(Mandaloun / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

From the Fair Grounds Media Team:

Whether it was the addition of blinkers, experience, or added distance, it all came together for Mandaloun in the $400,000 Risen Star (G2), presented by Lamarque Ford-Lincoln at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots. Juddmonte Farms’ homebred rebounded from a third-place finish at odds-on in the local Lecomte (G3) to defeat rivals Proxy and Midnight Bourbon in the most definitive Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) prep to date.

Sent off as the 2.10-1 favorite, Mandaloun, racing with blinkers on for the first time, sat a comfortable 3-wide trip under Florent Geroux behind longshot leader Rightandjust, who was shadowed early to his outside by Lecomte winner Midnight Bourbon. The leading pair hit the half-mile in 48.45 and the plot remained unchanged as the trio entered the far turn, while beginning to draw clear of Proxy, who was stalking in fourth. Rightandjust was the first to wilt, succumbing to Midnight Bourbon, who was quickly engaged by Mandaloun off the far turn. The pair tussled in midstretch when Mandaloun began to assert himself. He put Midnight Bourbon away, and kept a re-rallying Proxy at bay for a 1 ¼-length win. Mandaloun finished the 1 1/8 miles over a fast main track in 1:50.39 and earned 50 qualifying points for the May 1 Derby.

Cox opted to add blinkers to Mandaloun, a 3-year-old son of Into Mischief, after he was a somewhat disappointing third in the January 16 Lecomte. That was his first start at two turns and against stakes foes after winning his first two starts sprinting in Kentucky. The equipment change may have spurned a form reversal, but it wasn’t the only key to victory.

“More than anything, it was just the experience of having the race going two turns under his belt,” Cox said. “He’s had two great works since so we expected him to move forward, the way he was training. I think the blinkers did help out. Florent immediately made a comment after the race. Much more focused in the post parade, more focused on his job. We didn’t put a bunch of cup on him, just like a one-inch cup, but it seems to have done the trick to get him mentally over the top, mentally getting him where he needs to be.”

Geroux has been aboard Mandaloun in all four career starts and definitely noticed a change late in the Risen Star.

“Blinkers on was a difference-maker today for sure,” Geroux said. “We knew he needed it racing, but he’s been winning without them. He’s always been a little funny down the lane. He’s never given me his full potential. Today we had the same kind of trip we had in the Lecomte, but when I pushed on the gas today, he responded right away. Last time I feel like he wasn’t giving me his best. He was a little more focused.”

Mandaloun has now won 3-of-4 starts ($351,252 in career earnings) and looms a leading Kentucky Derby contender. Cox won a split division of the Risen Star last year with Mr. Monomoy and the Louisiana Derby (G2) with Wells Bayou. This year’s March 20 TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby is on the radar for a colt who figures to appreciate the 1 3/16 miles, along with 1 ¼ miles of the Kentucky Derby.

“It (the Louisiana Derby) is definitely going to be in play,” Cox said. “We will talk it over with (Juddmonte manager) Garrett O’Rourke and the Juddmonte team and come up with a game plan. I’m very proud of the colt. He stepped up and ran a big race today. That (nine furlongs) is a big ask at any time for a Thoroughbred, and then to do it in February of your 3-year-old year. Garrett has made the comment several times that he thinks he’s a mile-and-a-quarter-horse and he trains like one. He’s got enough speed to be close and he stays on. He’s got the physical make-up of a mile-and-a-quarter horse so we’re optimistic he’ll get better with more ground.”

Godolphin’s homebred Proxy doubled up on his second-place finish in the Lecomte for trainer Mike Stidham and earned 20 Derby qualifying points. The son of Tapit has progressed from a maiden winner here in November to a now seasoned Kentucky Derby contender. He’s still figuring things out, however, as he lost a bit of focus under John Velazquez entering the far turn and dropped back, only to re-break and chase the winner home. For Stidham, it’s all about getting Proxy to peak on the first Saturday in May.

“We all know that we’re all hoping that we can be as good as we can be on a certain day (for the Kentucky Derby),” Stidham said. “He’s inching in the right direction. The main thing is you want them to come out of these races healthy, you have something to work with, and you can inch forward and culminate for the big day in May.”

Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Midnight Bourbon wired the Lecomte but opted to press the pace early in the Risen Star under Joe Talamo. The son of Tiznow fought valiantly to the line and was beaten just 1 ¾ lengths by Mandaloun and earned 10 Derby qualifying points, four weeks after securing his first career stakes victory. Trainer Steve Asmussen was encouraged by the effort in what was a loaded Risen Star field.

“He made a solid run,” Asmussen said. “He faced a little more pace pressure this time than he did in the Lecomte. But I think you see the top-3 there are extremely tough horses and are going to be heard from again.”

O Besos finished fourth and earned 5 Derby qualifying points, while the undefeated Senor Buscador, who entered off two scintillating wins at Remington Park, was fifth after closing from last in the field-of-11 as the 5-2 second-choice.