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 new puppy. They all start out cute, but they'll wind up biting you if you don't take good care of them down the road.
1. Sloppy tracks can be deceiving, blossoming those who love them, while at the same time wilting those who don't. Anyone remember the shine on Mine That Bird's rose? But muddy or not, here we come with SOLDAT (Kiaran McLaughlin), a splashing, yet smashing, winner last Friday at Gulfstream Park. He's shot all the way up to No. 3 nationally in this week's Countdown rankings.
2. The ability to blow out the competition remains a hallmark of the current-day Derby contender. Super Saver was last year's only entrant with a pair of career victories of 5 lengths or greater in winning margin, while 8 of the last 9 Derby winners owned at least 1 career victory of 7 lengths or more in "blowout ability." That makes sense when you consider the average winning margin of the past 5 Kentucky Derby renewals has been 4-1/2 lengths, while the photo finish camera has been collecting dust since 1999.
3. With 2010 Preakness-winning jockey Martin Garcia back in the US riding this week after immigration issues sent him back home to Mexico in early November, look for Rafael Bejarano to remain on the A-1 contenders for the Bob Baffert barn in California. Garcia's business may be suited for the Baffert road trips to Oaklawn, Fair Grounds, Sunland and Aqueduct, places that barn's trail contenders historically branch out to.
This week's fearless forecast
This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. Sunday's G3 Holy Bull at Gulfstream lost its marquee name when BOYS AT TOSCONOVA (Rick Dutrow) was withdrawn from consideration mid-week. He missed a workout last week and wasn't responding the way the barn desired. That's a big set-back in an era of two or three-prep campaigns. It also likely forces 'BOYS to return now at a two-turn distance for his first start of the year, changing up the gameplan.
As for the Saturday action, let's dive into the undercards coast-to-coast.
The Sunshine Millions Day programs Saturday at Santa Anita and Gulfstream each provide one undercard event for the sophomore set. At Santa Anita, Race 2 is a maiden sprint where red-hot Bob Baffert saddles TOKUBETSU and MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE against red-hot sire War Front, represented by rookie LE MANS (Steve Asmussen). That's one unique power-broker match-up of the 2011 season. The field also includes well-bred rookie UNBRIDLED KIMANCHI (John Shirreffs), who is out of Woodbine Oaks winner Kimchi, and the fast-working, win-early prospect RUNFLATOUT (John Sadler), who appears race-ready in the debut.
At Gulfstream Saturday, Race 5 is a 7-furlong allowance where highly impressive Aqueduct winner CROSSBOW (Kiaran McLaughlin) has earned the class test. By Bernardini out of Grade 1-winning sprinter Forest Heiress, we'll see what he has when he meets the returning SOVEREIGN DEFAULT (Rick Violette), who beat the very good STAY THIRSTY (Todd Pletcher) in his debut last summer at Belmont. The field also includes turf-bred VOODOO STORM (Shug McGaughey), for a suddenly hot barn and sporting Storm Cat-Voodoo Dancer bloodlines. I'm not sure this race is any more than a starting off point for 'VOODOO, however.
Oaklawn's Saturday program includes a two-turn allowance route featuring the quick turn-around of COMMANDER (Larry Jones), third in a super-tough allowance just 2 weeks ago. He'll meet a pair of Tony Dutrow trainees, JW BLUE and PARENT'S HONOR, both exiting Aqueduct minor placings on Dec. 19.
Fair Grounds has a promising maiden turf mile in Saturday's Race 8, featuring the debut of supremely bred Dynaformer-Yearly Report colt ANNUAL UPDATE (Mike Maker), as well as SANTO GATO (Merrill Scherer) exiting a key race behind next-out allowance winner GREAT MILLS (Steve Asmussen).
Sunday's G3 Holy Bull Stakes undercard at Gulfstream includes a Race 5 maiden mile with the improving SINORICE (Nick Zito) making his second start of the meet against rookie stablemates REDWOOD FALLS (Todd Pletcher) and ACHAEMENES (Todd Pletcher), the latter out of Queenie Belle and therefore a half-brother to Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic winner Unrivaled Belle. Well-bred half-brother to Pompei and Omi, the first-time starter NACHO BUSINESS (Kelly Breen) was set to run twice last summer in New York before injuries scrapped his potential unuveilings.
Also on weekend undercards, unbeaten JIM'S NO PREACHER (Steve Sherman) tries to advance to 3-for-3 in a Golden Gate Fields allowance sprint Saturday; THE FED EASED (Rick Violette) will try to flatter the form of the aforementioned CROSSBOW (Kiaran McLaughlin) when he returns Saturday in a Race 2 maiden sprint at Aqueduct. He was second to that promising rival in his career debut; Well-bred GOLDEN CAUSEWAY (Graham Motion) makes the road trip to Tampa Bay Downs for a Saturday Race 3 maiden sprint; and Sunland Park Derby hopefuls meet in a Sunday Race 9 allowance at Sunland, headed by Riley Allison Futurity fourth-place finisher MASON'S PEGASUS (Greg Green), a son of Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus.
Dancing Count Stakes (Saturday/Laurel Park)
Maryland's first stakes of the New Year for 3-year-olds is a long shot to the Preakness, but Saturday's 6-furlong feature has a few players worth noting. Maryland Juvenile Championship winner CONCEALED IDENTITY (Eddie Gaudet) is a son of Smarty Jones shortening in distance off a solid score. In terms of route/Preakness-type prospects, perhaps RAM (King Leatherbury) will develop in that mold by Pleasantly Perfect out of a Smart Strike mare. He's already a winner at a mile around 1 turn. AFTERNOON ACTION (John Rigattieri) and WICKED THUNDER (Gary Capuano) exit a one-two allowance sprint finish and both have sires, Action This Day and Thunder Gulch, which lead you to think they can go longer than this 6-furlong test. But they only battled in a field of 4 the last time out, and that's never the kind of race from which you can gather too much. In fact, third-place finisher RAM may have run the best of all last time out among that trio, trying to close after a dawdling :24 second quarter.
From a handicapping standpoint, you're evaluating the here and now. And while I certainly don't see sprint-bred LASTCALLFORDISCO (Chris Grove) as a Triple Crown prospect, I think he's got the "quicks" to be a serious factor at 6 furlongs Saturday. He only beat state-breds at Penn National in December over a track that was playing fast, but is training like a monster at the Bowie Training Center for a barn that I respect big-time. The price should be right, let's take a shot. DISKI DANCE (Cathal Lynch) has won 3 straight and invades again from his Philadelphia home-base, but gets the class test after facing claimers and starter allowance-types only to date.
Dancing Count Stakes selections: W) LASTCALLFORDISCO; P) RAM; S) CONCEALED IDENTITY.
G3 Holy Bull (Sunday/Gulfstream Park)
The first shots of the Preakness 5.5 will be fired Sunday when nine challengers take on the Grade 3 Holy Bull. Win this and the Florida Derby on April 3, and someone could be in line for a $5 million bonus (plus $500,000 to the trainer) come the third Saturday in May at Pimlico. But first things first, there's a one-mile race worth $250,000 in graded stakes money.
The midweek defection of BOYS AT TOSCONOVA (Rick Dutrow) took some star-power out of the Holy Bull to be sure. 'BOYS had not worked since Jan. 13, missing a drill, and Dutrow remained unhappy at the way he was failing to progress in the mornings. Stay tuned to where he could wind up next.
Favoritism in the Holy Bull falls into the wide-open category. Only BLACK N BEAUTY (Dale Romans) and DIALED IN (Nick Zito) were last-out winners, but neither has ever been in stakes company. Don't be surprised if the much-appreciated DIALED IN goes favored, even if he's been away since Nov. 12. The son of Mineshaft has fired a string of bullet workouts at Palm Meadows. You'll recall he was supposed to run in allowance company last Friday, but was scratched when the track came up sloppy. Welcome to the wolves in graded stakes company, DIALED IN.
Grade 3 Delta Jackpot champ GOURMET DINNER (Steve Standridge) has never run a bad race. Disregard his fourth in the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity as the horses were forced to circle the paddock for 45 minutes because of a shoe repair debacle for eventual winner COMMA TO THE TOP (Peter Miller). I can't hold any finish against any horse in that driving rainstorm after what they were forced to endure in the paddock. Another horse that you can draw a line through his last performance is the previously consistent RIBO BOBO (Manny Azpurua). He lost all chance at the start after not having his head in the game at Tampa Bay Downs in the Pasco Stakes.
LEAVE OF ABSENCE (Rick Violette) has the edge of a recent race, getting into gear late and closing well to be second in the Spectacular Bid Stakes. He has worked a bullet since then at Palm Meadows and has every license to one-up his previous meet performance with a victory. Another last-out runner-up, MUCHO MACHO MAN (Kathy Ritvo) has caught all the training raves this winter in South Florida. He's faced bear TO HONOR AND SERVE (Bill Mott) in two straight starts, chasing him through strong internal fractions in the Remsen without budging much at all.
SWEET DUCKY (Kelly Breen) had a ton of hype out of the box at Monmouth and turned out to be a solid, but not spectacular juvenile. He'll need to improve, as will MAJOR GAIN (Wayne Catalano), who's third in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes came at the heels of then-maiden SANTIVA (Eddie Kenneally).
I'm never a big fan of a horse having his plans changed at the last minute, so I'll play against DIALED IN on Sunday, knowing full well he might be the best Triple Crown prospect out of this group. If he runs with any interest at all, he'll be well-set for the future, even if he is beaten.
Holy Bull selections: W) GOURMET DINNER; P) LEAVE OF ABSENCE; S) MUCHO MACHO MAN.
Last week's selections: 1: 1-0-0. Top pick WILKINSON pulled the upset in the G3 Lecomte Stakes as the third wagering choice in a field of 5, paying $8 to win.
Season selections: 7: 3-2-1. (7 races, top pick won 3 times, ran second 2 times and third 1 time).
Everyone's a critic
This section recaps the week that was for the sophomore set. Two races demand attention in an otherwise slow week, Saturday's G3 $100,000 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds and last Friday's key 1-1/8 miles allowance route at Gulfstream. Clearly the stronger race of the two came in the allowance, so I'll begin there.
Over a sloppy/sealed track at Gulfstream, SOLDAT (Kiaran McLaughlin) put on an absolute show last Friday when romping to a 10-3/4 length victory over runner-up COOL BLUE RED HOT (Angel Penna, Jr.). It's fair to say these two front-runners benefitted from an easy opening half-mile in :48.28, and that the winning margin of defeat over a sloppy track always is a combination of some horses relishing the going, and others hating it to no end. Is SOLDAT nearly 11 lengths better than this field? Very likely not. But was this win fluky in any way? Absolutely not.
Let's look at the split fractions, and you'll see a wicked third-quarter that saw both SOLDAT and COOL BLUE RED HOT spurt about 5 lengths clear of the rest in a blink of an eye -- :24.28, :24.00, :23.85 (opened up 5 lengths here, so it's legit), :24.52, and :12.57 the final furlong for 1:49.22. This time was nearly 3 seconds quicker than maiden 3-year-olds ran just two races prior. Both the winner and runner-up were exceptional, and I absolutely appreciate the performance of the top four runners, including third-place BEAMER (Carl Nafzger) and fourth-place MAS TRUENO (William Phipps). As I predicted last week, I think 2 major graded Derby prep races will be won from this cast, and in review, I feel even more confident about that assessment.
BEAMER ran on nicely and looks like a pure route runner, while MAS TRUENO was an interesting study. He broke outward from the far outside post, took some time to gather his big, gorgeous stride, and then the strong galloper made a middle-race move that got me up out of my seat. The problem is, it came when the leaders were throwing that :23.85 third quarter up on the board, and wound up giving the visual result that MAS TRUENO flattened out. Don't be fooled: he's a serious, serious route threat in the future, in that mold of a First Dude from the '10 trail.
SOLDAT's 9 furlongs were completed quite differently than most of the big-time 1-1/8 miles races we've seen in recent years at Gulfstream Park since its reconfiguration. The race was a good 8-10 lengths slower for the opening half-mile than wins by Big Brown, Dunkirk, Quality Road and Barbaro, not to mention the aforementioned maiden race on the same card. But only Quality Road's :12.44 final furlong of his track record-setting Florida Derby victory came home any quicker, and the final time, no matter how it was achieved, was quicker than Dunkirk's local allowance win or Barbaro's Holy Bull. Sloppy tracks can provide misnomers, to be sure, but SOLDAT and company will all have to fail moving forward to convince me that this wasn't a very strong race.
DANCE CITY (Todd Pletcher) wired Friday's Race 7 maiden at Gulfstream two races previous to SOLDAT's explosion. The City Zip colt was fast early and slow late, not the kind of performance you want to see. DANCE CITY appeared tired with his head up and bouncing before the quarter-pole, but did run straight in the lane. Runner-up PLEASANT RUN (Ken McPeek) stumbled at the start, did a Life At Ten/Zenyatta impression in another time zone behind the leaders, and then was shot out of a cannon in the lane and galloped out 10 lengths in front. I'll take the runner-up in a re-match 9 out of 10 times.
As for Saturday's G3 Lecomte Stakes at 1 mile and 40 yards, the Fair Grounds' kick-off to the G2 Louisiana Derby series left a smile on my face, but that's about it. I liked WILKINSON (Neil Howard) going into the race, happily accepted the $8 mutuel, and was pouring it on for him in a determined stretch drive to nab front-running PANTS ON FIRE (Kelly Breen). But this field of 5 was highly lacking in quality, and odds-on favorite JUSTIN PHILLIP (Steve Asmussen) once again was a problem child and head case. I liked the Lecomte performance from WILKINSON, I just didn't love it. The race went in 1:41.24, about 1 length quicker than 3-year-old fillies did a few races prior in the Silverbulletday Stakes. The top two went around the track in :24s at a nice rhythm and did separate 5 lengths from third-place finisher ACTION READY (Bret Calhoun) at the wire. Trainer Howard, who is on fire with other New Orleans-based 3-year-olds like MACHEN and PRIME CUT, said the latter could be his starter in the G2 Risen Star on Feb. 19, while WILKINSON could sit it out and await the March 26 G2 Louisiana Derby.
Also at Fair Grounds last Saturday, what appeared to be the meet's strongest maiden special weight race for the division was won by wide-drawn LUMBERYARD JACK (Mike Stidham). The Bellamy Road colt relaxed much better in his second start and scored despite losing ground on both turns. What I like about this win is that the favorites dueled one another and backed up, while 'JACK was the best of the front-end brigade. Both VOODAT (Ken McPeek) and FIRST AND TEN (Al Stall, Jr.) caved in pretty good, and they are quality horses. An improving runner-up, INFRATTINI (Paul McGee) certainly flattered the form of past rival and G2 Risen Star stakes contender PRIME CUT (Neil Howard).
One of the better maiden performances of the entire Fair Grounds season took place Thursday when impeccably bred GHOST IS CLEAR (Mike Maker) romped to a 6-furlong maiden victory in 1:10.47, finishing up in strong final furlongs of :12.12 and :12.58 while widening the margin to more than 7 lengths. By Ghostzapper out of the sensational mare Tamweel, this one could be a rising star who saw the lightbulb go on in career start #4 and should handle distance. The win further flatters eventual G3 Lecomte Stakes winner WILKINSON (Neil Howard), who handled 'GHOST last time out.
Saturday's Gulfstream program saw a Race 5 maiden mile switch from the turf to the dirt and contested over a surface labeled "good." First-time starter SAN PABLO (Todd Pletcher) won the speed battle, but lost the war late when WASHINGTON'S RULES (Ken McPeek) rallied last-to-first for the score. The time of 1:38.79 was only a little more than 2 lengths slower than stakes-quality older allowance runners posted later on the card. WASHINGTON'S RULES is a grandson of two Kentucky Derby winners, by Roman Ruler out of Petite Charm, his paternal and maternal grandsires are Fusaichi Pegasus and Silver Charm. Second in his sprint debut at Saratoga last summer to STAY THIRSTY (Todd Pletcher), there's a lot to like about WASHINGTON'S RULES. Runner-up SAN PABLO is a half-brother to Slider, runner-up to Medaglia d'Oro in the 9-furlong Oaklawn Handicap. Off-the-turf races most often are a very difficult read because of misplaced runners galore, but these top two seem legitimate.
The Sunday action at Gulfstream included back-to-back events for the sophomores in Races 7 and 8. In Race 8, DATA LINK (Shug McGaughey with a big weekend) kept up the dream early season for hot young sire War Front (THE FACTOR, SOLDAT et al). He overcame a slow pace to win by a neck, flying home in :5.75 the final sixteenth to collar speedy favorite BEACHCOMBING (Chad Brown). On the War Front front, yet another 3-year-old winner by that hot sire got his picture taken Monday at Fair Grounds when heavily favored GREAT MILLS (Steve Asmussen) likely earned a stakes chance with a turf allowance score.
Also on Sunday at GP, maiden sprinters battled in the 7th race, where lukewarm favorite FREE ENTRY (Chad Brown) became the second horse to win on the weekend who had chased UNCLE MO in a very live Aug. 28 Saratoga maiden race. (Fellow Aug. 28 UNCLE MO pursuer ADMIRAL PERRY, trained by Shug McGaughey, scored a Tampa turf allowance on Saturday). In arrears of FREE ENTRY on Sunday, note that Point Given's baby brother TURNOFTHECAT (Kiaran McLaughlin) finished seventh, but absolutely blew past everyone in the gallop-out after a troubled start and should factor with some extra distance and experience.
Thursday's Oaklawn card put a familiar barn front and center when YANKEE PASSION (Larry Jones) sped to a clear, odds-on victory in a Race 8 allowance sprint. By miler Yankee Gentleman, he gets endurance on the dam side out of a Pleasant Colony mare and finished up nicely to get 6 furlongs in 1:10.88. The come-home splits of :12.31 and 12.40 indicate more distance is attainable. For his first start since August at Delaware Park, this was an excellent return bid.
The under-the-radar horse of the week was one we've been telling you about, HARBOR KID (Scott Lake). He romped Monday at Parx Racing by 4 lengths, going 7 furlongs in 1:22.16. By Rockport Harbor and a maternal grandson of Preakness winner Deputed Testamony, I'm looking forward to seeing this guy stretch out and step up, even if this race was fast early and slow late. HARBOR KID is a long-striding, good-lucking grey who doesn't move like a sprinter. I'd love to see this horse hit the road to Oaklawn, where Rockport Harbor was a graded stakes winner.
The week's biggest blowout didn't go to SOLDAT, but rather Saturday's Tampa Bay Downs maiden breaker MOONHANGER (Bruce Alexander). His front-running, 11-length victory at 1-1/16 miles was slow and the field spread out nearly 60 lengths first-to-last in an ugly event. This is the quintessential result you expect to see in an off-the-turf race, a blowout victory and many horses just despising the going. MOONHANGER would be a bet-against moving into a stakes.
Around the horn in undercard races over the past week: Impressive New York-bred sprinter DR DISCO (Bruce Brown) came home very nicely on the back-end of a 6-furlong allowance win and has a bright sprint future; The form of Turfway Park's dominant New Year's Eve maiden breaker TAPTOWNE (Wayne Mogge) was validated more when his vanquished runner-up NIGHT PARK (Patrick Huffman) returned this past Saturday to score a maiden special weight route victory in his second start; and speedy GANGSTERONTHERUN (Wesley Ward) flattered the form of the Jan. 8 Spectacular Bid Stakes when he got back on the beam Wednesday to easily beat Gulfstream allowance dashers in an off-the-turf affair.
Champion 2-year-old and Countdown's No. 1-ranked Triple Crown contender UNCLE MO (Todd Pletcher) will have his first workout of 2011 either Saturday or Sunday this weekend at Florida's Palm Meadows training center, weather pending the date … PREMIER PEGASUS (Myung Kwon Cho), a horse I have had ranked as high as No. 3, based on an exceptional 2-year-old run and vast potential, is stabled at Santa Anita, but not in "any kind of training mode," according to clocker Toby Turrell, who updated Countdown on the horse Thursday. We'll drop him from the rankings until further update … In that same light, THE FACTOR (Bob Baffert) has not logged a workout since Jan. 9, a concern following a blistering debut win. Not much can go wrong when you have little foundation this time of year, so we're dropping THE FACTOR from his lofty No. 6 national perch toward the bottom of the Top 20. Trainer Baffert still has him aiming for the Feb. 20 G2 San Vicente, and we'll re-evaluate at that time … Three top Californians drilled Monday morning at Santa Anita, including TAPIZAR (Steve Asmussen), who went a half-mile in :50.40 in his first move since winning the G3 Sham on Jan. 15. Meanwhile, JP'S GUSTO (David Hofmans) prepped for the Feb. 12 G2 Bob Lewis Memorial with a same-day, 7-furlong drill in a strong 1:25.40. And JAYCITO (Bob Baffert) drilled 5 furlongs in :59.40 on a busy Monday morning, moving up my rankings this week as he trains well toward the seasonal debut … MACHEN (Neil Howard) worked a solid 5 furlongs Monday in 1:00.40 breezing at Fair Grounds … Super Saver's kid bro BRETHREN (Todd Pletcher) waltzed a slow 5 furlongs Sunday at Palm Meadows in 1:03.70 breezing, his fourth move in 4 weeks … The favorites all took significant action at the Wynn Las Vegas last week as the prices on UNCLE MO and TO HONOR AND SERVE each were dropped a point to 4-1 and 7-1, respectively. Meanwhile, third-choice TAPIZAR plummeted from 12-1 last week to 8-1 this week … Two of America's top 3-year-old fillies lock horns Sunday in Gulfstream's Forward Gal Stakes when R. HEAT LIGHTNING (Todd Pletcher) meets the unbeaten rising star DANCINGINHERDREAMS (John Ward) … The must-read Louisville Courier-Journal annual Derby January scouting report comes out in this Sunday's print editions and will be available online Monday. I'm proud to take part in the C-J's weekly rankings once again this year.
Jeremy Plonk's Top-5 rated performances by class so far this year (Dec. 26-present).
1. THE FACTOR (Santa Anita, 12/26)
2. MACHEN (Fair Grounds, 1/2)
3. HERON LAKE (Gulfstream, 1/15)
4. DA RULER (Santa Anita, 1/16)
5. BEAMER (Tampa Bay Downs, 12/30)
1. SOLDAT (Gulfstream, 1/21) ** NEW **
2. ALTERNATION (Oaklawn, 1/15)
3. JAKESAM (Golden Gate, 12/30 * starter allowance *)
4. AWESOME PATRIOT (Santa Anita, 12/29)
5. BLACK N BEAUTY (Gulfstream, 1/7)
1. TAPIZAR (Sham, Santa Anita, 1/15)
2. INDIAN WINTER (San Pedro, Santa Anita, 1/17)
3. CALEB'S POSSE (Smarty Jones, Oaklawn, 1/17)
4. DECISIVE MOMENT (Jean Lafitte, Delta Downs, 1/15)
5. WILKINSON (Lecomte Stakes, Fair Grounds, 1/22) ** 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, fourth week of the 2011 season
Reader-submitted top 20, fourth week of the 2011 season: Brian C., Greenville, NC
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.