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 nailing 20-1 winner ICE BOX in the Florida Derby. To many, you're only as good as your last one.
1. The most important horse on the 2010 Triple Crown trail so far is -- drumroll please -- WOW WOW WOW. He brings serious pace to Saturday's Louisiana Derby and opens it up for closers to qualify for the Kentucky Derby in a year loaded with nothing but speed-types. He single-handedly enflames the La Derby pace scenario, and that's a game-changer.
2. Remember when everyone assumed Todd Pletcher owned the 2010 trail? He's down to two seriously legitimate bullets from this eye, ESKENDEREYA and INTERACTIF. But, those are two awfully potent bullets, fans. Either could challenge Bandini as the strongest horse TAP has brought to Louisville. Remember him winning the 2005 Blue Grass by 6 and with pedigree to burn?
3. My salute to Gulfstream Park for a full field in the Florida Derby and a massive handle day that was way up over last year's comparable. That's not easy in this racing economy. The decision to move the race back and avoid conflicts with this week's massive prep and Dubai World Cup calendar was highly commendable. Whether or not any of the Florida Derby's alumni succeed on Kentucky Derby Day will have very little to do with those extra seven days of "race rust." And besides, for every Big Brown or Barbaro to march down the Gulfstream pike in recent years, there's been a Scat Daddy, Friends Lake or Hal's Hope. You can't circle a date on your calendar and produce a superstar, but you sure can give your business a chance to succeed.
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.
A worldwide quartet of graded stakes races makes this the richest weekend so far this year in graded-stakesdom. An American trifecta of the G2 Louisiana Derby, G2 Lane's End and G3 Sunland Park Derby combine for more than $2 million in graded money, while the G2 UAE Derby at Dubai's Meydan Racecourse offers $2 million on its own. I'm not going to get wild on advance handicapping the UAE Derby, but rather invite you to join me for live analysis of the entire Dubai World Cup card on Saturday morning during RaceChat. You can access the chat and join in at NTRA.com. Godolphin's MENDIP (Saeed bin Suroor) headlines the 1-3/16 miles test.
G2 Louisiana Derby (Saturday/Louisiana Downs)
If you believe pace makes the race, and you should, then disregarding the Feb. 20 G2 Risen Star's importance as a Louisiana Derby prep seems logical. DISCREETLY MINE (Todd Pletcher) called all his own shots on the pace that day, but Saturday's 1-1/8 miles race figures to be a much greater challenge than just the additional sixteenth of a mile in distance.
WOW WOW WOW (D. Wayne Lukas) has fantastic early speed, while horses like A LITTLE WARM (Tony Dutrow) and THE PROGRAM (Bob Baffert) are naturally blessed with early lick as well. Throw in sprinter BACKTRACK (Gary Scherer), who drew post 12 and likely will be hustled early. It's a fast pace, folks.
DISCREETLY MINE may be good enough to handle all that, but I have serious doubts. Picking up six pounds to 122 this weekend won't help the cause either. He looks extremely vulnerable to me and the bet here is that he'll be exposed. Stablemate MISSION IMPAZIBLE actually holds more interest to this eye Saturday than DISCREETLY MINE.
Welcome to the Mardis Gras party a couple of horses who were totally compromised by the pace in the Risen Star, DROSSELMEYER (Bill Mott) and STAY PUT (Steve Margolis). Both ran solidly in defeat, while STAY PUT turned this head more because he made up significant ground and has trained very sharply since. He's sitting on a career effort Saturday, and you'll have to get behind me in line to wager on STAY PUT.
Post 13 will do no favors to DROSSELMEYER, and his candidacy really depends on the in-race decisions made by Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux. You don't become a 3-time Kentucky Derby-winning rider without having a satchel stuffed with ability, but Desormeaux has been widely criticized over the years for some of his decision-making. He's critical to the success of DROSSELMEYER on Saturday.
Those loyal Countdown readers know how high I've become on FLY DOWN (Nick Zito) since last fall. Seems everyone he ran against turned out to be a solid 3-year-old, and his comeback win on Feb. 21 was rock-solid over nine grueling furlongs. FLY DOWN and DROSSELMEYER are the only proven 1-1/8 miles winners in the Louisiana Derby lineup, and it's a lineup where it's quite fair to question how far some of these rivals want to run.
Late-running RON THE GREEK (Tom Amoss) gets every chance to validate his G3 Lecomte win in January. With no pace excuses, it's fish or cut bait time for the deep closer. One sneaky performer in here could be ISLAND SOUL (Steve Asmussen), from Team Rachel Alexandra. His Jan. 31 maiden win was outstanding over this track, but the pedigree and experience figure to work against him at this distance and class level. But he's got talent.
Louisiana Derby selections: W) STAY PUT; P) DROSSELMEYER; S) FLY DOWN.
G2 Lane's End Stakes (Saturday/Turfway Park)
The Lane's End melting pot Saturday includes a quartet of West Coast shippers, three more from Florida, a pair from the mid-South and one local. Stir them up at 1-1/8 miles on Polytrack, and let's see what we get.
Favorite CONNEMARA (Todd Pletcher) looks to give his trainer a third win in this race, while Hall of Fame rider Russell Baze aims for a second Lane's End score. Drawn on the rail, the late-running CONNEMARA can be his own worst enemy leaving the gate, so keep close tabs on how he handles the fence. He hasn't been the most athletic type in his races to date and being stuck down inside could make him vulnerable, while clearly the most talented horse on paper. I would make him a standout choice with a different post draw. But now, as a bettor, you have to at least consider some options.
El Camino Real Derby pacesetter RANGER HEARTLEY (John Sadler) could not hold off CONNEMARA in Northern California at this 1-1/8 miles distance, and probably won't this time either. But he figures to provide the pace, along with stretch-out sprinter CHIEF COUNSEL (Bill Mott). While Mott-WinStar won last year's Lane's End with Hold Me Back, CHIEF COUNSEL appears much farther behind that runner in terms of route ability.
NORTHERN GIANT (D. Wayne Lukas) figures to get a dynamite trip from post No. 7 sitting just behind 'RANGER and CHIEF COUNSEL. He reunites with Calvin Borel after a third-place finish in the G2 Risen Star. The 'GIANT has run best on sloppy dirt tracks, so the surface will be the question. That's also true of DOUBLES PARTNER (Todd Pletcher), who has done his best running on turf. But either fits with these if they take to the surface.
OUTLAW MAN (Kenny McPeek) is a grind-it-out type who adds blinkers for the first time in a move that could prove sharp. Alex Solis makes the trip east to ride, so we'll find out if this grinder has been hanging late because of his short pedigree, or because of a lack of focus. He has trained exceptionally well since adding the hood in the morning.
Lane's End Stakes selections: W) OUTLAW MAN; P) CONNEMARA; S) NORTHERN GIANT.
G3 Sunland Park Derby (Sunday/Sunland Park)
After Mine That Bird took the Sunland avenue to the first Saturday in May, the little horse that could made this race a big deal. Grade 3 status ensued, which is massive considering the impact that an $800,000 purse has on the graded-stakes earnings list nationally. Six out-of-towners have invaded New Mexico to challenge a trio of locals, and interestingly each of the half-dozen raiders possesses superb early speed.
The pace figures to be a hot one with unbeaten CONVEYANCE (Bob Baffert) having never been headed early in a race to date. Rising star rider Martin Garcia rationed him gorgeously at Oaklawn in the one-mile Southwest and it would be risky to write this horse off simply as a miler. But to be honest, the performance by Southwest alumni DUBLIN and CARDIFF GIANT in the subsequent Rebel Stakes leaves an unsightly stain. But CONVEYANCE may not have to be better to win the Sunland Derby, as the competition figures to be on no greater plane that that of a DUBLIN.
TEMPTED TO TAPIT (Steve Klesaris) also has excellent early speed if asked to use it. While he galloped behind loose-leading DISCREETLY MINE in the Risen Star at Fair Grounds last month, from a wide post 9 on Sunday, one would have to think jockey David Cohen will be much more aggressive early with 'TAPIT. On paper, he clearly looks second-best to CONVEYANCE in this spot.
Unless the top pair are smashed to bits in a pace demolition, I just don't see where else the Sunland Derby winner comes from. ENDORSEMENT (Shannon Ritter) is a gorgeously-bred colt who is improving and will absolutely love this distance as much or more than any horse in the gate. With only a maiden win to his credit, don't be surprised if this developing colt makes noise. Doug O'Neill has done very well shipping horses to Sunland over the years, and he sends out speedy CLASSICAL SLEW with front-running jock Tyler Baze coming in to ride. No match for LOOKIN AT LUCKY or SIDNEY'S CANDY in starts six months apart, this is a tall assignment picking up seven pounds and stretching out a quarter-mile. I like the back-to-back 6-furlong workouts to ready him for the test, but 'SLEW has some proving to do.
NACHO FRIEND (Kelly Breen) has raced just once since the 2009 Saratoga meeting, and his third in the G3 Gotham Stakes was a good try off the layoff. But extra distance, six more pounds and a real concern whether he's ready to run 1-1/8 miles make him an underlay on the toteboard to me. Borderland Derby winner STORMING SAINT (Henry Dominguez) was considered the least-talented of the barn's 1-2 finishers in the local prep.
Sunland Park Derby selections: W) CONVEYANCE; P) ENDORSEMENT; S) TEMPTED TO TAPIT.
Last week's selections: 1-1-0-0; 20-1 shot ICE BOX won the Florida Derby as our top choice, while our picks ran 1-3-4 as a group in a season-best performance.
Season selections: 20-5-3-3.
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. We gained what appears to be three Kentucky Derby starters after a wild Florida Derby finish, while the Preakness picked up a potential entrant after the Swale.
Few were as happy as me to see top choice ICE BOX (Nick Zito) win a pencil-thin photo in Saturday's 1-1/8 miles Florida Derby over hard-luck PLEASANT PRINCE (Wesley Ward). Not only was it good for the wallet and the rep of Countdown, but I'm an unabashed fan of Nick Zito. It also provided a nice measure of redemption for jockey Jose Lezcano, who was stoned on the Internet for a less-than-stellar ride aboard BUDDY'S SAINT in the Fountain of Youth.
But beyond the warm-and-fuzzies, did we really see a seismic impact on the Kentucky Derby trail? The thought here is no. ICE BOX and PLEASANT PRINCE were obliterated by ESKENDEREYA in the Fountain of Youth, and while all 3-year-olds have a license to improve as the spring progresses, we have to be realistic in evaluating a weak Florida Derby line-up. Absolutely none of the new shooters turned out to be world-beaters and the field's only two stakes winners were terrible bets.
RADIOHEAD was a joke of a price at this distance, and a 100-percent toss-out given his wide post draw. RULE had never passed another horse routing in his life and had been glamorized by successive wins at Delta Downs and Tampa Bay Downs. Those two venues in previous years would have drawn snickers as a prohibitive G1 Florida Derby favorite, though I fully admit times and snobbishness has changed among horseplayers. Still, it's fair to say RULE was a beatable favorite; and he was, finishing third.
ICE BOX did not change leads in the stretch, which gives him room for improvement as he moves to Louisville. You've got a horse with no distance limitations, in the care of a two-time Derby-winning trainer, and a solid foundation of four juvenile starts and three 2010 preps. There's a lot to like about his upside, whether or not the actual Florida Derby performance left you breathless. I slotted ICE BOX No. 13 this week, but fully expect with some attrition over the next few weeks that he'll be among the top 8 or so when the prep smoke settles. Take that with a sharp week of training at Churchill Downs on Derby Week, and, who knows?
PLEASANT PRINCE appears nothing more than a nice horse to this eye. He's 1-for-7 and twice offered up for a claiming tag, but did come a long lip away from being a Grade 1 winner. I just don't see him improving that much. He's a long-winded type with a pure router's pedigree, but I think you've seen what he can be. LENTENOR ran solidly in his dirt debut and there's not much to knock. With some traffic issues in upper stretch, he worked inside for a late run but didn't sustain anything significant. He's a stakes horse as some point on some surface, make no mistake. But he's not a Derby 136 contender any longer.
The only other race of major consequence last week was the 7-furlong Swale Stakes win by D'FUNNYBONE (Rick Dutrow). The fleet sprinter never looked in serious jeopardy while slowing to :13.03 over the final furlong. He'll be hard-pressed to get a two-turn major stakes win in his lifetime, but the Preakness has been mentioned as a possible target with a trip to the Withers in-between at Aqueduct.
Next week's menu kicks up a notch with the Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial and Illinois Derby ... NYRA officials tell Countdown a very small field is expected at this point for the Wood, headed by Derby co-favorite ESKENDEREYA (see probables in "Where Are They Headed?" section below) ... LOOKIN AT LUCKY (Bob Baffert) will work over the weekend and Baffert will decide then whether to stay home at Santa Anita or head to the Arkansas Derby ... Wisely, the camp with ODYSSEUS (Tom Albertrani) has decided to get another prep in before the Kentucky Derby. The Tampa Bay Derby winner needs seasoning from this eye and could get it in a host of early April stops ... The next step for UPTOWNCHARLYBROWN remains up in the air, according to the horse's official blog, and there doesn't appear to be an urgency to force him into Kentucky Derby duty ... Breeders' Cup Juvenile victor VALE OF YORK has been sidelined with a bout of Colic, and is off the trail. (My apologies to 'VALE for referring to LOOKIN AT LUCKY as the BC Juvenile winner a few weeks ago in Countdown. It just seemed as though LUCKY had won, I guess!)
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)
3. SIDNEY'S CANDY (San Felipe, Santa Anita, 3/13)
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.
Santa Anita Derby (April 3, SA): SIDNEY'S CANDY, CARACORTADO, ALPHIE'S BET, SETSUKO, WHO'S UP, LOOKIN AT LUCKY (or Arkansas Derby), SKIPSHOT, THOMAS BAINES, POSSE POWER, CARDIFF GIANT.
Wood Memorial (April 3, AQU): ESKENDEREYA, JACKSON BEND, AWESOME ACT, CARNIVORE, FIRST DUDE, SUPER SAVER (or Arkansas Derby).
Illinois Derby (April 3, HAW): BACKTALK, AMERICAN LION, DAVIE IN DIXIE, SCHOOLYARD DREAMS, TURF MELODY, YAWANNA TWIST, CALL SHOT, GAME BALL, UH OH BANGO (or Arkansas Derby).
Blue Grass (April 10, KEE): INTERACTIF, AIKENITE, MAKE MUSIC FOR ME, ODYSSEUS (or Arkansas Derby).
Arkansas Derby (April 10, OP): LOOKIN AT LUCKY (or Santa Anita Derby), NOBLE'S PROMISE, SUPER SAVER (or Wood), ODYSSEUS (or Blue Grass), DUBLIN, TIZ THE ONE, UH OH BANGO (or Illinois).
Lexington (April 17, KEE): QUIET ALL AMERICAN.
Kentucky Derby (May 1, CD): HOMEBOYKRIS, RULE, ICE BOX, PLEASANT PRINCE.
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 12 of the 2010 season
Dropped out: LENTENOR (writer's decision).
Likely qualified by earnings and aiming for Derby 136: HOMEBOYKRIS, PLEASANT PRINCE.
Others on the brink: AIKENITE, BACKTALK, TEMPTED TO TAPIT, AWESOME ACT, UPTOWNCHARLYBROWN.
Countdown reader Baron in San Francisco, Calif.
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.