As he strolled through the Keeneland tunnel in the aftermath of the Grade III Bourbon Stakes last October, owner Catesby Clay allowed himself a few moments to ponder some grandiose plans for the chestnut colt who had just rolled to victory.
"We want to pace ourselves and not get too giddy," the Runnymede Farm chairman said of Rogue Romance. "We'll see how he develops but ... of course (the Kentucky Derby) is in the heart of every breeder."
The wistful aspirations Clay had for Rogue Romance months ago could become all the more tangible should the homebred son of Smarty Jones perform as expected in his seasonal debut Saturday.
The Grade II, $300,000 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds holds more than a few Derby hopes in its hands as Rogue Romance headlines a field of 10 in the 11⁄16-mile race.
The Risen Star is one of three Derby preps over the next few days. Trainer Bob Baffert's impressive maiden winner The Factor makes his stakes debut in Sunday's Grade II, 7-furlong San Vicente at Santa Anita Park, with the Grade III Southwest Stakes taking place at Oaklawn Park on Monday.
Although Rogue Romance made his first three career starts on the turf — including his triumph in the 11⁄16-mile Bourbon Stakes last fall — his grass roots were a reflection of trainer Ken McPeek's desire to keep the colt around two turns rather than any kind of surface preference.
When he finished third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs last November — his first start on dirt — it reaffirmed to McPeek that Rogue Romance was indeed on the right path. Early opinions tend to agree as Rogue Romance was made the 3-to-1 morning-line choice over a talented bunch that also includes graded stakes winner Santiva.
"I'm every bit as confident in him coming in as I was in (2002 Risen Star Stakes winner) Repent," McPeek said. "He's doing super, everything has gone smooth. He really is bred for dirt and he handles it fine."
Though he was beaten more than 10 lengths by Uncle Mo in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Rogue Romance was forced to go five-wide around the first turn and only had three horses beaten at the head of the lane before launching a sustained drive.
It wasn't as explosive as the last-to-first rally Rogue Romance launched in the Bourbon Stakes, but it did show his connections he could take a little kickback in his face and still keep going.
Santiva is another who will be making his season debut in the Risen Star having not started since his win in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill last November.
The son of Giant's Causeway has already proven he can run on anything, having finished second on the turf at Saratoga and in the Grade I Breeders' Futurity over the Keeneland Polytrack last year before scoring his breakout win in the 11⁄16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club.
Although Santiva stalked the pace in that win, he showed he could rate in his previous three outings — a tactic that could be key if front-runners Decisive Moment and Pants on Fire establish a hot pace in the Risen Star.
The wild card in the mix could be the Neil Howard-trained Machen. The son of Distorted Humor will be facing stakes company for the first time but has won his first two career starts — both at Fair Grounds — by a combined 101/2 lengths.
"I feel that if (Machen) is good enough, this race Saturday should set up perfect for him," Howard said.