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 having 50,000 trading cards of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta printed to commemorate an occasion. The idea may be great, but often it takes only one pinhead to spoil it.
1. Turns out that Smart Strike colts CAN win big races on synthetics and dirt, ala LOOKIN AT LUCKY in last Saturday's G2 Rebel at Oaklawn. Guess that blows a hole in the argument that the carpet single-handedly beat Curlin in the 2008 Breeders' Cup. You might recall, Curlin also was sired by Smart Strike. You can't have it both ways, surface haters.
2. Anyone worried about the "sudden exodus" from California preps this year to other locales around the country needs a quick reminder. Horses like Empire Maker, Fusaichi Pegasus, Congaree, Lion Heart, Wimbledon, Master David, Great Hunter, Sinister Minister, Bob and John, Greeley's Galaxy, Borrego, Gayego, Ten Most Wanted, and many, many more all were taken east from the California DIRT tracks in the decade of the 2000s. It ain't new; and it ain't all about dirt.
3. Say what you want about the six-week gap between the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby as a negative to luring the nation's best 3-year-olds, but the biggest race in America on Saturday not held at Gulfstream Park is the Grade 2 $150,000 San Luis Rey Handicap for turf marathoners. If Gulfstream doesn't have a massive handle day Saturday, I'll be shocked.
This week's fearless forecast
This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. Now that we're into late March, we'll focus solely on the stakes races that become increasingly important. In the event of a big undercard performance, you'll read about it in Countdown's review section next week.
Saturday's G2 Swale at 7 furlongs likely won't have much Triple Crown bearing, but it certainly has a field deeper in proven credentials than the Florida Derby (six stakes winners are entered). The only problem is a little obstacle called distance. D'FUNNYBONE (Rick Dutrow) figures to be strongly favored, and don't be surprised if he's groomed to a Preakness date if he progresses. He exits a handy score in the Hutcheson against what appeared to be a stronger field than this. Long shot SILVER CRAFT (Tony Reinstedler) wisely passed the Tampa Bay Derby last week and is working sharply for a sprint return. He could be dangerous coming on late.
At Laurel, the Private Terms Stakes matches potential Preakness hopefuls and Rick Dutrow also has the heavy favorite in that one, DON'T BLAME THE CAT. He re-matches with Miracle Wood Stakes runner-up REGAL WARRIOR (Mike Trombetta) in this one-turn mile.
G1 Florida Derby (Saturday/Gulfstream)
When ESKENDEREYA (Todd Pletcher) was re-aimed to the Wood Memorial, the Florida Derby lost starpower, but gained considerable horsepower. The field exploded to 11 entrants, several of which are upstarts with a chance to launch their Triple Crown candidacy. All eyes remain on the TAP stable with RULE, who holds a credentials edge that's unmistakable. RULE aims for his fourth straight stakes win, while the other 10 horses in the race own a combined 1-for-11 lifetime mark in stakes company.
It's as easy as RULE then, right? I'm not so certain. Whereas RULE got away with :24 and :24-3/5 internal fractions in the Sam F. Davis Stakes last month, the Florida Derby pace could get downright kiln-like. We're talking about a colt who has never passed another horse in a race from any point of call to another in RULE. It's not to say he can't, but rather to say this is no tap-in putt for birdie.
Pace certainly comes from GAME ON DUDE (Michael Mareina) and FIRST DUDE (Dale Romans), two rising upstarts who have worlds of talent and a good early lick. BEST ACTOR (Wayne Catalano) and RADIOHEAD (Rick Dutrow) also are fast horses with terrible post draws, likely to be used early to keep from being hung wide on the first turn. MINER'S RESERVE (Nick Zito) also is no slouch in terms of gifted speed.
As a strong pace-makes-the-race proponent, I'm forced to look elsewhere as a handicapper. The two best options from the second flight of horses figure to be the well-drawn LENTENOR (Michael Matz) and the sneaky-good Fountain of Youth alumnus ICE BOX (Nick Zito). Both are training exceptionally well for respected horsemen. LENTENOR will not provide value, that's for certain, as Barbaro's kid brother will be a sentimental choice for many. But my appreciation for LENTENOR has nothing to do with the 2006 domination of Barbaro, but rather an explosiveness I saw in his maiden win on the grass Jan. 20. For trainer Matz to speak in glowing terms about this horse and put him in this spot is very unlike the measured nature of that master horseman.
ICE BOX won't have the sentimental dollars, but overlook him at your own risk. He made a fantastic middle-move in the Fountain of Youth that kind of gets hidden in the past performances. With the pace setup today, the front-runners figure to come back to the pack more than ESKENDEREYA did in the Fountain when he ran away and hid. ICE BOX has proven in two runs at the distance to be about a 1:50-flat kind of runner for 1-1/8 miles, and unless the track is souped up beyond belief Saturday, no one if this field looks to be a 1:48-type. So he's in the discussion, especially if the pace melts down.
Talent-wise I prefer LENTENOR to ICE BOX of that mid-pack posse. But from a betting and value standpoint, you could be looking at three times the price (5-1 vs. 15-1) on ICE BOX. That's hard to walk away from as a horseplayer.
Florida Derby selections: W) ICE BOX; P) LENTENOR; S) RULE.
Last week's selections: 3-1-0-1; Lookin At Lucky won the Rebel, Super Saver finished third in the Tampa Bay Derby and American Lion ran fourth in the San Felipe.
Season selections: 19-4-3-3.
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. An ankle chip has derailed an ugly spring for BUDDY'S SAINT. Last year's Remsen winner is off the Derby trail.
Rebel Stakes (Oaklawn, March 13)
You want a two-prep campaign in this modern era? Then you better take notice of Oaklawn's G2 Rebel, where comebackers LOOKIN AT LUCKY (Bob Baffert) and NOBLE'S PROMISE (Kenny McPeek) got exactly what they needed in a stirring, one-two finish. The Rebel had class, traffic and a run-through-the-wire finish that should help both horses reach their "bottoms" by Derby day.
Rarely will you see a midseason Triple Crown trail prep with three Grade 1 winners in the field, but in the top three eventual finishers, that's exactly what the Rebel boasted. Let's take the top three finishers in order of evaluation.
LOOKIN AT LUCKY was pestered early by a rank CARDIFF GIANT from the inside and got his trip underway in uncertain terms. While the 2-year-old champion appeared to be bounding and climbing a bit on the backstretch, it took him a while to get a hold of the going. Heading into the far turn, 'LUCKY was knocked completely off stride and almost threw jockey Garrett Gomez out of the saddle when NOBLE'S PROMISE and Robby Albarado came out into his path.
LOOKIN AT LUCKY lost two lengths of race position at a critical time of the race, heading into the far turn, when DUBLIN and NOBLE'S PROMISE took off in tandem after the pacesetters. The trouble forced 'LUCKY to be angled five-wide at the quarter-pole, yet he straightened out in the lane and made a determined close to get the photo victory. What a great ride by Gomez to save ground on the turn after the mishap and wait to angle out. That's a world-class rider.
NOBLE'S PROMISE had a much easier trip than the winner, but take nothing away from this gritty comeback race. 'PROMISE galloped out on absolute even terms with winner, and I really liked the way he cornered sharply turning for home, where he didn't lose an inch. The more I watch the race, the more I like him. My pre-Rebel concern with NOBLE'S PROMISE was that he maybe was a win-early 2-year-old who may not advance at age 3. But that looks to be more of a fear than a fact. Pedigree or not, disrespect him at your own peril moving forward.
Seemingly everyone's hot horse coming out of the Southwest, DUBLIN raced 4-wide on both turns of the Rebel and moved completely up and down, action-wise, from just inside the 1/16th pole to the wire. He had no traffic issues whatsoever, but did have some ground loss. In a seven-horse field, you have to be handy enough to avoid that on both turns. The suspicion that he's not a classic-distance horse appears to be playing out as true. DUBLIN (D. Wayne Lukas) falls out of the Countdown Top 20 this week.
UH OH BANGO (Kory Owens) and CARDIFF GIANT (Jorge Periban) both were rank early and failed to muster much resistance the final quarter-mile. 'BANGO was making his first start of the year, but will have to be infinitely better against a likely tougher field in the Arkansas Derby. 'CARDIFF heads home to Santa Anita as a long shot.
The internal splits and final time of the Rebel proved solid over an Oaklawn track playing rather slow all season. The splits of :23.64, :24.06, :24.65, :24.56 and :6.15 were pretty rhythmic in nature and rock-solid. The final time of 1:43.06 was more than 3 lengths faster than top 3-year-old fillies No Such Word and Beautician posted in the same-day Honeybee Stakes, and the Rebel actually came home about 8 lengths faster than that race from the half-mile marker to the wire. This time also was about 2 lengths faster than older, second-level allowance horses ran on the same card.
LOOKIN AT LUCKY or NOBLE'S PROMISE would be individual standouts in the Arkansas Derby next time out, but 'LUCKY could be headed to the Santa Anita Derby instead as Plan B. I give the Rebel the nod as the most important prep of last week based on its Derby-like trip.
San Felipe (Santa Anita, March 13)
Saturday's G2 San Felipe did not have a trio of Grade 1 winners like the G2 Rebel, but its field appeared to have more depth with five serious Triple Crown trail candidates lined up. In the end, pace made the race, but the winner left a remarkable impression nonetheless.
SIDNEY'S CANDY (John Sadler) ran one of the most spectacular fourth quarters in memory at :22.73, no matter how slow they went early in Saturday's G2 San Felipe Stakes. Lone speed is dangerous, indeed, but it's not like SIDNEY got away with a 1:15 opening six furlongs, rather a comfortable 1:13.53.
Runner-up INTERACTIF (Todd Pletcher) now has put together back-to-back efforts that leave him battle-tested. What's dangerous about INTERACTIF is that he showed brilliance at age 2, and when you combine brilliance and battle-tested, you have two dangerous B's of a Derby contender. He'll head next to Keeneland's Blue Grass and be strictly the horse to beat.
Third-place finisher and beaten favorite CARACORTADO didn't have the perfect set-up this time like he did in the Bob Lewis Memorial, but it's not that he needs it completely. In San Felipe hindsight, CARACORTADO should have been able to out-quicken INTERACTIF for the place money, no excuses, and simply couldn't on this day.
To his credit, CARACORTADO was the only San Felipe runner in the lane to maintain a straight and true course, showing that he was not tired in the least bit. SIDNEY'S CANDY drifted out late, while INTERACTIF did not corner sharply, drifted out in upper stretch and then came in slightly in a zig-zag journey through the lane. CARACORTADO and SIDNEY'S CANDY would be serious threats coming back in the Santa Anita Derby and the edge will go to the horse who trains and develops best out of this race until then.
AMERICAN LION was beaten 4-1/2 lengths in fourth, but it seems so much more distance than that. He was not very settled in the gate or coming out of it, and that's disastrous for a horse in a 20-horse Kentucky Derby projection. Rank and bounced around early going into the first turn, AMERICAN LION once again couldn't find a running style and get comfortable. That's going to be major trouble at the highest level in huge fields. And with perhaps the most patient-handling rider in America aboard, Julien Leparoux, I'm not sure where you turn. He's got talent, but the 'LION doesn't have it all together. I could see his Triple Crown plans scrapped, or given one more shot in the Blue Grass back east.
Late-running Lewis Memorial runner-up DAVE IN DIXIE showed nothing in the San Felipe and would need something dramatic in his preparations over the next month for me to totally reconsider.
As for the split times and clocking of the San Felipe, check out the fractions of :24.39, :24.16,:24.98,:22.73 and :6.04. The dawdling third quarter breather really set the table for SIDNEY'S CANDY to explode when Joe Talamo called upon him. The final time of 1:42.30 matched up identically with older allowance runner One Track Mind, who won another 1-1/16 miles race on the card in similar splits and front-running style. That race also offered a lone-speed horse on paper.
Tampa Bay Derby (Tampa Bay Downs, March 13)
If you're confused watching the replay of Saturday's G3 Tampa Bay Derby, don't fret -- you've got company. As perplexed as I was trying to figure out this goofball finish, it appears to be a fraction of the confusion that jockey Daniel Centeno felt while riding in it. We'll get to that in a second. And everyone from the track announcer to thousands watching around the world were confused when ODYSSEUS' number was put up over SCHOOLYARD DREAMS (Derek Ryan) after the photo finish was developed.
The entire, seven-horse field finished within 3-3/4 lengths at the wire, and the race had a legitimate pace in it that typically stretches a field out and does not elicit a herd photo. Races that look like this at the wire most often are incredibly slow early and invite everyone to the final sixteenth's block party. But SUPER SAVER (Todd Pletcher) did his part when he tossed :23.52 and :23.50 opening quarter-miles on the teletimer.
Daniel Centeno had no idea what to do from the rail with UPTOWNCHARLYBROWN, initially trying to bully out to the 2-path and get outside SUPER SAVER into the first turn. But he brushed with a rival, panicked and then tried to zag back inside and find a spot. Rajiv Maragh, aboard ODYSSEUS, then aggressively rode to keep 'CHARLY tucked in a bad spot behind SUPER SAVER the entire length of the backstretch. While Maragh was busy in his personal match race with Centeno behind SUPER SAVER, Jeremy Rose came flying wide with SCHOOLYARD DREAMS on the far turn in a move that Maragh didn't see or anticipate.
Rose then quickly struck 'DREAMS twice left-handed at the very top of the lane and then put the stick away the entire rest of the stretch run, cocking the stick a few times but opting not to use it. He went to a pumping hand ride the last 100 yards and was nosed in a bizarrely unlucky head-bob.
UPTOWNCHARLYBROWN, meanwhile, never found a clear path in the lane, either, and while he never had a chance to let loose in this one, he did gallop out as well as the top pair, ODYSSEUS and SCHOOLYARD DREAMS. If you like 'CHARLY, now is not the time to give up on him. He's green and received no favors in the saddle Saturday. But be realistic in that he still has to grow up strongly in the next month to factor in Louisville.
Front-running SUPER SAVER didn't cave, but didn't run like a championship-caliber horse either. His gallop-out didn't measure close to the top pair or 'CHARLY. SUPER SAVER received a crafty ride from Ramon Dominguez, who did his best to bait those behind him into bad spots and make those outside challengers stay a path or two wider than need-be. But it was not enough when giving away six pounds to his rivals.
No way can I keep SUPER SAVER near his perch last week at No. 3 in the rankings, which was based on the brilliant end to his 2-year-old season and anticipation of advancement at age 3. That's not to say he's not Triple Crown worthy, but SUPER SAVER needs a decided move forward in the next month, or else he'll be incinerated in the Derby pace. Of course, that's been the plan with SUPER SAVER all season -- to start out slow and peak in May. At least we know he's not over the top at this point.
ODYSSEUS could train up to the Kentucky Derby, but I would completely throw him out if so. After only four career starts, he's faced a grand total of 11 rivals in his two route victories. He could use the experience after this green, but determined, win. Another big performance from ODYSSEUS in the Wood Memorial and you could be looking at a serious horse on the first Saturday in May, but he's not there yet.
SCHOOLYARD DREAMS remains as honest as they come, much like stablemate Musket Man from a year ago. He deserved to win this race, and it's reasonable to question the ride through the stretch after assuming the lead. Rose could have been more aggressive and put away the field.
As for the fractions and final times, consider the splits of :23.52, ::23.50,:24.72, :25.68, and :6.89. Undeniably, the Tampa Bay Derby fell apart late, especially compared to what we saw at Oaklawn and Santa Anita in the other major preps last week. But the final time of 1:44.31 was solid when you consider that red-hot Diva Delite managed only 1:46.10 in the G3 Florida Oaks in the previous race.
The final verdict on the Tampa Bay Derby is that all these runners have a level of validation they need to stamp one more time, but there's plenty of talent on the surface.
A few undercard horses last week were worth noting. TIZ THE ONE (Chad Brown) remained unbeaten in two starts with an easy, wire-to-wire mile allowance score Sunday at Gulfstream over stakes-placed ALLEZ REEF (Eddie Plesa). The Triple Crown nominee by Tiznow could be an interesting late addition to the fray, but has a predominantly sprint female family. Also note that Steve Asmussen uncorked his best-looking 3-year-old of 2010 on Saturday at Fair Grounds, albeit a filly, when DEVILS HUMOR romped to a debut sprint win. She's by Distorted Humor out of G1 winner Fleet Renee and could be any kind.
Next week's menu offers the G2 Louisiana Derby from Fair Grounds, the G2 Lane's End from Turfway, the G3 UAE Derby from Meydan Racecourse in Dubai and Sunday's G3 Sunland Park Derby ... DISCREETLY MINE (Todd Pletcher), the Risen Star winner, logged a slow 5-furlong breeze Sunday in 1:04.20 at Palm Meadows ... TEMPTED TO TAPIT (Steve Klesaris) has posted a series of fast drills since his Risen Star second, including a :59.90 move for 5F last Sunday. He'll be part of a fast pace in the Sunland Park Derby vs. CONVEYANCE (Bob Baffert) ... DROSSELMEYER (Bill Mott) has breezed the past two Sundays at Payson Park since finishing fourth in the Risen Star, most recently a slow five-eighths in 1:03.40 on March 14 ... Shin issues will sideline Louisiana Derby hopeful FAST ALEX (Greg Geier), who now is off the trail ... Lion Heart's little brother CONNEMARA (Todd Pletcher), aiming for next week's Lane's End at Turfway, had his first drill since winning the El Camino Real Derby when he worked a strong half-mile in :48.40 at Santa Anita last Saturday ... Sham Stakes winner ALPHIE'S BET (Alexis Barba) remains on course for the Santa Anita Derby, despite rumors he was sold for $1 million that were later denied ... WHO'S UP (Kathy Walsh), off since winning the G3 Generous last fall at Hollywood Park, is being pointed for a return in the Santa Anita Derby ... Rick Dutrow plans on training HOMEBOYKRIS, last year's Champagne winner, up to the Kentucky Derby off of one allowance race this year. The Feb. 27 to May 1 layoff, with a single, one-turn prep, is the most audacious and historically disrespectful campaign yet in this lightly-raced era.
Jeremy Plonk's Top-5 rated performances by class so far this year (Dec. 26-present). Maiden and allowance races have now been dropped as we're in serious stakes-prep mode.
1. ESKENDEREYA (Fountain of Youth, Gulfstream, 2/20)
2. LOOKIN AT LUCKY (Rebel, Oaklawn, 3/13) * new *
3. SIDNEY'S CANDY (San Felipe, Santa Anita, 3/13) * new *
4. CARACORTADO (Bob Lewis Memorial, Santa Anita, 2/13)
5. SIDNEY'S CANDY (San Vicente, Santa Anita, 2/15)
Where are they headed?
This new section tabs the upcoming final preps and who might be in attendance.
Louisiana Derby (Mar. 27, FG): DISCREETLY MINE, DROSSELMEYER, STAY PUT, RON THE GREEK, HOTEP, MISSION IMPAZIBLE, THE PROGRAM, LETSGETITONMON, A LITTLE WARM, WOW WOW WOW, MISTER MARDI GRAS.
Lane's End (Mar. 27, TP): CONNEMARA, NORTHERN GIANT, DEAN'S KITTEN, VOW TO WAGER, QUIET ALL AMERICAN, CODOY (or Rushaway or Blue Grass), IN THE PAINT (or Rushaway), DOUBLES PARTNER, NOAH'S DREAM.
Sunland Park Derby (Mar. 28, SUN): CONVEYANCE, TEMPTED TO TAPIT, NEXTDOORNEIGHBOR, RAISE THE BRIDLE, STORMING SAINT, NACHO FRIEND, POSSE POWER, FOG ALERT, DESERT LORD.
Santa Anita Derby (April 3, SA): SIDNEY'S CANDY, CARACORTADO, ALPHIE'S BET, SETSUKO, WHO'S UP, LOOKIN AT LUCKY (or Arkansas Derby), THOMAS BAINES, POSSE POWER, CARDIFF GIANT, OUTLAW MAN (or Blue Grass).
Wood Memorial (April 3, AQU): ESKENDEREYA, ODYSSEUS (or Kentucky Derby), JACKSON BEND, AWESOME ACT, YAWANNA TWIST, SUPER SAVER (or Arkansas Derby), AMERICAN LION (or Illinois Derby or Arkansas Derby).
Illinois Derby (April 3, HAW): BACKTALK, I'VE GOT THE FEVER, SCHOOLYARD DREAMS, AMERICAN LION (or Wood or Arkansas Derby).
Blue Grass (April 10, KEE): INTERACTIF, AIKENITE, MAKE MUSIC FOR ME, OUTLAW MAN (or Santa Anita Derby), DAVE IN DIXIE (or Arkansas Derby).
Arkansas Derby (April 10, OP): LOOKIN AT LUCKY( Santa Anita Derby), NOBLE'S PROMISE, SUPER SAVER (or Wood), DUBLIN, UH OH BANGO, AMERICAN LION (or Illinois Derby or Wood).
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 11 of the 2010 season
Dropped out: BUDDY'S SAINT (injury), DUBLIN (writer's decision), DAVE IN DIXIE (writer's decision).
Others On the brink: AIKENITE, BACKTALK, AWESOME ACT, UPTOWNCHARLYBROWN.
Countdown reader Erika T. in Hot Springs, Arkansas
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.