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Countdown to the Crown

1/21/2011

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 press conference with Jets' coach Rex Ryan. If you blow enough hot air, you just might fool some people into thinking that you're brilliant.

1. As hot as Bob Baffert is right now, remember to look for his closers, not his speed horses. Baffert's Triple Crown race winners all could all close (except War Emblem, whom he didn't develop). Think back to Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Point Given, Lookin At Lucky – not a front-runner in the bunch. Even Cavonnier, who missed by a nose in 1996 when few nationally knew who this guy was, was a closer.

2. Don't forget the turf. While turf preps once didn't make much impact on the trail, one unintended consequence of the synthetic-surface racing era is that trainers are far more willing to run horses on any surface these days. Last year's G1 Arkansas Derby (Line of David), G1 Blue Grass (Stately Victor), G3 Gotham (Awesome Act) and G2 Lane's End (Dean's Kitten) all were won by horses immediately exiting grass races – two of those on dirt, two on Polytrack.

3. I predict at least two major graded Triple Crown prep races will be won by horses who are competing in an allowance race today at Gulfstream Park (Jan. 21). That sounds insane, I know. Read just below for the preview.

This week's fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. I know you can't wait for Saturday's G3 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds, but I'm here to tell you that an allowance later today (Jan. 21) at Gulfstream trumps anything run so far in 2011. In fact, I can't recall a single undercard race in Countdown's six-year history with as much allure.

Friday's Race 9 allowance at 1-1/8 miles at Gulfstream has a field of 8, and all 8 runners are legitimate prospects based on performance, pedigree and connections. Six are last-out winners and six are trained by guys who already have won Triple Crown races in their careers. Let's start with stablemates LAUBURU and FINANCIAL EMPIRE, ridiculously well-bred debut winners for super-trainer Todd Pletcher. Neither likely goes favored, which tells you how good this heat is on paper. DIALED IN (Nick Zito) overcame a seemingly impossible trip to win his debut at Churchill last fall and is highly regarded. SOLDAT (Kiaran McLaughlin) was second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf and from the same young sire, War Front, as speedy west coast dirt ace THE FACTOR (Bob Baffert). Add in one of the hottest horses in the Vegas winter book, COOL BLUE RED HOT (Angel Penna), a horse twice in the superfecta in graded stakes in HALO'S THUNDER (Ken McPeek), and a pair of horses that I am visually in love with, MAS TRUENO (William Phipps) and BEAMER (Carl Nafzger). When thinking about this race, I have to sit on my hands to keep from clapping. That's excitement.

Also on today's (Jan. 21) Gulfstream card, maidens get a 1-1/8 miles distance test in Race 7, including DANCE CITY (Todd Pletcher), DEED IT IS (Shug McGaughey) and DERBY OBSESSION (Mike Maker), all making their second career starts.

On Saturday's Lecomte undercard at Fair Grounds, tune in early for a Race 5 maiden route that is the best 3-year-old maiden race held so far at that meeting. Three-time recent runner-up VOODAT (Ken McPeek) meets familiar rivals LUMBERYARD JACK (Mike Stidham) and AWESOME BET (Steve Asmussen) with a serious post position edge over that pair. But the horse to watch for me is SANTO GATO (Merrill Scherer), scratched from last week's $250,000 Jean Lafitte Stakes in order to run back in this maiden route. Also tab FIRST AND TEN (Al Stall, Jr.), fourth in his Churchill debut behind DEPECHE CHAT (Rusty Arnold) and ARCHARCHARCH (Jinks Fires). All that duo has done is run third in the Pasco Stakes and win the Sugar Bowl Stakes since.

Around the horn also on Saturday, promising New York-bred sprinter DR DISCO (Bruce Brown) headlines a Race 3 allowance for state-breds at Aqueduct; $400,000 yearling buy FOREBODING (Eoin Harty) shifts north to Golden Gate Fields in a Race 7 maiden mile after chasing highly respected SINAI (Bob Baffert) in his Hollywood Park debut -- note that FOREBODING is a full-brother to 2008 Iowa Derby winner and G1 Travers third-place finisher Tiz Now Tiz Then; WASHINGTON RULES (Ken McPeek) and PERVIS (Chad Brown) try the turf in Saturday's Race 5 maiden route at Gulfstream, back from long breaks after chasing STAY THIRSTY (Todd Pletcher) and ROGUE ROMANCE (Ken McPeek) at Saratoga last summer; and the sharply bred ULTIMATE X (Tony Dutrow), by Unbridled's Song out of multiple stakes winner Smokey Glacken, debuts Saturday at Parx Racing in a 1-1/16 miles maiden heat in Race 6. Meanwhile, Shug McGaughey sends ADMIRAL PERRY to Tampa on Saturday for a turf engagement -- he was second to UNCLE MO (Todd Pletcher) last year and broke his maiden in Philadelphia most recently.

Looking ahead to Sunday, I'm giddy to see Preakness/Belmont winner Point Given's baby brother debut in Gulfstream Race 7 when TURNOFTHECAT (Kiaran McLaughlin) meets maiden sprinters. He'll test a field that includes FREE ENTRY (Chad Brown), returning for the first time since debuting fourth to eventual 2-year-old champion UNCLE MO (Todd Pletcher) at Saratoga. That same Chad Brown barn has the promising turfer BEACHCOMBING in the very next race Sunday, a grass allowance affair. He'll meet the sharp Tampa turf maiden breaker TERMINAL ONE (James Divito). Both figure to be grass runners.

G3 Lecomte Stakes (Saturday/Fair Grounds)

A bizarre field of 5 by today's stakes standards has entered the G3 $100,000 Lecomte at 1 mile and 40 yards around 2 turns. The 40 yards are notable, given that races at this distance use the traditional finish line and the entire length of the Fair Grounds stretch. The old Lecomte, pre-2009, was at 1 mile and ended at the sixteenth pole finish line. We get a truer route test with the long stretch. But like last week's Sham, what can we really glean from a 5-horse field? The lack of competition dilutes the importance of the prep.

So what makes this field bizarre? How about the fact that every entrant has raced within the past 3 weeks? In an era of lightly raced horses and eternities between trips to the post, we're evaluating recent form -- and most of it over the local strip. All except New York invader PANTS ON FIRE (Kelly Breen) have started at the current Fair Grounds meeting, and done so in the past 21 days or fewer.

Pace always is important when dealing with short fields as front-runners tend to rule the roost. Both ACTION READY (Bret Calhoun) and JUSTIN PHILLIP (Steve Asmussen) were wire-to-wire winners recently, and PANTS ON FIRE certainly wants to be on the front end with speed jock Joe Bravo in to ride. WILKINSON (Neil Howard) likes to sit about 3-4 lengths off the pace and could have his work cut out for him if some of the other riders back off the throttle early. But if the pace goes as quick as it potentially could, WILKINSON and Garrett Gomez could be sitting pretty with the last move. Injured rider Robby Albarado tends to be aggressive early in route races, so the patient Gomez might actually be a better fit for this particular horse if WILKINSON is to outfinish them all in the Lecomte lane.

JUSTIN PHILLIP was rank early and green to a fault late in his Jan. 1 allowance win over WILKINSON. At 7-5 in the morning line and having won last time at 1-2 odds in visually unpleasing style, a value player has to go elsewhere. Maybe the blinkers on correct the hijinx for 'JUSTIN, we shall see. Meanwhile, PANTS ON FIRE ran into a similar, short stakes field of 6 in the Count Fleet, which also had a decent amount of early speed like the Lecomte and set up for a closer. Unless the track comes up sloppy, I envision him suffering a similar fate after this long roadtrip. If sloppy, he's the horse to beat. The weatherman says sunny skies Friday-Saturday-Sunday in the Big Easy, however.

Lecomte selections: Win) WILKINSON; Place) JUSTIN PHILLIP; Show) ACTION READY.

Last week's selections: 4: 2-1-0. DECISIVE MOMENT (Jean Lafitte) and TAPIZAR (Sham) scored victories as top choices, while JAKESAM (California Derby) finished second. Finally, top pick RIBO BOBO was unplaced in the Pasco, a race won by second choice MANICERO. Not a bad week at the windows.

Season selections: 6: 2-2-1.

Everyone's a critic

This section recaps the week that was for the sophomore set. Eight stakes races jammed the extended holiday weekend from Friday-Monday last week, so let's get to work. I'll try to hit them from most important to least important stakes before discussing the undercard doings of the past week.

TAPIZAR (Steve Asmussen) bounded easily by speedy UNCLE SAM (Bob Baffert) on the clubhouse turn of Saturday's Grade 3 Sham Stakes and the rest was an individual display. The dominating Churchill maiden winner blasted splits of :22.62, :22.63, :23.58, :24.91, and :6.64 en route to a final 1-1/16 miles time (1:40.38) that was nearly 6 lengths faster than older horses ran a few races later in the G2 San Fernando Stakes. The clocking aside (due to the ridiculous times all meet at Santa Anita), the fact that TAPIZAR left his pace-chasing pal UNCLE SAM totally gassed and nearly 10 lengths in arrears is a more tangible impression. Granted, no five-horse field tells you very much. TAPIZAR ran away from his lone pace challenger and had only one serious closing threat in CLUBHOUSE RIDE (Craig Lewis), who was clearly second-best. In a bigger field, you get more challenges early and late. Hands down, this is the best performance we've seen so far in the young season, but short of historically remarkable. On the negative side, TAPIZAR threw his head up turning for home and raced with high head action the entire stretch while jockey Garrett Gomez had to keep after him for run. He was visually tired and working, but that's reasonable given the opening 6 furlongs of this race were nearly identical on the clock to those of the 7-furlong G2 Santa Ynez Stakes a few races later! Now with 5 route races under his belt, this son of Tapit is as prepared as any horse in America – except maybe runner-up/iron horse CLUBHOUSE RIDE, who was completing start No. 11 and did nothing to disgrace his consistent form. TAPIZAR is only a May 6 foal, but does not seem to have any developmental disadvantages whatsoever. If you liked TAPIZAR before this race, and I did as last week's No. 6 rated Triple Crown hopeful nationally, there's no reason to change your opinion.

Surprises are a good thing, and sometimes you get more than you ask for. That was the case in review of Monday's $75,000 San Pedro Stakes at Santa Anita. A 6-1/2 furlong sprint for listed stakes money is not supposed to launch two legitimate Triple Crown trail contenders, but this race truly did in my eyes. Winner INDIAN SUMMER (Jerry Hollendorfer) and third-place finisher SINAI (Bob Baffert) both validated their credentials with rock-solid performances. The former was making his first start since running third in the G1 Del Mar Futurity at summer's end, and somehow was overlooked as the longest shot on the toteboard at 10-1 odds. While the pedigree suggests middle distances by Indian Charlie out of a G3 stakes-winning sprint mare, INDIAN SUMMER is so professional and does not over-do things that you envision him handling more distance. Meanwhile, jazzy debut winner SINAI made an exceptionally promising stakes debut for one reason: He didn't run off like a sprinter. Instead, he was even-steven, one-geared and professional, stuck down on the inside with nowhere really to run and did not fight rider Rafael Bejarano. When you look at a prep to something bigger, this is what you want to see from SINAI. He made more progress in defeat than a blistering, front-end victory in 1:07 would have produced. This kind of race actually is what you want to see next time from stablemate THE FACTOR. As for runner-up CITY COOL (Steve Asmussen), he set smoking hot fractions and held for second, showing exactly who he is -- a very quick sprint prospect only.

Cutting through the fog and overcoming a four-wide trip around the far turn, CALEB'S POSSE (Donnie K. Von Hemel) made short work of his rivals in the short stretch run of Monday's $100,000 Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn. With one-mile races ending at the sixteenth pole finish line, his closing effort and finishing margin is about as much as one can expect for the race configuration, and the son of Posse looked good doing it -- from what little of the race that was visible. Times and fractions are almost meaningless in this case as the Oaklawn track played horrendously slow all opening weekend, especially Monday. Now a four-time winner and a stakes winner sprinting and around 2 turns, CALEB'S POSSE avenged his listless effort at Remington in the Springboard Mile, a race that seems validated to some degree when fellow Springboard also-ran BLUEGRASS BULL (Jinks Fires) also rebounded to run third in this race. Damsire Slewacide long has been a route influence in Oklahoma-bred pedigrees, and the Kentucky-bred CALEB'S POSSE appears to have answered the initial questions about 2 turns to some degree. The 10 furlongs of a Derby run remain the hurdle for all. Two-time route winner DREAMINOFTHEWIN (C.R. Trout) rallied nicely in the running for second, but did not gallop out with much vigor. Disappointing runs from the front-end speed horses and favorites ARCHARCHARCH (Jinks Fires) and GRANT JACK (Bret Calhoun) are difficult to accept at face value. The former was too keyed early on in his route unveiling and certainly could improve when the Feb. 21 G3 Southwest comes up next for the OP crowd.

Florida-bred and based DECISIVE MOMENT (Juan Arias) returned to the scene of his G3 Delta Jackpot runner-up finish and one-upped that performance last Friday night in the $250,000 Jean Lafitte Stakes at Delta Downs. A fast early, slow late, pace set-up saw quarters of :22.53 on the opening straightaway fade to :26.20 on the back end, though note the final quarter-mile on the bullring includes some far turn action, which will slow things down. A :26.20 final quarter at Delta isn't bad at all, considering good older horse Z Humor ran about :26 the final quarter of last year's Delta Mile. Visually, 'MOMENT had another gear and won as much the best. The horses ran nearly 1 through 7 the same way all the way around the track. DECISIVE MOMENT was pressed hard by the excellent regional sprinter SU CASA G CASA (Bret Calhoun), who is a two-time sprint stakes winner. TRUBS (Al Stall, Jr.) sat a perfect trip stalking third on the rail, and while he didn't have a huge hole to go through, he also didn't have any zip had one appeared. Third-place finisher EXPECTING CASH (Steve Asmussen) raced wide throughout and probably was second-best while hanging late.

Despite a very legitimate pace, front-runners POSITIVE RESPONSE (Bill Morey) and JAKESAM (Jerry Hollendorfer) proved much the best in Saturday's $100,000 California Derby at Golden Gate Fields. They completed 1-1/16 miles on the Tapeta synthetic surface in 1:44.56 after an opening half-mile in :46.81. That said, neither flew home as you would expect from taxing early fractions (:26.11 fourth quarter, :6.85 final sixteenth). The winner overcame a wide post draw from the No. 11 hole and wandered a decent amount in the lane, while the runner-up had to use an awful lot of steam while four-wide into and around the clubhouse turn. Both would have increased their margins over the others in the field with better trips. This was a positive move forward for both POSITIVE RESPONSE and JAKESAM, but that duo could see an entirely different kind of pace animal if COMMA TO THE TOP (Peter Miller) invades as expected for the 9-furlong G3 El Camino Real Derby on Feb. 12.

As we discussed at the top of Countdown this week, don't sleep on the turf races. They've been highly productive prep springboards in recent history, and perhaps Sunday's $100,000 Dania Beach at Gulfstream Park will produce the next Paddy O'Prado who can run on anything. A :23.21 second quarter-mile that was faster than the opening quarter-mile provided a recipe for a pace meltdown, and the eventual top three finishers all rallied from the tail of the field as you'd expect in this scenario. ADIRONDACK SUMMER (Christophe Clement) scored by a nose to advance to 2-for-3 lifetime as a son of 1995 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Thunder Gulch. While he's by turf distance mare Summer Solstice, it's not out of the question to move a Thunder Gulch offspring to Poly or dirt in the coming months. This guy will run all day and was brilliant enough to blow out a 7-furlong turf sprint bunch in his debut. A terrible race in terms of traffic and meltdown front-runners, it's hard to evaluate how good this particular event was. But it's very easy to factor ADIRONDACK SUMMER into your upcoming radar as a legitimate racehorse.

In the mold of his daddy Henny Hughes, FORT HUGHES (Kiaran McLaughlin) looks like a 3-year-old sprinter to be reckoned with after Monday's 1:08.33 performance in the 6-furlong Jimmy Winkfield Stakes at Aqueduct. While nothing in his pedigree or gallop-out suggests a run at the Triple Crown, he leveled off nicely and was ridden out to a promising victory. There's no shame in being a star sprinter, and this one has that look. I'd rank this race much higher in terms of the early season's best stakes races if I felt it had any relevance to the Triple Crown chase. It was an outstanding sprint effort. Runner-up ROYAL CURRIER (Patricia Farro) saw his two-race stakes win streak come to an end after beating 'HUGHES in Philly last month.

In Saturday's $75,000 Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, wire-to-wire winner MANICERO (Leo Azpurua) was hooked to his outside by 84-1 shot BROCK N ROCK and never got a breather. Just like his other recent winning starts, MANICERO didn't corner very efficiently in the Pasco, something that's going to be an issue around two turns when all legs get wearier. Late in the running, MANICERO had his head up and shortened stride. Runner-up BERT B DON galloped out marginally better. The final time of 1:24.58 was about 3-4 lengths quicker than very good 3-year-old filly Devilish Lady posted two races prior in the Gasparilla Stakes when blowing away her rivals. But also by comparison, Musket Man won this same race in 1:23.06 two years ago en route to Kentucky Derby and Preakness third-place finishes. The more I watch this race, the more I wonder about MANICERO handling a good route field, even if his damsire is stamina superstar Kris S. Also note from the Pasco, RIBO BOBO (Manny Azpurua) reared just before the start and then broke in a tangle once the gates opened in a race that's a toss-out for the G3 Iroquois Stakes runner-up.

Since we had so many stakes this week, let's put the main focus on three important undercard races and a cursory mention of some others.

First, Saturday's opening day Race 7 allowance mile at Oaklawn was a heart-stopper and a sensational race both for now and the future. ALTERNATION (Donnie K. Von Hemel) continues to look like a rising star in the division following a three-way photo where he was brilliant and determined in the same race, a daring combination. But take nothing away from runner-up ELITE ALEX (Tim Ritchey), who overcame a wretched start to nearly win the race and make a giant leap forward in any analysts' eyes. He did grab a quarter at the start, so let's tab his next workout. Wynn Las Vegas dropped 'ALEX from 200-1 to 45-1 on the return. Third-place finisher COMMANDER (Larry Jones) also made a huge leap forward off a disappointing run in the Dover Stakes last fall. Despite the opening half-mile walking in nearly :49.68, these horses closed like gangbusters with only a short stretch using the sixteenth-pole as the finish line. They ran a razor-sharp :12.45 the final furlong in the mad dash to the wire. Don't be surprised if there's not a stakes winner or exacta from this race when the Feb. 21 G3 Southwest Stakes unravels. It was a very good Saturday for ALTERNATION owner Pin Oak Stable, which also sent out Fair Grounds allowance sprint winner DIVINE MUSIC (Malcolm Pierce).

Saturday's 7-furlong maiden sprint at Gulfstream had all the allure you want this time of year – big barns, big pedigrees, high hopes. The race didn't disappoint after four runners hit the wire within a length, for the likes of Zito, Jerkens, Pletcher and McGaughey. HERON LAKE (Nick Zito) held determined between runners for the victory and is a son of 2006 Preakness champ Bernaradini. HAMMERSMITH (Todd Pletcher) loomed boldly and just hung at this tough 7-furlong debut distance to be second. Given his pedigree by Johannesburg out of the French Deputy mare Bella Bellucci, I'm inclined to think he's least likely amongst this group to stretch out with success. ARCH TRAVELER (Jimmy Jerkens) was bet to smithereens foolishly after a debut second to RIFT (Todd Pletcher) at Aqueduct. That result proved less inspiring when RIFT offered nothing in Monday's Jimmy Winkfield at the Big A. Meanwhile, BREAK UP THE GAME (Shug McGaughey) was fourth under the wire in this GP affair, but clearly moving best past the wire galloping out. His solid run Saturday flattered rival LAUBURU (Todd Pletcher), whom he chased home second at Aqueduct. At a distance of ground, I like HERON and BREAK UP THE GAME most of this group. Meanwhile, KENTUCKY REIGN (Bill Mott) was badly defeated in last and offered nothing at huge odds, despite being the first foal of Kentucky Oaks winner Summerly.

The other huge undercard performance last week came Sunday at Santa Anita when super-hyped first-time starters DA RULER (Bob Baffert) and ALBERGATTI (Steve Asmussen) put on a personal speed-fest. They hummed past :21.67 and :22.09 opening quarters over the Salt Flat Mines of Arcadia, passing 6 furlongs in 1:07.91 and a final 6-1/2 furlong time of 1:14.42. Neither blazer is bred to run a classic distance, both out of sprint mares, though ALBERGATTI appears to have the router's body for it if he develops some racing foundation. Don't be shocked if this super-taxing race doesn't have a negative impact on both in the immediate future.

Among the undercard notables last week also included Godolphin's well-bred Street Cry-Dianehill colt SPLASH POINT (Mahmoud al Zarooni) running a solid second at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai on Thursday preparing for the UAE 2000 Guineas; ARI C (Todd Pletcher), who debuted last Friday a winner on the turf over respected favorite CASINO HOST (Chad Brown) in a rocky-run route at Gulfstream Park; super-sharp sprint prospect FLASHPOINT (Rick Dutrow) whistled to a debut maiden win Saturday at Aqueduct, but certainly appears limited in pedigree as a one-turn runner; and IT'S MY PARTY (Chris Hartman) punched his ticket to the Borderland Derby with a solid mile allowance win Tuesday at Sunland Park, stretching out off a second in the Riley Allison Futurity.

Quick Hitters

UNCLE MO (Todd Pletcher) dropped a point from 6-1 to 5-1 favoritism in the Wynn Las Vegas winter book odds released Tuesday, while TAPIZAR (Steve Asmussen) took a massive plunge to 12-1 and third-favorite status behind TO HONOR AT SERVE (Bill Mott), who remained painted at 8-1 this week … TO HONOR AND SERVE (Bill Mott) logged his first drill since the G2 Remsen last fall when breezing 3 furlongs this past Saturday in :39.80 at Payson Park … ROGUE ROMANCE (Ken McPeek) drilled 3 furlongs for the second straight weekend, breezing in :38 flat Jan. 15 at Gulfstream Park …Impressive Jan. 2 debut winner MACHEN (Neil Howard) returned to the Fair Grounds work tab last Sunday, breezing 5 furlongs in a leisurely 1:03.60, his second drill on schedule since his victory … ROCKING OUT (Rick Dutrow), one of my highest-rated maiden winners of 2010, got his first drill of the year last Saturday at Gulfstream, breezing an easy half-mile in :50.90 … JAYCITO (Bob Baffert) worked a half-mile Tuesday in :49.40 at Santa Anita, his second published drill of the season and six days following his first foray back … Among the notable horses from '10 who have not yet logged a workout in 2011 are UNCLE MO (Todd Pletcher), STAY THIRSTY (Todd Pletcher), PREMIER PEGASUS (Myung Kwon Cho) and ASTROLOGY (Steve Asmussen) … Impressive Fair Grounds allowance winner HERP (Bret Calhoun) underwent surgery for a sesamoid chip and is off the Triple Crown trail … BRICKYARD FAST (Joe Petalino), who missed the Smarty Jones due to training setbacks, is back on course for the G3 Southwest Stakes on Feb. 21 … Churchill Downs announced Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pools for 2011 on Thursday, and they will be held Feb. 18-20, March 11-13 and April 1-3 at wagering outlets around the country and online.

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. HERON LAKE (Gulfstream, 1/15) ** NEW **
4. DA RULER (Santa Anita, 1/16) ** NEW **
5. BEAMER (Tampa Bay Downs, 12/30)

Allowance Race
1. ALTERNATION (Oaklawn, 1/15) ** NEW **
2. JAKESAM (Golden Gate, 12/30 * starter allowance *)
3. AWESOME PATRIOT (Santa Anita, 12/29)
4. BLACK N BEAUTY (Gulfstream, 1/7)
5. JUSTIN PHILLIP (Fair Grounds, 1/1)
(HERP injured and removed from ratings.)

Stakes Race
1. TAPIZAR (Sham, Santa Anita, 1/15) ** NEW **
2. INDIAN WINTER (San Pedro, Santa Anita, 1/17) ** NEW **
3. CALEB'S POSSE (Smarty Jones, Oaklawn, 1/17) ** NEW **
4. DECISIVE MOMENT (Jean Lafitte, Delta Downs, 1/15) ** NEW **
5. POSITIVE RESPONSE (California Derby, 1/15) ** 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, third week of the 2011 season

Reader-submitted top 20, third week of the 2011 season: Molly, Fairfield, CT

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.