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Countdown to the Crown: Jan. 23, 2009

3/27/2009

Editor's Note: Countdown to the Crown returns for its fourth season as one of the most comprehensive handicapper's analyses of the 3-year-old scene. Posted each Friday from Jan. 1 through the Belmont Stakes, Countdown keeps you apprised of the rising stars in the sophomore class from the maiden ranks to the Grade 1 stakes. Click on the links below for videos and past performances, courtesy of Equibase.

3 things you won't read anywhere else

Opinions are like 50-inch high definition televisions. Your wife prefers you don't have one.

1. It's more and more socially acceptable in handicapping circles to get excited about 3-year-old sprinters. When successful pedigrees littered with Distorted Humor, Elusive Quality, Smile and Boundary bloodlines have become "first Saturday in May" successes, why not? Plus, few legitimate threats arrive in Louisville with the racing foundation of even a decade ago.

2. Dismiss west coast horses as all-weather-only runners at your own peril. The group of you celebrating Colonel John's sixth-place Kentucky Derby finish as a stroke of handicapping genius last spring was the same cast ripping up losing tickets over the god-made soil in his subsequent Travers win. In handicapping, there are no hard lines in the sand -- you still have to match-up the runners and evaluate each.

3. Steve Asmussen has so many blossoming 3-year-olds that he can't separate them in races at the Fair Grounds. Twice last week he ran 1-2 in sophomore races, with his "other" entrant completely overlooked at 14-1 and 35-1, respectively, yet still completing the exactas. Look for him to be absolutely loaded for late-season major preps like the Arkansas Derby and Illinois Derby with horses from New Orleans.

This week's fearless forecast

This section includes a preview of the coming week's 3-year-old races to watch. While there's not much stakes action, only the six-furlong Sunshine Millions Dash for Florida-breds vs. California-breds, we'll keep this section short and sweet this week with undercard races of repute.

Gulfstream hosts both the Sunshine Millions Dash and a must-see maiden sprint in Race 5 on Saturday. In the undercard event, Rick Dutrow takes the controls of one-time Bill Mott trainee CAIRIENE, as the Proud Citizen colt makes his first start since finishing second to future stakes winner BITTEL ROAD in his Belmont debut last July. His challengers figure to come from a legion of big-barn, big-pedigreed rookies. While Todd Pletcher saddles both $3.7 million baby DUNKIRK, by Unbridled's Song out of Kentucky Oaks winner Secret Status, and DENVER (a half-brother to El Roblar), money rider John Velazquez ends up on wide-drawn KINGS VILLAGE. Johnny V.'s mount debuts for Tom Albertrani and is an A.P. Indy colt out of G2 Demoiselle third-place finisher Kingsland. The grand dam of of KINGS VILLAGE is $1.2 million earner Fit For A Queen and he has a steady, strong tab for the unveiling. Also beware of John Kimmel-trained firster ROCKET TO THE MOON, a half-brother to G1 Spinaway winner Awesome Humor, who was able to run second in the 10-furlong Alabama at age 3. Other intriguing rookies include Michael Matz's HITTERS COUNT, who could turn out to be a stud on turf out of a half-sister to Fourstardave and Fourstars Allstar. He had a 10-day gap in his work tab recently and only two works in the past five weeks, so he might be one to watch for next time. Another grassy potential player would be BIG HURT, a Grand Slam colt out of European 12-furlong grass winner Nashwan Rose, which puts him in the same female family as Domedriver and El Gran Senor.

Santa Anita is light on the sophomore scene, carding a pair of downhill turf sprints on Friday and a single maiden sprint on the Pro Ride on Saturday. An interesting first timer in Friday's third race is SUBTLE PUNCH for John Sadler. The Read the Footnotes colt is out of superstar sprinter Soviet Problem's half-sister Guilt Free and could be a fleet dasher. Also beware second-timer AIR STRIKE, who debuted third on the Polytrack at Woodbine for Mark Casse last fall, chasing home recent G3 Lecomte runner-up PATENA, who appears to be a potential star. The sharp cast also includes the return of David Hofman's LUCKIEST MAN, a three-quarter brother to G2 Illinois Derby and G3 Remington Park Derby winner Performing Magic. Friday's Race 7 turf sprint allowance includes Real Quiet Stakes fifth-place finisher WHEN WE MET, who could further bolster the reputation of race winner CHOCOLATE CANDY.

Saturday's Sunshine Millions Day card at Santa Anita includes a Race 5 maiden sprint that appears deep on potential. CRACK THEPAT draws the far outside post for trainer Patrick Biancone and could be a top-shelf dasher as a son of Lion Heart and half-brother to elite sprinter Songster. Bob Baffert unveils strong-drilling Congaree baby MYTHICAL POWER, whose dam School for Scandal was a 10-furlong winner on turf. Bobby Frankel fires twice with rookies DEGREE OF POWER (by Storm Cat out of G2 Shuvee winner Apple of Kent) and STEEL BLUE (by Touch Gold out of intercontinental graded/group stakes winner Kalatiara). The field also includes a rapid-working Gulch colt from the female family of Blue Grass hero Linkage named BRIDGING for Mike Puype. If that's not enough, we get a $450,000 Eoin Harty returnee, TEVEZ THE TIGER, from the key POINT ENCOUNTER race on opening day of the SA meeting.

Sunday's Gulfstream card includes a sharp maiden route in the finale, led by MORE THAN WILLING, red-hot Ken McPeek's runner-up in the potentially key CHECKLIST maiden win from Jan. 3. He'll have his hooves full with late-running DISCREET STREET for Ian Wilkes, even though that chief rival is hung out in post 10 going around two bends. His last-to-first style may not be impacted.

Sunshine Millions Dash (Saturday/Santa Anita):

The last two editions of the Dash have produced Kentucky Derby starters Bob Black Jack and Storm In May. While other sprinters in the 11-horse field may be better-suited for Saturday's $250,000 test, the two best route possibilities going forward in the field might be Rick Dutrow's new recruit THIS ONES FOR PHIL and Cal Breeders' Championship winner ALL SAINT. Both already have won around two turns at a mile distance and will be turning back Saturday with a big purse on the line.

As for the Dash itself, all eyes will be on the outside-drawn YOU LUCKIE MANN, who was second-best in the demolition left by NOTONTHESAMEPAGE in the Jan. 3 Spectacular Bid. Marty Wolfson's Exchange Rate colt had previously registered a 107 Beyer in Calder's Birdonthewire Stakes sprinting and it will be interesting to see if he's got any bullets left in the holster. Both workouts since the 'Bid have been considerably slower than this colt had been posting prior to his last effort. While I have tons of respect for the horse who beat him, I wonder if YOU LUCKIE MANN has peaked. Meanwhile, BACKBACKBACKGONE will try to follow the NoCal-to-Gulfstream path taken by the late, great Sunshine Millions Dash winner Lost In The Fog. He does not appear on that stratosphere, but is 4-for-4 at this distance or shorter. He's never faced more than six rivals and could find a big field a tall task.

SOUTHERN EXCHANGE, winner of the Colin last year at Woodbine and beaten favorite in the Del Mar Futurity, returns after a three-plus month layoff for Greg DeGannes. He lures Alan Garcia after a bullet workout at Palm Meadows after attracting Garrett Gomez at Del Mar. That's a sign of a horse with much respect around the backstretch. He's never raced on dirt, but seems to train on it just fine. Others who will have to answer "dirt" question are west coasters KELLY LEAK, a proven stakes commodity, and GOTMYMOJOWORKIN, an impressive debut winner at Santa Anita. Trainer John Sadler has done well historically in the Sunshine Millions and 'MOJO is a $160,000 purchase by a $5,000 stallion, obviously with designs on winning early. Meanwhile, KELLY LEAK's form looks better when you consider that the horse he beat for second in the Eddie Logan, CONGOR BAY, returned to win the San Pedro Stakes at Santa Anita on Monday.

Everyone's a critic

It was a massive week of stakes and major undercard races; let's cut right to the chase.

The first salvos from the all-important Dubai camp came Thursday when G2 Sanford ex-patriot DESERT PARTY showed both professionalism and determination when winning the seven-furlong Ford Flex Trophy at Nad al Sheba. The one-time Eoin Harty trainee, now under the care of Saeed bin Suroor, bided his time nicely and then had the courage to work through traffic on the rail as jockey Frankie Dettori made a bold decision. The $2.1 million son of Street Cry was visibly tired late, however, carrying his head high through the lane and drifting out as Dettori went left-handed. He held off stablemate and fellow ex-patriot REGAL RANSOM, a Saratoga maiden sprint winner who tired badly when stretched out in the Norfolk last fall. The Ford Flex Trophy served as a prep for the upcoming UAE 2000 Guineas, where Big Blue figures to be loaded. After the race, racing manager Simon Crisford mentioned that VINEYARD HAVEN, last year's G1 Hopeful and Champagne winner, also could join DESERT PARTY and REGAL RANSOM in the starting gate in the 2000 Guineas. To DESERT PARTY's credit, he beat a field loaded with Southern Hemisphere sophomores (actually 4-year-olds in our terms). Next he'll have to prove he can handle more distance. His form to date doesn't suggest it, but there's enough pedigree there to think he could with the right training; and it doesn't get any better than the Godolphin program in that regard.

SQUARE EDDIE's loss in Saturday's G2 San Rafael might be the headline for the week, but the Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up ran well enough to underscore his juvenile achievements and confirm his talents. The only thing he showed negatively is that he's not a world-beater, the kind of horse who can just show up and whistle. But it was a good starting off point, even in defeat to the upstart THE PAMPLEMOUSSE (Equibase PPs here).

As we hinted in last week's Countdown preview of the San Rafael, this is a race historically in the wheel-house of dangerous speed horses, won by the likes of Brother Derek, Spanish Chestnut, Came Home. Crafty C.T. and Honour and Glory. The early season date and one-mile distance make it a natural for stretch-out types to catch routers sleeping. THE PAMPLEMOUSSE certainly followed suit with a wire-to-wire barrage, but his performance gives a stiff-arm to critics who think the win was merely attributable to a tactical edge. There's absolutely no advantage to running a second quarter in :22.93, nearly a full-length faster than the opening quarter-mile. 'MOUSSE benefited from speed presence BROTHER KEITH bolting on the first turn, for sure, but he took his advantage to the opposition by pressing the accelerator and opening up daylight behind his own horsepower. He then had enough stamina to withstand SQUARE EDDIE's challenge and finish up with solid-enough :24.10 and :25.24 final quarters. The final time of 1:35.31 was about a half-length faster than the one-mile split of a quickly run G2 San Fernando at 1 1/16 miles, and the front-runners in that elite handicap-division race completely folded late.

Don't expect a rematch anytime soon as SQUARE EDDIE is expected to hit the road for his first dirt test in Oaklawn's G3 Southwest next month, while 'MOUSSE is slated for the 1 1/8 miles G3 Sham. Bobby Frankel indicated that BROTHER KEITH could travel next for the G3 Risen Star at Fair Grounds.

Other fallout from the G2 San Rafael is that HAYNESFIELD might not fit the hype at Aqueduct. Damon Runyon Stakes runner-up FIDDLERS AFLEET did nothing to flatter HAYNESFIELD when he pressed the wicked second-quarter at Santa Anita and wilted to finish last. Late-running import RYEHILL DREAMER earned the right to be considered as the races get longer for ever-patient trainer John Shirreffs.

Also on the west coast last Saturday, CHOCOLATE CANDY took the California Derby in predictable fashion, but won't get any style points from me. Though track announcer Michael Wrona was captivated by the visual move 'CANDY made on the far turn, closer inspection shows what the "whoosh" was more a product of what the others were not doing. The fourth quarter of this 1 1/16 miles race went in :26.01, slow by any standard, but especially so when considering the opening half-mile was just :48.01. Truth is, stretch-out sprinters REVOLUTA and FEISTY SUANCES were not up to the route task, and this baby fell in the basket of the seasoned and solid CHOCOLATE CANDY. The Cal Derby did showcase the legitimacy of PIONEEROF THE NILE's win in the G1 CashCall Hollywood Futurity. That's because CHOCOLATE CANDY (third) and AXEL FOLEY (sixth) came back to run 1-2 in this NoCal feature. Trainer Jerry Holledorfer reportedly wants an El Camino Real Derby-Santa Anita Derby roadmap from here out for 'CANDY. Look for GALLANT SON to improve next out, having made a mild middle-move in his first start of the year. He simply did not look fit based on his work pattern, and ran to those handicapping vibes. Monitor his tab for clues, but expect much more next time for the pride of Emerald Downs. MERUS MIAMI had a terrible trip and still mustered third money. He looks like a useful, second-tier West Point Thoroughbreds sophomore in the mold of a Flashy Bull from a few years back.

Monday's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday card at Oaklawn saw the one-mile Smarty Jones Stakes match five stakes-tested runners against a pair of added-money rookies. One of those first-time stakes players was PROFESSOR Z, hammered to even-money odds for trainer Steve Asmussen after back-to-back Aqueduct victories. But the 'PROF was rank down the backstretch, with his ears pinned back and a loose rein from jockey Luis Quinonez, and retreated badly to finish last. Swooping by everyone late was the other stakes rookie, romping winner FLAT OUT, a December maiden breaker at Fair Grounds for trainer Scooter Dickey. The son of lightly raced A.P. Indy stallion Flatter, FLAT OUT carries a high knee action that is not the most efficient, and often times better-suited for turf. FLAT OUT's daddy ran third in the Washington Park Handicap at 1 3/16 miles and the sire hails from a route-laden, superstar female family that includes 1993 Derby winner Sea Hero. FLAT OUT's dam, Cresta Lil, was a win-early stakes star at Philly Park at age two, but does hail from a solid female family that traces to top mares like Got Koko and Tarlow. The way FLAT OUT moves, I would be more interested to see him try the Polytrack and/or grass. With Dickey's Kentucky ties, don't be shocked if this turns out to be a Lane's End Stakes player at Turfway, with a potential Blue Grass or Lexington appearance at Keeneland not the craziest idea. However, a :26.30 final quarter-mile does not inspire any Smarty Jones vibes from the Smarty Jones Stakes, and FLAT OUT's win does not appear intimidating when you consider runner-up SILVER BAYER was claimed for $50,000 last fall. I would take a swing against him in the Southwest, where the waters will get much deeper.

The other key stakes of the week were of the sprint variety, and this year could very well be the year of the stretch-out sprinter. Darley's TAQARUB (Equibase PPs here) jetted quickly to the top of the Aqueduct winter ranks Monday when blowing away the field in the six-furlong Jimmy Winkfield Stakes. The son of Met Mile winner Aldebaran clocked an exhilarating :23.48 the final furlong after setting :22.81 and :22.98 splits. Not the best breaker on the block, he's quickly recovered and essentially has wired three straight casts by daylight. The Kiaran McLaughlin trainee looks like a potential freak who could stretch out, and will get that chance in the one-turn mile of Gulfstream's G2 Fountain of Youth. Out of an Honor Grades mare, he's from the same female family as grass route specialists like Soaring Softly, Parade Ground and G1 Yellow Ribbon winner Plenty of Grace. This one has me thoroughly excited. I can't wait to see him tackle the big boys. What a speedy showdown looms with NOTONTHESAMEPAGE!

Also in the sprint ranks, SILVER CITY was dynamic on opening-day Friday at Oaklawn, winning the 5 1/2 furlong Dixieland by four lengths. I have little doubt he'll stretch out to a mile or 1 1/16 miles with further development in terms of patience. He'll get that chance in the Southwest next. SILVER CITY sat kindly in the Dixieland and pounced, and has plenty of big-race route winners on the damside of his pedigree. Bob Holthus might have another Oaklawn mid-level stakes threat with runner-up DANCE CALLER, who appears much better on dirt than the all-weather tracks he had competed over prior. Out of a Gate Dancer mare, there's reason to think he might be more than a closing sprinter.

Monday's San Pedro at 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita saw Bob Baffert's VENTANA get undressed by a trip that no runner deserves and was much the best from these eyes. While he was in a traffic funk throughout, the wonderfully bred Speightstown-Pico Teneriffe colt CONGOR BAY (Equibase PPs here) turned back in distance and registered the victory in a hectic stretch run. Trainer Mark Casse continues to have a serious impact with limited starters out west. Just because he's by BC Sprint winner Speightstown, don't sell 'BAY short. CONGOR BAY is a half-brother to last year's Canadian classic winner Marchfield, who won the 1 1/2 miles Breeders Stakes on turf at Woodbine. Dam Pico Teneriffe is best-remembered as a multiple stakes winner routing on the Gulfstream Park lawn, but do recall that she ran third in the G1 Frizette on dirt at Belmont at age 2. For the meantime, it looks as though CONGOR BAY will remain sprinting, with the Feb. 17 G2 San Vicente circled. Meanwhile, the hard-luck VENTANA appears best-suited sprinting after unsuccessful route tries, and this effort does nothing to change that opinion. He could be a very strong sprinter once focused in one direction.

At Tampa Bay Downs, sprint-pedigreed MUSKET MAN moved to 3-3 lifetime with a solid victory in the Pasco Stakes at seven furlongs. His time of 1:23.06 was an unfathomable 13 lengths faster than the girls ran in the same-day Gasparilla Stakes. And it appears legitimate as the field in the Pasco spread more than eight lengths from first to third. Runner-up GENERAL QUARTERS ran well for second, looping five-wide and may have been best, losing by a length after being outfought late. His effort certainly flatters sophomore classmate SILVER CITY, the Dixieland winner, having been dominated by that one in a Churchill allowance last fall.

And also in the sprint-stakes ranks, IT HAPPENED AGAIN got back on the beam for trainer Larry Jones last Friday night at Delta Downs when registering the Triple Sec Stakes. It washed away the poor taste of an eighth-place finish in the Sugar Bowl at Fair Grounds. IT HAPPENED AGAIN was able to handle two turns in the Triple Sec, even though the Delta event was only seven furlongs. IT HAPPENED AGAIN is expected to team with stablemate FRIESAN FIRE, the G3 Lecomte winner, in the upcoming G3 Risen Star at FG.

The top maiden performance we've seen at Philadelphia Park of the winter -- and one of the Top 5 in America this year by a 3-year-old colt -- came Tuesday when Mike Trombetta's rookie PERFECT SONG blitzed a six-furlong maiden cast in a razor-sharp 1:09.18. The son of BC Classic winner Pleasantly Perfect scored geared-down by 6 1/4 lengths after dueling an experienced, Benny Perkins-trained post-time favorite into smithereens. PERFECT SONG's $264K-earning dam, Prospector's Song, is a three-quarter sister to nine-furlong G2 Swaps winner Silver Music. This could be a very interesting player after a final quarter in :23.84, despite carving out an opening half-mile in :45.34. Trombetta has some Derby fever, too, after Sweetnorthernsaint's run a few years back as the favorite; so don't be surprised to see this one switch over into the express lane.

Among the many other undercard performances last week, let's start with Fair Grounds' Saturday opener, won by Midnight Lute's half-brother CAPTAIN CHEROKEE. He showed unbelievable guts for a second-time starter to accelerate through a hole on the rail and not hesitate when Shaun Bridgmohan called upon him. CAPTAIN CHEROKEE's (Equibase PPs here) one-mile maiden win in 1:38.70 saw a strong come-home time of :24.63 and compared very favorably to other similar races on the card. This son of Arkansas Derby winner Sir Cherokee could be a major factor in the same race as dear old dad in a few months' time. Asmussen swept the 3-year-old races Saturday in New Orleans, adding impressive sprint allowance winner NUCLEAR WAYNE and route allowance winner DUMAR to the honor roll. The former impressed more, winning a six-panel dash in a very lively 1:09.87 (final quarter in a good :24.70). By Mineshaft, he's out of the $227K-earning Storm Cat mare Flashy Four, a heavy sprint-laden female family. DUMAR may be ahead of stablemate CAPTAIN CHEROKEE on the conditions ladder, but he did not come home as strongly in his allowance route as 'CHEROKEE did in his maiden win to open the card. Of the Asmussen trio, I wholeheartedly support CAPTAIN CHEROKEE as a more serious Classics prospect, though there's reportedly much respect around the barn for NUCLEAR WAYNE as well.

While THE PAMPLEMOUSSE grabbed the West Coast attention in the San Rafael, a few races prior Bob Baffert's MAYOR MARV finally announced his candidacy as a stakes threat. After five starts and several close nibbles, the well-backed son of Distorted Humor-Miss Wineshine took advantage of a slow early-fast late route scenario and motored wire-to-wire by nearly two lengths. He came home in :24.57 and :6.47 for the 1 1/16 miles, and looked even more impressive when his Dec. 14 maiden conqueror, none other than THE PAMPLEMOUSSE, returned to wire the main event. MAYOR MARV beat a phenomenal maiden group in terms of potential and pedigree, but did have the advantage of a flattering pace scenario. He'll have to prove he can take heat and deliver a knockout, but this was a good move forward. Runner-up MILLENIUM LAKES won't be a maiden past his next start, and third-place finisher MR. HOT STUFF showed vast improvement and could be finding his winning stride very soon as a full-brother to Colonel John. Also at Santa Anita, Graham Motion won a fast Monday turf allowance with SMART BID and will look to tackle the Triple Crown trail next in either the Bob Lewis Memorial or the Sham. SMART BID, a Philly Park maiden breaker, ran the last quarter of his grass mile in a sharp :23.47, even though he drifted in a bit late.

At Oaklawn, INFLIGHT lived up to what I thought in winning a maiden sprint Saturday in wire-to-wire fashion, having previously faced impressive performers FREE COUNTRY and SOUL WARRIOR. But he was all-out to win by a nose in a very slow 1:12.42 and would be a bet-against in the rise to allowance competition. Donnie Von Hemel, one of the most underrated horsemen in America and a guy I got to watch up close and personal while at Remington Park, scored a dominant one-mile allowance win on that same card with the aptly named grey, POLTERGEIST. The son of Tapit, who is fast becoming a superstar young sire, romped in his first dirt try around two turns, widening by six lengths. But a slowish final quarter-mile in :25.70 throws some caution at the result as he moves forward toward the Southwest Stakes. Wide-drawn competitors FLYING PRIVATE (D. Wayne Lukas) and SPECIAL HEART (Jinks Fires) both lost considerable ground on the first turn. SPECIAL HEART would be a definite bet-back off of this effort, especially given the flattery of his Nov. 29 runner-up performance behind SILVER CITY, who since looked so dominant in the Dixieland.

Monday's holiday card at Oaklawn provided a too-good-to-lose debut try by WISE KID, who dropped a narrow decision to D. Wayne Lukas' more experienced and favored BUZZIN AND DREAMIN. But all the talk will be about Tim Ritchey's runner-up, who broke flat-footed, had no room for much of the running and showed grit beyond his paltry, three-drill worktab. For a 1 1/16 miles debut, you could not ask any more of this son of Lemon Drop Kid, whose unraced dam is half-sister to the great Chief's Crown. WISE KID will be 1-5 next time in a maiden route and deserves our attention as a potential late bloomer.

Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up Minister Eric's half-brother PITCHED PERFECTLY rebounded from a terrible performance in the Count Fleet to wire an Aqueduct route allowance Thursday. Fast early and slow late, the Gary Contessa trainee smoked a second quarter in :23.05 and had enough left in the mile and 70-yard race to score by a head over hard-luck CLIFFY'S FUTURE, a consistent performer who had faced the likes of WEST SIDE BERNIE and BEETHOVEN.

We wrap the recaps with Thursday's turf maiden mile at Gulfstream, where underrated trainer Angel Penna scored an very impressive debut win with PINCKNEY HILL, a well-bred son of A.P. Indy and the English G2-winning juvenile mare Jemima. PINCKNEY HILL, despite a treacherous beginning, blew the field away late by 3 lengths and he ran the final quarter-mile in the upper :22s when consider he made up 6 lengths in :24.05. Those behind him should be awfully dangerous next out, including well-bred EVOLUTIONIST (El Prado-Dream Supreme), the only pace player left standing after a :46.85 opening half-mile, and beaten debuting favorite CHAPIN BEACH, third after a four-wide and rocky trip. He's a full-brother to G1 Diana winner Sand Springs and drew awfully in the 12-hole. This should be a very key handicapping race (GP, Jan. 22 Race 6).

Rubber-necking

Each week, we'll give you a race video worth a second look. YOU LUCKIE MAN figures to be favored in the Sunshine Millions Dash based on his runner-up try to the impressive Spectacular Bid Stakes winner NOTONTHESAMEPAGE. See how he handled the Gulfstream Park surface last time out, here.

Quick hitters

Barbaro's full-brother, NICANOR, worked a half-mile in company at Palm Meadows on Saturday in :50-2/5 and is targeted for his career debut the weekend of Jan. 30-Feb. 1, trainer Michael Matz has indicated. "He has really matured a lot just in the last month," Matz said, adding of the debut, "We're not sure if it will be seven-eighths or a mile. If we want to start on the turf, we can do that because he works equally as well there. We have options." ... You have to love the confidence brimming from AU MOON (Equibase PPs here) trainer David Carroll, who said the day after the Lecomte, "The two horses that finished in front of him Saturday (FRIESAN FIRE and PATENA) are both very nice horses, but I'm not afraid of either one of them. Maybe I should be, but I'm not." Carroll calls it like it is, and was not afraid to publicly call out his owner last Derby Week with DENIS OF CORK, saying it was ill-advised to run in the Illinois Derby, but his hand was forced. He's been openly critical of the front-end trip in the Lecomte, and you can expect AU MOON to be taken back in the Risen Star with a shot to rebound ... Speaking of PATENA, he worked five panels Wednesday at Fair Grounds in 1:01-4/5 with an eye on the Risen Star ... The star filly STARDOM BOUND drilled five panels Monday at Santa Anita in 1:00-4/5 in preparation for the Feb. 7 Las Virgenes ... If you like fast drills, Jeff Mullins' CashCall Hollywood Futurity runner-up I WANT REVENGE certainly provided that Monday, smoking six furlongs in a race-like time 1:10-4/5 ... Speedball NOTONTHESAMEPAGE, gearing up for a stretch-out in the Fountain of Youth, sizzled a half-mile in :47-2/5 Sunday at Gulfstream ... One horse who won't have to turn back the 'PAGE is the Ian Wilkes-trained CAPT. CANDYMAN CAN, who is expected to make his 2009 return in the Hutcheson next Saturday. The 'CAPT. turned in a bullet :59-4/5 drill Monday at Palm Meadows ... G2 Remsen winner OLD FASHIONED breezed five furlongs in 1:01-2/5 Sunday at Fair Grounds in preparation for Oaklawn's Feb. 16 G3 Southwest ... BREAK WATER EDISON turned heads with a stylish 1:00-4/5 breeze Wednesday at Gulfstream, readying for the Hutcheson. Trainer John Kimmel cautions that he does not want too much in the seven-furlong sprint, just a nice launching pad for a horse who will get better with distance. This clearly is a horse to watch ... The news was not as promising for Hutcheson hopeful HELLO BROADWAY, who fell apart late in his workout for Barclay Tagg on Wednesday and raised some red flags. The little bro to Nobiz Like Shobiz was dropped from No. 5 to No. 8 this week in my rankings as uneasiness arises.

High fives

Jeremy Plonk's Top 5-rated performances this year by class. (Dec. 26-present)

Maiden Race

1. SOUL WARRIOR -- Fair Grounds 12/29
2. CHECKLIST -- Gulfstream 1/3
3. PERFECT SONG -- Philadelphia Park 1/20
4. MARK S THE COOLER -- Santa Anita 1/10 (turf)
5. CAPTAIN CHEROKEE -- Fair Grounds 1/17
(*** POINT ENCOUNTER injured, removed ***)

Allowance Race

1. FREE COUNTRY -- Gulfstream 1/8
2. THEREGOESJOJO -- Gulfstream 1/10
3. SHAFTED -- Santa Anita 1/2
4. DANGER TO SOCIETY -- Gulfstream 1/8
5. NUCLEAR WAYNE -- Fair Grounds 1/17

Stakes Race

1. NOTONTHESAMEPAGE -- Spectacular Bid 1/3
2. TAQARUB -- Jimmy Winkfield 1/19
3. THE PAMPLEMOUSSE --San Rafael 1/17
4. FRIESAN FIRE -- Lecomte 1/10
5. SILVER CITY -- Dixieland 1/16

STAKES SELECTIONS

Sunshine Millions Dash Picks:
1- #7 KELLY LEAK
2- #1 SOUTHERN EXCHANGE
3- #5 GOTMYMOJOWORKIN

How did we do last week?

Top choice SILVER CITY led an ice-cold trifecta in the Dixieland, while top pick CHOCOLATE CANDY scored in the California Derby; second choice MUSKET MAN beat top pick GENERAL QUARTERS in the Pasco; top pick SQUARE EDDIE ran second in the San Rafael.

How are we doing on the season?

Three-for-eight (38 percent) with top pick; 4-for-8 (50 percent) with top two picks.

Put 'em in the gate

Can't wait for May 2? This section ranks my Top 20 and puts horses in the gate if the race was this weekend. Remember, this isn't about how they'll be on Derby Day, but rather how they rate today with Derby ability at 1 1/4 miles a main factor. This will be a fluid list over the the spring.

Think I'm off my rocker? Send your Top 20 list to me, jeremy@horseplayerpro.com, and I'll pick one fan's list each week to appear in Countdown to the Crown right next to mine. Please put "TOP 20" in the subject line and include your state of residence!

Jeremy's top 20: Fourth week of the 2009 season

Reader-submitted top 20: From Chris M. in Chester Township, N.J.

What happens in Vegas

This section highlights the steamers in the Las Vegas future book odds. Odds updated Jan. 21, 2008, here.

Wynn Las Vegas Derby Favorites

OLD FASHIONED 15-1
BEETHOVEN 20-1
PIONEEROF THE NILE 20-1
VINEYARD HAVEN 22-1
MIDSHIPMAN 25-1
SQUARE EDDIE 25-1
CHOCOLATE CANDY 28-1
BREAK WATER EDISON 30-1
NOTONTHESAMEPAGE 30-1
THE PAMPLEMOUSSE 30-1

COUNTDOWN TO THE CROWN is the ONLY major racing column where you can find the line of Johnny Avello, Vegas' premier oddsmaker!

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000. You can email Jeremy about Countdown to the Crown or anything racing related at Jeremy@Horseplayerpro.com.