Commentary

Countdown to the Crown

Updated: March 1, 2011, 2:26 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 day when the phone won't stop ringing. After a certain amount of time, all noise must stop.

1. Champion 2-year-old UNCLE MO (Todd Pletcher) will be taking the easy way to the Derby, as he is now aimed for an overnight stakes at a 1-turn mile distance on March 12 at Gulfstream Park. That's a great comeback spot -- if you're going to get 3 preps, not 2. This means UNCLE MO better get down on his belly and get after it in his only 2-turn try, the April 9 G1 Wood Memorial, to be fit. Then comes the rub: Will the final prep be too taxing? I'd much prefer to see 'MO in the 2-turn Tampa Bay Derby and Wood if you're going the 2-prep path. In recent history, Big Brown is the only horse to pull off this kind of schedule with 2 total preps and only 1 of those around 2 turns.

2. That smooching sound you hear is the Preakness make-out party between Curlin and Rachel Alexandra. Aren't they cute? With Curlin's hind-end and Rachel's sass, their baby promises to be every bit as interesting as Jennifer Lopez on American Idol. The name Jaylo is available if you're looking to reserve it with The Jockey Club.

3. Before we get too excited about late-blooming hotshots like BIND, RUNFLATOUT, ALBERGATTI and MACHEN, remember that only 2 Kentucky Derby winners since the decade of the 1960s entered their 3-year-old seasons as maidens, Monarchos in 2001 and Fusaichi Pegasus a year prior.

This week's fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. We've got 5 stakes, including 2 big ones for graded dough in Florida, not to mention some decent undercard races. Let's do this thing.

Gulfstream's Saturday card has a very interesting 1-1/8 miles allowance in Race 3. ARCH TRAVELER (Jimmy Jerkens) runs for the third time at the meet while getting the distance test vs. COOL BLUE RED HOT (Angel Penna, Jr.), who reportedly had been off the scent of the Derby trail, but shows back up here with no breaks in the training tab. WASHINGTON'S RULES (Ken McPeek) will try to rebound from a G3 Sam F. Davis whiff at Tampa.

We should get some barometer on west coast hotshot maiden winners RUNFLATOUT (John Sadler) and ALBERGATTI (Steve Asmussen) when Saturday's Race 6 maiden mile hits the wire. Horses who chased those last time out are back in the fray, not to mention BALLADRY (Eoin Harty), the improving son of champions Unbridled's Song and Storm Song. Santa Anita also has a 3-year-old mile allowance Saturday, but it came up weak, led by G2 Lewis flop WEGNER (Bob Baffert).

Saturday's Race 5 allowance route at Fair Grounds could produce a Louisiana Derby party crasher as horses who have been chasing MACHEN this meeting show down, namely SOUR (Al Stall, Jr) and DON DULCE (Malcolm Pierce). LUMBERYARD JACK (Mike Stidham) exits a solid maiden score from a horrible post position.

G2 Fountain of Youth Stakes (Saturday/Gulfstream Park)

Our No. 2 and No. 3 in this week's Countdown rankings square off when TO HONOR AND SERVE (Bill Mott) meets SOLDAT (Kiaran McLaughlin). Neither has to win to be considered Triple Crown material as both already are proven over 1-1/8 miles. That's a huge hurdle already climbed, though you'd like to see SOLDAT at least show he's as effective on a fast dirt surface as he was on wet dirt or turf.

If you watched MUCHO MACHO MAN (Kathy Ritvo) win last week's G2 Risen Star, you have to feel better about the 2-year-old credentials of TO HONOR AND SERVE, who outran that runner in both the Nashua and Remsen, 2 distinctly different races. Mott has had 'SERVE on a rock-steady and quick workout pattern at foundation-building Payson Park all winter and I would suspect he'll be plenty legged-up coming off of that deep training track. The last time Mott brought a Remsen winner back for the Fountain of Youth off a layoff, late-running Court Vision was a distant third in '08. TO HONOR AND SERVE likely won't be fully cranked, but he'll be fit enough to factor and talented enough to contend.

SOLDAT has the advantage over 'SERVE with a recent race over the track, and what a race it was, sloppy track or not. He blew away a good allowance field by more than 10 lengths. BEAMER (Carl Nafzger) came out of the race to run fourth in the G3 Sam F. Davis Stakes. If SOLDAT runs back to that effort on a fast track, I'm poised to move him to the top of the Countdown rankings next week. A pair of impressive 9-furlong wins at this stage of the season would be hard to argue against, even as UNCLE MO (Todd Pletcher) sits in the clubhouse awaiting his return. But, first things first, SOLDAT has a big test to ace.

G3 Holy Bull Stakes 1-2 finishers DIALED IN (Nick Zito) and SWEET DUCKY (Kelly Breen) are skipping this leg of the Florida Derby prep series. That leaves GOURMET DINNER (Steve Standridge) as the most accomplished local stakes horse off of his third in the Holy Bull. He's an honest horse who has outrun a sprint pedigree to this point. Nine furlongs is where that wall often trips horses short on the genes.

The players in a 1-2-3 finish Feb. 5 in allowance company all return, led by race winner SHACKLEFORD (Dale Romans) and the much talked-about, troubled-trip runner-up CASPER'S TOUCH (Ken McPeek). I won't argue that 'CASPER probably should have gotten his picture taken that day, but I also didn't see a burst of brilliance when he finally did have a shot to show it. I would be highly surprised if he beat the top two favorites in this race.

Fountain of Youth Stakes selections: W) SOLDAT; P) TO HONOR AND SERVE; S) GOURMET DINNER.

G2 Hutcheson Stakes (Saturday/Gulfstream Park)

With $150,000 in graded money on the line, the 7-furlong Hutcheson is a G2 sprint that's not likely to produce a serious Triple Crown threat, but rather some quality dashers. Five last-out winners are among the field of 10, including CROSSBOW (Kiaran McLaughlin) and TRAVELIN MAN (Todd Pletcher). Of those two meet victors, I strongly prefer the latter.

TRAVELIN MAN debuted an easy winner, but beat only 4 rivals and 2 of those have come back to run third and sixth in subsequent maiden tries. I always say you learn nothing in 5-horse fields. TRAVELIN MAN could be a star, but at what figures to be a short price, he's got some questions. I do like how he rated off the lone speed last time and he galloped out like he was having fun, even if Johnny V. did have to work him a little in the stretch with the hands.

FLASHPOINT (Rick Dutrow) invades from Aqueduct off a quick debut win, but his runner-up returned to barely escape his next maiden dash by a head at 3-5 odds. MADMAN DIARIES (Wesley Ward) is training up a storm in his first start since a better-than-you-think fourth in a brutally-tough Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf last year at a mile. He removes blinkers and will be doubly tough if he can relax.

BLACK N BEAUTY (Dale Romans) is a very solid type who won't embarrass himself, but I question his brilliance. MANICERO (Leo Azpurua) moves up in class Saturday and gives weight while probable to be compromised by the hot early pace pressure.

The horse who should get the gift-wrap trip is LEAVE OF ABSENCE (Rick Violette), the only closer in a race loaded with blinding speed. He adds blinkers and fired a bullet workout Tuesday, so don't expect him to be coming from the clouds. I don't think he's a superstar, but he's solid-enough and pace makes the race. Not sure I trust him enough to win, but lots of tickets with him second and third at a good price are in order.

Hutcheson Stakes selections: W) TRAVELIN MAN; P) LEAVE OF ABSENCE; S) MADMAN DIARIES.

Miracle Wood Stakes (Saturday/Laurel Park)

While the 7-furlong $75,000 Miracle Wood might not look like much of a Preakness prep, we've got a couple of legitimate horses entering the Laurel stakes ranks in BANDBOX (Rodney Jenkins) and JJ'S LUCKY TRAIN (William Anderson). They go a long way in making this race more than just a replay of last month's Dancing Count Stakes, even if that race's 1-2-3-4 finishers all return to action.

BANDBOX won Belmont's Sleepy Hollow Stakes last fall in runaway fashion late, despite a stumbling break. While that race was restricted to New York-breds, he was good enough to keep leading rider Ramon Dominguez booked to ride on the class rise in the G2 Remsen. Nothing went right in a troubled Remsen trip, but BANDBOX appears to be working like a total monster for the 3-year-old unveiling.

JJ's LUCKY TRAIN has a sharp 3: 1-2-0 mark in recent races around 2 turns, including seconds to MONZON and TOBY's CORNER in Aqueduct stakes. He'll appreciate the return to sprinting by Silver Train, and he'll have a decided fitness edge on BANDBOX with a pair of 2-turn stakes runs already this year. JJ figures to sit just behind speedy DISKI DANCE (Cathal Lynch) and have first-run at the winner's circle.

The Dancing Count Stakes didn't impress these eyes on Jan. 29, and with the distance stretching out another furlong, no one appeared terribly excited to run on at the end of that 6-furlong affair. WICKED THUNDER (Gary Capuano) is 9-for-9 in the exacta for a respected barn and beat these common rivals in the Dancing Count. You have to respect him of the locals.

Miracle Wood Stakes selections: W) JJ'S LUCKY TRAIN; P) BANDBOX; S) WICKED THUNDER.

Borderland Derby (Saturday/Sunland Park)

The only Triple Crown nominee in this $100,000 race at 1-1/16 miles is the maiden California invader FUSA CODE (Steve Asmussen), but the race is likely to produce a few contenders for next month's G3 Sunland Park Derby. If they succeed there, you can expect supplemental fees to follow to be eligible for the bigger dances.

EXPECTING CASH also hails from the Asmussen barn and likely goes favored off a decent third in the Jean Lafitte at Delta Downs behind DECISIVE MOMENT. The Lafitte runner-up SU CASA G CASA already has returned to win a state-bred stakes, so the race has some quality about it.

The new shooter who looks dangerous is rail-drawn ORION XPRESS (Henry Dominguez), from a very crafty local barn and fresh off a smoking-fast maiden sprint win, albeit with a perfect trip and pace set-up. SPECIAL KID (Doug O'Neill) invades off a Santa Anita maiden win over FUSA CODE for a trainer that has had much success pilfering the riches from Sunland Park in recent years.

Trainer Shannon Ritter won last year's Sunland Park Derby with Endorsement and returns on the trail with maiden WHAT THE TOCCET, who adds blinkers after a couple of even, one-paced route tries behind terribly slow paces. The workouts since have improved and this one could wake up at a very square price. In a race where I have little opinion, I like to take price stabs.

Borderland Derby selections: W) WHAT THE TOCCET; P) EXPECTING CASH; S) SPECIAL KID.

Turf Paradise Derby (Saturday/Turf Paradise)

I'm not sure the last time a $50,000 stakes in February had as interesting of an entrant as we see in Saturday's 1-1/16 miles Turf Paradise Derby. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer was so infuriated by the speed bias at Santa Anita that he scratched INDIAN WINTER from Sunday's G2 San Vicente and put him on the van for Phoenix to run with no graded money on the line. And to be truthful, I think it is absolute genius.

INDIAN WINTER has yet to race around 2 turns in his career, and the San Vicente wouldn't have given him any route education at 7 furlongs. In the Turf Paradise Derby, 'WINTER gets the 2-turn test, a chance to race against a big field of 10, carry a good weight assignment of 122 pounds, while doing it against moderate competition. Even in an allowance race, you're not going to get the field-size test like this.

This could really set INDIAN WINTER up well for a trip to Oaklawn for the G2 Rebel on March 19, or given his success on Polytrack at Del Mar last year, make him a standout shot in the G3 Spiral on March 26. If INDIAN WINTER does what he should in the Turf Paradise Derby, I'm going to zoom him up my rankings next week as I really like this plan as it's turning out, despite scratching my head when I first heard about it.

As for the others in the Turf Paradise Derby, ARCADIAN (Dan McFarlane) was actually favored over INDIAN WINTER foolishly in the San Pedro, his only loss in 4 tries. MR ARTISTIC MD (transferred from Kathy Walsh to Sandi Gann) also raids from Southern California and exits a fourth in the San Pedro.

Turf Paradise Derby selections: W) INDIAN WINTER; P) ARCADIAN; S) MR ARTISTIC MD.

Last week's selections: 3: 0-0-0. We're in need of a slump-buster after top choices finished third (ELITE ALEX) in the Southwest, fourth (MACHEN) in the Risen Star and sixth (SINAI) in the San Vicente. I guess we should have taken the free space with THE FACTOR and not tried to get cute.

Season selections: 18: 4-2-4. (18 races, top pick won 4 times, ran second 2 times and third 4 times).

Everyone's a critic

The three-day stretch from Saturday through President's Day Monday provided an interesting trio of Triple Crown preps. Let's review them while limiting our undercard recaps to a pair of highly impressive maiden winners and one allowance performer at Oaklawn who stole the holiday show.

Despite the G3 $250,000 Southwest Stakes headlining the card Monday at Oaklawn, the showstopper to me came two races before that when ALTERNATION (Donnie K. Von Hemel) was professional and punctual with his second strong allowance win of the meeting. He looks to be the local horse to beat in the upcoming G2 Rebel on March 19. The one-mile split for ALTERNATION's victory was only 2 lengths slower than the final time of the Southwest, and it's that final 1/16 of a mile in which this impeccably bred son of Distorted Humor-Altermate blossomed. In his wake were not only the 2-3 finishers in the Smarty Jones Stakes (DREAMINOFTHEWIN and BLUEGRASS BULL), but also a quartet of 4-year-olds.

As for the Southwest, it's hard to get too excited or too upset with anyone's performance. The race unfolded with about as fast of a pace as you'll see at Oaklawn over this track (:22.60, :46.88), and yet winner ARCHARCHARCH (Jinks Fires) and runner-up JP'S GUSTO (Joe Petalino) both weren't that far off the splits. Deep-deep closers ELITE ALEX (Tim Ritchey) and longshot bomber PICKO'S PRIDE (Mac Robertson) made up a lot of ground while losing tons of real estate on the turns. Then in behind you had Smarty Jones winner CALEB'S POSSE (Donnie K. Von Hemel) hand-cuffed with nowhere to run and both YANKEE PASSION (Larry Jones) and BRICKYARD FAST (Joe Petalino) came out of the race injured and are off the Derby trail. Lots of would-be winners had excuses to be sure, but let's not discredit ARCHARCHARCH as completely fortunate. The winner was 3-4 wide on both turns as well.

Much will be made about JP'S GUSTO having to wait for room in the Southwest, but he didn't gallop out with any oomph. Third-place ELITE ALEX galloped out best of all and should move forward off of this race. If you liked the Jan. 15 allowance race between ALTERNATION and ELITE ALEX, something tells me you'll want to stick around for the Rebel next month, which should lure a huge field.

Dialing back a day to Sunday, THE FACTOR (Bob Baffert) continued his rapid ascension by winning the G2 San Vicente Stakes with a lightning-fast second quarter-mile. Essentially he won the race with that 440-yard bust in :21.21. Note that the opening quarter was just :22.20, painfully easy for a good horse like THE FACTOR when you factor in that $10,000 claimers two races prior went :21.45 the opening quarter. So it was coast-blitz-coast-hold on for THE FACTOR as the San Vicente slowed down to :13.03 over the final furlong.

While runner-up SWAY AWAY (Jeff Bonde) was cutting nicely into THE FACTOR'S margin late, you do have to give the winner credit as he never let that rival by in the gallop-out. He may have been gassed from the second-quarter shot, but he showed some gameness. I certainly liked the comeback bid for SWAY AWAY, who is bred to excel with more ground and got exactly what he needed from this sprint return. Also, don't lose sight of the fine performance from third-place runner PREMIER PEGASUS (Myung Kwon Cho), who suffered his first defeat while returning from a long layoff with a very light workout tab. He was a short horse, but showed with a superb mid-race move that he's of a very high quality. He simply got tired in the final furlong. Watch for him to also make a big move forward next time out. I like any of these 3 down the line more than anything I saw in the G2 Bob Lewis Memorial 2 weeks ago. It appears THE FACTOR is headed for New Mexico and the G3 Sunland Park Derby at 1-1/8 miles for his distance test, which is still a very legitimate concern. SINAI (Bob Baffert) was completely outrun by these top-flight sprinters and the feeling here is that he'll be better in a route; I don't know if he will have earned that shot after this dull effort, however.

As for Saturday's G2 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, Florida-based runners came to New Orleans and swept the top 3 placings as MUCHO MACHO MAN (Kathy Ritvo) was the now-horse in charge. Wheeled back quickly off of his fourth in the G3 Holy Bull to DIALED IN (Nick Zito), it was good to see the MACHO MAN return to his strong 2-year-old form I appreciated so much. I do wonder, however, if having 2 strong races 3 weeks apart in January and February will serve him well by May, but take nothing away from his strong run Saturday.

The final clocking of 1:43.98 was a very good time over the Fair Grounds track, which saw top older horses Demarcation and Mission Impazible really throw down the gauntlet in a remarkable Mineshaft Handicap that was completed in 1:43.45. Compare the Risen Star time to top 3-year-old filly Kathmanblu's modest 1:45.13 in the same-day Rachel Alexandra Stakes as well.

When you see the rhythmic splits of the Risen Star, you'll notice this is the kind of "pound out the :24s" you like to see in quality animals. Witness the clocking of :24.67, :24.57, :24.41, :24.12 and :6.21. They really flew home the final sixteenth after running the each quarter of the race quicker than the previous. That's the sign of one heck of a race. And it's also the reason why late-running threats MACHEN (Neil Howard) and ROGUE ROMANCE (Ken McPeek) were unable to dent the finish of MUCHO MACHO MAN and SANTIVA (Eddie Kenneally).

Nobody wanted to see MACHEN explode more than me, and I was deflated when he let the air out of his sails at the sixteenth pole. He made up more than 4 lengths during the third quarter, which means he threw a :23-2/5 kind of split before running out of steam. MACHEN's gate issues continue, but I have faith in Neil Howard. He'll improve as will ROGUE ROMANCE, who needed the outing. The top 4 all are expected back for the G2 Louisiana Derby on March 26, but I would suspect someone from this group to stay back home for the G1 Florida Derby if we don't see a show-stopping performance from one of Saturday's G2 Fountain of Youth entrants. DECISIVE MOMENT came out of the Risen Star with a soft tissue injury and his Derby trail status is unclear.

Even on a very busy stakes weekend, I'd be remiss if I didn't shed some light on BIND (Al Stall, Jr.) and HOORAYFORHOLLYWOOD (Bob Baffert), who turned in 2 of the better maiden performances of the year.

BIND ran one of the fastest 6-furlong clockings ever at Fair Grounds on Saturday, blistering the track in 1:08.80 en route to a nearly 10-length debut win. The son of Pulpit will not be thrown to the Triple Crown fray, trainer Stall reported this week. Out west, HOORAYFORHOLLYWOOD made a four-star debut Monday at Santa Anita. The impeccably bred son of Storm Cat-Hollywood story romped home in a 5-1/2 furlong sprint despite being bred for more and appears to have a bright future. 'HOLLYWOOD ran as if he really didn't know what he was doing and has tons of upside.

Quick Hitters

Team Valor chief Barry Irwin reports to Countdown that Feb. 16 Gulfstream turf allowance winner CRIMSON CHINA (Graham Motion) is being pointed to the G3 Spiral at Turfway and the G1 Blue Grass at Keeneland, and the latter stakes could also see stablemate ANIMAL KINGDOM. The barn's star 3-year-old PLUCK could wind up in either France or Ireland, "depending on how each shapes up" … CLUBHOUSE RIDE (Craig Lewis) is injured and off the trail with a hairline ankle fracture … DRF.com reported that TIZ BLESSED (Chad Brown) has been sent to Kentucky from Florida to be once-overed by the sport's top veterinarians … Next week's G3 Gotham at Aqueduct is expected to feature come-backing STAY THIRSTY (Todd Pletcher) … CAL NATION (Todd Pletcher) returned to the work tab Sunday (half-mile breeze in :50) for the first time since his awesome debut win Feb. 5 … Bob Baffert took JAYCITO across town to Hollywood Park to work 7 furlongs from the gate Monday in 1:24.80 as he prepares for the G2 San Felipe on March 12. Baffert also moved THE FACTOR from Santa Anita to Hollywood for works prior to his win in last week's San Vicente … Don't look now, but as of Thursday, Nick Zito's duo of DIALED IN and HERON LAKE have been off the workout tab since Feb. 11 and Feb. 5, respectively, neither of which is a particularly good sign.

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. BIND (Fair Grounds, 2/19) * NEW *
4. MACHEN (Fair Grounds, 1/2)
5. HERON LAKE (Gulfstream, 1/15)

Allowance Race
1. SOLDAT (Gulfstream, 1/21)
2. MACHEN (Fair Grounds, 1/30)
3. ALTERNATION (Oaklawn, 2/19) * NEW *
4. ALTERNATION (Oaklawn, 1/15)
5. JAKESAM (Golden Gate, 12/30 * starter allowance *)

Stakes Race
1. DIALED IN (Holy Bull, Gulfstream, 1/30)
2. MUCHO MACHO MAN (Risen Star, Fair Grounds 2/19) * NEW *
3. BRETHREN (Sam F. Davis, Tampa Bay Downs, 1/12)
4. TAPIZAR (Sham, Santa Anita, 1/15)
5. SILVER MEDALLION (El Camino Real Derby, 2/12)

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, eighth week of the 2011 season

1. UNCLE MO

11. STAY THIRSTY

2. TO HONOR AND SERVE

12. SWAY AWAY (new)

3. SOLDAT

13. SANTIVA

4. PREMIER PEGASUS

14. MACHEN

5. DIALED IN

15. HERON LAKE

6. BRETHREN

16. THE FACTOR

7. JAYCITO

17. SILVER MEDALLION

8. ROGUE ROMANCE

18. JAKESAM

9. MUCHO MACHO MAN (new)

19. ANTHONY'S CROSS

10. ALTERNATION

20. JP'S GUSTO

Reader-submitted top 20, eighth week of the 2011 season: Tom Yeshnowksi from Papillion, NE

1. UNCLE MO

11. SILVER MEDALLION

2. TO HONOR AND SERVE

12. SANTIVA

3. BRETHREN

13. ARCHARCHARCH

4. DIALED IN

14. MANICERO

5. MUCHO MACHO MAN

15. JP'S GUSTO

6. THE FACTOR

16. COMMA TO THE TOP

7. SOLDAT

17. GOURMET DINNER

8. ANTHONY'S CROSS

18. SWEET DUCKY

9. SWAY AWAY

19. SHACKLEFORD

10. JAYCITO

20. FREE ENTRY

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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