, a fifth of a second faster than his sire. (Easy Goer and A.P. Indy have both bettered Risen Star’s time.) Sadly, his co-breeder Leone Peters didn’t live to see Risen Star’s second Classic win; Peters had died a week earlier. 

People were really taking notice of Risen Star now, calling him unlucky not to have won the Triple Crown, and Louie Roussel and Ronnie Lamarque vowed to keep him in training the following season. Delahoussaye raved about the colt as the best he had ever ridden, boldly telling the press, “he might even be better than his sire.” 

The morning after the Belmont, Risen Star’s ankle filled up again, but it didn’t look to interfere with Roussel’s plans to turn the horse over to great trainer Charlie Whittingham as a four-year-old. Whittingham, it turned out, had been the underbidder at $200,000 on Risen Star as a yearling. The Bald Eagle anticipated big things and couldn’t wait to get the colt in his shedrow, speculating that he would like to try him on the grass. 

In the meantime, Risen Star was syndicated to stand at John T.L. Jones Jr.’s Walmac Int’l at the close of his career, in a deal that valued him at $14-million. Roussel and Lamarque kept half of their colt in the agreement. 

But by the end of July, when the ankle still showed no sign of improvement, Risen Star was officially retired. He had won eight of his 11 races, with two seconds and one third, earning $2,029,845. He was voted champion three-year-old colt of 1988, yet the focus was more a matter of what might have been. Risen Star had been improving almost exponentially with every race, and the thought of him in Whittingham’s hands gave hope that he would prove himself to be one of the greatest ever. 

Still, he was finished, and the high hopes resting on Risen Star’s tall withers shifted from racing to his stud career. Although he stood the 1989 season for a hefty $75,000, he was up against it for becoming a great success at stud. Like other sons of Secretariat – and unlike Risen Star’s leading-sire contemporaries Forty Niner, Seeking the Gold, and Brian’s Time – he failed to make much impact. From 311 foals, he got 14 stakes winners (5%), including German Oaks winner Risen Raven and Grade 1 Pimlico Special-winning millionaire Star Standard, who was second in the 1995 Belmont. 

I first saw Risen Star in person at the Belmont. The race fell on the day before my birthday, so for my present my parents took me to New York for the race. It was the first time I had been to a racetrack other than my home track of El Comandante (now Camarero).

Risen Star with jockey Eddie Delahoussaye and groom Harold Joseph in the paddock before the Belmont.
I had access to the paddock area for the Belmont and picked up a gold-colored button with a horse head insignia that I found ground into the dirt, hoping that it would bring me luck. I was rooting for Winning Colors, and when I saw that she wasn’t going to win, I slammed the button down in disgust. But the rocking grandstand shook me to my senses, and I looked from Winning Colors falling back, to Risen Star drawing away. Fifty-six thousand people were jumping and screaming, and 56,000 people couldn’t be wrong. It was an electrifying moment. Secretariat’s son looked like the second coming of Secretariat in the Belmont stretch. 

Two months later, in August, I visited Risen Star at Walmac. He was confined to a stall because his ankle wasn’t well enough for turn-out yet, and he stared forlornly through the bars on his door.

A stall-bound Risen Star in August, 1988.
Physically, “Star” was a tall, leggy, imposing horse, standing almost 17 hands high. He was short-backed which, from a distance, made him seem deceptively smaller than he was. For instance, if you watch the Belmont footage, you may notice how his saddlecloth dwarfs him, especially compared to the fit on Winning Colors, who was also a very big horse but smaller than Risen Star. His oversized stall in a three-horse barn (Alleged was across the aisle) at Walmac had been specially built to accommodate him, and a simple wooden plaque from the Little Sisters of the Poor was beside his door. The plaque depicted the Star of Bethlehem and guarded over Star to his dying day.

Risen Star in 1993, coming over to say hello.
As a stallion, Risen Star was likeable and kind to be around but lacked the charisma of his sire; he was, I always thought, like a goofy kid. And because he was prone to bellyaches if his routine was upset, stallion manager Ron Gilbert was careful to keep his stress level low. 

One morning, farm vet J.D. Howard quickly stopped by the office to tell me that Risen Star had colicked and was in surgery. He had had colic surgery several times before, and the odds of the horse pulling through another were slim. 

It was so early – just past seven – that I was the only person in the office, and with J.D. in a rush to get to the hospital, it fell on me to call Louie Roussel. This twist in my journey with Risen Star, whom I had watched as a wide-eyed racing fan with no ties to the industry a decade earlier, was ironic; here I was telling his owner that his beloved Star was dying. 

I also cancelled Risen Star’s breeding session that was scheduled with an off-the-farm mare that morning, explaining that the stallion was fighting for his life in surgery. Even now, so many years later, I’m still offended at the string of invectives the mare owner threw at me because Star couldn’t honor his breeding commitment. The man used the f-word quite liberally and called me names. “Sorry about your mare,” I said, sarcastically. “That seems like such an important thing next to Risen Star dying.” I hung up on him. 

As expected, Risen Star died on the operating table, and not ten minutes after my first call to Roussel I had to call him again. 

Ron took down the plaque from the Little Sisters of the Poor, which we put it in a box with the halter the stallion had been wearing, and mailed it to Roussel that afternoon. Star was 13, dying ten years to the day – March 13, 1998 – that he had won the Louisiana Derby. In keeping with a traditional form of burial for racehorses, we placed his head, heart, and hooves in a wooden box. 

I asked to see at Risen Star one last time before he was buried. Maybe it was a strange or morbid request but I just wanted to have a look. His heart – and I couldn’t tell you what it weighed or how it compared in size to other equine hearts – was massive; the engine that powered Risen Star was as big as a soccer ball. Now, every time I watch a replay of the 1988 Belmont, in my mind I see this perfect engine driving him home.