The plan when owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey paid $85,000 for a bay son of Fusaichi Pegasus at the 2013 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic fall yearling sale was that the smallish colt would do his best running on dirt.
So when the colt easily won his career debut on turf last June then lost his subsequent dirt outing and went on to score his first graded stakes win on synthetic Polytrack, it looked like Ken Ramsey would have to concede he was wrong.
"Put it this way, I wanted him on the dirt," Ramsey said. "Some people thought let's put him on the dirt again ... and then put him back where he belongs. But we surprised everybody."
Wins in the Grade III LeComte and Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds this year canceled any Ramsey backtracking and put his colt International Star in the current No. 2 position on the Kentucky Derby points leader board. His spot in the first leg of the Triple Crown locked down, International Star seeks to enhance his credentials when he heads a field of nine entered for Saturday's Grade II, $750,000 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds.
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Installed as the 3-1 morning-line favorite, International Star will break from the outside post No. 9 in the 11⁄8-mile race, which offers 100 points to the winner in the Kentucky Derby qualifying system.
If the story line of Ramsey-owned horse reigning over the Fair Grounds prep circuit rings familiar, it's because the family's red-and-white silks took the LeComte and Louisiana Derby last year with Vicar's in Trouble.
International Star having won on all three surfaces in his eight career starts proves him a more versatile runner than his old stablemate at this stage.
Where Vicar's in Trouble needed the front end, International Star can sit off the pace and then pounce while showing no fear of being in tight or going through holes. In the LeComte, War Story — the second choice on the morning line in the Louisiana Derby — surged to the front in midstretch only to have International Star swing out from his position on the rail and draw clear by 21/2 lengths.
The Risen Star was more of the same, with jockey Miguel Mena getting International Star to punch through on the rail after sitting sixth early on en route to a 1-length win over War Story again. With the exception of Oaklawn Park shipper Mr. Z joining the fray, International Star will face largely the same cast of characters in the Louisiana Derby as he attempts to become the first horse since Friesan Fire in 2009 to sweep Fair Grounds' trio of Derby prep races.
"He's doing super, couldn't be doing better," Ramsey said of the Mike Maker trainee. "I know he's not in everyone's top five but he's in most people's top 12 at least. He could be the one.
"A lot of these horses, people are betting on potential. But I'd rather bet on performance. And we're already in the (Kentucky) Derby."
Trainer Tom Amoss sees some excuses in War Story's previous two efforts that, if resolved, he hopes will lead to him turning the tables on International Star on Saturday.
War Story has been notoriously bad breaking out of the gate, something Amoss has worked diligently to correct. The gelded son of Northern Afleet also had a wide trip in the Risen Star but finished well considering he had to ship from Fair Grounds to Oaklawn and back again after scratching out of Oaklawn's Southwest Stakes when he drew the extreme outside post.
"With that trip up and back a couple of things took place. We missed a work leading into the Risen Star, and he actually, coming back to New Orleans from Oaklawn, took a couple of days to get back into his feed tub," Amoss said. "Then he had a tough trip. He went around everybody. The winner got through on the rail the whole way, and he was a length better than us."
Mr. Z is the wild card of the race coming in off a third-place finish in the Southwest Stakes. The D. Wayne Lukas trainee has been the hard-luck king, finishing second or third in seven of his 10 career starts including getting beat a head and a nose by undefeated Dortmund and Firing Line in the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity on Dec. 20.
"He's probably the most seasoned horse in the field and he deserves to get one of these sooner or later," Lukas said of Mr. Z, who will race without blinkers. "There's one in his future, that's for sure."