Commentary

Countdown to the Crown

Updated: January 14, 2011, 12:09 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

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 a stick of gum. Without some flavor, why bother chewing on either?

1. Only in Southern California could 2,400 horses stabled locally be called a "horse shortage" and necessitate 5-horse fields galore, like we see in Saturday's Grade 3 Sham. Most circuits with 1,500 or so horses in the stable area jam the entry box. Explain to me how California horsemen can't enter races. And it's not about synthetic surface injuries and the leftover results. California field sizes have been abysmal for decades. There's a decided culture out there, for whatever reason, that horsemen decide to run their horses every three blue moons. And then they want to bleed the horseplayer for a higher takeout to offset their inactivity.

2. The meet that matters most kicks off tomorrow in Hot Springs, Arkansas, weather-permitting, after a Friday cancellation. You may think Gulfstream or Santa Anita are more important to racing's big picture, but make no mistake: The Oaklawn Park sophomore series has had the most impact on the Triple Crown trail since 2004. Of the 21 Triple Crown races held during that 7-year span, NINE of them were won by horses who prepped at Oaklawn at some point during the spring. Amazingly, Oaklawn alumni won TWO-thirds of the Triple Crown races held in 2004, 2005, 2009 and 2010.

3. Big changes this week for Big Blue! International racing powerhouse Godolphin changed trainers with several of its top European classics hopefuls (story). Will that mean Godolphin is focusing even more on the American classics with Saeed bin Suroor (and horses likes BIONDETTI), or has Sheikh Mohammad dispatched his once-ace trainer to the also-ran list? Don't be surprised if it's the former.

This week's fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. Let's hit the undercard races before this week's west coast stakes duo of the Grade 3 Sham Stakes and California Derby, as well as Tampa Bay Downs' Pasco Stakes and the richly infused $250,000 Jean Lafitte at Delta Downs, the latter to be run this evening. Turfers have stakes action Sunday at Gulfstream in the Dania Beach as well.

Because of the entry schedule, we won't be able to provide previews of Monday's Smarty Jones at Oaklawn or the same-day Jimmy Winkfield at Aqueduct or San Pedro at Santa Anita. Countdown will include thorough recaps in next week's edition. Please see Countdowntothecrown.com for a complete preview of the Smarty Jones, to be posted Sunday. Among the probables in the Smarty Jones lineup are ARCHARCHARCH (Jinks Fires) and GRANT JACK (Bret Calhoun), both stakes winners in their most recent starts.

Later today (Friday, Jan. 14), maidens go long on the turf at Gulfstream in Race 7, and CASINO HOST (Chad Brown) could give us some barometer on Tropical Park Derby winner KING CONGIE (Tom Albertrani), having chased that runner home last time out.

Oaklawn's 2011 meeting gets off to a day-late start Saturday, if Mother Nature cooperates after a Friday cancellation, and I can't wait to see ALTERNATION (Donnie K. Von Hemel) return in a Race 7 allowance mile. He was a tremendous developer at Remington last fall and has a superb Pin Oak pedigree. The challenge will be huge in this one as ELITE ALEX (Tim Ritchey) opened my eyes last summer at Delaware Park and is training smartly for the comeback. 'ALEX may instead go in Monday's Smarty Jones Stakes, stay tuned to that. COMMANDER (Larry Jones) adds big-barn flavor after a lifeless attempt in the Dover Stakes at Delaware, a race that has been universally un-flattered by its returnees so far. Turf-pedigreed NIGHT HUNT (D. Wayne Lukas) debuts off a bullet local drill and cost a mere $750,000 as a yearling. This is a fantastic allowance.

We could get a great barometer on G3 Sham Stakes performer TAPIZAR (Steve Asmussen) when ZOEBEAR (Scott Becker) headlines Saturday's Race 6 maiden mile at Oaklawn. Post time at Oaklawn is about an hour before the Santa Anita event, and note ZOEBEAR was runner-up to TAPIZAR at Churchill back on Nov. 27. The Bellamy Road colt may love the surface as a maternal grandson of Proper Reality, who was one of the most legendary runners in Oaklawn Park history. ORDAINED (D. Wayne Lukas) should appreciate the stretch-out around 2 turns, while NEHRO (Steve Asmussen) also figures to like the additional real estate after chasing wide in his Fair Grounds sprint debut.

Gulfstream's Saturday lineup includes 3-year-old maiden sprinters going 7 furlongs in Race 5. The impeccably bred KENTUCKY REIGN (Bill Mott) is by Distorted Humor and the first foal out of Kentucky Oaks heroine Summerly. Another well-bred rookie is HAMMERSMITH (Todd Pletcher), by Johannesburg out of Bella Bellucci. The Pletcher barn's best hand in the race might be fellow rookie KATZ MY SONG, who lures John Velazquez, but whose mama Katz Me If You Can was all sprint. ARCH TRAVELER (Jimmy Jerkens) could be that respected barn's early season Gulfstream buzz horse as we've seen in recent years. BREAK UP THE GAME (Shug McGaughey) missed by a dirty nose in his debut last fall at Aqueduct to Ashado's kid bro LAUBURU (Todd Pletcher) and has license to win Saturday. This race looks to be a steamer.

Allowance sprinters clash Saturday at Fair Grounds in Race 6, where CHANGING THE RULES (Steve Asmussen) makes his first start since a 12-length maiden blowout win at Churchill last May 31. The promising field includes $475,000 purchase PRIME CUT (Neil Howard), recent allowance runner-up DIVINE MUSIC (Malcolm Pierce) and dominant Arlington debut winner MOONBIE (Tom Amoss) in his first start since July 24.

At Aqueduct Saturday, maiden sprinters match up in Race 3, where SIMBA'S STORY (Todd Pletcher) makes his second start after a solid debut third last month. He's by Elusive Quality out of the graded stakes-winning sprint mare Feline Story. This race appears sprint-only to the big picture with dash-pedigreed FLASHPOINT (Rick Dutrow) and SHOUTOUT (John Terranova) making their debuts.

At Sunland Park on Saturday, keep an eye on debut artist WHAT THE TOCCET (Shannon Ritter) for the same barn that won last year's Sunland Park Derby with Endorsement. He's out of a half-sister to G1 Donn Handicap winner Spring At Last. Perhaps there's a Borderland Derby/Sunland Derby player here with a big performance to open the career.

Stakes-placed RAMPAIGE (Graham Motion) tries to get back on the beam Saturday in a 1-1/16 miles allowance at Philadelphia's Parx Racing. He disappointed last out with a non-effort in the $250,000 Springboard Mile at Remington. A big rebound could put the Keeneland maiden winner on the road. Also in the region Saturday, Laurel's Race 7 maiden mile features two horses flattered this week by a strong runner-up performance in allowance company by TERRA COTTA MOON (Chris Grove). Both COUNT TO SEVEN (also trained by Grove) and MYSTICAL TERP (Tim Keefe) exit what appears to be a potential key race.

Sunday's racing includes the $100,000 Dania Beach Stakes for turf milers at Gulfstream Park. Good-looking Tampa allowance winner TERMINAL ONE (James Divito) is one to watch, though LIL BIT O'FUN (Tom Proctor) has lost just once in three starts, a runner-up try to stablemate and grass star BANNED. Back on turf, look for TWINSPIRED (Mike Maker) to improve as he ran better-than-it-appears on the grass in his only turf try. SWIFT WARRIOR (Steve Dwoskin) hit the wall at 9 furlongs in the Tropical Park Derby and appears much better-suited for the mile distance.

At Santa Anita on Sunday, keep an eye on Race 4, a maiden sprint with some potential. With Baffert, Sadler and Asmussen in the mix, there's reason to watch. Unfortunately, the majority of the pedigrees in this race suggest sprinters. The best route prospect could be ALPENNY (John Sadler), whose mama Shimmer was a nicely bred mile allowance winner at Del Mar in a career cut short. ALBERGATTI (Steve Asmussen) debuts off a bullet work New Year's Eve in very un-Asmussen-like fashion; his horses typically work much slower. He could be a good one, but his mama My Miss Storm Cat was strictly a dasher, winning the 6-furlong Desert Stormer in her heyday. Also on Sunday, Cal-bred sprinters race in allowance company to back-end the daily double. LUCKARACK (recently transferred to Jeff Mullins) was a two-time dirt stakes winner on the Northern Cal fair circuit last summer, but has fallen on hard times recently.

Monday's $75,000 San Pedro Stakes at Santa Anita is only 6-1/2 furlongs, but could launch a very good prospect in SINAI (Bob Baffert), who was visually very impressive at Hollywood last month. SINAI smoked a half-mile in :47 flat on Thursday, his second drill since the maiden score. Entries will be drawn later today (Jan. 14) and are expected to include New Mexico's Riley Allison Futurity winner CITY COOL (Steve Asmussen) and the ridiculously ballyhooed, but Cashcall Futurity disappointment, INDUSTRY LEADER (Kristin Mulhall). We may get a better read on SINAI after Saturday's Race 2 maiden sprint at Santa Anita, where AROUSAL (EOIN HARTY) returns after a runner-up performance behind SINAI. In that Saturday turf sprint, beware rookie AKKADIAN (Julio Canani), whose dam was a debut winner dashing at Keeneland.

Jean Lafitte Stakes (Friday/Delta Downs)

Delta Downs invested $250,000 in ungraded stakes money into this 1-mile event, giving the track known for the $1 million Delta Jackpot something to showcase for the 3-year-olds. Calder-based DECISIVE MOMENT (Juan Arias) nearly upset the Jackpot in November at 48-1 odds, but figures to be a much shorter price this time around the oval. After a four-week break, he's come back to work strongly in South Florida and has a perfect, pressing style to work out a good trip every time.

TRUBS (Al Stall) won a local allowance race before a better-than-it-looks fourth in the $250,000 Springboard Mile at Remington. In the stakes try, he broke from an impossible post and will appreciate post No. 4 on the Delta bullring. SU CASA G CASA (Bret Calhoun) is a fast Lousiana-bred who already has won sprinting in an open company stakes. The mile distance, against this quality of competition, will be the hurdle.

The X-factor may be the maiden SANTA GATO (Merrill Scherer), who ran a bang-up second to the talented MAVERICKING (Neil Pessin) on the Fair Grounds turf going a mile two starts back, and then was just even while trying a turf sprint last out. I like him better in a route and am both surprised and enthused to see Scherer throw him into a stakes race off that sprint maiden effort. The tight turns of that FG turf sprint may be good preparation for the Delta bullring invasion.

Jean Lafitte Stakes selections: W) DECISIVE MOMENT; P) SANTO GATO; S) TRUBS.

Sham Stakes (Saturday/Santa Anita)

Fields of five can be misleading stories, so the Grade 3 Sham will be an incomplete tale no matter what happens. A visually good or bad performance must be taken with the consideration that a race hardly ever will be as easy as this. That said, all five players have some credentials and there's no filler in this 1-1/16 miles race with $100,000 in graded earnings up for grabs.

My nationally ranked No. 6 horse this week, TAPIZAR (Steve Asmussen), put it all together in a smashing win Nov. 27 at Churchill Downs. He figures to be forwardly placed, which always is key in short fields that don't offer up enough threats to challenge those racing near the front of the pack. If he's not in front, he should be on the tail of UNCLE SAM (Bob Baffert), who virtually wired a mile maiden cast here on the second day of the meeting. When you get Garrett Gomez vs. Rafael Bejarano on the principal speed horses, you know you're in for a horserace.

Ironically, one horse who is not in the pace discussion whatsoever is CLUBHOUSE RIDE (Craig Lewis), ridden by the usual speed merchant Pat Valenzuela. But CLUBHOUSE RIDE, make no mistake, is more of a finisher than a chaser. I think he's one of the better distance horses in the entire 2011 class, but you wonder about the extended durability of a horse who has raced every month since last April without a break. If the front-runners attack each other, perhaps 'RIDE mows them down. He certainly has more foundation than anyone in the race, and probably the nation, at this juncture.

ANTHONY'S CROSS (Eoin Harty) and PRIDE OF SILVER (Bob Hess) both come off maiden wins at 1-1/16 miles and neither has run a bad race in 7 combined starts. I would expect both to come with some run in the stretch, but be compromised by the short field. Mark either for "next time" if they show some life.

Sham Stakes selections: W) TAPIZAR; P) CLUBHOUSE RIDE; S) UNCLE SAM.

California Derby (Saturday/Golden Gate Fields)

Field size is no issue in the California Derby, which has lured a field of 12 for an ungraded stakes worth $100,000. The 1-1/16 miles event on the Tapeta synthetic surface serves as the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby prep, with the main event coming Feb. 12.

If he's as good as I think he is, the Cal Derby field will have all they can handle from JAKESAM (Jerry Hollendorfer). The well-developed and classy son of Smoke Glacken is really good when he puts it together. He caught my eye at Del Mar in August when entered for a claiming tag, scratched, and raised into a maiden special weight a few days later after a strong workout. The lightbulb came on and Hollendorfer put him into protected company. Out of a Deputy Commander mare, distance doesn't bother me.

So who runs second? That's the way I see the Cal Derby. Candidates would include DANCING AT DARK (John Sadler), sent north after back-to-back wins vs. soft company, but now pairs with Russell Baze. Also heading north is MAZARRON (Adam Kitchingman), an Oak Tree maiden route winner who became a pace casualty chasing the blistering COMMA TO THE TOP (Peter Miller) in the Generous Stakes last time.

I think the other horse to watch, also mentioned in last weeks' Countdown review section, is ZAYDA (Blaine Wright). He was awfully good last time and wheels back on 2 weeks' rest after finishing with pizzazz.

Meanwhile, the Gold Rush Stakes' first, second and fourth-place finishers all return, led by six-length dominant winner POSITIVE RESPONSE (Bill Morey). The former claimer got an easy pace in the Gold Rush and bum-rushed his opponents. Expect JAKESAM to keep him honest, if not some other challengers. In a field of 12, there are no free lunches.

California Derby selections: W) JAKESAM; P) ZAYDA; S) DANCING AT DARK.

Pasco Stakes (Saturday/Tampa Bay Downs)

The march to the Tampa Bay Derby continues Saturday as the local prep series extends to 7 furlongs in the Pasco. MANICERO (Leo Azpurua) and BERT B DON (David Fawkes) re-match following a one-two finish in the 6-furlong Inaugural Stakes on Dec. 26. New shooters to the mix include RIBO BOBO (Manny Azpurua), runner-up to the ballyhooed ASTROLOGY (Steve Asmussen) in Churchill's G3 Iroquois, as well as the New York-bred blowout maiden breaker READ THE CONTRACT (Rick Violette).

I haven't been dazzled by the way MANICERO has finished up his races, coming home in :25-1/5 in the Inaugural and a final furlong in :14-2/5 in his previous attempt at 7 furlongs. He should get distances out of a Kris S. mare, but I'm not enthusiastic playing him at short odds. He may win, but I think there's better value elsewhere. RIBO BOBO was not beating him in the Jack Price at Calder, but probably gave up at least 3-4 lengths in losing margin when in traffic about 3-1/2 furlongs from the wire and regrouping. He's working well for this and is the re-freshened runner.

DEPECHE CAT (Rusty Arnold) looked much better after the horse he handled in his Churchill Downs winning debut, ARCHARCHARCH (Jinks Fires), came back to win the Sugar Bowl Stakes at Fair Grounds while still a maiden. Those are the kind of company lines you appreciate out of a maiden victory. Horses who like the footing at Churchill typically also like the surface at Tampa, and vice versa.

MAS TRUENO (William Phipps) is a big, strong, good-looking galloper whom trainer John Servis had up north and has spent the past few weeks working in Ocala. I really like this horse as a prospect moving forward, though I'm not sure 7 furlongs suits him. This looks like a starting off prep, and with any interest at all, I'll really tab this Afleet Alex colt when he returns to 2 turns in the Sam Davis or Tampa Bay Derby. From a Triple Crown perspective, I like him as much as anyone in the Pasco, just not to win Saturday at 7 furlongs.

Pasco Stakes selections: W) RIBO BOBO; P) MANICERO; S) BERT B DON.

Last week's selections: 2: 0-1-1. LEAVE OF ABSENCE finished second in the Spectacular Bid, while BLUEGRASS DREAMER finished third in the Turfway Prevue.
Season selections: 2: 0-1-1.

Everyone's a critic

This section recaps the week that was for the sophomore set. To be honest, there's no need for Ben Gay on the neck after last week. The head stayed pretty firmly in place and wasn't turned often.

Nearly all the important action last week in the 3-year-old ranks took place at Gulfstream Park. Let's start with Saturday's featured $100,000 Spectacular Bid Stakes at 6 furlongs, won by DETERMINATO (Larry Pilotti) in 1:11.13, the day's slowest of three races at the distance. Not only did the final time not impress, but the final quarter-mile in :26.39 was abysmal. The bottom line assessment to this event is that it was a very typical early season Gulfstream race for 3-year-olds, often won by battle-tested Calder horses with an experience edge. At some point over the next few months, that edge dissipates, but it's real in early January to be sure and looks to have been at play in the 'Bid.

DETERMINATO, sired by Kentucky Derby runner-up Closing Argument, will not be routing anytime soon with success. He was a spent horse past the wire. Runner-up LEAVE OF ABSENCE (Rick Violette) clearly ran the best race in terms of projecting forward, breaking uncharacteristically far back and closing nicely with good energy late. The fast early pace and terribly slow come-home time may have flattered LEAVE OF ABSENCE somewhat, but the inkling here is that he was visually solid and looks ready for a one-turn mile at least. Third-place runner CANE'S GARDEN BAY (Rusty Arnold) was just okay, even-steven, and that style typically translates well to stretching out in distance. I'm not sure he plays in the big leagues at any time, but he's a decent sort. Speedball GANGSTERONTHERUN (Wesley Ward), who faded to fourth as the favorite, is merely a sprint presence.

Saturday's Gulfstream undercard included a Race 6 maiden that was oozing with pedigree intrigue. Churchill invader FORT LARNED (Ian Wilkes) outslugged FAIRVIEW HEIGHTS (Todd Pletcher) in the latter's first start since May. A final quarter of the one-turn mile in :26.89 didn't inspire greatness. FORT LARNED, a maternal grandsom of Bayakoa, and FAIRVIEW HEIGHTS, from the female family of turf marathon champ Chief Bearhart, both appear to have plenty of room to improve. Pine Island's baby bro POINT OF ENTRY (Shug McGaughey) was sharper than expected early and ran decent enough to be fourth for a barn that doesn't ask for much in the debut. POINT OF ENTRY was very one-paced after the break and that style projects well around two turns when asked to stretch out. SINORICE (Nick ZIto) ran similarly in third and also is a route prospect. Despite what the clock tells me, I'm giving this race a timing mulligan and considering it pretty strong. I like what I saw, and there's so much upside with these horses. Don't be surprised to see a few next-out winners from Jan. 8 Race 6 at GP.

Last Friday at Gulfstream, Ontario-bred BLACK N BEAUTY (Dale Romans) scored a decisive allowance mile victory and perhaps gives Zayat Stables a Triple Crown trail contender north or south of the border. Third and fourth quarters in :25-1/5 and :25-2/5 indicate this score was on the easier side, but the $2,500 basement sale purchase has now won two straight since running a game second to highly touted Super Saver kin BRETHREN (Todd Pletcher) at Belmont last fall. Runner-up PRINTING PRESS (Terri Pompay) was third to SWEET DUCKY (Kelly Breen) last time out in the 1-mile Seton Hall Stakes, while third-place finisher SHADOW WARRIOR (Rusty Arnold) is a highly respected A.P. Indy-Victory Ride maiden winner from the Churchill fall meeting. This was a quality allowance race. BLACK N BEAUTY did not care much for breaking from the rail, and won despite inexperience dealing with that open space to his inside coming out of the chute. He was all professional running straight and true down the lane. Also at Gulfstream last weekend, grass-pedigreed DISFRAZ (Eddie Kenneally) had an improved trip from a troubled Churchill debut and scored a determined win Sunday in the turf route maiden ranks.

Wednesday's Gulfstream allowance sprint saw dash-pedigreed RAZMATAZ (Todd Pletcher) overcome a wide trip into the turn and grind out a slow victory in 1:11.46 while not inspiring. Runner-up GOLD FOR CASH (Larry Demeritte) closed well and galloped out best, but he's twice been offered up for claiming tags and is 1-for-10. This was not a quintessential quality GP allowance.

The sleeper horse of the week may have come from Laurel Park on Wednesday when TOBY'S CORNER (Graham Motion) stalked a fast pace and glided under the wire to win a first-level allowance. The come-home time (:25.96) was paltry down the long Laurel stretch used for 1-mile races, but a :46.82 opening half-mile is serious stuff over that track, even in the dead of winter. By Bellamy Road out of a Mister Frisky mare, there's no reason TOBY'S CORNER can't handle two turns. He's likely headed for a road trip next.

Saturday's Turfway Prevue set up for a closer, and if you trusted that INHISGLORY (Wayne Mogge) could repeat his allowance effort from 15 days prior, you were rewarded nicely by the lukewarm favorite. The son of Pure Prize dug in to hold off late-running longshot BANJAMMER (Eric Reed), our upset special who wound up a nose short. BLUEGRASS DREAMER (Richard Budge) was well-back in third and didn't finish with much aplomb after looking like a threat nearing the stretch. This race will not awe anyone, finishing about 2-3 lengths slower than a dominant $15,000 claimer did earlier on the card. And, we have to admit 6-1/2 furlongs is a long way from the 1-1/8 miles of the Grade 3 Lane's End Stakes in March. But it is what it is, as they say, and the race's logical players mostly did what they were supposed to do. So it's an honest prep, and you'd fully expect horses in a listed $50,000 stakes to have to get much better to beat the big boys. Now, let's see how INHISGLORY progresses in the WEBN Stakes next month. Meanwhile in Kentucky, hot sire Bluegrass Cat got yet another 3-year-old winner in the race prior to the Prevue when R FAST CAT (Mike Maker) wired a very slow maiden mile that came home in nearly :28.

At Santa Anita, the only sophomore action for the boys last weekend came early on Saturday. HOLLYWOOD HEIST (Mike Harrington) romped vs. a weak field of dashers in Race 1, while WEGNER (Bob Baffert) provided much more to chew on in Race 3 when beating maiden route runners in rock-steady, front-running splits. The Dynaformer colt threw up consistent :24s around the track for the most part at a head-scratching 8-to-1 mutuel on the hottest trainer in America. DREAMY KID (Neil Drysdale) ran well to be second, closing into a front-end winner, and won't be a maiden much longer. Also out west, CELESTIC NIGHT (Neil French) upset yesterday's (Jan. 13) allowance turf sprint in rallying style, upending smashing Keeneland spring meet winner METROPOLITAN MAN (who was making his debut for new trainer Vladimir Cerin). The Vindication colt CELESTIC NIGHT was a miserable failure routing in stakes company, but strode out nicely Thursday with that daisy-cutter action and looks to be stronger as a closing sprinter.

The Fair Grounds scene was all about the turf last week within the division. LIONDRIVE (Tim Ice) won an off-the-turf route allowance for Lousiana-breds in workmanlike style Friday (despite the big win margin), perhaps putting the former trainer of Belmont winner Summer Bird back in the trail discussion. LIONDRIVE was fifth in the G3 Pilgrim on turf in New York last fall. On Saturday, MR. UNCLE NED (Mark Frostad) swept by a maiden route cast in a visually sharp performance under turf-riding ace Rosie Napravnik. The pedigree and past performances are all turf, however. And Sunday's FG program opened with a turf route allowance, again won by Napravnik's mount, ACTION READY (Bret Calhoun), who wired the field behind a very slow pace. The More Than Ready colt had run well in three dirt tries at Remington prior, and is out of a Wild Again mare. There's no reason to think ACTION READY can't toss his name in the ring for the dirt route stakes at this juncture. He beat a very game and good rival in MAVERICKING (Neil Pessin), who had been chasing the likes of solid runners WILLCOX INN, CANE GARDEN BAY and PERREGAUX.

Aqueduct's Saturday card saw CAT SWEEP (John Terranova) snap an 0-for-7 mark with a wire-to-wire maiden route victory over the supremely bred STORM'N INDIAN (Kiaran McLaughlin). The runner-up's genes boast Storm Cat-Fleet Indian, but his performance was rank and unprofessional into the first turn and somewhat disinterested into the homestretch. This $2 million purchase has not seen the light yet. CAT SWEEP has pedigree himself, Bluegrass Cat-Nany's Sweep, and obviously moved up in his first dirt attempt following synthetic and grass races only. His mama was versatile and earned a half-million in major stakes, but CAT SWEEP will need to be better THAN this to factor on the bigger stages. Sire Bluegrass Cat wheeled right back to win the next race on the Big A card Saturday with 3-year-old starter allowance sprinter ANOTHER SILVER OAK (Todd Pletcher) for the connections of UNCLE MO.

At Tampa Bay Downs last weekend, the only 3-year-old race of repute came in Sunday's fifth when turf maiden routers went a mile. First-timer STORMY GOING (James Dodgen) wired the cast by relaxing to a :25.13 second quarter after breaking rank early. I like to see a young horse be able to change gears, and this guy bested New York and Kentucky raiders in the two-three-four slots. STORMY GOING possesses a tremendous female-side stamina influence and is one to watch on any surface if he puts it all together mentally. The time was 3 lengths faster than older allowance mares went later in the same card. This was among the top performances of the week.

Wednesday's Tampa card gave us a solid weekday maiden sprint when first-time starter CHASING MOONLIGHT (Richard Leppala) scored a three-way photo over Churchill raider KRIEGSPIEL (Ian Wilkes) and promising first-timer ADIRONDACK EXPRESS (Derek Ryan). Favorite KRIEGSPIEL got a terrible ride from normally reliable Freddie Lenclud, but didn't respond like anything special once he got out from behind the traffic in mid-stretch. ADIRONDACK EXPRESS is the most promising of this group, but the son of Silver Train likely won't extend to classic distances based on pedigree.

With the scratch of Pennsylvania Nursery winner DER MEISTER (Murray Rojas), Saturday's Race 6 second-level allowance sprint at Laurel lost some luster. AFTERNOON ACTION (JOHN RIGATTIERI) won a four-horse affair that slowed to a walk in the second-quarter and invited the scurrying finish. At Gold Gate on Saturday, JIM'S NO PREACHER (Steve Sherman) wired a 6-furlong entry-level allowance cast in a solid 1:10.59 over Tapeta. No gallop-out suggests this unbeaten son of Minister's Wild Cat won't factor vs. legitimate routers.

Quick Hitters

Trainer Bob Baffert was none too happy with the lead-footed workout by THE FACTOR this past Sunday when the Dec. 26 track-record setter returned for his first drill since then and smoked 5 furlongs in :58. Baffert wants, and needs, THE FACTOR to settle more early in his drills and races. The same morning, Baffert worked recent winners AWESOME PATRIOT in 1:00-4/5 and UNCLE SAM in 1:01-2/5 … BC Juvenile Turf champ PLUCK (now with Graham Motion) had his first breeze of the new year Monday at Palm Meadows, going 3 furlongs in :39.40 over the turf … Graded winner BOYS AT TOSCONOVA, runner-up in the BC Juvenile, worked last Friday at Gulfstream Park, getting 5 furlongs in 1:00.60 handily … BC Juvenile third ROGUE ROMANCE (Ken McPeek) notched his first work since championship day when he breezed 3 furlongs Saturday at Gulfstream in :37.50 … Unbeaten BRETHREN (Todd Pletcher), full-brother to '10 Derby champ Super Saver, drilled a half-mile Monday at Palm Meadows in a solid :49.40, fourth-fastest of 33 at the distance … Pletcher also had his famous kin LAUBURU, younger brother of champion Ashado, out for a work Saturday, breezing 5 furlongs in 1:01.70 at Palm Meadows … JUSTIN PHILLIP (Steve Asmussen) breezed an easy 5 furlongs Monday at Fair Grounds in 1:02.20 in preparation for next weekend's G3 Lecomte Stakes … The Lecomte field also will include WILKINSON (Neil Howard), who has booked Garrett Gomez to ride.

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. FORT LARNED (Gulfstream, 1/8) ** NEW **

Allowance Race
1. JAKESAM (Golden Gate, 12/30 * starter allowance *)
2. AWESOME PATRIOT (Santa Anita, 12/29)
3. BLACK N BEAUTY (Gulfstream, 1/7) ** NEW **
4. HERP (Fair Grounds, 12/26)
5. JUSTIN PHILLIP (Fair Grounds, 1/1)

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. DETERMINATO (Spectacular Bid, 1/8) ** NEW **

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, second week of the 2011 season

1. UNCLE MO

11. SINAI

2. TO HONOR AND SERVE

12. JAYCITO

3. PREMIER PEGASUS

13. SANTIVA

4. THE FACTOR

14. MACHEN

5. ROGUE ROMANCE

15. CLUBHOUSE RIDE

6. TAPIZAR

16. BOYS AT TOSCANOVA

7. ROCKING OUT

17. COMMA TO THE TOP

8. STAY THIRSTY

18. LAUBURU

9. BRETHREN

19. JP'S GUSTO

10. PLUCK

20. ASTROLOGY

Reader-submitted top 20, second week of the 2010 season: ZENYATTA JOHN, Saratoga Springs, NY

1. TO HONOR AND SERVE

11. SHADOW WARRIOR

2. ROGUE ROMANCE

12. TAPIZAR

3. UNCLE MO

13. THE FACTOR

4. DANCINGINHERDREAMS (f)

14. ECONOMIC SUMMIT

5. BREAK UP THE GAME

15. MONZON

6. JB'S THUNDER

16. BAND BOX

7. DIALED IN

17. READ THE CONTRACT

8. UNCLE SAM

18. BRETHREN

9. TURBULENT DESCENT (f)

19. SOVEREIGN DEFAULT

10. MUCH MACHO MAN

20. COOL BLUE RED HOT

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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