Commentary

Countdown to the Crown

Updated: January 29, 2010, 11:24 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

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 State of the Union address. Most are a mixture of half-truths and yawns.

1. A few years back when interviewing Tony Dutrow, he told me he was in the racing business to make money and that every horse was for sale. Now that he has WINSLOW HOMER on the Derby trail for julep-yearning owner Rick Porter, it will be interesting to see how his philosophy changes now with a sip of the big time.

2. Meydan Racecourse opened Thursday in Dubai, and the Tapeta synthetic surface showcased a front-running, Goldophin/Frankie Dettori win at 1-1/4 miles on opening night that had to bring a smile to a camp that hopes to develop Derby horses there who are fast enough to compete on US dirt.

3. There's a lot of chatter to me recently about the filly BLIND LUCK. I don't consider the fillies until their connections make it clear they are Triple Crown bound, because it's not fair analysis on my part and nothing to do with their talent level. It's disingenuous to discuss where those gals stack up against a filly class that I don't follow nearly as closely as the colts/geldings. That said, it'll still be fun to see filly champion SHE BE WILD return in Sunday's Forward Gal at Gulfstream.

This week's fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. The stakes this week, the Dancing Count at Laurel and WEBN at Turfway, don't conjure up any goosebumps for May. The beauty may lie beneath the surface this weekend.

The most exciting race of the weekend, bar none, could be Sunday's Race 6 allowance route at Gulfstream. The impressive Distorted Humor-Golden Ballet last-out winner DROSSELMEYER makes his '10 debut for Bill Mott at 1-1/8 miles, meeting a field that includes G1 Norfolk runner-up PULSION (Patrick Biancone), recent maiden breaker BEST ACTOR (Wayne Catalano) and Grade 1 alumni STATELY VICTOR (Mike Maker) and NO SHENANIGANS (Todd Pletcher). A legitimate Florida Derby contender could emerge here.

Later today (Friday, Jan. 29), Gulfstream offers a turf mile allowance, led by Ashado's little brother DROVER (Todd Pletcher), a Belmont maiden breaker on dirt last fall, as well as BECKY'S KITTEN (Wesley Ward), unplaced in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. Superb sprint winner MAJOR MOMENTUM (Steve Klesaris) stretches back out off a fantastic dash win.

Saturday's Sunshine Millions day card at Gulfstream also includes an allowance sprint and maiden special weight mile for the 3-year-olds. The highly regarded AFLEET EXPRESS (Jimmy Jerkens) makes his 3-year-old return in Race 2 off of a muddy track win at Aqueduct. He's been working bullets at Palm Meadows. Wayne Catalano brings WINDY CITY CAT over from Tampa off a very quick maiden win on a tiring track at Hawthorne.

In Race 6 at Gulfstream Saturday, be on the lookout for Countdown bet-back special THE DIRECTOR (Nick Zito), who finished looking for more in his debut behind superb rookie winner TAHITIAN WARRIOR earlier this month. GOTCHICS PEAK (Patrick Biancone) comes out of the same heat. Also beware FIRST DUDE (Dale Romans), who chased FLY DOWN (Nick Zito) last fall at Churchill in what has looked to be a very key race from Nov. 28.

Oaklawn's Saturday action features a route allowance in Race 5, where last-to-first Canterbury debut winner A STUDENT (Mac Robertson) makes his return with an interrupted work tab and might need the race. The son of Afleet Alex could have some upside and bears watching. Also at Oaklawn Saturday is a maiden sprint where 3-year-olds are forced to face elders in Race 7. HENRY'S TIME (D. Wayne Lukas) was third to TIZ CHROME (since transferred to Bob Baffert) in the fall at Churchill and bears watching, but likely is only a sprinter.

We might get a little better line on Tampa flash UPTOWNCHARLYBROWN on Saturday when MT. FUGI (Gerald Bennett) returns in a maiden special weight route. The son of Fusaichi Pegasus was a distant second to 'CHARLY on Dec. 26 and failed to deliver in his route return Jan. 13.

Dancing Count Stakes (Saturday/Laurel Park)

At six furlongs, Maryland's seasonal stakes kickoff for Preakness hopefuls likely won't produce many delusions for 1-3/16 miles. The best route prospect of the bunch clearly appears to be TURBO SPEED (Bernard Houghton), third in the Count Fleet at Aqueduct behind LAUS DEO (Tony Dutrow). TURBO SPEED is a son of 1996 Preakness record-setter Louis Quatorze, and out of a Proud Truth mare. That's good news for down the road, but on Saturday he'll be asked to turn back from a route to a sprint and do so in a short, six-horse field that's not loaded with burners.

The pace edge Saturday goes to COLE T (John Salzman, Jr.), who is all speed and from a white-hot barn. He'll be hard to catch under Harry Vega off a daylight local maiden win in the mud. THAT'STHEQUESTION (Mike Trombetta) is a fast son of Holy Bull and likely the only horse who can run early with COLE T. Maryland Juvenile Championship winner OUR COMMANDER (Gary Capuano) looks up against it at 6 furlongs. If it's wet, give a long, long look at mud freak MORUMSCO.

Dancing Count Stakes selections: W) COLE T; P) TURBO SPEED; S) THAT'STHEQUESTION.

WEBN Stakes (Saturday/Turfway Park)

A big field of 13 hopefuls for the G2 Lane's End Stakes in March continue on the trail Saturday in this one-mile race around two turns. KERA'S KITTEN (Mike Maker) is the only open-company stakes winner in the field, having captured Retama's grassy El Joven last summer. He gets a mulligan after a bad stumble to start the Turfway Prevue last time, but still remains a question mark on a non-turf surface. LUCKY CHUCK (David Pate) won the restricted Indiana Futurity at Hoosier, but made a poorly timed move in the Prevue and fell apart late as the 6-5 favorite. His worth around two turns will be tested, as will FISH (Phil Sims), the Prevue runner-up with a sprinter's pedigree by Yonaguska.

SLEWZOOM has run well around two turns twice, including from a dastardly post when third in the Illinois Futurity for state-breds. He'll have to overcome an awful draw again in a tough assignment from post 11.

The interesting players here are topped by recent maiden winners, chiefly IN THE PAINT (Kellyn Gorder), a son of Tiznow who won a mile maiden by daylight locally. IN THE PAINT came out of that ultra-key FLY DOWN maiden race at Churchill in the fall. PATTI'S KITTEN (Mike Maker) also won a Turfway mile maiden last out, albeit slower than IN THE PAINT, but he did from a horrible post No. 10 draw that day and gets the rail Saturday. Underrated trainer Tony Mitchell sends out sprint maiden winner BIG BRUIN, with a great route pedigree, off a much-improved try when adding blinkers. He'll run all day and is dangerous even with a bad draw.

WEBN Stakes selections: W) IN THE PAINT; P) BIG BRUIN; S) PATTI'S KITTEN.

Last week's selections: 2-0-0-0; Thank U Philippe ran fourth in the Holy Bull and Worldly ran fifth in the Lecomte.

Season selections: 5-1-1-0.

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 marquee race last week was Gulfstream Park's G3 Holy Bull at a one-turn mile, won by WINSLOW HOMER (Tony Dutrow). Previously a winner around two turns at Philadelphia Park, the son of Unbridled's Song got a very good trip behind a fast pace, tracked closely never more than a path off the rail once into the far turn, and then had a sizable seam open when set down for the drive. WINSLOW HOMER had just enough surge to forge by JACKSON BEND (Nick Zito), the Florida-bred win machine who came up a tad short in a positive performance given he had only four published workouts this winter.

Nobody was moving particularly well late in the Holy Bull as the race came home in a slow final quarter-mile of :26.31 (:13.34 final furlong). More noticeably was the up-and-down leg action through that final furlong. Away for about nine weeks, that's excusable for WINSLOW HOMER and you could visually see that he carried a lot of flesh and may not have been as tight as he will be later.

But to his credit, WINSLOW HOMER hit the holes needed with an acceleration that a good horse possesses, twice during the running taking cues from Ramon Dominguez. Pedigree-wise, 'HOMER has that speed up top and stamina underneath that you like to see out of a Summer Squall mare. Once again, he was not very fast into stride early as he has been in all his races, something to consider when he gets into a potential 12, 14 or 20-horse field for the money.

JACKSON BEND will move forward nicely off this race, and showed that despite being one-paced, he can be pretty darned fast. He doesn't seem to shift gears just yet, but 'BEND was far more brilliant in his unveiling for Nick Zito than anticipated here. Third-place finisher WILLIAM'S KITTEN got just what he needed from a one-turn mile that will serve him well moving forward, a story that's true for the Holy Bull's top three finishers. That should make for a great Fountain of Youth around two turns.

Fourth-place Holy Bull finisher THANK U PHILIPPE (Marty Wolfson) showed great speed with blinkers and his usual guts, but this was his chance to spring the upset and probably won't factor when we reach two turns, nor will HOMEBOYKRIS (Rick Dutrow), the fellow pace factor who came up short. AIKENITE (Todd Pletcher) was bizarrely close to the fast pace and had nothing to offer late and maybe was too fresh. He's a very tough read out of this race.

The other top stakes race last week was Saturday's G3 Lecomte at Fair Grounds, around two turns at 1 mile and 40 yards. We mentioned in Countdown last week that the distance change from 1 mile would be huge because the full Fair Grounds stretch was now in play this year, and winner RON THE GREEK was a thankful closer. The Tom Amoss trainee rallied last to first to collar front-running MAXIMUS RULER (Clark Hanna), who probably ran too good to lose. It was a great weekend for Amoss, who got BACKTALK back to his barn and whose beloved New Orleans Saints punched their ticket to the Super Bowl.

MAXIMUS RULER took heat every step from the rail while setting a legitimate pace in his two-turn debut. To pound out :23.42 and :23.38 opening quarter-miles and then still be able to produce :25.47 and :25.49 in succession was impressive, but what's more impressive is he re-broke in the gallop-out and went better than the late-running RON THE GREEK into the clubhouse turn. Hats are off to the winner, RON THE GREEK, a son of the A.P. Indy stallion Full Mandate, who rallied for a strong fourth in the Springboard Mile at Remington Park to close his 2-for-3 juvenile campaign. But you have to leave the Lecomte thinking MAXIMUS RULER may have been the most talented horse on the track. The question will be: How far will a son of Roman Ruler want to go? He'll be tough in the Risen Star at 1-1/16 miles at least, where he'll rematch with RON THE GREEK.

WORLDLY (Paul McGee) had an awesome Lecomte trip and came up one-paced and empty in a very disappointing effort. He's a grinder who McGee says now needs about six weeks off, and that drops him from serious Crown consideration. TURF MELODY (Graham Motion) had a similarly good trip as WORLDLY but came up flat. His win over RON THE GREEK at Remington at least was flattered by the result here. Other Lecomte placings by LETSGETITONMON (Steve Asmussen) and COOL BULLET (Steve Margolis) were OK, but not earth-shattering. The latter drifted out late in his two-turn debut. CITRUS KID (John Terranova) came unglued in the paddock before the Lecomte and will be given time off now.

The undercard performance of the week came Saturday at Gulfstream when SAVEMYSPOTIMBETING (Danny Miller) became the second awesome debut winner for the Frank Calabrese stable this meeting. After TAHITIAN WARRIOR rocked the track a few weeks ago, SAVEMYSPOTIMBETING might have one-upped his now-departed stablemate. Wonder if Godolphin has Calabrese on speed dial? It should after a scintillating 1:08.78 six-furlong romp that looked every bit as good visually as the clock indicates. By champion Vindication out of a good female family, this one galloped out like a beast and could be any kind. A "wow" performance. Runner-up JAMBONIED (Patrick Byrne) deserved better and graduates quickly, while ROYAL STRAIGHT (James Jerkens) did the dirty debut work chasing and should find his next date easier.

If not for the freakish effort at Gulfstream by SAVEMYSPOTIMBETING, the praise this week would be heaped on NEXTDOORNEIGHBOR (Mike Machowsky) out west, who looked phenomenal visually in winning a two-turn maiden route Sunday at Santa Anita over a very promising cast on paper. With :24.53 and :6.22 splits on the back end of 1-1/16 miles, he drew clear by four lengths and has pedigree to burn by Lido Palace out of Fencelineneighbor. Machowsky also trained the dam to a 9-furlong San Gorgonio Handicap win for owner Amerman Racing. Look for 'NEIGHBOR next in the Feb. 27 Sham at Santa Anita. Runner-up VIVA MACHO (Myung Kwon Cho) saw the light bulb turn on and really finished up with vigor. He'll graduate very soon routing.

Also at Santa Anita last weekend, LEOTHELION (Mike Puype) visually turned in a strong effort in breaking his maiden Saturday, but beat only three rivals in a performance hard to gauge. The win certainly emphasized the quality of Bob Baffert's CONCORD POINT, who beat 'LEO on opening day of the SA meeting.

Highly regarded Smarty Jones colt MOOJAB (Danny Peitz) broke poorly from the rail Saturday at Oaklawn in an allowance sprint and never looked comfortable with the sloppy track or a loose horse in the running. Draw a line through this disappointing third-place finish to kick off to the season. Winner BACKWATER BLUES (Cindy Jones) was blitzed by eventual Smarty Jones Stakes winner DRYFLY (Lynn Whiting) at Churchill Downs last fall, flattering the form of that rival.

While WORLDLY was a moderate disappointment in the Lecomte, COLIZEO (Todd Pletcher) flattered that one's form some when taking a Gulfstream maiden route last Friday. COLIZEO, supremely bred by Distorted Humor out of Colony Band, broke sharp Friday, accelerated when he needed to secure a spot on the first turn, ran them off their feet in :46.59 for the opening half-mile and was much the best in a sharp 1:49.76 for nine furlongs. He was a hard-fought second to WORLDLY in a Churchill maiden route previously in the fall. This field was light on apparent talent, and COLIZEO looked better visually through the lane -- even with a mild drift -- than the clock indicates, slowing home in :38.59 the final three furlongs. He was a noticeably tired horse after this race, but ran a very promising route.

On the Holy Bull undercard Saturday at Gulfstream, keep an eye on Race 7 maiden sprint runner-up BUSHWHACKED, who closed nicely late for Jonathan Sheppard and galloped out much the best over race winner MINE N GEMS (Wesley Ward). 'GEMS was making his second start after being no match for LATIGO SHORE (Nick Zito) at Calder. Spreaking of Zito, his MINER'S RESERVE from this particular Saturday race at GP was poised nicely and soundly bumped a rival at the quarter-pole and flattened out for fourth. He's a bet-back special with confidence.

At Fair Grounds last Friday, an entry level turf allowance route had a completely pedestrian pace, as PEGASUS PRANCER (Steve Asmussen) was hard-held early and erratic through the lane in a promising runner-up finish. After chasing DRYFLY and MAXIMUS RULER on the Churchill dirt last fall, he's a very interesting Blue Grass prospect on the Polytrack. Race winner STRIKING HIGHT showed nothing in two dirt starts previously and probably will remain a grass runner for Team Block. The disappointment was GIANT'S TOMB (Mark Frostad), runner-up in the Display Stakes at Woodbine; he showed only a little late interest despite a ground-saving trip.

And one other Asmussen trainee to watch came from Aqueduct on Saturday when RULE BY NIGHT totally cruised under wraps in a wire-to-wire maiden sprint win by daylight. The win by the Malibu Moon colt highly flattered OVERCOMMUNICATION, Todd Pletcher's romping Dec. 26 debut winner over RULE BY NIGHT. OVERCOMMUNICATION already has moved south and is on the Palm Meadows work tab since the Big A maiden score.

SIENTE EL TRUENO (Mike Stidham) was no secret when scoring as a debut favorite by 6-plus lengths Saturday in a Fair Grounds maiden sprint. By City Zip out of a Valid Appeal mare, he won't go far, but this was a sharp move in 1:10.07.

Finally, a pair of grass races Wednesday at Santa Anita offered two-turn tests. OUTLAW MAN (Kenny McPeek) came home in :12.34 the final furlong of a 1-1/8 miles maiden special weight to outslug by a nose SAW PERFECTION (Richard Mandella), who also ran strong on the front end. HOCKLEY (Eoin Harty) was part of the photo in a very strong race that went about 4 lengths faster than a 3-year-old turf allowance later in the card.

In the Wednesday SA allowance, Eddie Logan Stakes runner-up ALFARABI (Eoin Harty) got the jump and flattered the form of MACIAS (Bob Baffert), the Eddie Logan winner, when scoring by a half-length. Runner-up SETSUKO (Richard Mandella) had a lot of work to do behind a slow pace and ran huge in his turf debut. ALFARABI is expected to remain on grass, his trainer indicated, but expect SETSUKO to move forward off this race and be a legit contender in a stakes when he returns to the main track. The top pair flew home late in about :11-2/5 each the final furlong.

Quick Hitters

Next week's stakes menu includes the G2 Bob Lewis at Santa Anita and the Whirlaway at Aqueduct ... The G2 Lewis is expected to feature AMERICAN LION (Eoin Harty), with Julien Leparoux flying west to ride, against Bob Baffert's unbeaten TIZ CHROME ... Baffert headliner LOOKIN AT LUCKY is being aimed at the March 13 G2 San Felipe or a trip out of town, according to the white-haired one ... EIGHTYFIVEINAFIFTY (Gary Contessa) figures to be a short-priced Whirlaway favorite off his maiden blitzkrieg. He worked a lightning 7 furlongs Wednesday at Aqueduct in a two-turn dress rehearsal in 1:27 flat. Whirlaway foes include THREE DAY RUSH, a sharp allowance winner at Gulfstream for Todd Pletcher ... Speaking of Pletcher, SUPER SAVER, the Kentucky Jockey Club winner, notched his first workout of 2010 Sunday at Palm Meadows, an easy three furlongs in :38.50. Stablemate RULE drilled the same day in 1:01.40 for 5 furlongs, his fourth work of the season, while INTERACTIF is five drills into his '10 regime at Palm Meadows for Pletcher ... ESKENDEREYA (also Todd Pletcher) is being pointed at the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, as is BUDDY'S SAINT (Bruce Levine), the Remsen winner who worked a sharp 5F in :59.34 Sunday at Gulfstream ... SCHOOLYARD DREAMS (Derek Ryan) worked in company with Musket Man last week, wearing blinkers, and is expected to don the hood for the Sam F. Davis Stakes next if the stewards allow the equipment change off of a victory ... NOBLE'S PROMISE (Ken McPeek) has yet to work back since running second in the Dec. 19 CashCall Hollywood Futurity, and just arrived back in Florida this week from California. McPeek said he likely won't breeze until early February and has no races in mind at this time ... LENTENOR (Michael Matz) has been nominated to the Feb. 7 Hallandale Beach Stakes on the Gulfstream lawn, a logical next stop for Barbaro's kid brother.

High Fives

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

Maiden Race
1. LENTENOR (Gulfstream, 1/20 -- turf)
2. SAVEMYSPOTIMBETING (Gulfstream, 1/23) * new *
3. NEXTDOORNEIGHBOR (Santa Anita, 1/24) * new *
4. TAHITIAN WARRIOR (Gulfstream, 1/3)
5. EIGHTYFIVEINAFIFTY (Aqueduct, 1/9)

Allowance Race
1. STAY PUT (Fair Grounds, 1/3)
2. THREE DAY RUSH (Gulfstream, 1/9)
3. ESKENDEREYA (Gulfstream, 1/7)
4. ICE BOX (Gulfstream 1/20)
5. ALFARABI (Santa Anita, 1/27 -- turf) * new *

Stakes Race
1. WINSLOW HOMER (Holy Bull, Gulfstream, 1/23) * new *
2. CONVEYANCE (San Rafael, Santa Anita, 1/16)
3. RON THE GREEK (Lecomte, Fair Grounds, 1/23) * new *
4. CARACORTADO (Cal Breeders Champion, Santa Anita, 12/26)
5. MACIAS (Eddie Logan, Santa Anita, 12/28 - turf)

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: Week 4 of the 2010 season

1. LOOKIN AT LUCKY

11. SAVEMYSPOTIMBETING (new)

2. SUPER SAVER

12. CARACORTADO

3. AMERICAN LION

13. NEXTDOORNEIGHBOR (new)

4. WILLIAM'S KITTEN

14. VALE OF YORK

5. BUDDY'S SAINT

15. DROSSELMEYER

6. LENTENOR

16. RULE

7. JACKSON BEND

17. ESKENDEREYA (new)

8. WINSLOW HOMER

18. RON THE GREEK (new)

9. CONVEYANCE

19. MAXIMUS RULER (new)

10. STAY PUT

20. TAHITIAN WARRIOR

Dropped out: WORLDLY (trainer giving time off); NOBLE'S PROMISE (writer's decision/lack of activity), CONNEMARA (writer's decision), MISSION IMPAZIBLE (writer's decision), MOOJAB (writer's decision).

Countdown reader Ken R. of Houston, Texas

1. BUDDY'S SAINT

11. TIZ CHROME

2. DROSSELMEYER

12. INTERACTIF

3. ESKENDEREYA

13. STAY PUT

4. WILLIAM'S KITTEN

14. MAXIMUS RULER

5. WINSLOW HOMER

15. RON THE GREEK

6. VALE OF YORK

16. POUNCED

7. AMERICAN LION

17. JACKSON BEND

8. SUPER SAVER

18. CONVEYANCE

9. LOOKIN AT LUCKY

19. RULE

10. LENTENOR

20. NOBLE'S PROMISE

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.

In addition to being a longtime contributing writer to ESPN.com's Horse Racing section, Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine.

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