Commentary

Countdown to the Crown

Updated: February 18, 2011, 11:57 AM 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 should be like ideal racing conditions: fast and firm.

1. When trainer Steve Asmussen said he had to figure out why TAPIZAR was so unhappy when running unruly in last Saturday's G2 Lewis Memorial flop, your radar should have been beeping. It doesn't take a trainer or a veterinarian to observe that the majority of times when you see a horse uncomfortable in a race, it's more often physical than mental. It was no surprise when a knee chip was announced two days later.

2. When trainer Rick Dutrow was flagged this week for yet another medication infraction, pardon me for exhaling one more time that Big Brown failed to complete the Triple Crown in 2008. Did you really want that outfit anywhere near the legacies of Affirmed and Secretariat?

3. The weather man has been downright mean to venerable Oaklawn Park this winter, leaving one to wonder just what kind of shape the locals will be in when the Grade 3 Southwest is uncoiled Monday. Remember that California raiders have owned that track's Derby preps the past few years, and all that sunshine JP'S GUSTO soaked in out west before coming to Arkansas might be all the advantage yet another transplanted Californian needs.

This week's fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. What a President's Day weekend of stakes, including the G2 Risen Star on Saturday at Fair Grounds, Grade 2 San Vicente on Sunday at Santa Anita and the G3 Southwest on Monday at Oaklawn.

And, don't forget we've got the Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager also offered this weekend at wagering outlets around the country and online. My rule of thumb  never go below 40-1 this time of year. It's the time to fish for bombs, not slight overlays. Inactive horses who are out of the recent mindset of horseplayers sometimes can provide those prices in the KDFW, or horses who run better-than-it-looks in defeat this weekend.

Here are a few undercard races of repute before we hit the stakes scene.

A Gotham/Wood-type runner could emerge later today (Friday, Feb. 17) in the Undaunted Mettle overnight stakes at Aqueduct. EMINENT TALE (Rick Dutrow) headlines the 2-turn event for New York-breds when he meets SKY MUSIC (Todd Pletcher).

Point Given's baby brother TURNOFTHECAT makes his second start Saturday in Race 6 at Gulfstream, stretching out a wee bit to 6-1/2 furlongs. He really finished with good energy in the debut and has a bullet drill since then. Be warned. He'll meet a good cast that includes ESCORT (Todd Pletcher) and SIMBAMANGU (Barclay Tagg), who both exit what looks like a potential key race. Gulfstream also has a pair of maiden turf miles on the card Saturday, with the Race 11 division appearing much stronger on paper.

G2 Risen Star Stakes (Saturday/Fair Grounds)

Just like last week's Sam F. Davis, this is another stakes race that has benefitted from the fact that there are no 1-1/16 miles races at Gulfstream Park. Horses making their first starts of the year at 1-1/8 miles aren't getting their best shake, so a road trip for the Risen Star is in order for major 2-year-olds of 2010 like ROGUE ROMANCE (Ken McPeek) and SANTIVA (Eddie Kenneally).

With G3 Lecomte winner WILKINSON (Neil Howard) sitting this one out, the top local hope still comes from the same barn, namely MACHEN. He's been as visually impressive as a horse could be through 2 starts, grew up a lot in his 2-turn debut last time, and now gets a 4-6 pound weight break from the favorites. I love his blow-out ability, push-button move and pedigree. He's got more upside than any horse in the Risen Star. We'll see if he can make up for the lack of foundation.

ROGUE ROMANCE ran well enough when a distant third in the G1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile to answer the dirt question affirmatively. He won't be beaten by the surface Saturday. He'll be a fairly deep closer who will have to work out a trip from the rail and get some pace and clear path to work in his favor. SANTIVA broke his maiden winning the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill, but nothing out of that race has come back to do anything of consequence so far at age 3. I'm inclined to think he's a better turf horse when all is said and done with that Giant's Causeway-Smarten bloodline. While I have SANTIVA ranked No. 12 nationally this week out of respect for his season-ending win in the KJC, I honestly expect him to fall out of favor as the spring unfolds in terms of a Triple Crown prospect.

The Risen Star pace should be solid with PANTS ON FIRE (Kelly Breen) exiting a near-theft of the Lecomte, MUCHO MACHO MAN (Kathy Ritvo) invading from Florida while removing blinkers for the first time, and DECISIVE MOMENT (Juan Arias) posing as a super-consistent pace-presser who is making his third Florida-to-Louisiana trip since November. While MUCHO MACHO MAN might be the most talented of that trio, arguably, I don't like how he's been jammed into this Risen Star road trip 3 weeks after a demanding fourth in the tough G3 Holy Bull. That seems to be a more desperate-now kind of move than a building block from this observer of successful Triple Crown trails.

Risen Star Stakes selections: W) MACHEN; P) ROGUE ROMANCE; S) DECISIVE MOMENT.

G2 San Vicente Stakes (Sunday/Santa Anita)

Despite just 7 furlongs in distance, I'm not sure there's been a more intriguing prep race run yet this year than Sunday's Grade 2 $150,000 San Vicente. My rankings don't look like a lot of other analysts, so I doubt most agree that we have Triple Crown contenders ranked No. 4, No. 11 and No. 16 in the starting gate. Maybe I'm crazy; we'll see.

Hot-shot winner THE FACTOR (Bob Baffert) will try to show no ill effects from a foot bruise that has crossed up his training since his memorable Dec. 26 maiden inferno. If he's as good as the barn thinks he can be, and the feet don't fail him now, then the San Vicente runs through this son of hot young sire War Front. But this is no tap-in putt of a race.

PREMIER PEGASUS (Myung Kwon Cho) has had my eye since his Del Mar debut victory and he's yet to taste defeat in 3 starts, including 2 sprint stakes wins. But he hasn't had much work back, only 3 published drills, and it's hard to imagine he's full tilt. The Cho barn will be looking for a positive return to build toward perhaps the San Felipe in 3 weeks. I'm high on this guy, as witnessed by a No. 4 national ranking, but don't expect him to win this race Saturday.

INDIAN WINTER (Jerry Hollendorfer), CITY COOL (Steve Asmussen) and SINAI (Bob Baffert) all exit a strongly run edition of the San Pedro. As the distances progress, I'm most interested in SINAI, who ran even-Steven stuck down on the inside in the last showdown. I am not sure 7 furlongs is exactly the right elixir at this moment, but there's a lot to like about this son of Rockport Harbor. If we were at 1-1/16 miles, I'd be all-in. Still, he just may do it.

SWAY AWAY (Jeff Bonde) just missed in the Best Pal at Del Mar before going to the sidelines and has trained strongly at Golden Gate and Santa Anita most recently for the return. He's bred to run all day and has as much long-term upside as anyone in this field.

You can see why this race has me excited, and twisted in knots from a handicapper's perspective. There's so much to look forward to down the line that today is quite cloudy. Let's take the bigger of the two Baffert prices, which is an angle that long has been profitable.

San Vicente Stakes selections: W) SINAI; P) THE FACTOR; S) PREMIER PEGASUS.

G3 Southwest Stakes (Monday/Oaklawn Park)

Because the post position draw for the G3 Southwest Stakes won't take place until Saturday, please visit Countdowntothecrown.com for a complete wagering guide on Sunday, and be sure to join me there on Monday for a live chat beginning at 4 p.m. eastern and running all the way through the live running of the Southwest Stakes. It's a Countdowntothecrown.com big event President's Day special you don't want to miss!

Last week's selections: 3: 0-0-0. Second choices BRETHREN (Sam F. Davis) and ANTHONY'S CROSS (Sham) were winners, but three top choices all ran off the board in a terrible handicapping effort. Three lashes, pick your favorite noodle.

Season selections: 15: 4-2-4. (15 races, top pick won 4 times, ran second 2 times and third 4 times).

Everyone's a critic

This section reviews the week that was in the 3-year-old division. With stakes races last Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs, Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields all with graded-earnings potential, let's focus on those big three races to start.

In the G3 Sam F. Davis, the top performance of the weekend came from BRETHREN (Todd Pletcher), who didn't wow the speed-figure boys, but certainly passed every eyeball test out there. The younger brother of last year's Derby champ Super Saver bounded home by 4 lengths after some reluctance to load into the gate and flat-footed start. But to his credit he had enough natural speed to gain position from that point from a daunting post No. 10, earn a perfect, pressing trip and then draw away when need-be. You don't receive a perfect trip from that post, you earn it. With stablemate UNCLE MO possible to make his 3-year-old return in the G2 Tampa Bay Derby on March 12, expect BRETHREN to find another locale for his next stop. He would seem awfully logical for either the G2 Louisiana Derby on March 26 or the G1 Florida Derby on April 3. Then again, if UNCLE MO goes in an open allowance at Gulfstream on March 12, the Tampa Derby could be back in BRETHREN's crosshairs.

On the clock, BRETHREN pressed a pace that RIBO BOBO set in :23.75, :24.45, :24.96, :25.04 before getting the final sixteenth in :6.87. That's not terribly taxing, which is why you see the lowish speed figures appearing, but also it's exactly what you want in the first start of the year. Horses who lay it down now typically are non-factors by May. Runner-up TOO EXPERIENCE (Mark Passley) continues to defy his cheap company lines, now with a sporty 7: 5-1-0 career record. Third-place WATCH ME GO (Kathleen O'Connell) stretched out around 2 turns decently for the first time after a dominating local score. It's hard to make any hay out of the also-rans here. Fourth-place BEAMER (Carl Nafzger) was dead last early, made a decent move under a curious ride on the far turn with his jockey looking all around, and then mustered only fourth money. His last two make him look like a plodding nibbler, but plodding nibblers don't break their maidens by 5-1/2 lengths like he did over this track on Dec. 30. If BEAMER hangs around for the Tampa Bay Derby, he might be the horse underneath UNCLE MO to consider for the gimmicks. The jury is still out, but the shine is coming off his rose some to me.

Everyone expected the weekend's big performance to come from TAPIZAR (Steve Asmussen) in the G2 Bob Lewis Memorial at Santa Anita. But the buzz went bust as he finished off the board at 1-5 odds and came out of the race with a knee chip that will sideline him for the immediate future. We mentioned in Countdown the strange way TAPIZAR threw his head up turning for home in his Sham Stakes win in his previous start, and that makes you wonder if things didn't start to go awry physically then. As rank and unmanageable as TAPIZAR was Saturday in the Lewis from the moment the race began, he was telling jockey Garrett Gomez that he didn't want to play today.

TAPIZAR ran off rank on the lead in :22.48 and :23.16, but already started to slow the engines with a :24.28 third quarter and subsequent :25.15 run to the mile marker. When he wilted, the eventual winner ANTHONY'S CROSS (Eoin Harty) came home in a sluggish :13.56 the final eighth to edge RIVETING REASON (Myung Kwon Cho) by a nose. This was a fast early-slow late kind of race, but it started to decelerate way earlier than the visuals suggest. RIVETING REASON is one of the better 1-for-9 horses in the 3-year-old class, to be sure, but he's still 1-for-9, even if he is multiple Grade 1-placed. ANTHONY'S CROSS is an improving sort for a trainer I respect, and he did break his maiden at Churchill Downs which makes him a plus-one in Derby intrigue at least. He'll have to be much better in the Santa Anita Derby to make me think he's a big-time player in the Triple Crown, but he's at least developing and he galloped out better than the runner-up.

While ANTHONY'S CROSS earned himself a potential $5.5 million bonus in the Preakness 5.5, so did SILVER MEDALLION (Steve Asmussen) by winning the G3 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields. If either goes on to win both the Santa Anita Derby and Preakness, the connections' pockets will be lined in gold. And, just like ANTHONY'S CROSS, the Saturday victory by SILVER MEDALLION came in a stunning defeat on the toteboard. The 1-5 favorite COMMA TO THE TOP (Peter Miller) finished a tired fourth in the 1-1/8 miles El Camino Real, a trip that wound up costing his jockey Corey Nakatani a three-day suspension from the stewards.

COMMA TO THE TOP sat behind front-running JAKESAM (Jerry Hollendorfer) through moderate splits of :23.84 and :24.25 for the first half-mile. He moved to the leader at the top of the stretch and then drifted out into the path of the eventual winner SILVER MEDALLION, brushing together before 'COMMA faltered in the stretch. SILVER MEDALLION came home in a decent-enough :12.83 the final furlong and both he and JAKESAM galloped out very nicely. This is a race I like a lot more the more I see it. Initially, I was dull on it.

How tough is the powerfully built and long-striding JAKESAM? He set all of the pace, and every time a horse comes to him in any race, he digs in and keeps on coming. I doubt if he can translate that kind of toughness to win a "major," but he reminds me a lot of how First Dude ran when second and third in last year's Preakness and Belmont. Don't be surprised if he hits the road for something at Turfway or Keeneland on the Polytrack next.

Outside of the stakes events last week, you had to be impressed with ALBERGATTI (Steve Asmussen) tallying a 7-furlong maiden cast Saturday at Santa Anita for a truly up-and-down day for the barn. He exited a very taxing debut placing behind next-out allowance runner-up DA RULER (Bob Baffert) and didn't bounce a bit. In fact, he blossomed, wiring the cast with a decent :12.52 final furlong. ALBERGATTI has a router's body, but is a bit distance-limited in his pedigree. I think we'll see him hit the road for a stakes date. Runner-up CHICO D'ORO (John Sadler) is one to watch, running his eyeballs out and clearly outdistancing the rest. He's 1-9 to break his maiden next time out.

The disappointment of the week for me was the deflating return of ROCKING OUT (Rick Dutrow) in Sunday's allowance mile at Gulfstream. He was so impressive in his Aqueduct debut, even with a perfect pace meltdown set-up, but was too keen in the return bid Sunday. He broke slowly, then rushed up the inside, a move that seldom turns out effective. Though he didn't stop trying down on the inside, ROCKING OUT had nothing of significance in deep stretch as FREE ENTRY (Chad Brown) scored his second win of the meet. With FREE ENTRY sporting Tale of the Cat and Pulpit as pedigree influences, he could be super-dangerous on the Polytrack at Keeneland, but he doesn't appear to want to run much farther.

DERIVATIVE (D. Wayne Lukas) smashed a maiden mile group of 3-year-olds and older Saturday at Oaklawn, winning by nearly 6 lengths in a professional performance. After a quick opening quarter-mile, he relaxed nicely and did it on his own after 5 straight losses around 1 turn. But a :27.33 final quarter-mile tells you there wasn't much in behind. Favored ZOEBEAR (Scott Becker) suffered a disastrous trip from start to finish while fourth.

Saturday Gulfstream maiden sprint winner RATTLESNAKE BRIDGE (Kiaran McLaughlin) surged late to win his debut in a slow 1:11.62. The $450,000 juvenile sales purchase appears a win-early type with a fairly non-descript pedigree on the damside to have lured that much money. Also at Gulfstream, Wednesday's Race 9 allowance at 1-1/8 miles on turf may have provided a Blue Grass stakes hopeful in CRIMSON CHINA (Graham Motion), a Team Valor import and son of Poly-loving sire Giant's Causeway.

Quick Hitters

STAY THIRSTY (Todd Pletcher) continues to train toward the March 5 G3 Gotham as his first start of the year, posting a razor-sharp half-mile breeze Sunday at Palm Meadows in :47.45, the same-time, same-day as stablemate and reigning 2-year-old champion UNCLE MO … Don't be fooled by the 1:03 clocking for Sunday's 5-furlong breeze at Payson Park for TO HONOR AND SERVE (Bill Mott). It was the third-fastest of 20 moves that morning over the deep, foundation-building surface. He's readying for a return in the Feb. 26 G2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream … G3 Holy Bull winner DIALED IN (Nick Zito) returned to the work tab last Friday for the first time since his Jan. 30 score. He breezed a half-mile in :48.90 at Palm Meadows … JAYCITO (Bob Baffert) worked 7 furlongs Tuesday at Santa Anita in 1:25.40 as he awaits his 2011 debut in the G2 San Felipe on March 12, where he could meet impressive maiden breaker RUNFLATOUT (John Sadler) … G3 Sham runner-up CLUBHOUSE RIDE (Craig Lewis) has not worked since Jan. 26, and has only 1 published drill since that Jan. 15 effort & Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf winner PLUCK (Graham Motion) appears cemented in an Irish Guineas run on turf and has been removed from my Top 20 this week. We kept him in early in the season in case plans changed. … Larry Jones indicated that COMMANDER would not be pointed to any of Oaklawn's 3-year-old stakes in the immediate future, a sign that he may be off the trail, though still working … Godolphin reports that BIONDETTI (Saeed bin Suroor) is not being pointed toward the American classics.

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. CAL NATION (Gulfstream, 2/5)
3. MACHEN (Fair Grounds, 1/2)
4. HERON LAKE (Gulfstream, 1/15)
5. RUNFLATOUT (Santa Anita, 1/29)

Allowance Race
1. SOLDAT (Gulfstream, 1/21)
2. MACHEN (Fair Grounds, 1/30)
3. ALTERNATION (Oaklawn, 1/15)
4. JAKESAM (Golden Gate, 12/30 * starter allowance *)
5. AWESOME PATRIOT (Santa Anita, 12/29)

Stakes Race
1. DIALED IN (Holy Bull, Gulfstream, 1/30)
2. BRETHREN (Sam F. Davis, Tampa Bay Downs, 1/12) * new *
3. TAPIZAR (Sham, Santa Anita, 1/15)
4. SILVER MEDALLION (El Camino Real Derby, 2/12) * new *
5. ANTHONY'S CROSS (Lewis Memorial, Santa Anita, 1/12) * 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, seventh week of the 2011 season

1. UNCLE MO

11. SINAI

2. TO HONOR AND SERVE

12. SANTIVA

3. SOLDAT

13. ALTERNATION

4. PREMIER PEGASUS

14. ELITE ALEX

5. MACHEN

15. HERON LAKE

6. DIALED IN

16. THE FACTOR

7. BRETHREN

17. SILVER MEDALLION (new)

8. ROGUE ROMANCE

18. JAKESAM (returns)

9. JAYCITO

19. ANTHONY'S CROSS (new)

10. STAY THIRSTY

20. JP'S GUSTO (returns)

Reader-submitted top 20, seventh week of the 2011 season: John Spignesi in Marshfield, MA

1. TO HONOR AND SERVE

11. SANTIVA

2. UNCLE MO

12. STAY THIRSTY

3. DIALED IN

13. TAPIZAR

4. BRETHREN

14. GOURMET DINNER

5. MACHEN

15. ELITE ALEX

6. JAYCITO

16. ASTROLOGY

7. SOLDAT

17. JP'S GUSTO

8. PREMIER PEGASUS

18. CAL NATION

9. ROGUE ROMANCE

19. ANYTONY'S CROSS

10. MUCHO MACHO MAN

20. CLUBHOUSE RIDE

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.

ALSO SEE