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  • Writer's pictureJennie Rees

He's baaaack! Thomas has three in Risen Star year after earning first graded stakes in La. Derby

Calhoun runs quartet in Derby prep's two divisions


Photo: Chester Thomas led By My Standards and jockey Gabriel Saez into the Fair Grounds winner's circle after taking last year's $1 million Louisiana Derby at 22-1 odds. Hodges Photography

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The following story about owner Chester Thomas' trio of horses (and trainer Bret Calhoun's quartet) was written by Jennie Rees.

NEW ORLEANS — Eleven months after By My Standards won the $1 million Louisiana Derby to give Chester Thomas his first graded-stakes triumph, the Madisonville, Ky., entrepreneur has a total of three horses competing in the two $400,000 divisions of Saturday’s Grade 2 Risen Star, a Kentucky Derby qualifying race at the Fair Grounds.

“It’s been a nice ride,” said Thomas, whose eventual millionaire Mr. Money finished seventh in last year’s Risen Star on the day By My Standards won a maiden race. “The wave has seemed to get bigger and bigger, and I just hope we can stay on it…. We’re stepping up in class on all fronts. There are a lot of nice horses in these races. Everyone has high hopes. Some will materialize and some won’t. Hopefully one of ours will again this year."

The ultimate target, of course, for all three of his colts is America's favorite race, the May 2 Kentucky Derby.

“We did it once,” Thomas said. “Never thought it would happen. Do I expect to do it twice? Realistically, not really. But do I think we’ve got a shot, yeah, I do.”

Mailman Money and Mr. Big News will carry the royal blue, black and white silks of Thomas’ Allied Racing in the 12-horse second division of the Risen Star, which concludes a 13-race, stakes-laden program. Mailman Money (8-1 in the morning line) is 2 for 2, taking an off-the-turf allowance event, while 20-1 shot Mr. Big News enters off a nose victory in his fourth attempt to win a maiden race. Thomas' Ready To Roll, winner of a 1 1/16-mile maiden race at Arkansas’ Oaklawn Park by 7 1/2 lengths, is 20-1 in the 11-horse first division.

Thomas’ colts are trained by Bret Calhoun, who also has Tom Durant’s Digital in the first division, which wound up with four of the top five finishers from the Fair Grounds’ Grade 3 Lecomte, including victorious Enforceable. Digital, a 6-1 shot, most recently was second in an allowance race won by Calumet Farm’s Risen Star contender Blackberry Wine, trained by Calhoun’s stepson, Joe Sharp.

The Risen Star distance this year was extended a sixteenth-mile to 1 1/8 miles, with the Louisiana Derby now the Preakness Stakes distance of 1 3/16 miles. The winner of both divisions of the Risen Star will earn 50 points toward Kentucky Derby qualification, virtually guaranteeing them a spot in the 20-horse field.

“I guess you get your heart broken earlier and you don’t have to worry about being on the Derby trail for longer,” Calhoun said of the Risen Star’s added distance. “But I think that’s part of the excitement for everybody, being on the trail for an extended period of time and then get them separated in April in the last prep race. It’s going to help some of my horses, going to hurt some of mine probably. If some of them come up a little bit short this time, we’re not going to worry about it and hopefully they show us the talent and we can move forward to the next spot.”

The odds and lack of stakes experience do not bother Thomas and Calhoun. By My Standards was 22-1 in the Louisiana Derby off his maiden win on the 2019 Risen Star undercard. Mr. Money’s own Kentucky Derby campaign ended when he was fifth in the Louisiana Derby. However, that colt went on to reel off Grade 3 victories in Churchill Downs' Pat Day Mile and Matt Winn, Indiana Grand's Indiana Derby and Mountaineer's West Virginia Derby while earning almost $1.3 million.

And, too, Mailman Money was 24-1 when he beat Digital in both colts’ debut at Churchill Downs last fall.

The surprise with Mailman Money isn’t that he’s good but that he’s unbeaten.

“Can’t say enough good about him,” Calhoun said of Mailman Money, who like By My Standards and Mr. Money is a son of the Spendthrift Farm stallion Goldencents, two-time winner of the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

“He’s a horse that has been immature mentally and physically. He’s done everything we’ve asked and more. He’s not a horse I would ever have expected to be 2 for 2 at this point. He’s coming on all the time. Big-striding horse. I think the 11 hole will be the major obstacle in this race. Obviously with all of them, we’ve just got to figure out if they’re good enough — kind of like everybody else.

“When we looked at Mailman Money at the sale, the minute he walked out of his stall, I wrote By My Standards on top of the catalog page. He just reminded me of him so much mentally and physically, his mannerisms, the way he moved, walked, everything. He’s very similar in the fact that they were both immature early on and just on the improve. That’s where we see him and hope we can repeat that feat.”

The Risen Star proved one of last year's key Derby preps, launching future Grade 1 winners Country House (Kentucky Derby), War of Will (Preakness), Hog Creek Hustle (Woody Stephens) and Henley’s Joy (Belmont Derby) along with graded-stakes winners Mr. Money, Owendale and Plus Que Parfait.

“And probably a lot of them didn’t look like graded-stakes horses at this time last year,” Calhoun said. “Same way with this group. It’s a really good group, we don’t know how good they’re going to get. They’re developing all the time, and that’s what you’re hoping for this time of year: 3-year-olds moving forward.”

By My Standards, whose 3-year-old season concluded with an 11th place in the Kentucky Derby, returned to the races recently with an allowance victory designed as a springboard to next month’s $400,000, Grade 2 New Orleans Classic.

“To win our first graded stakes with By My Standards coming off a maiden special weight, we were very excited and still are,” Thomas said. “That horse will always be special to us. The Bret Calhoun barn has been on fire. This is a weird sport. When you’re losing ‘just’ 80 percent of the time, you’re doing better than most, and we’re knocking it out of the park. All that said, we know it can’t last forever, but we hope it keeps going.”

Jennie Rees is an Eclipse Award-winning writer and racing communications specialist who oversees editorial content for the Thoroughbred News Service.

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