The connections of 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft may have a prime Triple Crown candidate this year with lightly-raced Gradepoint, who posted a resilient come-from-behind win over odds-on favorite Mr. Jester in the $150,000 Risen Star Stakes (gr. III) for 3-year-olds at Fair Grounds Sunday.
Part-owner William S. Farish bred Gradepoint, who is trained by Neil Howard and was ridden Sunday by Robby Albarado.
"He was much more push-button today," said Albarado of the maturing 3-year-old. "I don't think his best races have showed up yet because he showed a lot of improvement in this race, and I think with his connections and his breeding, he could be a top contender (for the Kentucky Derby)."
Howard and Albarado earned a sweep of 3-year-old stakes at Fair Grounds this weekend. They combined to win the Silverbulletday Stakes (gr. II) with Shadow Cast on Saturday.
Gradepoint, the dark bay A.P. Indy
colt making his first start in stakes company, showed considerable grit in victory. He came from well off the pace in the drive, angled out and split horses midway through the lane and fought past 4-5 choice Mr. Jester in the late stages to post a half-length victory. Pacesetter Nightlifeatbigblue, who finished a length farther behind, came back surprisingly in the stretch to beat out Polish Rifle for third place in the field of six. The final time for the 1 1/16-mile Risen Star, the main local stepping stone to the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), was 1:45 1/5.
Mr. Jester, carrying co-high weight of 122 pounds with jockey Roman Chapa, put away a fading Polish Rifle, who also carried 122, in mid-stretch, but was unable to hold off Gradepoint, who toted 114.
It was the third consecutive win for Gradepoint, who has only four lifetime starts. He was third in his debut at Belmont Park in September. The first start of his 3-year-old season produced a half-length victory in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Fair Grounds Jan. 2. The $90,000 winner's share to owners Farish and Greg Goodman's Mt. Brilliant Stable LLC, increased his career earnings to $144,285.
"I felt like he'd do better today than his last effort," said Howard. "I thought he would close the ground like he did. A.P. Indy's needs more time to mature, and I believe this horse is beginning to mature."
Howard will discuss the plans for his rising star with Farish and Goodman of Mt. Brilliant Stable, but said the $600,000 Louisiana Derby on March 7 was the logical possibility.
Nightlifeatbigblue, ridden by Eddie Martin, opened up a two-length advantage early after a :24 2/5 opening quarter-mile and a :48 1/5 half. He increased the advantage to four lengths going into the home turn after six furlongs in 1:13 2/5, but weakened on the turn as Polish Rifle and Shane Sellers rallied to take command in upper stretch. However, Mr. Jester and Gradepoint were moving up from behind and soon blew past Polish Rifle in the drive.
The 9-5 second choice, Gradepoint paid $5.80, $2.60 and $2.10. Mr. Jester returned $2.40 and $2.10. Nightlifeatbigblue's show was $2.10. The $2 exacta was worth $12.80.
Mr. Jester, winner of the $1 million Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs in his last start Dec. 5, dwarfed the Risen Star field with earnings of $730,800. He also won the Kentucky Cup Juvenile (gr. III) by disqualification as a 2-year-old.
"I'm very pleased," said trainer Steve Wren of Mr. Jester's performance. "It looks like he got a little tired. It seems today that this is a tiring kind of track, and he put in a great run. I hate to run second, but under these conditions he got what he needed."
Oneverycoolcat and Assault Commander completed the order of finish. Shiloh Bound scratched.
Gradepoint, produced from the multiple stakes-winning Kris S. mare Classy Kris, was bred in Kentucky by Farish and Goodman.