Risen Star: Pride of Louisiana

The Cajun Country of Louisiana has produced its fair share of great racehorses.

Yet Risen Star was different than any other.

He did more than just race in New Orleans. He raced for New Orleans, becoming the pride and joy of anyone who called the bayous home and making Louisiana the capital of the horse racing industry for a brief, yet unforgettable period of time.

It happened in 1988, when Risen Star emerged from Louisiana to become the hero of a Triple Crown season filled with more color and controversy than most years in the historic series.

Yet he was also a shooting star, one who rose to national prominence during five brief weeks in the spring then quickly faded from sight, never racing again after a tour de force in the Belmont Stakes.

Risen Star raced 11 times, winning on eight occasions and never finishing worse than third. He earned $2,029,845, including a $1 million bonus for winning the Chrysler Triple Crown Challenge, and is hailed as the most accomplished son of the immortal Triple Crown champion Secretariat.

To his deeply religious co-owner/trainer Louie Roussel III, he was a godsend.

“I wish I could share what God and Risen Star have given me,” Roussel said. “This has been a once in a lifetime experience.”

Roussel and the rest of the team around Risen Star embodied the Cajun flavor behind the 17-hand tall champion. Though Roussel has to this day won more than 1,000 races in his career, training has been a bit of a hobby for him. His “day job” back then in 1988 was serving as majority owner of Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans.

Roussel’s partner in the ownership group was Ronnie Lamarque, owner of a local car dealership. Together they were racing’s Odd Couple. Roussel was humble, self-effacing, and devoted to his Christian faith; the bombastic Lamarque loved the spotlight.

The colt’s rider during the Triple Crown run was Eddie Delahoussaye, a native of New Iberia, La., who would win 6,384 races in a 34-year, Hall of Fame career.

As for Risen Star, he stemmed from Kentucky royalty. Bred by Arthur B. Hancock and Leone J. Peters, the son of Secretariat out of the His Majesty mare Ribbon was purchased by Roussel for $300,000 at the 1987 Fasig-Tipton 2-year-old sale at Calder.

In choosing a name for his precocious colt, Roussel came up with Risen Star based on the Star of Bethlehem and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It didn’t take long for Risen Star to make a name for himself as he debuted on Sept. 24, 1987, with Rene Gebbia listed as his trainer in the $40,000 Minstrel Stakes at Louisiana Downs. He won by a length as a 4-5 favorite.

Risen Star returned in the $210,000 Sport of Kings Futurity on Oct. 11 and finished second, though he was 15 lengths behind the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Success Express.

After that, Risen Star was shipped to Fair Grounds for a pair of allowance wins as Roussel took over as his trainer and Lamarque was officially added as a co-owner.

He returned to stakes company in February 1988 and finished second in the Lecomte Handicap, but then reeled off wins in the Louisiana Derby Trial Stakes and the Grade 3 Louisiana Derby, both at Fair Grounds.

The Triple Crown trail then brought the New Orleans star to Kentucky, where he ran in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 16, 1988, and under jockey Jacinto Vasquez he posted a head victory over Claiborne Farm’s Champagne Stakes winner Forty Niner, the 2-5 favorite trained by Woody Stephens.

His three-race win streak propelled Risen Star to the Kentucky Derby, where Roussel cringed at the notion he was sharing a stage and starting gate with the likes of Lukas, Stephens, Charlie Whittingham, and Jack Van Berg, while Lamarque, ever the showman, arrived with thousands of Risen Star sun visors to hand out.

Sent off as the 5-1 fourth-choice in the run for the roses under Delahoussaye, Risen Star was 13th in the early stages but was forced to rally almost six paths wide on the final turn and had to settle for third behind Lukas’ front-running filly Winning Colors, who controlled the early pace under Gary Stevens and notched a victory by a neck over a fast-closing Forty Niner.

Winning Colors became a national sensation for becoming just the third filly to capture the 114-year-old Kentucky Derby, but the drama in the 1988 Triple Crown was just heating up.

After the Derby, an angry Stephens vowed that unlike the Derby, Winning Colors would not be unchallenged on the front end in the Preakness.

Meanwhile, Risen Star’s owners gave off contrasting images of confidence. Lamarque spent Preakness week signing a song about the horse to the tune of “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.” At the same time, Roussel canceled two workouts after the Derby and fretted enough about the possibility of a wet track on race day that at one point he said he was “99% sure” Risen Star would skip the Preakness.

“The van is still waiting to take him to the Jersey Derby or New York,” the then 42-year-old Roussel said.

The rain stayed away enough for the track to be listed as “good” for the Preakness, though it wasn’t until three races before the middle jewel of the Triple Crown that Roussel finally decided to rip up his scratch card and run Risen Star.

In doing so, a star was born.

Trainer Charles Hadry entered Finders Choice as a rabbit to help the cause of Private Terms, who finished ninth in the Derby as the 3.40-1 co-favorite with Winning Colors, but he wasn’t needed. Forty Niner and jockey Pat Day broke inside of Winning Colors and immediately rushed out to battle the filly for the early lead, carrying her wide on the first turn. On the backstretch, the two rivals remained locked together well off the rail in a bitter and bumpy duel.

Though the pace was not brutally fast, neither horse was able to relax, unlike Risen Star who was comfortably positioned by Delahoussaye in third along the rail, just a couple of lengths behind the embattled leaders. On the final turn, Delahoussaye asked Risen Star for run with eye-opening results.

“When I called on him,” Delahoussaye said, “he just accelerated.”

That sharp burst of speed carried Risen Star past the dueling leaders leaving the quarter-pole as he entered the stretch with a clear lead and crossed the finish line a length and a quarter ahead of Brian’s Time. Winning Colors won the duel with Forty Niner, who faded to seventh, but had to settle for a third-place finish, 2 1/2 lengths behind the pride of New Orleans.

A coveted victory in a Triple Crown race did little to change Roussel as he faced the media after the Preakness and said, “It’s all the colt. He’d be a lot better off if he had someone else training him.”

Yet as impressive as Risen Star’s victory may have been, the major story to come out of the Preakness did not involve the winner. Rather it was the race within the race between Winning Colors and Forty Niner that was the major storyline in newspapers across the country.

Lamarque, for his part, was thrilled about the turn of events. “I want to hug him,” he said about Stephens.

Delahoussaye chipped in, “Woody Stephens said he was going after the filly and I’m sure glad he did. He helped us out.”

The comments from the Winning Colors camp had a different tone to them.

“We were eight or nine lengths off the fence and we were bumping continuously,” Stevens said. “Pat wasn’t concerned with anybody getting through along the rail. … I don’t blame Pat. I blame one man. Jealousy is a powerful thing, and it cost that man more than it cost us.”

Stephens later shot back to the Los Angeles Times, “I thought Stevens rode a stupid race. I’m surprised he kept pressing my horse with the filly. Pat just tried to stay off the inside part of the track.”

The bickering reached its boiling point when the Daily Racing Form ran a front-page editorial with a headline of “The Spoiler” that blasted Stephens.

During the three weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, the controversy finally diminished as Forty Niner, who would win the Travers later in the year, dropped off the Triple Crown trail.

John Veitch, trainer of Brian’s Time, added a fitting period to the war of words, saying to the Stamford Advocate a few days before the Belmont Stakes, “If anything the feud has enhanced the Triple Crown. Now 40 or 50 years from now when two horses go head and head and race each other into the ground, everyone will call it a ‘Woody.’ “

All the while, Risen Star, instead of being saluted for his Preakness win, was at the center of speculation about his status for the Belmont after suffering a bruised right foreleg in a workout. A day before the post position draw, Roussel listed his horse as “90%” fit.

On the day of the draw, only six horses turned out for the Belmont,  topped by the first three finishers in the Preakness. Instead of Forty Niner, Stephens went with the stretch-running Cefis in a bid for his sixth Belmont victory since 1982, and the New York Racing Association’s master of ceremonies Harvey Pack tried to stir the embers of the feud by asking Stephens if Cefis would be on the lead with the Winning Colors.

“He’ll need a motorcycle to do it,” the Hall of Fame trainer shot back with a laugh.

Though uncertainty surrounded Risen Star, Lamarque was now singing a different tune. At the draw, he unveiled a new song about Risen Star, this one to the tune of “New York, New York” that featured a lyric of “When Risen Star wins here, he’ll be Horse of the Year.”

Any doubts about Risen Star tackling the Belmont were dismissed the day before the race when the son of Secretariat scorched the track for a three-furlong drill in a sprinter-like 33 3/5 seconds.

“It’s too fast, but it’s over with,” Roussel said. “I’m a little upset. I would have been happy with a 36-second workout.”

As it turned out, Roussel had nothing to fear. Though Winning Colors skipped off to a four-length lead after the opening half-mile, the rigors of the Preakness set in rather quickly after that. Risen Star joined her midway on the backstretch and on the final turn he transformed the Belmont into the kind of rout that would have made his sire proud.

Ahead by six lengths after a mile, Risen Star increased the lead to 10 lengths with a furlong to go.

Watching on a television monitor near the winner’s circle, the normally reserved Roussel yelled “He’ll win by 20, by 20” in midstretch.

Next to him, his father, Louis Roussel II, walked away from the monitor before the horses crossed the finish line saying, “Hell, I thought it would be a horse race.”

Risen Star hit the wire 14 3/4 lengths ahead of Kingpost in a time of 2:26 2/5, the second-fastest time in Belmont history, adding even more credence to announcer Dave Johnson’s emphatic call that he had won the Belmont “just like his daddy.”

“This horse is the closest thing I’ve seen to Secretariat,” Lamarque said. “He has his speed, his heart, his agility. He may not look like him, but that doesn’t mean he’s not him. We didn’t want him to break Secretariat’s record. We wanted him to be second-best and he did it.

“And I’m telling the media that one day you guys are going to write the five-letter word about him that begins with ‘g’ and ends with ‘t’ because this horse is great.”

Roussel was more restrained than his partner, but equally moved by the performance of the horse who had just notched the fourth-biggest winning margin in Belmont Stakes history behind Secretariat’s epic 31-length romp in 1973.

“I told a few people who would listen that he was a great horse,” the owner/trainer said. “He ran his best race for you and I’m glad he did because I think it will put an end to all the controversy that he should have won the Triple Crown.”

Sadly, after the Belmont, the biggest stories about Risen Star involved his retirement as he never raced again and headed to stud at Walmac International for a reported price of $7 million for a 50% interest.

Yet in spite of leaving center stage so soon, Risen Star left behind a poignant legacy of touching the lives of so many different people – even those who lived outside Louisiana.

He was truly the people’s horse; a blue-collar hero in the sport of kings.

It could be seen in charitable acts, such as the 10% of his purse money which Roussel donated to help the nuns of the Little Sisters of the Poor in New Orleans. There was also the passion for him which was apparent in touching scenes after the Belmont such as when Roussel brought into the winner’s circle a young fan from Oregon named Michelle who was battling leukemia and said it was her dream to see Risen Star win the Belmont. Or when he arrived at a post-race interview accompanied by another young fan named Matthew, who was born with Down Syndrome.

Yes, Risen Star was indeed a star, in New Orleans and everywhere else he traveled during his magical 1988 campaign.

Note: This story was originally published in February 2016.

Fun Facts

  • Risen Star’s time of 2:26 2/5 is now the fourth fastest Belmont, behind Secretariat (2:24), Easy Goer (2:26) and A.P. Indy (2:26).
  • Risen Star was voted the champion 3-year-old male of 1988. Horse of the Year honors went to Alysheba.
  • Fair Grounds pays tribute to Risen Star with the Risen Star Stakes for 3-year-olds.
  • Risen Star was the lone Grade 1 winner trained by Roussel.