Countdown to the Crown


Editor's Note: Countdown to the Crown returns for a sixth season online as one of the most comprehensive handicapper's analyses of the 3-year-old scene. Posted each Friday from Jan. 7 through the Belmont Stakes, Countdown keeps you apprised of the rising stars of the 3-year-old class from the maiden ranks through the Grade 1 stakes. You can access daily updates and interactive features at the all-new www.Countdowntothecrown.com as well.

3 things you won't read anywhere else

Opinions are like the 1:06.98 six-furlong clocking by THE FACTOR (Bob Baffert) at Santa Anita on December 26. If they look too good to be true, they probably are. Nevertheless, the spin starts here, to misquote the television program of the horse's opinionated namesake, Bill O'Reilly.

1. Last January's inaugural 2010 Countdown Top 20 poll had Lookin at Lucky No. 1, Super Saver No. 2 and Drosselmeyer No. 17. Not bad for a Triple Crown sweep, eh? No such promises in 2011, but we'll do our best. American Lion at No. 3 last season? Please pass me a mulligan, though he did win a Derby -- albeit the Illinois Derby.

2. Get used to the two-prep scene this spring for all the major contenders. The two-step was the dance of choice for Super Saver in 2010, Mine That Bird in '09, Big Brown in '08 and Street Sense in '07. Barbaro was a day away from a two-prep campaign in '06, having run only on Jan. 1, Feb. 4 and April 1 before being draped in roses on Derby Day.

3. Who says there are no tough guys anymore? The top three finishers in the G1 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park had career starts totaling 10 (COMMA TO THE TOP), 8 (JP'S GUSTO) and 10 (CLUBHOUSE RIDE). That's remarkable for a 2-year-old stakes to have 28 career starts among the top trio. Last year's Kentucky Derby trifecta had just 22 starts combined after the big dance, while the 2009 Derby top 3 cast had 25. The 2008 triumvirate of Big Brown, Eight Belles and Denis of Cork had a mere 19 starts combined after the Derby, the same number as 2007's trio of Street Sense, Hard Spun and Curlin. The last real "warrior" to hit the Derby board was 2004 third-place finisher Imperialism, who was making his 16th lifetime start. So what will be left of the CashCall trio by Derby Day?

This week's fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. Before we hit the Florida and Kentucky stakes, we start in the undercard ranks as is Countdown custom.

Later today (Friday, Jan. 7), Gulfstream offers the first 3-year-old allowance of the meeting for the boys when BLACK N BEAUTY (Dale Romans) figures to vie for favoritism with the A.P. Indy-Victory Ride blueblood SHADOW WARRIOR (Rusty Arnold), both coming off Churchill maiden scores. Meanwhile, we get a line on BRETHREN (Todd Pletcher), the brother of Super Saver, when EL GRAYLING (Mike Maker) returns in this race after finishing second to BRETHREN at Churchill in November. Zito and Pletcher also tee it up in this promising mile allowance.

Saturday's Race 6 maiden mile at Gulfstream might be the most interesting race of the weekend, no matter the class. Awesome pedigrees, power barns and lots of promise highlight this one. Champion Pine Island's baby brother POINT OF ENTRY (Shug McGaughey) debuts off a spectacular workout tab; we'll see if the normally conservative barn has this one ready for the unveiling. BEST ACT (Chad Brown) debuted fourth behind one of the most promising horses of 2010 from this eye, ROCKING OUT (Rick Dutrow), and should love this one-turn mile from the female family that produced Valid Expectations, Little Sister, et al. Meanwhile, CLEAR ATTEMPT (Bill Mott) debuts by A.P. Indy out of G1 Santa Anita Oaks winner Silent Sighs, who was best as a racemare in sprint events. SINORICE (Nick Zito) is a full brother to Santana Six, a decent horse from the '09 Derby trail, best known for running second to Dunkirk in his heyday. FAIRVIEW HEIGHTS (Todd Pletcher) is out of a dam who is half-sister to turf champion Chief Bearhart, while FORT LARNED (Ian Wilkes) is a maternal grandson of none other than champion distaffer Bayakoa. Hot new sire Badge of Silver is represented by FINAL STRIKE (Michael Matz), who is a half-brother to stakes-winning sprinter Grand Slam Andre.

Santa Anita has a pair of Saturday races worth tabbing. Red-hot Bob Baffert sends out two in the Race 1 maiden sprint opener, TOKUBETSU and MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE, against well-bred Giant's Causeway rookie T HALL (Eric Guillot). Baffert also has WEGNER in a Race 3 maiden route, who hails from the same female line that has produced this year's star sophomore west coast filly TURBULENT DESCENT (Mike Puype). Super Race 3 pedigrees include SEEKING SOLACE (John Sadler), by Seeking the Gold out of $800k-earning turf mare Solvig; BALLADRY (Eoin Harty), a second-timer by Unbridled's Song out of champion filly Storm Song; and WORLD RENOWNED (John Sadler), an A.P. Indy colt out of Splendid Blended, a one and two-turn stakes force in her racing days.

Other notable Saturday undercard races include Aqueduct's Race 2 maiden route, featuring the $2 million Darley purchase STORM'N INDIAN (Kiaran McLaughlin), a second-time starter by Storm Cat out of champion mare Fleet Indian; Fair Grounds' Race 7 maiden turf route, featuring SOCKAROONI (Bill Mott) and TAPATIVITY (Steve Asmusssen); Laurel's Race 6 second-level allowance sprint, headlined by Pennsylvania Nursery-winning speedball DER MEISTER (Murray Rojas), stakes-placed SKY WARS (Mark Shuman) and the talented router RAM (King Leatherbury); and Golden Gate's Race 4 allowance sprint, led by fleet-footed SoCal invader GIBSON HOME RUN (Peter Miller). On the Turfway Prevue undercard, Race 8 is a one-mile maiden special weight where KATHERN'S JEWEL (Mike Maker) must overcome a bad draw.

As for Sunday, turf allowance routers battle at Fair Grounds in Race 1. I'll be interested to see MAVERICKING (Neil Pessin) after a strong second to the highly promising PERREGAUX (Neil Howard). Sprint-bred Keeneland session sales topper PRIME CUT (Neil Howard) is entered main track only in what could be his two-turn debut.

Also on the turf Sunday, Gulfstream closes its card in Race 10 with a maiden grass route. While most of the contenders are solidly grass pedigrees, STORMY THE CAT (George Weaver) has some dirt experience and bloodlines. His dam Unrestrained was a strong dirt stakes mare, so perhaps down the line this one re-enters the dirt picture.

Spectacular Bid Stakes (Saturday/Gulfstream Park)

At 6 furlongs, the Spectacular Bid may be more of a prep for the 7-furlong Swale than the 1-1/8 miles Florida Derby, nonetheless it's January at Gulfstream Park and that means we take notice. With a $100,000 purse and no graded stakes earnings on the line, will the 'Bid be a launching pad to the Triple Crown trail for a runner or two, or just a good handicapping exercise?

CANE GARDEN BAY (Rusty Arnold) may be the top prospect from the field, though not a sprinter by definition. The Rockport Harbor colt was fifth in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club going around 2 turns in the fall and may need all of the 6 furlongs to get there Saturday. If anyone in this cast has designs on using this as a prep to something longer, it's 'CANE.

A couple of runners here can use CITY COOL (Steve Asmussen) as a barometer, as he was a recent winner of the Riley Allison Futurity at Sunland Park. WINCHILL (Dale Romans) knocked off that opponent in a Nov. 27 Churchill allowance sprint, while LEAVE OF ABSENCE (Rick Violette) finished just off his tail in maiden company at Belmont in the fall. CITY COOL's recent victory in stakes company flatters both. LEAVE OF ABSENCE really impressed splitting horses last time out and coming home the final furlong in :11-4/5 at 6 furlongs, beating an odds-on, next-out winner with some upside named RIFT (Rick Dutrow).

DUAL EXHAUZT (Bill White) got an eye-popping speed figure in winning a Calder allowance sprint Dec. 11, as did Parx Racing maiden winner GANGSTERONTHERUN (Wesley Ward). Of that pair, 'GANGSTER may intrigue a bit more after dispatching PANTS ON FIRE in Philly and then that runner came back to run third in the Count Fleet at Aqueduct.

GRANDE SHORES (Stanley Gold) had a breakout performance you often see from horses about to go on a roll. A lifetime "nibbler" of second and third-place finishes not only wins, but wins by a wide margin, and then the lightbulb remains turned fully on. GRANDE SHORES won despite a slow pace last time in which the speed held to finish second and third, so he doesn't need a collapse. He joins LEAVE OF ABSENCE as the horses to beat.


Turfway Prevue Stakes (Saturday/Turfway Park)

There's no shortage of early speed in this $50,000 sprint at 6-1/2 furlongs, and from a projection standpoint, few appear to have designs on the 1-1/8 miles G3 Spiral come March. WinStar Farm home-bred BLUEGRASS DREAMER (Richard Budge) figures the only serious down-the-road aspirant, but the Canadian invader could be up against the speed merchants at this distance. But he'll get plenty of pace to chase down and adds blinkers for the first time.

TALE OF LUCKNFAME (Eric Reed) is supremely bred as a Polytrack sprinter by Tale of the Cat and was beaten favorite over this track two weeks ago by late-running INHISGLORY (Wayne Mogge), who also returns. Trainer Reed's best shot at a win might be with BANJAMMER, a son of Candy Ride who should be coming on late after a local maiden sprint win from the clouds.

Stakes winner THEWAYITUSEDTOBE (Rafael Flores) also has plenty of speed in from Chicago and is 2-for-2 on synthetics.


Last week's selections: none to date.
Season selections: none to date.

For more on this weekend's races, including handicapping strategies and a chance to interact live with Jeremy, visit the all-new daily site www.Countdowntothecrown.com.

Everyone's a critic

This section recaps the week that was for the sophomore set. For review sake this week, we dial back to last Wednesday, Dec. 29 and discuss the traditional Wednesday through Sunday racing week in addition to what happened earlier this week.

The performance of last week, regardless of class, came Sunday in the maiden ranks when rookie MACHEN (Neil Howard) easily blitzed a 6-furlong Fair Grounds maiden in 1:10.41. Visually he was smooth as silk despite breaking a beat or two slowly, and has a powerful look about him physically. By Distorted Humor out of multi-surface route stakes star Ready's Gal, he's got tons of upside. Put this guy on your watch lists now, though trainer Howard said he doesn't project throwing MACHEN into the Lecomte Stakes ring just yet. Runner-up SOUR (Al Stall, Jr.) should run all day as he's sired by Lemon Drop Kid and boasts some Easy Goer blood on the dam side. He also galloped out strongly and should be 1-5 in a maiden in his second start.

The marquee 3-year-old dirt stakes of the year's first weekend was last Saturday's $65,000 Count Fleet Stakes at 1 mile and 70 yards. The kickoff to Aqueduct's road to the G1 Wood Memorial, this Count Fleet edition was loaded with early speed and set up on paper for a deep closer. MONZON (Ignacio Correas) was in from Maryland with the perfect style and route foundation to fit the bill. He delivered late despite trying to continually lug in through the lane. The fourth quarter in a shade under :26 tells you that MONZON wasn't exactly a late-running express. The son of Thunder Gulch is well-developed as a February foal and had four previous mile races or longer under his belt. Consider this a "now" horse more than later, and congrats if you connected on a $14 winner that was a pace player's gimmee. He'll try to nab graded money at Tampa in the Sam F. Davis next Feb. 12. Dover Stakes winner and lukewarm favorite RUSH NOW (Tony Dutrow) was through early after some early race trouble, but nothing that should have resulted in such a lousy performance. Runner-up JJ'S LUCKY TRAIN (William Anderson) has been game in his two routes despite solid splits, but doesn't project any farther in distance.

On the same Count Fleet card at Aqueduct, New York-bred sophomores met in the Champagneforashley Stakes. PREACHINTOTHEDEVIL (Gary Contessa) stalked a rhythmic route pace and drew off to win by daylight in a time that was about 5 lengths slower than MONZON notched a few races earlier in the Count Fleet for 1 mile and 70 yards. I appreciate the way 'DEVIL was able to hustle up the fence into the clubhouse turn and take cues from his rider, securing position, but then was able to relax and stalk. Dam Acey Deucey won the G1 Prioress sprinting, but by Pulpit and given his professionalism to date, this is a New York-bred better routing than you think. PREACHINTOTHEDEVIL is a much better Triple Crown prospect than the barn's gaudy speed-figured Eightyfiveinafifty from last year, having much more controlled turn of foot and style.

Maybe the most promising horse to exit Aqueduct in the past week came Sunday when CROSSBOW (Tom Albertrani) won a 6-furlong maiden in 1:11.08, wiring the field in splits of :23.18, :23.55 and :24.35, very solid on the back end. The time was a length faster than 3-year-old fillies ran in the next race, the Ruthless Stakes. By Preakness champ Bernardini, the well-bred colt is out of Forest Heiress, an outstanding graded stakes sprinter. How far he'll go will be questioned, considering the dam, but he earned a trip to Florida with this win. Previously he was third to highly, and I mean highly, respected Rick Dutrow maiden winner ROCKING OUT.

Last Friday, the New Year's Eve $75,000 Eddie Logan Stakes at Santa Anita spotlighted turf horses and Steve Asmussen got his first west-coast win of the meet with SILVER MEDALLION, a quick son of Badge of Silver who previously ran for Chad Brown. Despite going 4 wide into the clubhourse turn and dueling through solid splits, he held on to win by a half-length in 1:35.67, a time about three lengths quicker than 2-year-old stakes fillies went earlier in the program. Half-brother to millionaire-earning turf mare Sweet Talker, this one will need to relax a bit more to be successful at a classic distance, but note he never let runner-up TEN DEVILS by in the gallop-out. His daddy handled dirt fine, but was a short horse beyond 1-1/16 miles. Durability will be a key with Badge of Silver's offspring, as he battled issues throughout his career.

Speaking of sire Badge of Silver, what a recent run for the young stallion! He produced this year's first graded stakes winner for the 3-year-old colts, KING CONGIE (Tom Albertrani), who took the New Year's Day G3 Tropical Park Derby on turf at Calder. KING CONGIE collared front-running PRIVATE PRIZE (Ken McPeek) near the top of the lane and the two battled to the wire, getting the final furlong of the 1-1/8 miles in just over :12 flat. The winner drifted out significantly in the lane and still bested the field. As we often see in early season 1-1/8 miles races for this age group, they typically become carousels with the front-end horse controlling a race in which none of the performers are really ready to get the distance. Beaten favorite SWIFT WARRIOR (Steve Dwoskin) made a wide move, but lacked the punch late, which is a move you expect to see in these kind of early season "marathons." KING CONGIE, who sold for $100,000 last February as a 2-year-old, appears to be a win-early type to me and has found a home on turf. PRIVATE PRIZE, the runner-up, has won on dirt at Churchill going long, and has the most upside on the trail from this group.

Bob Baffert's AWESOME PATRIOT beat only two rivals in a Dec. 29 allowance at Santa Anita, but did so routing, and did knock off stakes-tested RIVETING REASON (Myung Kwon Cho). It was a solid effort for the Awesome Again colt (out of a Tiznow mare), who proved he could handle some distance as his pedigree suggested. The final two furlongs went in :12.09 and :12.52, which is good stuff considering older stakes hopeful Gladding finished up in :11.99 and :12.25 on the same card at the same distance.

Steve Asmussen added another 3-year-old winner on the week when JUSTIN PHILLIP won a two-turn allowance at Fair Grounds on Jan. 1 in wire-to-wire fashion while ducking out badly in the lane. Third to BRETHREN (Todd Pletcher) at Churchill around one bend, 'JUSTIN slowed down considerably throughout this allowance score, but was not threatened at 1-2 odds. A fourth quarter of :28.11 took place while circumnavigating all over the place. Not sure if it's immaturity or issues physically, but this was no visual masterpiece by the son of First Samurai. The only other allowance-class runner in the gate, WILKINSON (Neil Howard), was hung inexplicably wide for a field of five and disappointed in third. Perhaps the sloppy track can be blamed.

At Fair Grounds on Dec. 30, DON DULCE (Malcolm Pierce) made the successful Poly-to-dirt and sprint-to-route move when rallying last to first to win a two-turn maiden route over the solid Kentucky raider VOODAT (Ken McPeek). DON DULCE has a nice route pedigree by Maria's Mon out of an exceptional route female family. The Pin Oak home-bred won't be tripped by distance, but you have to wonder if this was a plodder who benefitted from a :28.10 fourth quarter over what was a very slow track all day in New Orleans.

Also at Fair Grounds, POPULIST POLITICS (Tom Amoss) improved to 2-for-2 lifetime in winning the Dec. 31 Louisiana Futurity for state-breds. A two-time sprint winner at the meet, he's by Don't Get Mad, who was fourth in the Kentucky Derby, out of a Souvenir Copy mare. You'd think there's more distance if he's classy enough, but there wasn't much gallop-out to speak of for now. The time (1:12.72) was about a length quicker than the fillies division of this race earlier on the card.

Tampa Bay Downs produced a serious runner to watch Dec. 30 when BEAMER (Carl Nafzger) ran roughsod over a 1 mile and 40-yard maiden field in 1:41.00. The time was a shade quicker than second-level older allowance runners had posted just one race prior, despite running into some trouble on the first turn and showing some professionalism. By champion Vindication, he's out of a full sister to Banshee Breeze. Pedigree power for sure and he appears a big-bodied sort who could fill out, so you wonder why he was offered up for $80,000 claiming at Churchill in the fall debut? If the lightbulb flips on for this guy, watch out. On that same card, TERMINAL ONE (James DeVito) beat a decent allowance turf group, but was all-out at a mile and is bred for grass by Johar.

Gulfstream's Thursday Race 3 maiden sprint was a semi head-turner. First-timer TRAVELIN MAN (Todd Pletcher) rolled by more than 7 lengths in 1:09.09, a very legitimate time on a track not playing to blistering clockings. There's some real stamina in the female family for this colt, even if he's by sprint-influence sire Trippi. Visually, TRAVELIN MAN was not reaching out like a superstar in the lane, yet still the splits continued on nicely as a :24.48 final quarter was not bad at all after a :44.61 opening half-mile. Runner-up NINJA BLADE (Eddie Kenneally) didn't flatter his Churchill ballyhooed conqueror DIALED IN (Nick Zito), but didn't disgrace him either.

Golden Gate may have seen an El Camino Real Derby contender emerge New Year's Day when ZAYDA (Blaine Wright) finished strongly to win a two-turn maiden special weight and gallop out pretty well after a final quarter that he personally clocked in the mid :23s. The son of Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes runner-up Bluegrass Cat beat a pretty respected bunch in this maiden win and is bred for dirt on both sides of the pedigree (out of an Unbridled mare). But my early El Camino Real Derby favorite was in action Dec. 30 when JAKESAM (Jerry Hollendorfer) crushed five overmatched starter allowance rivals at an unfathomable 8-5 price. One of the more visually impressive horses at Del Mar all summer, this big son of Smoke Glacken came home in :24.39 the final quarter while wiring the one-mile cast. Don't be surprised if you here more from JAKESAM, who ranks just outside my Top 20 contenders' list nationally.

Owner Ken Ramsey debuted winner GYPSY WIND (Mike Maker) in a New Year's Day maiden dash at Turfway Park. The son of Millennium Wind hails from the female family of champion 2-year-old Tejano and went about 3 lengths quicker than a comparable 2-year-old filly maiden special weight on the same program. The previous night, TAPTOWNE (Wayne Mogge) closed New Year's Eve in Northern Kentucky with an 8-1/4 length maiden blowout win also dashing 5-1/2 furlongs. By Tapit, he appears moreso a sprinter out of a Valid Wager mare.

One can never venture too far off the beaten path in Countdown to the Crown, as longtime readers know (Mine That Bird anyone?), so the Dec. 30 $120,000 Red Hedeman Mile at Sunland Park deserves a cursory glance this early on the trail. JANNAS PRIDE (Todd Fincher) won for the fourth straight time and is now 3-for-3 around 2 turns. Little known and unraced sire Desert God hails from that incredible mare Blush With Pride, who produced Better Than Honour, who produced the likes of Belmont winners Rags to Riches and Jazil. You may recall Desert God is the sire of Peppers Pride, who retired 19-for-19 in the New Mexico-bred ranks. Keep an eye on this local guy come Borderland Derby and G3 Sunland Park Derby time.

Quick Hitters

Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner UNCLE MO arrived at South Florida's Palm Meadows the first week of December, and trainer Todd Pletcher said the colt will not make his sophomore debut at 1-1/8 miles, eliminating the Feb. 26 G2 Fountain of Youth, while adding "I wouldn't rule out seven furlongs," meaning the same-day G2 Hutcheson Stakes could be in play. Also consider the G2 Tampa Bay Derby on March 12, the path that kicked off Super Saver's 2009 Derby-winning season … Pletcher's wealth includes champion Ashado's baby bro LAUBURU, a determined fall debut winner at Aqueduct, who is training regularly at Palm Meadows for his likely allowance reappearance … Trainer Rick Dutrow is aiming BOYS AT TOSCANOVA at the G3 Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 30 at Gulfstream at a one-turn mile … Dutrow has MOUNTAIN TOWN aiming for an allowance at Gulfstream prior to the Feb. 26 G2 Fountain of Youth, and that same barn also has the visually impressive Nov. 27 Aqueduct debut winner ROCKING OUT in the mix, sired by route influence Include … TO HONOR AND SERVE was turned out for some paddock vacation in Ocala after his Remsen score and Bill Mott has designs on the Feb. 26 G2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream for the most likely early season target … CashCall Futurity winner COMMA TO THE TOP will make his 3-year-old return in either the G2 Bob Lewis or G3 El Camino Real Derby on Feb. 12. He could meet CLUBHOUSE RIDE and/or JP'S GUSTO in the former … BC Juvenile Turf hero PLUCK (now in Graham Motion's barn) could be aimed at the Irish 2000 Guineas and not the American Triple Crown, yet still deserves your utmost attention if the talented trainer points him this direction … Godolphin's BC Juvenile fourth BIONDETTI most likely will be aimed at the Feb. 10 G3 UAE 2000 Guineas and March 26 G2 UAE Derby on Tapeta at Dubai's Meydan Racecourse, according to older reports on Godolphin.com … TAPIZAR, the son of Tapit and grandson of Call Now who dazzled in his fourth start routing at Churchill, has been working consistently at Santa Anita for Steve Asmussen's west coast winter division and is aiming for the G3 Sham next week … MANICERO (Leo Azpurua, Sr.) took the Dec. 26 Inaugural at Tampa Bay Downs sprinting, but the fast son of Mass Media will be a real question mark as the distances elongate (he hasn't finished up fast in any of his sprint stakes wins), though he certainly has the early season buzz … SWAY AWAY, the well-bred son of Afleet Alex for Jeff Bonde and runner-up in the G2 Best Pal at Del Mar, returned to the work tab for the first time since then on Christmas Eve, at all places -- Pleasanton … SOVEREIGN DEFAULT, sidelined since beating STAY THIRSTY in a sharp Belmont summer maiden sprint, has been working steadily all December at Palm Meadows for Rick Violette … Also on the south Florida scene now is Woodbine's romping Display Stakes winner TIZ BLESSED (Chad Brown), fourth in the Garden State on dirt, and possible for next Sunday's Dania Beach on the Gulfstream lawn … Somehow COOL BLUE RED HOT is just 30-1 in Vegas for Angel Penna, Jr. after winning a Calder maiden route Nov. 27 at 1-9 … Toby Keith's unbeaten juvenile SHERIFF COGBURN, turned out since late summer, won't arrive at Oaklawn until mid-January, but is not being considered a Derby horse at this stage, trainer Don Von Hemel told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette's Robert Yates. "They want a summer horse," Von Hemel said. "They know he's not an Arkansas Derby horse, or they don't think he is." … Speaking of Oaklawn, whose meet kicks off Jan. 14, keep tabs on locally-based horses GRANT JACK (Bret Calhoun), ALTERNATION (Donnie K. Von Hemel) and ARCHARCHARCH (Jinks Fires).

High Fives

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

Maiden Race
1. THE FACTOR (Santa Anita, 12/26)
2. MACHEN (Fair Grounds, 1/2)
3. UNCLE SAM (Santa Anita, 12/27)
4. BEAMER (Tampa Bay Downs, 12/30)
5. TRAVELIN MAN (Gulfstream, 1/6)

Allowance Race
1. JAKESAM (Golden Gate, 12/30 * starter allowance *)
2. AWESOME PATRIOT (Santa Anita, 12/29)
3. HERP (Fair Grounds, 12/26)
4. JUSTIN PHILLIP (Fair Grounds, 1/1)
5. TERMINAL ONE (Tampa Bay Downs, 12/30 * turf *)

Stakes Race
1. THIRTYFIRSTSTREET (Cal Breeders Champion, Santa Anita, 12/26)
2. MONZON (Count Fleet, Aqueduct, 1/1)
3. SILVER MEDALLION (Eddie Logan, Santa Anita, 12/31 * turf *)
4. MANICERO (Inaugural, Tampa Bay Downs, 12/26)
5. KING CONGIE (G3 Tropical Park Derby, Calder, 1/1 * 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, first week of the 2011 season

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.