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Angel of Empire Wins Risen Star, Strengthens Cox’s Hand

The beat does indeed go on.

Another Kentucky Derby (G1) prep.

Another win and more points for one of trainer Brad Cox’s 3-year-olds.

Adding an exclamation point to a day that also featured his 2,000th victory, Cox notched his sixth prep victory with a fifth different 3-year-old as Albaugh Family Stables’ Angel of Empire , the longest-priced of Cox’s three horses in the race, took charge in the final sixteenth to capture the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes (G2) Feb. 18 at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots.

“Physically he looks like he will run all day, which is what we have been thinking since last summer,” Cox said “He’s a horse that the farther they go, he’ll keep coming. He had some pace to run into and it worked out well.”

The Risen Star was contested at a 1 1/8-mile distance and the gusto the Pennsylvania-bred Angel of Empire displayed in the long stretch run Saturday bodes well for his chances down the road March 25 in the $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2) at 1 3/16 miles, and in the aforementioned Kentucky Derby at 1 1/4 miles.

In his previous start, the $70,000 purchase from the Warrendale Sales consignment to the 2021 Keeneland September Yearling Sale rallied from seventh to finish second by three lengths in the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park going a mile. He was edged by none other than the then-undefeated Victory Formation , a Cox-trained stablemate who on Saturday raced wide from post 13 and finished ninth as the 9-5 favorite.

“(Angel of Empire) had been working very well at Oaklawn Park and we knew he’d love the distance. (Jockey Luis Saez) got him in a great position and he kicked on in the lane. He’s a mile-and-an-eighth, mile-and-a-quarter horse,” Cox said.

Aside from the successful initial experience at nine furlongs, Cox was also pleased with the way Saez and the 13-1 longshot ($29.40) navigated their way through a bulky 14-horse field to win for the third time in five starts.

“One of the advantages of being here at Fair Grounds is that there are big fields for these stakes and (the 3-year-olds) get experience with dirt kicked in their face and can fend off late closers. We’re proud of the effort,” said Cox, who won four races at Fair Grounds and one at Oaklawn Saturday to give him 2,002 wins in a career that started in 2004.

Angel of Empire became the first to wrap up a spot in the May 6 Run for the Roses as his length victory over 16-1 shot Sun Thunder netted him 50 qualifying points, a total that lifted him atop the Leaderboard with 54 points and has always been good enough to make the gate on the first Saturday in May.

Cox also trains Gold Square’s Instant Coffee , a multiple graded stakes and prep winner who is third on the leaderboard with 32 points and is well-positioned to claim a spot in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field.

Early leader Determinedly posted quick fractions of :23.34 and :47.50 in the nine-furlong route, creating a perfect set-up for closers as the top five finishers were seventh or worse after the opening quarter-mile.

Patricia’s Hope and Phillip Sagan’s Two Phil’s was the closest of them to the early pace and moved up to grab a short lead under Jareth Loveberry leaving the quarter pole. But that advantage proved to be short lived as Sun Thunder along the rail and Angel of Empire on the outside moved past him as the wire approached.

In the final yards, Angel of Empire, who was ninth early on, had the stronger kick and beat Sun Thunder in 1:51.47 to complete a $179.20 exacta for $1.

“When I came to the three-eighths, I was loaded and when he got to the stretch he kept going,” Saez said.

R T Racing Stable and Cypress Creek Equine’s Sun Thunder, a son of Into Mischief trained by Ken McPeek, was second by 1 3/4 lengths over Two Phil’s. A Hard Spun colt trained by Larry Rivelli, Two Phil’s was followed under the wire by the Cox-trained Tapit’s Conquest and Single Ruler .

As the first of seven preps awarding 50-20-15-10-5 points to the top five finishers, Sun Thunder moved into fourth on the Leaderboard with 24 points, while Two Phil’s is fifth with 23, Tapit’s Conquest 18th with 10, and Single Ruler 28th with 5.

Cox finished the day with not only the leader in Angel of Empire, who was bred by Forgotten Land Investment and Black Diamond Equine out of the To Honor and Serve mare Armony’s Angel, but also six Triple Crown candidates among the top 18.

Trainer Steve Asmussen was hopeful of collecting his 10,000th victory in the Risen Star, but Harlocap , the 7-1 fourth choice, faded to sixth after leading with three furlongs left. It was the Justify colt’s first start for Asmussen after moving from Bob Baffert’s barn.

He also sent out longshots Silver Heist and Private Creed , who were 11th and 12th, respectively.