RISEN STAR STAKES | PURSE: $300,000 | 3-YEAR-OLDS | GRADE 2 | 1 1/16 MILES
NEW ORLEANS -- El Padrino has been described as extremely laid-back by his trainer, Todd Pletcher, but he showed Saturday in the Grade 2, $300,000 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds that he can be a street fighter, too.
El Padrino outdueled Mark Valeski by a nose following a furious stretch drive, then had to survive a claim of foul by Rosie Napravnik, the rider of Mark Valeski, before being declared the official winner of this prep for the Louisiana Derby on April 1.
"I thought it was a huge effort, shipping in to the track for the first time over a track favoring speed the last two days," Pletcher, who watched the race at Gulfstream Park, said in a teleconference with reporters here.
El Padrino ($3.60), the heavy favorite, was in tight quarters with Mark Valeski through the final furlong, but there did not appear to be anything untoward, and the stewards agreed.
"We were both in tight, but it was not big contact," said Javier Castellano, who rode El Padrino. "It was tight, we were race riding, but he was going forward. We didn't bump. It was more of a brush. I don't blame her for taking a shot."
Napravnik seemed to agree with the decision after seeing the replay.
"Many times, it feels worse than it looks, and that was the case today," she said.
Mark Valeski, who stalked the pace of Hero of Order before taking the lead, finished 5 1/2 lengths in front of third-place Z Dager. Hero of Order finished fourth, another half-length back.
El Padrino was timed in 1:42.96 for 1 1/16 miles on the fast main track.
El Padrino was in fourth position heading into the first turn, when he was involved in a chain-reaction bumping incident with Shared Property, who in turn bumped with Tizanexpense. After that, El Padrino settled into a perfect position, outside of Z Dager in the second flight of horses behind Hero of Order and Mark Valeski.
As the field raced around the far turn, Castellano began to shove on El Padrino, and El Padrino initially made only incremental progress. But he was resolute.
"He struggled a little bit on the turn," Castellano said. "It took him a little while to get his momentum."
El Padrino, owned by the Let's Go Stable of Bryan Sullivan and Kevin Scatuorchio, has now won three times in five starts. He was favored in the Risen Star, largely because of a fast allowance victory at Gulfstream Park in his prior start. He has made all five of his starts at a different track. El Padrino is scheduled to return to Pletcher's barn at the Palm Meadows training center in Florida on Monday. A decision on whether to come back for the Louisiana Derby will be made later.
"I'll get him back home and see how he does," Pletcher said at Gulfstream Park. "I wouldn't be afraid to take him back there for the next one, but nothing is etched in stone."
Whit Beckman, a Pletcher assistant based in New York, flew in and handled El Padrino since his arrival here Wednesday.
Mark Valeski ran a sensational race in defeat. He had just three prior starts, and the Risen Star marked his stakes debut and first race around two turns.
"First time going long. What kind of racehorse is he?" said an excited Cindy Jones, the wife and assistant of Larry Jones, who trains Mark Valeski.
The Jones stable's other runner, Mr. Bowling, finished last of 11. He had won the Lecomte Stakes here last month.
"I have no clue why he ran like that," Larry Jones said.
-- additional reporting by Mike Welsch