December 28, 2009

Remembering ... Risen Star

“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere, It’s up to you, New York, New York!” The lyrics bellowed from the powerful lungs of one of Risen Star’s owners, Ronnie Lamarque. The outgoing Cajon sang his heart out in the Belmont Stakes Winner’s Circle. He had every right, his horse, trained by fellow Louisianan and co-owner Louie Roussel III, had just turned the ‘test of champions’ into a stretch long runway into the stratosphere of superstardom. Risen Star had just won the Belmont by 14 ¾ lengths, with every powerful stride he effortlessly lengthened his lead on his Belmont foes. My partner in watching the Belmont was my father, and I’ll never forget what he said that day. You have to understand, this is a man who does not easily throw flowery adjectives a horses way. He has seen too many great racehorses to become overly impressed without cause. Hyperbole is simply not in his make-up, but as Risen Star cruised by the sixteenth pole, the words came out of his mouth: “He is a superhorse.”

Risen Star was a big powerful dark bay son of the immortal Secretariat. Snatched out of the Calder two-year-old in training sale by Roussel and Lamarque, he did not make it to the races until late September of his juvenile season. He wasted no time in validating his purchase by winning a stakes race first out at Louisiana Downs. He followed that by running a distant 2nd in another stakes race at Louisiana Downs to Success Express, who would go onto be one of the best two-year-olds in the nation. A good start to his career, but this long legged son of the His Majesty mare, Ribbon, would need not worry about sprinting on a dirt course ever again. A four length romp in an allowance route at the Fair Grounds closed his juvenile campaign.

Risen Star began his three-year-old season gaining confidence. He ran in one more allowance race the day after New Year’s Day, and it produced a ten length score. He followed that up with a 2nd place finish in his return to stakes competition in the Lecomte Handicap. That would be his only defeat at the Fair Grounds. Risen Star continued on the New Orleans path for three-year-olds with easy victories in their top races. His win in the Louisiana Derby Trial and the Louisiana Derby signaled his readiness to venture outside of Louisiana and onto the Kentucky Derby trail. Fair Grounds immediately honored ‘their’ horse by renaming the Louisiana Derby Trial. It has been known as the Risen Star Stakes since 1989.

When he left Louisiana he was my selection for the Kentucky Derby. His final prep was at Keeneland, and in one of the best races of the year, he would meet the juvenile champion and Derby favorite, Forty Niner, in the Lexington Stakes. Risen Star prevailed in a tough battle to win by a neck. I loved his breeding and his physicality and I now knew he could handle the nation’s best. There were people still doubted the Louisiana horse, but he arrived in Louisville as a legitimate threat.

For those of us supporting him the 1988 Derby turned out to be a disappointing renewal. Risen Star had little chance as he was shuffled far back early, swung wide, and was left way too far from the front running winner Winning Colors. She held off Forty Niner, who had not pressured her early. Meanwhile, Risen Star got things rolling late only to finish a fast closing third. The Preakness brought redemption, as Risen Star was much closer to the pace and quickly pounced on the two who had beaten him at Churchill. The 1 ¼ length score was still not proof to many people though. Risen Star, who almost didn’t run, was disrespected as fans of the filly, Winning Colors, blamed her loss on the ride of Pat Day aboard Forty Niner. Swelling in the leg before the Belmont would raise major concerns, but he was declared fit to run, so it was on to the Belmont to settle things.

Everything came into focus at the Belmont Stakes and it was spectacular. Risen Star, like many large horses, was developing and maturing seemingly by the minute. Each race was better than the last and when he crossed the finish line on June the 11th, it was clear that we were looking at something special. For the first time, a son of Secretariat was actually looking like a chip of the old block. The New Orleans guys were overjoyed and it was a pleasure to see that personality effused into the post-race proceedings. It was a grand time to be at the races and to be a fan of Risen Star. The future was bright for this horse who had made his first seven starts in the state of Louisiana. He was Louisiana through and through. Owned by Louisianans, trained by one and ridden by one of my favorite riders, Eddie Delahoussaye also a Cajon. The sky appeared to be the limit, and then…it wasn’t. He came out of the Belmont Stakes with an injury that would sideline him. I hopefully waited through the Summer, eagerly awaiting his return. It never happened. He did not recover quickly and had another setback. He was too valuable for his connections to take a chance on bringing him back at less than one hundred percent. I watched that Fall as the great Alysheba dominated the biggest races and I wondered what might have been.

I have seen many horses retire far too early, or whom have never returned to the races after the Triple Crown, but none with more potential for ultimate greatness than Risen Star. I honestly believe that he was just beginning to hit his high notes when his song was cut short. A song that would have paved the way for a career that would have led to all-time great status. I, for one, would have loved to see Ronnie Lamarque sing again. Risen Star went to stud at Walmac Farm in Kentucky where en enjoyed only moderate success as a sire. He never fathered anything near as talented as himself. Risen Star passed away on March 13, 1998 at the age of 13 after a bout with Colic. Much like his racing career, his life was ended much too quickly. I remember you Risen Star.

5 comments:

railrunner said...

Risen Star, I love that horse. Great bio you've written here, I never discovered some of the more "hidden" details of his career. Always kind of passed over him to look at Winning Colors.

LDP said...

You make me so jealous that you were around to see these brilliant greats of the past and I wasn't. The way you describe Risen Star he sounds like a true superhorse. Soon, only in a matter of days we will be remembering the decade of 2000-09 and looking forward a bright new future for the coming decade.

joani said...

Brian, I have just this one comment - I love the way you write!

Brian Zipse said...

Joani, you are too kind. Thank you.

Celeste said...

Beautiful tribute to a horse I knew very little about, since I wasn't closely following racing at the time. Thank you for sharing your memories with us. Like Dani said, I am a little bit jealous of your track visits history, however, I am a big fan of youtube! :)