Commentary

Countdown to the Crown

Updated: February 12, 2010, 12:16 AM 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 being in the bleachers for the Daytona 500. If you try to follow every single one zipping by, you'll end up with a stiff neck and a headache.

1. Last Saturday's wardrobe malfunction of EIGHTYFIVEINAFIFTY reminds us all that this is still a game of chance, and no matter how much study and time we put into the practice of handicapping and/or horsemanship, the unknown element this time of year can be as captivating as it is frustrating.

2. After three straight two-prep Kentucky Derby winners (Street Sense, Big Brown and Mine That Bird), it's no wonder you're seeing trainers of horses like LOOKIN AT LUCKY, SUPER SAVER and BUDDY'S SAINT circling a similar spring calendar. Add in the bad weather and bad fortune of this past week and you see why many trainers are enamored with "less is more."

3. I would have loved to have seen LENTENOR among the individual wagering interests in the Pool 1 Kentucky Derby Future Wager, which runs Friday-Sunday this weekend. Speculation and thrill are what this wager is all about, and perhaps no horse typifies that more than Barbaro's kid brother. He would have been a handle and buzz generator, like him or not.

This week's fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. Because of their entry schedules, Monday's G3 Southwest at Oaklawn and G3 San Vicente at Santa Anita will not be able to be previewed in detail prior to Countdown's deadline. We'll review both races in earnest next Friday.

Monday's Southwest looks like a dandy with No. 9-ranked CONVEYANCE (Bob Baffert) and No. 20-ranked MISSION IMPAZIBLE (Todd Pletcher) among the out-of-town shippers meeting locally based No. 18 DUBLIN (D. Wyane Lukas) and Smarty Jones Stakes winner DRYFLY (Lynn Whiting). Monday's 7-furlong San Vicente could lure SYDNEY'S CANDY (John Sadler) and RAGING WIT (Bill Mott) among others.

We also have the Kentucky Derby Future Wager on tap this weekend. Among the individual wagering interests, I always say you need at least 30-1 return to dance this far out. I'd love to see DROSSELMEYER at such a price, but it won't happen. If AMERICAN LION were to run decently but get beat Saturday, he would be worth a look at an inflated price. WILLIAM'S KITTEN at 30-1 in the morning line has the most appeal to me at this stage in terms of value; that is, if owner Ken Ramsey doesn't hammer the pool and destroy those odds.

Later Friday, Feb. 12, Santa Anita puts on a fantastic allowance sprint, featuring debut winners CONCORD POINT, by Tapit, and BULLDOGGER, by Dixie Union, both for Bob Baffert. Everything that ran against CONCORD POINT to this point has come back to blaze their competition. The field also includes outstanding Cal-bred HIGH SUCCESS (Doug O'Neill).

Also at Santa Anita, Baffert will be loaded in Saturday's $55,000 Baffle Stakes for turf sprinters, where MACIAS should be a stand-out against a field that includes stablemate MARCELLO and better-than-you think VIA VERDE (John Sadler), who could rebound with a return to turf sprinting.

Gulfstream's Saturday action boasts a six-furlong maiden sprint in Race 6, headed by Smarty Jones colt ROYAL STRAIGHT (Jimmy Jerkens), who was cooked early in a well-meant debut vs. crazy-fast SAVEMYSPOTIMBETING. First-timer CHAIRMAN (Rusty Arnold) is one to watch down the road, by Giant's Causeway and out of multiple G1 winner Clear Mandate, making him a half-brother to route-loving Newfoundland.

Oaklawn features a potential stakes prep with a Race 10 allowance route on Saturday, where HATTAASH (Danny Peitz) steps up off a maiden win to face Smarty Jones Stakes also-ran WOW WOW WOW (D. Wayne Lukas) and recent allowance winner BREWER (Steve Asmussen). Keep an eye on A STUDENT (Mac Robertson), who finished up well last time when needing the race behind BREWER over a sloppy track.

At Philadelphia Park on Saturday, STRAPPING GROOM (John Servis) competes in allowance company. He was a distant second to WINSLOW HOMER late last fall. He'll meet Rock Hard Ten colt KING ROCK (Tony Dutrow), third in a salty Aqueduct heat last fall to MOOJAB and ODYSSEUS.

Bob Lewis Memorial Stakes (Saturday/Santa Anita)

Rescheduled from last Saturday's washed-out card at Santa Anita, the G2 Lewis Memorial lost two of its original seven as DOMONATION (John Sadler) instead has been sent to Oaklawn for Monday's G3 Southwest and MACIAS (Bob Baffert) has been redirected to a listed turf sprint stakes on the same SA program.

The pace scenario of the Lewis still runs through TIZ CHROME (Bob Baffert), a daylight winner of two sprints to date, but with plenty of route pedigree by Tiznow out of a Woodman mare. He'll stretch out to 1 1/16 miles for the first time, a challenge shared by likely co-favorite AMERICAN LION (Eoin Harty) and long-shot Northern California pace threat TANGO TANGO (Jerry Hollendorfer).

AMERICAN 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. TIZ CHROME, No. 19 this week, figures to rocket up the charts if he passes the class and distance test. Baffert remains very high on the colt and has flanked out his squadron to other races to clear the path for TIZ CHROME.

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 'CARA has 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. After all, he's No. 11 on my national watch list this week.

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 seven 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. But if there's one horse who has benefited most from this race being rescheduled a week later, it's DAVE IN DIXIE.

Bob Lewis Memorial Stakes selections: W) AMERICAN LION; P) CARACORTADO; S) TIZ CHROME.

Sam F. Davis Stakes (Saturday/Tampa Bay Downs)

There's good news and bad news as No. 13-rated Countdown contender RULE (Todd Pletcher) looks to rule the major Tampa Bay Derby prep on Saturday. The bad news is that RULE has never passed another horse in his three wins. The good news is that there's not another horse among the six rivals in the Sam F. Davis Stakes that possesses a need-the-lead style.

John Velazquez can call his shots on the front end of the Davis aboard RULE, and he's the only horse with graded stakes experience in the lot. Speed, rail, tactical edge and class edge: that formula usually adds up to a 2-5 winner. Pletcher has vanned proven commodities like Bluegrass Cat and Any Given Saturday to Tampa for this race and came away smiling in the winner's circle.

Local leaders UPTOWNCHARLYBROWN (Alan Seewald) and SCHOOLYARD DREAMS (Derek Ryan), along with SILVER CRAFT (Tony Reinstedler) all possess qualities that lead you to believe they can win this race with some improvement. Hot speed duels fueled both of the sprint wins by 'CHARLY, including a blowout in the Pasco Stakes. This two-turn race will have a decidedly different look about it, which means 'CHARLY could be an underlay of the toteboard (bettors tend to flock to big win margins like his).

SILVER CRAFT broke in the air in the Pasco (not noted in the past performances inexplicably) and made a strong mid-race move before flattening out. He could be sneaky-good on the stretch-out for a barn that does much better with its routers historically.

SCHOOLYARD DREAMS really worked hard in his Jan. 9 return win, but figured to need the race. The addition of blinkers Saturday likely comes directly from his lugging in during that comeback stretch run. With hustling rider Cornelio Velaszquez now in the saddle and the shades on from post 2, expect 'DREAMS to be the horse closest pursuing RULE early and get first run if he's good enough. His workouts since the return try have been sensational.

The Davis X-factor has to be MIDDLE OF THE NITE (Tom Albertrani), last seen running third to top-class ESKENDEREYA at Gulfstream. The Offlee Wild colt has a router's pedigree and should negotiate two turns on the stretch-out for the first time. Edgar Prado makes the trip to ride, a positive sign.

Sam F. Davis Stakes selections: W) RULE; P) SCHOOLYARD DREAMS; S) SILVER CRAFT.

Last week's selections: 1-0-0-1; Three Day Rush finished third in a troubled Whirlaway Stakes run.

Season selections: 7-1-1-1.

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 www.HorseplayerNOW.com.

Everyone's a critic

This section recaps the week that was for the sophomore set. In this particular edition, it's more like the week that wasn't.

The much-anticipated stakes debut of EIGHTYFIVEINAFIFTY in the Whirlaway was doomed seconds after the start, and Saturday's Grade 2 Bob Lewis Memorial Stakes at Santa Anita was doomed by the time Al Roker finished his Saturday forecast. The silver lining is that 'FIFTY suffered only superficial cuts when plowing through the rail and running amuck in the stable area, and the Lewis will be renewed this weekend.

After 14 stitches to his right-hind leg, EIGHTYFIVEINAFIFTY should be fine and miss only a week of on-track training time, according to trainer Gary Contessa. But even the skipper doesn't know what will be inside the head of his superstar sophomore when he returns to work. The best trait for this particular Triple Crown hopeful may not be speed or class, but rather a short-term memory. Stay tuned.

As for the Whirlaway itself, the victory by PEPPI KNOWS (Tim Kreiser) is more of a "Who Knows?" than anything definitive. When EIGHTYFIVEINAFIFTY blew the clubhouse turn, he took second choice THREE DAY RUSH (Todd Pletcher) about 7 or 8 paths wide and had to put fear in his eyes. A question mark routing to begin with, THREE DAY RUSH did not offer much oomph in the stretch run, but still was beaten only 1-1/2 lengths. All told, he should have punched this field out if he was good enough, but the trip does provide some excuses. And while it's easy to dismiss a Penn National-based winner in a slow 1:47.10 for 1-1/16 miles, keep in mind that PEPPI KNOWS has an outstanding route pedigree (by Stephen Got Even out of a Seeking the Gold mare), was second in the 9-furlong Grade 2 Remsen last fall, and also grabbed a quarter in winning Saturday's bizarrofest. He'll likely be disrespected in the G3 Gotham on March 6.

Sunday's Hallandale Beach Stakes on the Gulfstream Park turf was exactly the kind of prep race you want to see a horse get in a comeback to start the campaign. Slowly run early over a forgiving racing surface, the Hallandale Beach came down to a three-furlong display where heavily favored INTERACTIF (Todd Pletcher) came up a nose short against 3-time stakes winner BIM BAM (David Brownlee), who had the advantage of a recent start. The duo flew home in :22.35 the fourth quarter and :5.61 the last half-furlong. INTERACTIF runs much like past Pletcher turf ace English Channel, with his head high and a reckless abandon. If INTERACTIF can "channel" that as he develops like his predecessor, watch out. Brownlee said BIM BAM will stay on grass in the March 6 Palm Beach, while INTERACTIF would be a prime candidate on any surface moving forward.

Also at Gulfstream, Saturday's Donn Handicap day was loaded with undercard 3-year-old races. Spectacular Bid runner-up WILDCAT FRANKIE (Jim Hatchett) wired a 1-mile allowance cast in a slow 1:38.51 that came home in an obscenely weak :27.57 final quarter-mile that looked equally weak to the eye. Hatchett wisely has indicated the 7-furlong Swale would be next. BANK THE EIGHT (Tony Dutrow), blitzed by ESKEDEREYA (Todd Pletcher) last month, improved with blinkers but was out of his element trying to sprint with 'FRANKIE. He'll do fine around 2 bends.

LONESOME STREET (Mike Maker), third to DROSSELMEYER in a salty Keeneland route last fall, pulled away late to win a turf maiden mile in Saturday's Gulfstream Park Race 5. In that race, PERSON OF INTEREST (Rick Dutrow) managed a fifth-place run, beaten less than 3 lengths, after he had previously finished second to Barbaro's kid brother LENTENOR (Michael Matz) on Jan. 20. So while DROSSELMEYER had his form flattered in Race 5, the next race on the card went a long way to validate the Jan. 14 maiden win of ODYSSEUS (Tom Albertrani). Horses exiting that race finished first, second and fourth on Saturday, led by winner DAY OF DESTINY (Chad Brown). The winner has a slick pedigree by Distorted Humor out of the Kris S. mare Sweet Kiss, a route stakes winner.

Gulfstream's week of racing also included a reputation boost for SAINT ELIGIUS' Jan. 15 turf victory when SAINT JUDE, the runner-up that day, returned Wednesday to break his maiden at nine grassy furlongs for trainer David Vivian. SAINT ELIGIUS (Kiaran McLaughlin) now has seen the second and third-place finishers from his Gulfstream Park score return victorious.

At Oaklawn Sunday, Riley Allison Futurity also-ran CALIBRACHOA (Steve Asmussed) impressed with a romping allowance sprint win by 4-1/4 lengths in 1:11.97, one of the fastest times of the meeting for 6 furlongs. Among those in his wake were SONAR (Tim Ritchey), an impressive maiden winner over the track, and BRASSY BOY (Steve Hobby), third in the G3 Bashford Manor last summer. CALIBRACHOA has only sprinted, but his sire Southern Image won the Big Cap and Pimlico Special, and this colt hails from the same female family as Bellamy Road. On Saturday in Hot Springs, THUNDER JACK (Bret Calhoun) debuted a smart winner over HENRY'S TUNE (D. Wayne Lukas), the latter a legitimate contender who had banged heads last year with horses like BRIDGETOWN, AIKENITE and TIZ CHROME. The top pair dueled from the bell with THUNDER JACK pulling away in the stretch in 1:12.70, a solid time over a very tiring and slow Oaklawn track. While 'JACK is by Golden Missile, he's out of a sprinter's female side; so extra ground might not be advantageous.

Last Friday's Santa Anita program boasted what might have been the meet's best maiden special weight in the division so far, but I'm not sure the result bore that out. BOULDER CREEK (Craig Dollase) gutted out the victory in 1:44.41 for 1 1/16 miles, but ran only a few lengths quicker than bottom maiden claimers did earlier in the card. Regally bred firsters MARENZIO, a son of Giant's Causeway-Bella Bellucci, and DONTSELLMETOFELONS, the half-brother to I Want Revenge, both were dead on the board and complete no-shows. BOULDER CREEK may reappear in the Sham Stakes or the Borderland Derby, and the son of Tapit runs as though distance will suit him.

The "week that wasn't" also featured a Black Gold Stakes at Fair Grounds on Saturday that was washed off the turf and on to the main track. COMEDERO (Mike Stidham) was scratched at the gate, leaving Illinois-bred ROYAL EXPRESS (Spanky Broussard) a lonesome speed player in a field of just four. No route aspirations for these.

They did route in Saturday's Race 10 maiden at Fair Grounds, where winner FAST ALEX (Greg Geier), a son of Afleet Alex, overcame a terribly slow pace to break his maiden at second-asking. FAST ALEX has a sharp route pedigree in the colors of Kentucky Derby-winning owner Jim Tafel of Street Sense fame, but was not visually jaw-dropping in this race. Bet-back special BERBERIS (Steve Asmussen) was wide on both turns in his first route attempt when a close third.

Sunday's Aqueduct card launched New York-bred YAWANNA TWIST (Rick Dutrow) into the stakes discussion after a second straight blowout sprint win to open his career. By sprinter Yonaguska, he gets some stamina from damsire Oliver's Twist, a Preakness runner-up. Dam Twist and Pop was a 1-1/16 miles stakes winner at Monmouth.

Finally, Thursday's card at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai featured MENDIP (Saeed bin Suroor) capturing a 7-furlong allowance to go 2-for-2 lifetime on the all-weather surfaces. The Triple Crown nominee by Harlan's Holiday is from an all-sprint female family; his grand dam is Chaposa Springs. Bin Suroor said afterward the horse shows speed in the morning, but can be a bit hot in the paddock. It's hard for me to imagine MENDIP at 1-1/4 miles after this hard-working win.

Quick Hitters

Next week's stakes menu includes the Fountain of Youth and Hutcheson from Gulfstream, the Risen Star at Fair Grounds and the Arizona Derby at Turf Paradise ... The probable/possible line-up for the Fountain of Youth: BUDDY'S SAINT, JACKSON BEND, AIKENITE, ESKENDEREYA, DROSSELMEYER (or Risen Star Stakes), PULSION, WILLIAMS KITTEN and PLEASANT PRINCE ... BUDDY'S SAINT (Bruce Levine) smoked six furlongs Sunday in 1:12.68 at Gulfstream Park as he readies for the Fountain of Youth. The Remsen champ will work again Saturday or Sunday this weekend to cap off his preparations ... Fellow Fountain hopeful WILLIAM'S KITTEN (Mike Maker) worked a half-mile in :48.15 Saturday at Gulfstream, while PULSION (Patrick Biancone) drilled 6 furlongs in 1:11 flat Tuesday and will have Mike Smith in from the West Coast to ride ... The Risen Star is expected to include DISCREETLY MINE (Todd Pletcher) and TEMPTED TO TAPIT (Steve Klesaris) invading from Florida against top locals STAT PUT (Steve Margolis), RON THE GREEK (Tom Amoss), MAXIMUS RULER (Clark Hanna), HOTEP (Mark Frostad) and LETSGETITONMON (Steve Asmussen) ... The Hutcheson is expected to feature D'FUNNYBONE and A LITTLE WARM in a Dutrow Brothers bash ... SUPER SAVER (Todd Pletcher) breezed a half-mile Sunday at Palm Meadows in :48.20 and could make his '10 return in next month's G3 Gotham at Aqueduct or G2 Rebel at Oaklawn ... Breeders' Cup Juvenile third-place finisher NOBLE'S PROMISE (Ken McPeek) had his first Florida work of 2010 Saturday with a 3-furlong breeze in :37 flat ... Champion 2-year-old LOOKIN AT LUCKY, still a month away from his '10 return, was back on the workout tab Tuesday when he breezed three furlongs in :36.60 for Bob Baffert, the trainer reportedly clocking him in :50 for a half-mile.

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)
3. NEXTDOORNEIGHBOR (Santa Anita, 1/24)
4. EIGHTYFIVEINAFIFTY (Aqueduct, 1/9)
5. TAHITIAN WARRIOR (Gulfstream, 1/3)

Allowance Race
1. DROSSELMEYER (Gulfstream, 1/31)
2. STAY PUT (Fair Grounds, 1/3)
3. ESKENDEREYA (Gulfstream, 1/7)
4. ICE BOX (Gulfstream, 1/20)
5. CALIBRACHOA (Oaklawn, 2/7) * new *
Eliminated: THREE DAY RUSH (Gulfstream, 1/9) * runners all returned to fare poorly. *

Stakes Race
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 6 of the 2010 season

1. LOOKIN AT LUCKY

11. CARACORTADO

2. SUPER SAVER

12. NEXTDOORNEIGHBOR

3. AMERICAN LION

13. RULE

4. WILLIAM'S KITTEN

14. ESKENDEREYA

5. BUDDY'S SAINT

15. FLY DOWN

6. LENTENOR

16. RON THE GREEK

7. DROSSELMEYER

17. MAXIMUS RULER

8. JACKSON BEND

18. DUBLIN

9. CONVEYANCE

19. TIZ CHROME (new)

10. STAY PUT

20. INTERACTIF (new)

Dropped out: VALE OF YORK (camp non-committal about Derby aspirations), SAVEMYSPOTIMBETING (not nominated to Triple Crown and slow to return to workout tab).

Countdown reader Rich in Placentia, Calif.

1. LOOKIN AT LUCKY

11. NOBLE'S PROMISE

2. BUDDY'S SAINT

12. STAY PUT

3. RULE

13. LAUS DEO

4. SUPER SAVER

14. DUBLIN

5. JACKSON BEND

15. INTERACTIF

6. AMERICAN LION

16. VALE OF YORK

7. ESKENDEREYA

17. D'FUNNYBONE

8. CONVEYANCE

18. MAXIMUS RULER

9. DROSSELMEYER

19. WILLIAM'S KITTEN

10. UH OH BANGO

20. TIZ CHROME

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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