Countdown to the Crown: Jan. 30, 2009

Updated: March 27, 2009, 2:12 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

Countdown to the Crown

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 the Arizona Cardinals' appearance in Super Bowl XLIII. Sometimes you just can't believe what you just heard.

1. Trainer Michael Matz rarely scores with a first-time starter, and rest assured he has not put the pedal to the metal with NICANOR. But Barbaro's kid brother is not just any colt, and knowing what is at stake historically for owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson, it would not be a stretch to think that Matz might be looking for more in Saturday's career debut at Gulfstream than he would with any other horse in his barn. But we should not expect too much from NICANOR; there will only ever be one Barbaro, friends.

2. Dutrow and Iavarone are back -- deal with it. IEAH Stables' recent acquisition PATENA is a flat-out runner and there's no telling how much he'll move forward in this program, with or without Winstrol. He moves all the way from No. 10 to No. 3 in my rankings this week because I've seen too many times what the Dutrow magic can do.

3. Ken McPeek would cordially like to invite the rest of Gulfstream Park's trainers to the 3-year-old maiden and allowance party. McPeek has spent more time in the GP winner's circle than a kid at a Little Debbie buffet. And, believe me, I should know.

This week's fearless forecast

This section includes a preview of the coming week's 3-year-old races to watch. Gulfstream Park goes back-to-back with the season's most important stakes to date, Friday's G2 Hutcheson and Saturday's G3 Holy Bull. But there are so many intriguing names on the undercard bills that it's impossible to separate the excitement.

Sandwiched between the Holy Bull Stakes and the G1 Donn Handicap for older horses on the Saturday card at Gulfstream Park will be the most highly anticipated debut in some time. That's because NICANOR, a full-brother to 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, makes his career bow. NICANOR will have the weight of racing fans worldwide on his shoulders. His challengers will be many in the full field, which includes Patrick Reynolds' hard-luck DUBINSKY, who has placed behind freakishly good performances in each of his three career starts, namely to rising stars ALMA D'ORO, QUALITY ROAD and TAQARUB. Bobby Frankel also brings east ANDIRON, a half-brother to G1 Blue Grass winner The Cliff's Edge, after the A.P. Indy colt's non-effort on the all-weather track at Santa Anita against a fabulously good Dec. 29 bunch.

Gulfstream's Saturday action opens with the 3YO debut of WELL POSITIONED, a 14 1/4-length maiden breaker at Aqueduct in November for Patrick Reynolds. The connections that unleashed Big Brown a year ago will have WELL POSITIONED for their own run in '09. He's been sizzling bullets in the a.m. at Gulfstream for this allowance mile. Ironically, he'll face another 14 1/4-length last-out winner, Milt Wolfson's enigmatic CINNAMON ROAD. The blue-plating claimer popped a local mile cast in the kisser Jan. 7 and drew a 95 from the Beyer Boys, giving Wolfson reason to raise the class ladder.

Two maiden heats join the Saturday program at Gulfstream, including a cast of main-track sprinters in Race 3 that includes Nick Zito's 2008 nibbler JUST A COINCIDENCE. But my attention will be on GALLIGAN ROAD, who took a ton of heat against future star CHECKLIST in his Jan. 3 return try and still managed to hold third in a race where others melted down. The runner-up from that race, MORE THAN WILLING, already has returned to win, while GALLIAGAN ROAD will be joined in the gate Saturday by that race's fourth-place finisher MIGHTY SCORE, who will be awfully tough based on a lightning blowout work Sunday. In Race 6, maiden sprinters take to the turf, and don't you dare sleep on ECHO IN ETERNITY, a first-time starter for Ken McPeek. This one is a half-brother to one of the most scintillating 3YO sprinters of last year's "Countdown," the Oaklawn-based Ferragamo, who was beset by injuries before becoming a star. What's more? The dam of ECHO IN ETERNITY, Spinner, is a half-sister to champion sprinter Left Bank.

Friday's Hutcheson Stakes card at Gulfstream also includes the anticipated return of debut winner CHECKLIST. Todd Pletcher's Gone West-Yearly Report prodigy sprints six panels in a Race 7 allowance, where he meets Nick Zito's G1 Champagne alumnus BRAVE VICTORY. Extra distance will have to wait for CHECKLIST, who should be able to go on with little problem. I like the measured development here vs. tossing him into the stakes fire.

Laurel has a maiden mile worth a look in Friday's Race 7, where $110,000 yearling OUR SELECT debuts for sharp conditioner Dale Capuano. By Pulpit, he's out of G2 Monmouth Oaks winner Magic Storm. While you're in Friday mode, check out Tampa Bay Downs' Race 8 allowance route, where Graham Motion brings SUMO south for the first time after a nice maiden score at Laurel. This race could have some Tampa Bay Derby implications.

The West Coast is relatively quiet this weekend in terms of the Triple Crown trail, but Santa Anita does have an interesting maiden sprint in Saturday's Race 5. Late-running KEEP THINKING looks to recoup some of his $2.4 million pricetag for Eoin Harty. The impeccably bred colt is by A.P. Indy and out of a French Group 1 winner, Denebola, meaning he's from the same female family as European superstars Bago and Machiavellian. But he'll have to knock off the equally-impressive pedigree of RIGHT ONE, Bobby Frankel's rookie by Seeking the Gold and out of Bernardini's sister Ile de France. From the lightning works department comes Jeff Mullins' firster GOLD SCHLIEGER, a Lemon Drop Kid colt working like an absolute freak.

Santa Anita's Sunday offerings include a pair of maiden races, Cal-bred sprinters in Race 2 and a more interesting open maiden route in Race 5. Colonel John's brother, MR. HOT STUFF, wheels back on two weeks' rest after a much-improved try against a tough cast Jan. 17 and should be nearing a breakout. Bob Baffert counters with recent runner-ups TURK and LIFE GOES ON, while turfer OSCAR BOUND comes out of a phenomenal grass heat that looked like a Grade 3 maiden race and was won by MARK S THE COOLER. If he likes the all-weather track, which his works say he does, watch out for 'OSCAR.

At Oaklawn on Saturday, we begin to see the fruits of Steve Asmussen's Fair Grounds labor. He has so many early season maiden and allowance winners in New Orleans, he has to spread his wings and look for spots to run in conditions. He finds a 1 1/16 miles allowance in Race 5 in Hot Springs, where AWESOME PREACHER tries two turns for the first time. He came home in a solid :24.75 in his sprint win and should relish distance (by Touch Gold, and his dam is half-sister to Awesome Again and Macho Uno). AWESOME PREACHER looked even better when MONTECORE came back from finishing third to him on New Year's Day to absolutely stomp a Fair Grounds maiden cast late Thursday afternoon.

Also on the same OP card, Shadwell rookie ANAAN leaves from the rail in a Race 9 maiden sprint (which includes 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds). The $475,000 Medaglia d'Oro colt is from a phenomenal female sprint family. He will be challenged by Grand Slam's full brother FAST DRAW, a D. Wayne Lukas trainee who has kept very strong running lines in his five maiden attempts to date. The intriguing dash also includes DOUBLE PITTSBURGH, a Bob Holthus returnee who was runner-up to promising BROTHER KEITH at Churchill last fall. DOUBLE PITTSBURGH makes sense this Super Bowl weekend for any gambler's mojo. He's bred to be good early. His maternal grand dam, Seattle Meteor, won the G1 Spinaway and G3 Astoria as a juvenile.

Aqueduct has a pair of races worth tabbing Sunday, led by a Race 7 state-bred allowance route featuring MR. FANTASY. West Point Thoroughbreds' Terry Finley tells "Countdown" that the Kiaran McLauglin trainee will scratch from Laurel's Dancing Count Stakes on Saturday in favor of this spot. MR. FANTASY originally was slated to run Wednesday, but the card was scrapped due to wintry weather. The son of E. Dubai, who has drawn terribly in post 10, figures to use Sunday's race as a tune-up for the Gotham Stakes. MR. FANTASY turned in one of the east's most impressive visual performances of the year in his 10 1/2-length debut win. He's a maternal grandson of Spectacular Bid, and a half-brother to last year's G2 Indiana Derby winner Tin Cup Chalice. We know he's fast, and his genes indicate he'll move along nicely as the distances progress.

Also on Sunday at the Big A, there's a Race 6 maiden route around two turns with Shadwell and Darley flavor. Kiaran McLaughlin returns fast-drilling MAJHOOD to the races after a no-show in his autumn Belmont unveiling. The $600,000 Awesome Again colt is from the female family of Silverbulletday and Arts and Letters. Tom Albertrani counters with hard-luck maiden PRECURSOR, a $500,000 A.P. Indy colt from the female family of BC Turf winner Pilsudski. PRECURSOR faced bears last summer and held his own.

Though I don't anticipate them having any impact on the Triple Crown trail, do note that Turf Paradise offers the $25,000 Rattlesnake Stakes on Saturday, while Fair Grounds presents the same-day $60,000 Black Gold Stakes for turf sprinters.

G2 Hutcheson (Friday/Gulfstream):

Seven entrants, including four last-out winners and three last-out performers who placed in major stakes, makes this one of the most intriguing races of the young season. At seven furlongs, we're looking at a break-neck/demanding distance that could wreak havoc on the big-name stars of this race, namely BREAK WATER EDISON, CAPT. CANDYMAN CAN and HELLO BROADWAY. All three have been away since November, with the 'CANDYMAN having four fewer weeks on the shelf among the trio.

My spies tell me Barclay Tagg was not pleased with the way HELLO BROADWAY finished his six-furlong workout last week, laboring late and regressing from his sharp performances in the a.m. prior. The half-brother to Nobiz Like Shobiz might have some issues when you consider Tagg was giving him nine days in-between workouts until recently. That's just reading between the lines, but something a handicapper must try to do. That said, I can't imagine that Friday's Hutcheson will be a hammer-down performance by HELLO BROADWAY. Tagg has been openly talking Derby trail with him, so rest assured the conservative and master horseman will not squeeze the lemon dry for a $150,000 purse in January. Still, I don't see this talented colt embarrassing himself.

BREAK WATER EDISON has had a spot-on workout tab since coming south from New York. I liked everything about this guy as a 2-year-old, except when I thought he had no desire to go through the inside in the Hopeful. Now he draws the rail, and the concerns about trip come back into play. By Belmont winner Lemon Drop Kid and out of a stakes-winning dam at 1 1/16 miles on grass (August Storm), you have to think 'EDISON will be even better around two turns. Friday's seven furlongs, while that's what he's used to, really does not flaunt his best strengths. Look for Alan Garcia to get him off the pine and make a solid run.

CAPT. CANDYMAN CAN (Equibase past performances, here) has the most Hutcheson lure among the "big three." He's firing bullets at Palm Meadows like he's ready to run out of his skin this week, not necessarily building a long resume to May. His one-turn win in last fall's Iroquois was sparkling, while his two-turn try in the Kentucky Jockey Club saw him run off over-excitedly. He has to prove that two turns will be his bag down the road, but the way he's drilling right now, the 'CANDYMAN will have to answer those questions another time. Even in victory, we might not learn much, Derby-wise, from the Hutcheson. But he appears to be a standout to me in this spot.

I picked BEE CEE CEE on top at 54-1 in the Spectacular Bid and he finished a better-than-advertised third. The Hutch figures to be a much more difficult spot, so my allegiance will go elsewhere on top, but don't be shocked if this guy lights the bottom of the exotics. And, now that I'm off the bus at a $100-plus mutuel, he'll probably win to spite me.

The Hutcheson pace does not figure to be as contested as you would expect for an early season stakes. Outside-drawn Z DAY comes south off of an Aqueduct maiden win for Tony Dutrow. He's the only proven front-runner in the bunch, but appears highly questionable to take heat and remain standing. Nick Zito's well-bred ROCKETING RETURNS could be the sprint goods. He's by Gone West out of graded stakes-winning sprint mare Spring Meadow. His works indicate more speed than he's shown in three starts and expect him to get away with the first flight and make them work to get by him under aggressive-riding Eibar Coa.

G3 Holy Bull (Saturday/Gulfstream):

What is it about two-turn sophomore stakes at Gulfstream that seem to smack-down the favorites in the post position pill-pull? Once again, the favorites draw unluckily in the parking lot as G2 Kentucky Jockey Club winner BEETHOVEN opens his season in post No. 11. Meanwhile, G3 Kentucky Cup Juvenile winner WEST SIDE BERNIE leaves next door in post No. 10. To add insult to injury, they'll tote 122 pounds over 1 1/8 miles and give eight of their rivals an eight-pound weight break, while conceding six pounds to the other.

The post draw likely will completely change the tactics for BEETHOVEN (Equibase past performances, here). Expect jockey Calvin Borel to take a hold of the Sky Mesa colt when the gate opens, drop back to last and begin a descent for the rail. He had been a mid-pack success in a stalking mode at Churchill around two turns, but that trip likely would see him hung six-wide on the first turn in the Holy Bull, a race uncharacteristically lacking in early pace.

"This is a colt that really fits Calvin," trainer John Ward said of BEETHOVEN. "I told him, 'this is your kind of horse. He gives me heart attacks, but he's your kind of horse.' Calvin never rushes a horse away from the pole in a workout. He loves to wait and wait. It makes me worry, but he and this horse eventually turn it on."

Unbeaten DANGER TO SOCIETY is well-drawn in the two-hole for red-hot Ken McPeek and exits a win at the distance, but note he did not come home as fast that day as a split-division allowance won by his stablemate FREE COUNTRY. Robby Albarado can be pretty aggressive early when he sees a race without pace, so don't be shocked if 'DANGER dictates some of the tempo. The other well-drawn colt who holds more personal appeal Saturday is BEAR'S ROCKET in post No. 3. He's working dynamite, and trainer Reade Baker earned tons of respect from this corner last year with his handling of G1 Blue Grass third Kentucky Bear and G1 Breeders' Cup Sprint runner-up FATAL BULLET, voted Canada's Horse of the Year. BEAR'S ROCKET has handled himself well against stronger-than-usual competition in Canada, namely PATENA and SOUTHERN EXCHANGE, two runners who have stamped themselves as legitimate in the States.

Kentucky Derby-winning trainers Michael Matz (ROCKLAND) and Nick Zito (NOWHERE TO HIDE) both look to get on the trail with two-turn Calder winners. Between the two, I prefer Zito's NOWHERE TO HIDE, whose company lines were superb in New York, matching a fantastic route pedigree.

As we like to do in the two-turn races, here's a look at the projected G3 Holy Bull Stakes pace scenario:

SPEED

PRESS

MIDDLE

CLOSER

IDOL MAKER
BEAR'S ROCKET

DANGER TO SOCIETY
NOWHERE TO HIDE

WEST SIDE BERNIE
ROCKLAND
SARATOGA SINNER

BRUCE N AUTUMN
EL CRESPO
STATELY CHARACTER
BEETHOVEN

Dancing Count (Saturday/Laurel):

MR. FANTASY will scratch to run in an allowance Sunday at Aqueduct, leaving the favorite's roll at the doorstep. But this race still has some potential star power from across the mid-Atlantic and figures to boil down to a pair of invading stakes winners.

West Virginia-bred RUSSELL ROAD has won five straight races by 43 3/4 combined lengths, including three stakes by an average of just under 10 lengths. That's not easy to do at Charles Town, where the stretch is only 660 feet. But two published workouts in two months leave you with either red flags or simply in the dark, which can happen at Charles Town.

The field also includes Pennsylvania Nursery winner ST JOHN'S GOSPEL, who dusted G2 Sanford runner-up OFFICER IPOD at Philly Park, showing he might have more class than most handicapper's would expect. The top local figures to be Jerry Robb's improving GREAT LOVE, a blowout winner in two of his last three starts, but a non-factor in the Maryland Million Nursery in his only stakes try.

WEBN (Saturday/Turfway Park):

The second of three preps for the G2 Lane's End Stakes challenges Turfway's finest around two turns for the first time. But don't look to the series-opening Prevue Stakes for any clues. The three WEBN Stakes entrants coming back from the Prevue were 39-1, 67-1 and 80-1 longshots four weeks ago, and all finished off the board.

MUSIC CITY won the local one-mile allowance tune-up for this race Jan. 14 by five lengths in wire-to-wire fashion. Bill Helmbrecht's son of City Zip made a smooth transition from six panels to a mile, opening up a huge early lead and coasting home. A :23-4/5 second-quarter gave him the daylight, and he was able to roll unchallenged despite a final quarter in a sun-dial slow :27 flat. It won't be that easy Saturday, as AZICHARMYOU will provide the heat. He blew away sprint maidens last time out by nearly 7 lengths and has earned back-to-back Beyers in the low 80s.

Owner Ken Ramsey and trainer Mike Maker never fly under the radar (that happens when you win 40 percent at a meeting!), so even if you like a maiden in a stakes race, don't expect any value. LOOKN MIGHTY FAST finished third in a fast Aqueduct sprint last time out, a race won by Z DAY, who has headed south for the G2 Hutcheson.

The horse I expect to benefit most from the distance and class level is BABAMOON, who has won two straight at Mountaineer Park since moving to trainer Eric Reed's barn. But this is not a Mountaineer runner. The Malibu Moon colt opened his career in Chicago, racing well in four starts, all routes, and running into stakes star GIANT OAK and recent Fair Grounds allowance return winner DUMAR (a Steve Asmussen trainee). Those are massive company lines for a race of this repute. Expect BABAMOON to lag early and fly late.

Everyone's a critic

The Sunshine Millions Dash was America's only stakes with a Triple Crown slant last week, but the undercard races provided a deeper look at the sophomore picture.

New Rick Dutrow pick-up THIS ONES FOR PHIL punched his ticket to the upcoming G2 Fountain of Youth at a one-turn mile when he dusted Florida and California-breds in Saturday's Sunshine Millions Dash. Despite a stumbling start and four-wide trip, the grandson of Derby winner Unbridled rolled to a 2 1/4-length win in a sharp 1:09.10 for six panels. The final quarter was completed in a strong :24.14 given the fast opening half-mile (:44.96) with a good final furlong of :12.35. Winner of the two-turn Seacliff Stakes at Calder last fall, THIS ONES FOR PHIL (Equibase past performances, here) came into the Dash with the field's best prospects of routing, as noted in last week's "Countdown," yet was still good enough to beat a cast of sprinters at their best game. Now, how that translates to a 117 Beyer Speed Figure is out of comprehension. If you mean to tell me it's one of the great performances of all-time, as a 117 would indicate, I'd have to smile and pat you on the back while whispering things under my breath. But it was quite good, no doubt. Meanwhile, runner-up YOU LUCKIE MANN proved clearly second-best and underscored the credentials of Spectacular Bid winner NOTONTHESAMEPAGE. West Coaster KELLY LEAK loomed like a good thing at the top of the lane, but could not kick on with the top pair. 'KELLY managed a mild third and did not embarrass or help the California all-weather track form to any serious degree.

Seven furlongs is the most taxing distance in racing, an all-out sprint from the opening bell, and it proved to be too much for an inexperienced Gulfstream cast on Saturday in Race 5. Todd Pletcher's $3.7 million prospect DUNKIRK (by Unbridled's Song out of Kentucky Oaks winner Secret Status) demolished the field by 5 3/4 lengths and will quickly become a buzz horse in many handicapping circles. He already plummeted to 40-1 in the Wynn Las Vegas Derby Futures. But note this race completely fell apart with a third-quarter in :26.74 and final furlong in :12.90, so the margin of victory has to be squinted at and pondered. And note that the six-furlong split of 1:12.10 was about 15 lengths slower (yikes) than the final time for the six-furlong Sunshine Millions Dash on the same card. Make no mistake: DUNKIRK was tons the best in this field, patiently waiting while blocked, tipping out at the top of the lane and drawing away from the rest. The kicker to my tempered enthusiasm for DUNKIRK is the fact that third-place finisher SPANISH FORTUNE exited a terribly slow race at Calder in which none of its alumni have done anything so far out of it. The opinion here is that DUNKIRK (Equibase past performances, here) was the right horse at the right time at the right distance, and may be flattered by this final margin and his big pricetag.

Sunday's finale at Gulfstream reinforced the Jan. 3 maiden win by CHECKLIST when his closest pursuer, MORE THAN WILLING, returned to the races a winner. The Ken McPeek-trained MORE THAN WILLING was hammered to 1-2 in the wagering and successfully handled the stretch-out from 6F to 1 1/8 miles, despite having every chance to lose on the turns. He was bumped soundly on the first turn and gave away valuable ground four-wide on the far turn. Still, he was good enough to win by three-quarters of a length in 1:52.30 over a seriously dead racetrack. Good older allowance winner Discreet Treasure could only manage a 1:37.37 mile earlier on the card, so you know things were slow. MORE THAN WILLING did finish well, however, getting the final eighth in a solid :12.44 and he was able to close into terribly slow fractions. Runner-up TOBY THE COAL MAN was much improved with a better draw and trip for Nick Zito, and well clear of the rest. FIJI BOY deserves another look in his second start of the year; he was not able to overcome the clubhouse turn incident with MORE THAN WILLING.

Also in Florida, Bill Mott got on the board Wednesday with turf mile maiden winner STRIKE AGAIN, who scored wire-to-wire in his debut. The Dixie Union got away with a slow half-mile in :48.07, but was flashy enough to dash home in a fast :23.28 and turn away Christophe Clement's impeccably bred Smarty Jones-Hoh Buzzard colt DR. SMARTY JACK, who should be a prompt maiden-breaker next time out. Champion Riboletta's baby, RIBOLETTO, missed the break and never picked up a hoof thereafter for Tom Albertrani.

At Santa Anita last Friday, trainer David Hofmans showed his propensity for downhill turf sprint success once again when LUCKIEST MAN made a triumphant return with a half-length maiden score. The three-quarter brother to G2 Illinois Derby, G3 Remington Derby and G3 Derby Trial winner Performing Magic was making his first start since a narrow defeat in a Del Mar maiden heat that included eventual G1 Norfolk winner STREET HERO (since retired). But this race went more than four lengths slower than the same day's Race 7 sophomore allowance downhill turf sprint, won by the Jeff Mullins-trained buzzsaw LEEDSTHEWAY (Equibase past performances, here). Despite winning for an $80K tag in his debut, 'LEEDS was too much for this allowance group, winning by an unfathomable 3 1/4 lengths in a turf sprint. His dam, Red Jelly, is a full-sister to G2 Arlington Classic winner Trail City. But this horse is brilliantly fast, winning six panels on the Hollywood Cushion Track in 1:08 3/5 and Friday's 6 1/2 grassy furlongs in 1:15.51. Who knows what might be in the tank? It will be interesting to see what Mullins does with LEEDSTHEWAY, as Triple Crown hopeful/stablemate I WANT REVENGE obviously is more advanced at this point.

Saturday's Santa Anita card saw the wicked-fast workhorse WALL STREET WONDER dominate a six-furlong maiden race by 5 1/4 lengths for Bob Baffert. The $325,000 2YO purchase obviously is a win-early player by $5,000 Storm Cat stallion City Place. But is he only speed? He's from the same female family as Ruler's Court, a dominant winner of the two-turn Norfolk as a juvenile. WALL STREET WONDER stopped the timer in 1:09.15 for six furlongs, a time that was only about five lengths off what superstar Georgie Boy posted later in the day's featured Sunshine Millions Sprint. WALL STREET WONDER came home in a razor-sharp :23.56. Use both hands when betting next time on runner-up DEGREE OF POWER, who rallied last-to-second while four-wide for Bobby Frankel. The Storm Cat-Apple of Kent colt will relish more distance if asked, but can win at this trip if not hooking a "now" freak like WALL STREET WONDER.

The weekday Santa Anita action saw the reputation of impressive allowance winner SHAFTED boosted nicely when Doug O'Neill's SCOREWITHCATER rebounded from a fourth-place finish to win a Thursday route allowance at 1 1/16 miles. But 'CATER did not impress, visually closing fast but doing so against a field that was gassed and not finishing at all despite a :48.03 opening half-mile. They group galloped out with a collective sound of sucking wind. I'll stand against these all next time out.

Finally, we wrapped up the week with a scintillating sprint win by MONTECORE at Fair Grounds in Thursday's nightcap. In an absolute hand ride, the $400,000 juvenile purchase widened with every stride in the lane, getting six furlongs in 1:10.56 and a sharp final quarter-mile in :24.08 while being eased the last 100 yards or so. Steve Klesaris has an awfully nice sprinter on his hands at the very least, cornering sharply and traveling as smooth as you could ask a second-time starter. I wouldn't be afraid of backing him in a two-turn allowance. Certainly bet back third-place finisher FLAVOR, who did all the dirty work while forcing the issue, softening only to be edged for the place money.

Rubber-necking

Each week, we'll give you a race video worth a second look. Hutcheson contenders BREAK WATER EDISON and HELLO BROADWAY ran 1-2 in the G3 Nashua last Nov. 2 at Aqueduct. 'BROADWAY ran into traffic at the top of the lane. Did it cost him the 'W'? See for yourself, here.

Quick hitters

OLD FASHIONED took a sizable drop to 10-1 favorite's status in this week's Wynn Las Vegas Derby Futures, down from 15-1 last week. He's still on track for the Southwest next month at Oaklawn and sizzled five panels in :58-4/5 Thursday at Fair Grounds ... Next week's agenda gets big-time serious with the G2 Bob Lewis Memorial at Santa Anita, the G3 Risen Star at Fair Grounds and the Whirlaway at Aqueduct ... The G2 Lewis figures to be a showdown between G1 CashCall Hollywood Futurity 1-2 finishers PIONEEROF THE NILE and I WANT REVENGE, with rising allowance winners PAPA CLEM and SHAFTED the new shooters of repute ... Ken McPeek will send FREE COUNTRY to Tampa for the Sam F. Davis Stakes, while shipping THEREGOESJOJO to New Orleans for the G3 Risen Star ... The Risen Star also is expected to lure FRIESAN FIRE, AU MOON, GIANT OAK, INDYGO MOUNTAIN, IT HAPPENED AGAIN, UNO MAS and possibly rising maiden winner SOUL WARRIOR among others ... Bobby Frankel says SoCal-based BROTHER KEITH could go in either the Lewis or Risen Star out of town next week ... The Whirlaway is coming up light for HAYNESFIELD, who likely will be challenged by the well-bred TRANQUILL MANNER ... G3 Delta Jackpot champ BIG DRAMA will be forced to miss Saturday's G3 Holy Bull after suffering a kicked shin ... TERRAIN is out of the Risen Star after a recent illness ... Following a column I wrote for ESPN.com this week about Rick Dutrow's hot new recruits PATENA and THIS ONES FOR PHIL, I got an interesting e-mail from a cohort "in the know" who said that Dutrow actually prefers recent maiden winner ALMA D'ORO best in terms of the Triple Crown prospects. Interesting.

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

G2 Hutcheson Stakes Picks:
1- #3 CAPT. CANDYMAN CAN
2- #1 BREAK WATER EDISON
3- #4 HELLO BROADWAY

G3 Holy Bull Stakes Picks:
1- #3 BEAR'S ROCKET
2- #9 NOWHERE TO HIDE
3- #11 BEETHOVEN

Dancing Count Stakes Picks:
1- #1 ST JOHN'S GOSPEL
2- #6 RUSSELL ROAD
3- #3 GREAT LOVE

WEBN Stakes Picks:
1- #5 BABAMOON
2- #4 LOOKN MIGHTY FAST
3- #7 MUSIC CITY

How did we do last week?
Top choice KELLY LEAK ran third in the Sunshine Millions Dash.

How are we doing on the season?
3-for-9 (33 percent) with top pick; 4-for-9 (44 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 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: Fifth week of the 2009 season

1. Square Eddie

11. Imperial Council

2. Old Fashioned

12. Notonthesamepage

3. Patena

13. Friesan Fire

4. Midshipman

14. Taqarub

5. Vineyard Haven

15. The Pamplemousse

6. Break Water Edison

16. Silver City

7. Pioneerof The Nile

17. Big Drama

8. Capt. Candyman Can

18. Quality Road

9. Hello Broadway

19. Free Country

10. Beethoven

20. Chocolate Candy


Reader-submitted top 20: From Fitz in Duluth, Minn.

1. Old Fashioned

11. Indygo Mountain

2. Vineyard Haven

12. Friesan Fire

3. Pioneerof The Nile

13. Giant Oak

4. Beethoven

14. Notonthesamepage

5. Patena

15. Capt. Candyman Can

6. Imperial Council

16. Danger To Society

7. Midshipman

17. Charitable Man

8. Break Water Edison

18. Silver City

9. Square Eddie

19. Big Drama

10. Stardom Bound (f)

20. Chocolate Candy


What happens in Vegas

This section highlights the steamers in the Las Vegas future book odds. Odds updated Jan. 26, 2008, here.

Wynn Las Vegas Derby Favorites

OLD FASHIONED 10-1
PIONEEROF THE NILE 15-1
BEETHOVEN 20-1
VINEYARD HAVEN 20-1
BREAK WATER EDISON 20-1
SQUARE EDDIE 20-1
MIDSHIPMAN 25-1
CHOCOLATE CANDY 28-1
NOTONTHESAMEPAGE 30-1
THE PAMPLEMOUSSE 30-1
DANGER TO SOCIETY 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.

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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