Countdown to the Crown


Editor's Note: Countdown to the Crown returns for a fifth season online as one of the most comprehensive handicapping analyses of the 3-year-old scene. Posted each Friday from Jan. 8 through the Belmont Stakes, Countdown keeps you apprised of the rising stars in the 3-year-old class from the maiden ranks through the Grade 1 stakes.

3 things you won't read anywhere else

Opinions are like a receding hairline. Sometimes the only person who notices is the one wielding the brush.

1. Derby trail experience is the most overrated "truth" in the spring game. That's not me talking, but rather six of the last seven Kentucky Derby-winning trainers: Chip Woolley, Rick Dutrow, Michael Matz, John Shirreffs, John Servis and Barclay Tagg. Not only had they never won the Derby, but nary a Triple Crown race between 'em.

2. If your Derby hope has not broken his or her maiden yet, don't say we didn't warn you. Only two rose-wearers since the decade of the 1960s came into their sophomore seasons still saddled with the maiden tag, Fusaichi Pegasus (2000) and Monarchos (2001).

3. The people who are going to shoot holes at pro-tem champion 2-year-old LOOKIN AT LUCKY are the same ones who did not have Bob Baffert's Pioneerof The Nile in their 2009 Derby exacta ... for no other reason than the dogged belief that all-weather surface horses can't run on the dirt.

This week's fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races.

Four of the first five races on Saturday's Gulfstream Park card are for the 3-year-old boys, headed by the $100,000 Spectacular Bid Stakes at six furlongs. We'll give the main event its just due after a look at the undercard lead-ins.

Race 1 is a turf sprint where the Frank Calabrese-Wesley Ward filly CRIMSON GLORY, impeccably bred by Ghostzapper out of Buy The Sport, appears the most intriguing entrant regardless of sex. Race 2 is a weak entry-level allowance by early season Gulfstream standards, and one that highly regarded MISSION IMPAZIBLE should handle if he's as good as I think he is. The half-brother to Forest Camp was gawky and in need of distance last spring for Todd Pletcher. The TAP barn also sends out THREE DAY RUSH, fifth in the G3 Iroquois.

Gulfstream's Race 4 Saturday is for maiden special weight milers, and it grades out only so-so on paper, but big on pedigree potential. Of those with racing success, SYSTEMIC RISK has paired back-to-back fourth-place finishes in stakes, including the G2 Nashua. But it's the bloodlines that intrigue here. READY TO DAZZLE (Mark Hennig) is out of Eye Dazzler, runner-up in the G2 Davona Dale over this track, and showed some life in two New York starts last fall; MARCHING TUNE (Chad Brown) showed little at Aqueduct in the debut, but hails from the female family that produced Flanders, Surfside and My Boston Gal; KEROUAC (Nick Zito) debuts, and is by Rock Hard Ten out of a half-sister to 1993 Kentucky Derby champion Sea Hero. Meanwhile, second-timer DESERT LORD (Kiaran McLaughlin) is a half-brother to G1 Matron winner Marylbone and from the same female family as Came Home. MOE MAN (Ian Wilkes) is half-brother to Al Khali, a graded turf stakes-winning sophomore of 2009.

Saturday's Santa Anita card boasts only a maiden special weight turf sprint for the Countdown crowd, headed by MISTER DO IT (Dan Hendricks), a Songandaprayer colt whose dam is a half-sister to champion sprinter Artax, himself a darned-good 3-year-old who won the San Felipe. Richard Mandella debuts Pleasantly Perfect colt SAW PERFECTION off a nice series of drills, while Eoin Harty unveils BRAVE PROSPECT, a half-brother to Grade 2 turf winner Tizaqueena.

Two races at Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday deserve a cursory look: Derek Ryan and owner Eric Fein of Musket Man fame send Stephen Got Even colt SCHOOLYARD DREAMS to post in a Race 6 route allowance. In fact, 'DREAMS worked a bullet in company with the comebacking Musket Man in mid-December at Tampa and is highly thought of by the barn. A Race 9 maiden special weight sprint at Tampa includes first-timer FORESTRY TYPE (Dale Bennett), a Forestry colt out of G1 Del Mar Oaks runner-up Adel.

On Sunday at Fair Grounds, a maiden route lured NORTHERN GIANT (D. Wayne Lukas), runner-up to impressive STAY PUT last time. He's a son of Giant's Causeway out of a half-sister to Take Charge Lady. The field also includes rookie TENPLUS (Bill Mott), a Rock Hard Ten colt whose dam is half-sister to Distorted Humor. Speaking of Distorted Humor, his son ENDORSEMENT (Shannon Ritter) makes his second start for WinStar Farm. He's out of Charmed Gift, a top 3-year-old stakes filly in her heyday. MINE TRAIN (Neil Howard) also debuts, and this Mineshaft colt is a half-brother to multiple stakes winners Smarty Deb and Shampoo.

Spectacular Bid Stakes (Saturday/Gulfstream Park)

The weekend's big race likely has more sprint implications than Triple Crown impact, but make no mistake, DISCREETLY MINE is a serious racehorse. Runner-up in the Grade 1 Champagne and Grade 2 Futurity, the half-brother to Discreet Cat and Pretty Discreet simply is the class of the Spectacular Bid. Todd Pletcher has taken over the training duties from Stan Hough, and the workout tab looks sensational.

WILDCAT FRANKIE (James Hatchett) popped a huge speed figure in his debut romp at Calder and passed this visual test as well, cornering very sharply for a first-timer. MR. GREEN (Marty Wolfson) is more seasoned from Calder, placing six times in stakes company as a juvenile, but isn't the most flashy finisher.

From a prospect standpoint, the best potential router in the bunch may be A LITTLE WARM, a Ned Evans home-bred by Stormin Fever out of Alydar's daughter, Minidar (the dam a half-sister to Shuvee winner Colonial Minstrel). But even his pedigree might be more mile-based or so. Trainer Tony Dutrow sends out not only this one, but also WESTOVER WILDCAT, fifth in the G1 Hopeful and a fast, listed stakes winner at Belmont in October with a purely sprinter's pedigree. 'WILDCAT has an 11-day gap in the work tab recently that could leave him a touch short.

Spectacular Bid Stakes selections: W) DISCREETLY MINE; P) WILDCAT FRANKIE; S) MR. GREEN.

For more on this weekend's races, including handicapping strategies and a chance to interact live with Jeremy, visit the all-new Countdown to the Crown LIVE CHAT every Friday from 2-3 p.m. ET at HorseplayerNOW.com.

Everyone's a critic

This section recaps the week that was for the sophomore set.

The most important race of the past week, regardless of class, was Sunday's allowance from Fair Grounds, where STAY PUT hopped at the start, overcame a hideous post 10 going 1 mile and 40 yards, and defeated G2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes-placed WORLDLY. Note that WORLDLY was hard-wrangled turning onto the backstretch and responded well through the lane to pass the front-runners, but was no match late. STAY PUT, a son of Broken Vow, avenged a third-place loss to WORLDLY in a Churchill maiden route during the fall. Both have stakes designs in upcoming FG races, Steve Margolis' STAY PUT in the Feb. 20 Risen Star and Paul McGee's WORLDLY in the Jan. 23 Lecomte. Don't give up on Sunday also-ran WOW WOW WOW for D. Wayne Lukas. The Broken Vow colt lost a lot of ground and that female family including Birdstone et al is worth a second chance.

The Margolis barn, already rich with Sugar Bowl Stakes winner COOL BULLET aiming for the Lecomte next, also sent out Sunday's debut maiden winner WHAT'S NEW. A wire-to-wire sprint winner, WHAT'S NEW owns an sharp pedigree by Dixie Union out of graded winner Hidden Assets, who was a sprinter at heart. Keep an eye on Steve Asmussen's runner-up BERBERIS, the only closer to make a dent. Also at Fair Grounds, Neil Howard's COFFEE BREAK sloshed last-to-first to win a yielding turf maiden special weight in his fourth start. By A.P. Indy, he's out of a full-sister to superstar turf champion mare Fiji. He could be one to watch for the Turfway and Keeneland stakes later this spring on Polytrack.

On Sunday's opening day at Gulfstream, TAHITIAN WARRIOR took heat the entire way in winning a six-furlong maiden sprint in 1:09.96, drawing away like a good thing late and running a razor-sharp :23.98 final quarter (:11.94 final furlong). He galloped out like he was having fun for mercurial owner Frank Calabrese and trainer Danny Miller. By Maria's Mon, who sired Derby champ Monarchos, he's out of Chatique, an unraced mare who hails from the family of Epsom Derby winner Henbane and top U.S. turfer Fantastic Fellow. Keep an eye on fourth-place finisher THE DIRECTOR, a Nick Zito-trained rookie who finished with some interest and galloped out second-best while appearing to need more.

Gulfstream's sophomore scene included a pair of important early season tilts Thursday when ESKENDEREYA (Todd Pletcher) visually impressed to win a mile allowance, and then BEST ACTOR took a bow at the same distance a race later in maiden company. The latter's win flattered the Fair Grounds duo of STAY PUT and WORLDLY, both of whom defeated BEST ACTOR in a Churchill route in November.

As for ESKENDEREYA, he wired the Race 8 allowance field with a softish pace (even for Gulfstream with no run-up distance for a flat-mile for clockings). The final quarter-mile in :25.06 was only OK, which makes it a touch disturbing that nobody came knocking late. But the final clocking of 1:36.79 decimated the Race 9 maiden field's 1:38.57 time, and only BEST ACTOR (Wayne Catalano) got anywhere under the 1:39 mark in that race. Don't be fooled by the diminished margin late, ESKENDEREYA galloped out much the best after the win, while runner-up THANK U PHILLIPE had every chance to go by and couldn't. MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT (Tom Albertrani) ran well enough with some promise. If there's an excuse in Race 8 at Gulfstream, don't give up on BANK THE EIGHT (Tony Dutrow) just yet; he was making a decent mid-race move on the far turn and was stonewalled behind traffic and then completely lost interest. Disappointing, but maybe there's an excuse there.

At Santa Anita on Saturday, DISTORTED DAVE flashed on the scene late to catch talented speedball OCEANOGRAPHER in a very appealing performance. DISTORTED DAVE, a John Sadler trainee, has that kind of pedigree you crave: speed on top by Distorted Humor, and out of the long-winded route mare Crazy Ensign, a Del Mar course record holder at 1 3/8 miles and G1-placed in the Yellow Ribbon at 10 furlongs. There's no way this horse should have won going 5-1/2 furlongs, so beware!

Bob Baffert's loaded hand includes several top prospects, but Dec. 30 Santa Anita allowance winner TINY WOODS figures to be sprint-only. In his wake was a troubling return by the uber-hyped SIDNEY'S CANDY (John Sadler), who was off since Del Mar with shin troubles and appeared to be moving extremely well at the quarter-pole before losing his action noticeably. Watch the workout tab for clues with SIDNEY'S CANDY, a talented son of Candy Ride, as it wouldn't be a surprise if the shins flared back up after watching this performance.

Team Baffert also includes Dec. 30 route maiden debut winner TAKE CONTROL, the princely bred son of A.P. Indy-Azeri, who was green as grass and won despite the lack of seasoning, while finishing up strongly and galloping out very well. He looks very legit from this eye, and I don't do hype. Baffert's prospects took a step back Wednesday at Santa Anita when THE PROGRAM (a flat third) and QUIET INVADER (speed, fade) failed to pass muster in a 1-1/16 miles allowance race won by Eoin Harty's KETTLE RIVER. The winner, by Congaree, did not visually inspire with tired leg action the entire final eighth and a final sixteenth in :6.53. Runner-up HAWAIIAN SPRINGS, stretching out off a sprint debut victory for Kathy Walsh, actually galloped out best, but the Stephen Got Even colt lacked serious punch when it counted.

The improving LAUS DEO handled his business in wire-to-wire style in the Jan. 2 Count Fleet at Aqueduct, but dawdling :25.18 and :25.64 fractions for the second and third quarter do little to tell you what kind of router he can be. The pedigree says there's more, by Medaglia d'Oro out of a French stakes-winning Alysheba mare. Owned by Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farm (Eight Belles, Hard Spun, et al), he's trained by Tony Dutrow, Porter's hand-picked replacement for the now-retired Larry Jones. LAUS DEO is headed south for a possible date in Florida or New Orleans.

LAUS DEO's time in the Count Fleet paled to that of two-turn maiden breaker BRAKE LIGHTS, who sped past the mile marker more than six lengths faster than the Count Fleet winner, time-wise, when capturing the Big A's fourth race earlier the same day. Kiaran's McLaughlin's second-time starter by Saint Liam still ran the fourth quarter in :25.13 while widening by nearly 10 lengths. BRAKE LIGHTS is out of Miss Golden Circle, a multiple graded stakes-winning sprinter. How far will he go? It appears McLaughlin will take the New York route via the Gotham and Wood to find out.

Also on the national stakes map, FLY BY PHIL rang in the New Year with a big upset over a complete bog that rendered the G3 Tropical Park Derby at Calder almost indecipherable from a meaning standpoint. Trainer Kathleen O'Connell said a dirt date in Tampa Bay Downs' Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 13 would be next, and we'll know more about 'PHIL at that time. Meanwhile, pure sprinter Z.I. ZIPP captured the Turfway Prevue Stakes on Jan. 2 to open the Lane's End Stakes series. But the race was a staggerfest where speed still held and appears of little down-the-road consequence.

Off the beaten path, but always respected, trainer Graham Motion won a two-turn maiden Saturday at Laurel with sharply bred SPANGLED STAR. The dominant winner showed guts and acceleration, and is by Distorted Humor out of a Kris S. mare whose female family includes top distaffers like Grecian Flight, Anklet and Bel Air Beauty. Look for this one to head south soon.

Quick hitters

LOOKIN AT LUCKY could make his '10 debut in the Feb. 6 Bob Lewis Memorial (G2) at Santa Anita, where the challengers are expected to include Mike Machowsky's visually-impressive, unbeaten Cal-bred CARACORTADO ... Bob Baffert has fleet-footed CONVEYANCE set for a date in the Jan. 16 San Rafael. However, on a sad note, the barn's zippy-fast Dec. 19 maiden winner CLUTCH PLAYER died from a rapid and drastic bout with pneumonia last week, bringing some perspective to an otherwise bright winter for the Baffert barn ... Nick Zito's new recruit JACKSON BEND, the pride of Calder's Florida Stallion Series, is ripe on the work tab at Palm Meadows. He potentially could appear in the Jan. 23 Holy Bull, which is shaping up to be a big-timer of race ... Rick Dutrow has his fleet duo of HOMEBOYKRIS and D'FUNNYBONE aimed at potential Gulfstream Park stakes, the Jan. 23 Holy Bull and Feb. 20 Hutcheson, respectively. 'KRIS worked six panels Wednesday at Gulfstream in 1:14.60 ... The Jan. 23 Holy Bull could be a Dutrow Brother Bash, as Tony D. is expected to test his talented WINSLOW HOMER in that spot ... Remsen champ BUDDY'S SAINT is slated to return Feb. 20 in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream for Bruce Levine. He breezed a half-mile in :49.50 on Wednesday at Gulfstream Park, his second breeze since heading south for the winter ... Among the many hopefuls for Todd Pletcher is the half-brother to '04 Derby runner-up Lion Heart, CONNEMARA, who worked 5 furlongs Sunday at Santa Anita in 1:01.40 ... PULSION, nicked up in a troubled BC Juvenile attempt, is wintering in Florida for Patrick Biancone and aimed at a possible return in the Feb. 20 Fountain of Youth. He drilled a half-mile in :49.55 Wednesday at Gulfstream ... Next up for Barbaro's kid brother, LENTENOR, will be a Gulfstream maiden race in January as he's logged a series of breezes at Palm Meadows in preparation ... Also on the Palm Meadows work tab, keep an eye on Nick Zito's Churchill two-turn maiden winner FLY DOWN, a Mineshaft colt who fired a bullet half-mile Monday in un-Zito-like fashion ... Pennsylvania-based PEPPI KNOWS, scratched from the Count Fleet after a licensing snafu, will be aimed this spring at Turfway's G2 Lane's End, a race that just underwent a date change this week to March 27, a week later than usual and now five weeks out from the first Saturday in May.

High fives

Jeremy Plonk's Top-5 rated performances by class so far this year (Dec. 26-present).

Maiden race
1. TAHITIAN WARRIOR (Gulfstream, 1/3)
2. TAKE CONTROL (Santa Anita, 12/30)
3. DISTORTED DAVE (Santa Anita, 1/2)
4. BRAKE LIGHTS (Aqueduct, 1/2)
5. BEST ACTOR (Gulfstream, 1/7)

Allowance race
1. STAY PUT (Fair Grounds, 1/3)
2. ESKENDEREYA (Gulfstream, 1/7)
3. TINY WOODS (Santa Anita, 12/30)
4. KETTLE RIVER (Santa Anita, 1/6)
5. SILVER CRAFT (Tampa Bay Downs, 12/26)

Stakes race
1. CARACORTADO (Cal Breeders Champion, Santa Anita, 12/26)
2. MACIAS (Eddie Logan, Santa Anita, 12/28 - turf)
3. LAUS DEO (Count Fleet, Aqueduct, 1/2)
4. FLY BY PHIL (Tropical Park Derby, Calder, 1/1 - turf)
5. GRAND SLAM ANDRE (Riley Allison Futurity, Sunland, 12/29)

Put 'em in the gate!

Can't wait for the first Saturday in May? Me either. Each week I'll give my top 20 contenders based on potential for the 1-1/4 miles distance for the Kentucky Derby. This will be a fluid list throughout the season. Note: fillies are only included when their connections make a clear indication they are pointing for Triple Crown races.

Send your list to me at Jeremy@HorseplayerNOW.com and I'll pick one fan's top 20 each week to appear with mine in Countdown to the Crown here at ESPN.com. Please put "TOP 20" in the subject line and include your first name and city/state in which you reside.

Jeremy Plonk's top 20, first week of the 2010 season:

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is the owner of the handicapping-based Web site HorseplayerNOW.com. You can E-mail Jeremy your Top 20 contenders list, or any questions about the 3-year-old or national racing scene, at Jeremy@Horseplayernow.com.