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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 Groundhog Day. For some, it's best that they come out only once a year, state their case, and go back in a hole for 364 days.
1. Why anyone expects, much less spends six and seven figures like Monopoly money on, a son of Unbridled's Song to get to the Triple Crown is beyond me. Time and again, he's produced brittle, high-profile offspring, the latest being now-sidelined WINSLOW HOMER, out 60-90 days with a right-front stress fracture.
2. The recent trends might "feel" like late bloomers have dominated the Kentucky Derby, but don't be fooled. The top four finishers of the last five Derbies averaged 3.7 starts as 2-year-olds and owned a combined mark of 34-for-79 as juveniles, a smashing 43 percent win rate. Almost half (10) of those 21 horses were stakes winners during their 2-year-old campaigns. Only 3 of those 21 raced less than twice at age 2 (Curlin, Big Brown and Denis of Cork).
3. Bob Baffert's CONVEYANCE is headed out of town next for a dirt date, either for the G3 Southwest at Oaklawn on President's Day or the Feb. 20 G3 Risen Star at Fair Grounds. That's bad news for those local horses. Last year, Cali shippers coming off the synthetic surface won the Arkansas Derby, Wood, Gotham and Sunland Derby, while placing in the Louisiana Derby, Tampa Bay Derby and Lexington. Stir in listed wins in the '09 Arizona Derby and Borderland Derby for flavor.
This week's fearless forecast
This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. We get coast-to-coast action from hot spots like California, New York and Florida this week on all surfaces. Traditional dirt is in play in Aqueduct's Whirlaway, while Pro-Ride is the footing for the G2 Bob Lewis Memorial Stakes at Santa Anita. Then on Sunday, Gulfstream's turf course hosts the Hallandale Beach Stakes. Plus, superstar filly BLIND LUCK runs in Saturday's G1 Las Virgenes on the West Coast.
Later today (Friday, Feb. 5), what appears to be the strongest maiden special weight of the Santa Anita meeting takes place in a Race 6 route. Not only do we get the career debut of I Want Revenge's half-brother DONTSELLMETOFELONS (Jeff Mullins), but there's also three runners who finished third, fourth and fifth behind the now-injured A.P. Indy-Azeri debut-winning colt TAKE CONTROL in the gate. Toss in the fast-working BOULDER CREEK (Craig Dollase), who faced strong competition at 2, and bet-back special VIVA MACHO (Myung Kwon Cho), runner-up last out to NEXTDOORNEIGHBOR while finishing up extremely strong in a breakout performance. If that's not enough, we get the return of MATAMOR (Gary Mandella), who pursued the likes of rising stars CONVEYANCE, BRADY BLUE EYES, SETSUKO and KURO in his pair of juvenile outings.
Also at Santa Anita, Saturday's massive stakes program includes a Race 7 maiden sprint worth tabbing. IMPERIAL PRIDE (Bob Hess) and ROYCE (Paco Gonzalez) return after a highly impressive Jan. 16 maiden sprint where the competitors flew home late. Both should be sitting on big races.
A must-see Donn Handicap Day program at Gulfstream Saturday features a strong mile allowance for the 3YOs, led by Spectacular Bid Stakes runner-up WILDCAT FRANKIE (James Hatchett). The sprinter will be hard-tested against Aqueduct debut winner OVERCOMMUNICATION (Todd Pletcher). The latter hails from the female family of sprinters Trippi and Appealing Skier. Mineshaft colt TUVIA'S FORCE (Nick Zito), second last fall to eventual star SUPER SAVER (Todd Pletcher) makes his seasonal bow off a sizzling worktab at Palm Meadows. Meanwhile, Tony Dutrow will try to bounce back from a wretched week of news with BANK THE EIGHT, who adds blinkers after a shaky '10 return try vs. much-respected ESKENDEREYA.
Saturday's Gulfstream Park program also includes a turf mile maiden special weight in Race 5, where SEA OF SEA (Kiaran McLaughlin) comes out of what appears to be a very key race won by SAINT ELIGIUS on Jan. 15. The most interesting horse in that one is on the also-eligible list, recent IEAH Stables pick-up PERSON OF INTEREST (now Rick Dutrow). The Tapit colt was last seen running second to Barbaro's kid bro LENTENOR (Michael Matz) on Jan. 20 before IEAH dipped into its coffers and bought him from Shadybrook Farm.
Speaking of Dutrow, he debuts the well-named SATURDAY IN MAY in Saturday's sixth at Gulfstream, a maiden 7-furlong sprint, off a nice set of works for the Alfeet Alex colt. This race should give us a better line on Tom Albertrani's impressive debut winner ODYSSEUS, as horses who ran third (NADAL, Jonathan Sheppard) and fourth (POW WOW, Tony Dutrow) return to action. Todd Pletcher sends out a pair in this contentious lot, a debuting half-brother to top sprinter Greg's Gold, TRINITY RUN; as well as CHASING TED, a runner-up to TIZ CHROME last fall at Churchill and second last-out in an unimpressive GP maiden mile where BEST ACTOR failed to deliver much in his subsequent return.
On Sunday at Gulfstream, INTERACTIF (Todd Pletcher) makes his anticipated 3-year-old return in the $125,000 Hallandale Beach Stakes at 1-1/16 miles on turf. One of the most impressive juveniles of '09, the son of Broken Vow was a debut sprint winner on dirt at Monmouth, so we know he can handle multiple surfaces. BIM BAM (David Brownlee), a stakes winner on turf and dirt, is among the challengers.
A trio of sprint stakes winners are among the five entries in Saturday's turf dash Black Gold Stakes at Fair Grounds, led by multiple listed stakes winner GRAND SLAM ANDRE (Steve Asmussen). That card's most important race for Triple Crown trail implications could be the Race 10 maiden route finale, where Asmussen returns BERBERIS after a strong debut second. Also in the region Saturday, Oaklawn offers a Race 8 maiden sprint where rookie ICE STRIKE (Tim Ritchey) is a fast-working, gelded son of Silver Deputy. His dam, Loving Lucy, was a romping stakes winner at 2, so this one has win-early written on his forehead.
Bob Lewis Memorial Stakes (Saturday/Santa Anita)
Four stakes winners are among the field of seven in this Grade 2 event at 1-1/16 miles, topped by G3 Hollywood Prevue champ AMERICAN LION (Eoin Harty). The 'LION, rated No. 3 in this week's Countdown Top 20, is the highest-ranked horse on our chart to compete so far in 2010. But the Lewis will be no walkover as the well-meant son of Tiznow makes his first start around two turns.
Bob Baffert's fellow Tiznow colt TIZ CHROME will take plenty of wagering action in the Lewis after dominating the Stuka Stakes and a Churchill maiden sprint in his two outings to date. Like AMERICAN LION, he also must pass the two-turn test. While not impressed so much with his Kentucky debut win, TIZ CHROME did improve greatly in his first try for Baffert in California and may be better than I first thought. To finish up a sprint in :23.48 and :6.15 after pressing the pace, you had to be impressed. In this game of horseplaying, you have to be honest enough to be flexible in formulating opinions.
AMERICAN LION caught my eye first at Keeneland, where he was without doubt the most impressive 2-year-old I saw race in Lexington, a meet I devour with a fine-tooth comb. What makes him so impressive? He runs extremely fast and doesn't look like he's even working. His win at Hollywood came tracking two very fast horses, and while the margin narrowed late, he threw his ears forward after the wire and galloped out best of all.
While the "big two" have some distance questions to answer, CARACORTADO has to answer the class question. The Cal-bred was visually awesome in winning a 1-1/16 miles stakes on opening day, relaxing so patiently in a big field, taking his cues and exploding late when the seam presented itself. CARACORTADO went from in trouble to three in front in the matter of a few strides -- only special horses can do that. Meanwhile, everything he's run against, it seems, has come back to run extremely well next time. So while he's not taken on the big names yet, his past competition has had some measurable level of quality to it. If he wins Saturday, I will not be surprised in the least bit.
The speed of TIZ CHROME could be tested early by Northern California sprinter TANGO TANGO or even Baffert stablemate MACIAS, who daylighted AMERICAN LION in the first quarter-mile of the Hollywood Prevue before winning the one-mile Eddie Logan around two turns on turf. Don't let the diminishing win margin fool you in the Eddie Logan, MACIAS opened up from every other horse in the field late except the late-flying ALFARABI, who came back to impressively win last week in allowance company out of that race. The runner-up never went by in the gallop-out either. I'm not sure MACIAS wants to go much farther than a mile (by classy miler Purge, and given his running style), so Saturday's race will be a tall order with pace pressure.
Late-running DAVE IN DIXIE (John Sadler) was my wiseguy play for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall behind LOOKIN FOR LUCKY, but was withdrawn from the pre-entries. Back on the work tab since Jan. 2, he's notched six solid drills at Hollywood in perfect spacing, but might be in need of the race. A good third or fourth here would move 'DAVE along nicely on the trail.
Robert Lewis Memorial Stakes selections: W) AMERICAN LION; P) CARACORTADO; S) TIZ CHROME.
Whirlaway Stakes (Saturday/Aqueduct)
The 1 1/16 miles Whirlaway is either as easy as EIGHTYFIVEINAFIFTY (Gary Contessa) or it's a wide-open crapshoot. The six-pack features three listed stakes winners, but all attention will be on a pair of sprinters stretching out around two turns for the first time, the aforementioned 'FIFTY and THREE DAY RUSH (Todd Pletcher).
EIGHTYFIVEINAFIFTY dazzled the slide rules in his Jan. 9 sprint win at the Big A, earning a triple-digit speed figure from the math whizzes. The son of Forest Camp carried Jorge Chavez on a sight-seeing tour in that 17-1/4 length victory, his first start since running third at Saratoga to eventual Grade 1 Hopeful winner DUBLIN (D. Wayne Lukas). Contessa gave him a two-turn work Jan. 27 at 7 furlongs for the rehearsal and all systems are "go."
If 'FIFTY is to speed away as he has shown so far to date, the early competition could get fierce with THREE DAY RUSH, who is capable of :45-and-change leadership and has class to boot. His allowance win at Gulfstream was outstanding against stablemate MISSION IMPAZIBLE, a formidable rival, though there was nothing behind those two. The son of Harlan's Holiday tired in the G3 Iroquois at a one-turn mile and even his connections admit he's a question mark at the distance, but it's time to find out as they've shipped 'RUSH from Florida.
TURF MELODY (Graham Motion) also has been well-traveled, winning the two-turn Springboard Mile at Remington Park in Oklahoma City before a flat, non-effort in the G3 Lecomte two weeks ago at New Orleans' Fair Grounds. Before you dismiss his class, note that Springboard Mile fourth RON THE GREEK (Tom Amoss) rebounded to win that Lecomte rematch, so TURF MELODY's victory in OKC was pretty solid. When a good trainer like Motion wheels a horse back quickly off a non-effort, many times he's sending the horse a message: get your mind on work.
PEPPI KNOWS (Tim Kreiser) may be based at Penn National, but his third to NOBLE'S PROMISE and second to BUDDY'S SAINT last year indicate there's some class to respect. The Stephen Got Even colt is bred to run all day and gets Richard Migliore up for the first time. The Whirlaway cast also includes AFLEET AGAIN (Robert Reid, Jr.), who is owned by Cash Is King Stable of Afleet Alex fame. The son of 'Alex beat LAUS DEO and SCHOOLYARD DREAMS in October and is proven around two turns. New York-bred PAPA'S NICE CAT will be a rank outsider, but did run a good second around two bends over this track in a time significantly faster than the Count Fleet Stakes produced despite a slower track variant.
Whirlaway Stakes selections: W) THREE DAY RUSH; P) EIGHTYFIVEINAFIFTY; S) TURF MELODY.
Last week's selections: 1-0-0-0; In The Paint ran seventh with traffic woes in the WEBN Stakes.
Season selections: 6-1-1-0. Time to pick up the pace!
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. With weather cancellations at Laurel (including the Dancing Count Stakes) and Oaklawn, as well as part of Saturday's Aqueduct card, most of the attention last weekend fell on Gulfstream Park.
Sunday's 1 1/8 miles allowance route provided a dominant performance by DROSSELMEYER (Bill Mott), who visually did it exactly how you want to see a good horse run. He's very efficient, gets down and strides out wonderfully and appeared to be push-button for Kent Desormeaux. Given the distance and visual masterpiece, this clearly was the best allowance race run this season in America, even after the scratch of PULSION (Patrick Biancone) took some starch out of the race. That rival now has been forced to train up to the Fountain of Youth due to a cough.
DROSSELMEYER rockets up my Top 20 list from No. 15 to No. 7 this week. Considering he sat a little more than two lengths off of a :46.97 opening half-mile, to come home in :12.80 the final furlong is not too shabby at Gulfstream in a final time of 1:49.52. By Distorted Humor out of superstar middle-distance mare Golden Ballet, it's fair to question if this horse has the classic distance pedigree. But the way he moves, he gets everything out of his stride and master horseman Bill Mott may have the most dangerous Triple Crown contender of his Hall of Fame career. Color me a major supporter of this one.
Speaking of well-bred Gulfstream winners last week, how about the Friday performance of Ashado's kid brother DROVER? A wire-to-wire winner on the main track at Belmont in October, the Todd Pletcher trainee sped to the front in this one-mile turf allowance and opened up a massive lead of 12 lengths down the backstretch. When the competition came to him in upper stretch, DROVER responded with a fantastic final quarter-mile in :23.61 (:11.92 and :11.69 furlongs when needed). He beat a strong field including three alumni of the G3 Tropical Park Derby in a breakout performance. DROVER galloped out pretty much on even terms with late-running FORTY NINE ACRES (Bill Kaplan). Very interesting prospect here in DROVER.
Widely-hyped AFLEET EXPRESS (Jimmy Jerkens) was his own worst enemy at the gate for the second straight race, breaking in and bumping a rival in Saturday's six-furlong allowance at Gulfstream. He made some headway on the turn and flattened out mildly late as New York-bred GENERAL MAXIMUS (Joe Imperio) took them wire-to-wire despite drifting in the stretch. GENERAL MAXIMUS is built like a truck, a true sprint body, by Freud. AFLEET EXPRESS needs to get his gate antics together if this son of Afleet Alex is to move forward.
Three horses dusted Jan. 7 by TAHITIAN WARRIOR failed to muster much serious improvement in Saturday's Race 6 mile maiden at Gulfstream, won by fresh face FIRST DUDE (Dale Romans). The Stephen Got Even colt bobbled a bit at the start and recovered quickly. While the 'DUDE's win didn't flatter TAHITIAN WARRIOR, it did further flatter Nick Zito's Churchill winner FLY DOWN, whose Nov. 28 score is turning out to be one of the most key maiden races in Countdown's five-year history. THE DIRECTOR (Zito) improved mildly to finish second behind FIRST DUDE, but failed to deliver any acceleration in a race I thought he should win mid-way on the turn. He might improve grinding out a 1 1/8 miles route, but enthusiasm is tempered.
Yes, there was a stakes run last week, the one-mile WEBN at Turfway Park, but the race was so ugly it's hard to embrace. KERA'S KITTEN (Mike Maker) rebounded off back-to-back seventh-place stakes outings in a wire-to-wire blowout. But the top three finishers led the carousel from the half-mile point over a track that produced a lot of kickback and was playing remarkably slow. Maker and owner Ken Ramsey had moved money rider John McKee to a last-out maiden winner instead of the eventual winner. Keeping it real, I don't know what to make of the WEBN.
Out west, Mike Machowsky notched his second impressive maiden winner in as many as weeks as KURO flew late in a Saturday downhill turf sprint. By Forest Camp out of a Charismatic mare, he's been purely a sprinter to this point. The barn's NEXTDOORNEIGHBOR, who impressed the week prior in a two-turn route on the main track, appears far ahead of this one right now. On Wednesday at Santa Anita, Bob Baffert ran one-two in a slow early-fast late allowance route won by CashCall Hollywood Futurity fourth-place finisher THE PROGRAM over stretch-out runner INDIAN FIREWATER. With only 5 entrants and a 1:15.12 opening six furlongs, it's hard to take anything out of this race, which sprinted home in a :23.63 and :5.89 fire drill. Impressive debut winner DISTORTED DAVE (John Sadler) took a bad step out of the gate and was rough early, and ran through the lane with his head cocked to the inside while finishing last. Perhaps something went amiss physically.
Monday's route allowance at Fair Grounds dashed any remaining hype for WALKING THE BEACH (Bret Calhoun), a ballyhooed fall Churchill maiden winner who laid his second straight egg while beating just one horse home. While his form goes south, add some love to STAY PUT (Steve Margolis) since a horse he vanquished in his Jan. 3 allowance win, HOTEP (Mark Frostad), came back to roll this group. HOTEP, a son of A.P. Indy and a full brother to last year's Queen's Plate winner Eye of the Leopard, looked visually solid running a :24.76 fourth quarter while not strongly urged and galloping out with spirit. Runner-up DOWN WITH DIXIE (Paul McGee) has now paired strong efforts since losing to FLY DOWN last fall at Churchill and continues to improve. The top two here figure to move on to the Fair Grounds stakes trail. HOTEP is being aimed right back in the Risen Star.
The Fair Grounds form of DOWN WITH DIXIE further was flattered Thursday when NORTHERN GIANT (D. Wayne Lukas) exited a third-place finish to that one and absolutely trounced a maiden route field in the slop at Oaklawn. That also plays well for STAY PUT, who defeated NORTHERN GIANT on Dec. 7 at Fair Grounds.
Broken Vow colt VOW TO WAGER (Dale Romans) tossed his name into the discussion for Turfway's Battaglia Memorial and G2 Lane's End later in the meet with a wire-to-wire maiden route win in which he took heat from the favorite every jump and finished up best. Later Sunday, Skip Away's son SKIPSHOT (Jerry Hollendorfer) made his first start since summer a sharp maiden sprint win at Golden Gate in his first start since changing barns. His time of 1:10.09 was about 6-7 lengths faster than a split division of the race the same day. Out of a Sunny's Halo mare, he may go on, but was visibly tired in the gallop out in this comeback score, but with good reason.
Also Sunday at Fair Grounds, Steve Asmussen uncorked his best-looking maiden route winner of the season at Fair Grounds Sunday in an off-the-turfer when odds-on ISLAND SOUL won stylishly under just a few pumps of the arms by Robby Albarado. By Perfect Soul out of the Carson City mare Copper Belle (who was strictly a sprinter for Carl Nafzger), it's difficult to think he's classic material for distance, but Sunday's run was a solid-enough :24.97 fourth quarter and :6.55 final sixteenth.
Finally, Asmussen notched another route score Thursday at Oaklawn when BREWER forged by front-running stablemate BUGGS PRIDE over a sloppy track. Keep an eye on fourth-place finisher A STUDENT (Mac Robertson), who was forced to rally against a sloppy track and who galloped out best of all in his first start since August.
Champion 2-year-old LOOKIN AT LUCKY (Bob Baffert) missed a few days of training last weekend with a temperature, but returned to the track Tuesday at Santa Anita. His next start won't be until March as planned ... Next week's stakes menu includes the G3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, the G3 San Vicente from Santa Anita and the G3 Southwest from Oaklawn on an extended President's Day holiday weekend ... Among those in the San Vicente gate is expected to be SIDNEY'S CANDY (John Sadler) ... MISSION IMPAZIBLE (Todd Pletcher) is among the road-trippers expected for the Southwest, where he'll meet the likes of DUBLIN (D. Wayne Lukas), who drilled a bullet Tuesday morning at Oaklawn and appears to be training lights-out ... On the Pletcher front, SUPER SAVER drilled a half-mile at Palm Meadows Sunday in :48.80 ... Godolphin pick-up TAHITIAN WARRIOR could appear in the Feb. 18 UAE 2000 Guineas at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai, racing manager Simon Crisford told the Louisville Courier-Journal recently ... LAUS DEO has been sent on a 30-day break by trainer Tony Dutrow to a farm in Ocala, jeopardizing his position on the trail, following surgery to correct a breathing problem ... PISCITELLI is off the Derby trail with a deep bone bruise ... Tampa Bay Downs upstart UPTOWNCHARLYBROWN has taken an insane amount of action in Las Vegas, dropped all the way to 25/1 odds this week at the Wynn Las Vegas, lower than such horses as WINSLOW HOMER, VALE OF YORK and SUPER SAVER, all at 30/1. 'CHARLY was 250/1 in mid-January ... Among those aiming for the Feb. 20 G2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream are BUDDY'S SAINT, JACKSON BEND, ESKENDEREYA, AIKENITE, DROSSELMEYER and PULSION.
Jeremy Plonk's Top-5 rated performances by class so far this year (Dec. 26-present).
1. LENTENOR (Gulfstream, 1/20 -- turf)
2. SAVEMYSPOTIMBETING (Gulfstream, 1/23)
3. NEXTDOORNEIGHBOR (Santa Anita, 1/24)
4. EIGHTYFIVEINAFIFTY (Aqueduct, 1/9)
5. TAHITIAN WARRIOR (Gulfstream, 1/3) * downgraded since opposition returned to run poorly *
1. DROSSELMEYER (Gulfstream, 1/31) * new *
2. STAY PUT (Fair Grounds, 1/3)
3. THREE DAY RUSH (Gulfstream, 1/9)
4. ESKENDEREYA (Gulfstream, 1/7)
5. ICE BOX (Gulfstream 1/20)
1. WINSLOW HOMER (Holy Bull, Gulfstream, 1/23) * injured; out *
2. CONVEYANCE (San Rafael, Santa Anita, 1/16)
3. RON THE GREEK (Lecomte, Fair Grounds, 1/23)
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 5 of the 2010 season
Dropped out: WINSLOW HOMER (stress fracture injury, out 60-90 days); TAHITIAN WARRIOR (writer's decision).
Countdown reader Holly K.
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.
Countdown is back for a fifth season with a weekly dissection of the 3-year-old scene all the way through the Triple Crown.