Countdown to the Crown


3 things you won't read anywhere else

Opinions are like a Martin Garcia deli sandwich. Go easy on the cheese.

1. "Waiting in the Wings" should be the theme of this year's Belmont Stakes. The last two times we had a Belmont without both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners in the gate (2000 and 2006), the one-time finishers in the Belmont Stakes turned out to be Derby alumni who skipped the Preakness.

2. Trainers Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert were the big names on the trail this spring, rightly so, and have won both legs of the Triple Crown so far. But Nick Zito and Dale Romans accounted for 66 percent of Derby-Preakness placings, tied with two apiece. That might be equally as impressive.

3. Remember all the talk about prep races three weeks out from the Derby being a bad thing in this era? Two major prep locale winners so far this season are Oaklawn and Keeneland. Oaklawn-prepped horses won the Kentucky Derby (Super Saver, Arkansas Derby) and Preakness (Lookin At Lucky, Rebel). Keeneland's Blue Grass, meanwhile, has produced three of the eight superfecta finishers so far in the Triple Crown (Paddy O'Prado and Make Music For Me, third and fourth in the Derby, respectively; First Dude, second in the Preakness).

This week's fearless forecast

We will have plenty of time next week to talk about the prospective Belmont Stakes field. While it won't impact the 2010 Triple Crown trail, Saturday's 7-furlong Laz Barerra Memorial Stakes at Hollywood Park does kick off the preps for the west coast's premier 3-year-old fixture, the G2 Swaps. Monmouth will open the road to its G1 Haskell Invitational with Sunday's listed Spend A Buck Stakes as well.

Everyone's A Critic

In this section, we'll recap Preakness 135, horse-by-horse.

1. LOOKIN AT LUCKY: "Here comes the Real Quiet trip," I said aloud as 'LUCKY' began to move wide on the far turn at Pimlico. And, just as was the case with the Bob Baffert-trained winner of the 1998 Preakness, the colors and journey of LOOKIN AT LUCKY provided a methodical win in vindicating style. Real Quiet vindicated he was no fluke; LOOKIN AT LUCKY vindicated that he's the best horse still standing in this 2010 crop as of today.

The Preakness victory was pure LOOKIN AT LUCKY. He won't blow anyone away, and resorted to his "pulling up" a bit once making the lead. But a furious Martin Garcia in the saddle kept driving and whipping, and the result was a three-quarter length score that was never completely secure. 'LUCKY' was a tired racehorse after the wire, and four runners finished within two lengths. So this won't go down as a burn-in-your-memory kind of performance. What it is typifies the horse who performed it: determined and courageous. LOOKIN AT LUCKY raced the opening half-mile in about :47-2/5 as he sat about five lengths off of pace-setter FIRST DUDE, and gave away ground on the far turn. Nothing about this came easy, or "perfect," in terms of trips. He made his own hay on this day. Compared to his nightmare on Central Avenue at Churchill Downs, anything less would be considered a dream trip.

Take nothing away from LOOKIN AT LUCKY; he's one of the most honest horses we've seen move from age two to three in some time. He might not ever wow you with an eight-length crush-job, but he's a fantastic racehorse. He will bypass the Belmont wisely based on the way he finished up at Pimlico, and recharge his battery for a run at the Haskell this summer.

2. FIRST DUDE: It's easy to come away with the impression that FIRST DUDE ran the best race of anyone in the Preakness, and likely ran too good to lose. When you go :46-2/5 over that dull strip, which we monitored all meeting long, it might as well be 44-and-change somewhere else. FIRST DUDE ran his tail off in the Preakness. This goes down as one of the best losing performances since .. well ... ICE BOX in the Derby. But that's not a knock, it's a suggestion that the Derby and Preakness runner-ups both are developing into serious racehorses.

In terms of Preakness defeats, FIRST DUDE's effort ranks up there with Touch Gold's 1997 loss in a four-way photo after a disastrous start. It's that kind of barometer of talent. FIRST DUDE didn't have adversity like Touch Gold, but he announced his candidacy for stardom in a similar matter to that predecessor who would go on to deny Silver Charm the Triple Crown at Belmont three weeks later.

FIRST DUDE was hustled and pushed on early by Ramon Dominguez; when that rider's arms are flailing you know he's at his best. The 'DUDE is a big, hearty galloper who surprises you that he's moving as fast as the clock says. He cornered really strong at Pimlico and actually galloped out best of all. How he trains between now and Belmont will be tell-tale. This is the kind of race that could take a lot out of a horse, or propel him to stardom. Watch the workout tab for clues.

3. JACKSON BEND: The little engine that could leaned in some at the break, causing some commotion. Jockey Mike Smith then was kept in by CARACORTADO and SUPER SAVER on the clubhouse turn. When 'BEND' wanted to go at the 3/8 pole, Smith had to tap on the brakes slightly behind FIRST DUDE, then lost 2 positions back to fifth at the 1/4 pole. JACKSON BEND then ran on well when tipped out a path or two in the stretch, but had every chance to win at the 1/16 pole and hung a bit. He didn't gallop out with the top runners, but certainly validated himself as one of the more competitive sophomores of this generation.

JACKSON BEND wisely will be rested for a summer campaign that you can bet will include races like the Haskell at Monmouth or the Jim Dandy at Saratoga, as long as he is healthy.

4. YAWANNA TWIST: This over-achiever was in tight at the break because of JACKSON BEND, then had to wait in behind that same horse when following that one up the rail on the far turn. YAWANNA TWIST then got out into space nicely without missing a beat in upper stretch, but simply lost his positive leg action the final 1/16 of a mile while hanging. He outran all my expectations and I have to admit I underestimated this runner. He could have a very interesting summer picking off stakes up to 1-1/16 or even 1-1/8 miles (against the right bunch), but he does not seem destined for the big distances.

5. DUBLIN: Before the race, he looked like a sweaty mess warming up. DUBLIN furthered that disastrous appearance immediately out of the gate when he made a right-hand turn from the far outside stall. Garrett Gomez had to wrangle him in and tuck in at the back of the pack, where DUBLIN trailed for most of the running while saving ground. Gomez swung him wide at the top of the stretch and passed tired horses while best of the rest.

You could argue DUBLIN on both sides of the equation. If you believe in him, this was a good recovery from what could have been a very bad day. If you don't like him, it's further evidence that he's simply not a top-class horse at these distances and something continues to bug him. I wouldn't touch him in the Belmont (and I'm glad to see he's not pointed that way). I would rather see DUBLIN shorten back in distance moving forward, but he'll be aimed at the major summer 3-year-old stakes with an eye on the Breeders' Cup Classic if good enough.

6. PADDY O'PRADO: The Derby's third-place finisher was a candidate to regress after training so darned well heading into the first Saturday in May and then delivering a career-best effort. PADDY O'PRADO was a bit rank through the stretch the first time in the Preakness, and throughout he appeared gear-less and subjected to being hung a bit wide. When Kent Desormeaux tried to quicken him nearing the quarter-pole, YAWANNA TWIST shot away from him like he was standing still, which was not a good sign. Still, 'PADDY' passed tired horses in the stretch in a one-paced effort where he galloped out about as well as he ran. He had no brilliance, dulled from a Derby peak, but didn't embarrass himself. A return to the grass for races at places like Colonial Downs and Arlington might be in order, but a fresh and re-peaking PADDY O'PRADO this summer should not be dismissed from another foray onto the world of dirt racing.

7. CARCORTADO: While he could have been content in behind horses on the first turn in the two-path, jockey Paul Atkinson opted to tip CARACORTADO out a smidge, and wound up widest of all in the clubhouse turn about 4 paths off the rail at some points. Having moved right alongside LOOKIN AT LUCKY (inside of the eventual winner) on the far turn, he appeared to be getting over the track very well, and may have actually gotten a nostril in front just before the field straightened for home. But CARACORTADO had no excuse not to run 1-2 from that point home, and absolutely was on fumes the final furlong-plus, just as it appeared he was when he galloped by me on Friday morning at Pimlico, when he barely got around the second lap of the course.

He's got skills; it's a matter of how far he'll run and when he might be able to recapture his early season swagger. CARACORTADO proved two things at Pimlico: One, he belongs with many of these runners; and two, he's not back to his old self yet. He could get that chance to bounce back this summer at Hollywood Park.

8. SUPER SAVER: Earlier this spring, my worries with SUPER SAVER and many of the Todd Pletcher posse was their propensity to be "no lead, no pass" kind of horses. When real speed showed up, they weren't truly front-running horses. And, when the chips were down, could they really pass anyone? The Derby result changed that feeling when 'SAVER rallied strongly to corral the pacesetters and gallop off with the roses. But how much of that was the mud, the trip and that doggone Calvin Borel-at-Churchill Downs magic? The Preakness result confirmed that it was quite a bit more than many thought.

SUPER SAVER had an outstanding trip with no excuses in Baltimore. You could argue the Derby effort knocked him out some, but 'LUCKY,' JACKSON BEND, DUBLIN and PADDY O'PRADO also had the two-week turn-around and handled it far better than SUPER SAVER. And you can certainly say SUPER SAVER's Derby trip was the easiest of all and should have left him with as much or more Baltimore buzz than the others.

Obviously the Belmont is out now, and the focus will be re-tooling him for a future campaign that could culminate back at Churchill Downs for the Breeders' Cup Classic. But don't be surprised if the future for SUPER SAVER might not be at stud sooner than later.

9. SCHOOLYARD DREAMS: He broke from the gate in wide-open spaces and wasn't fast enough to secure position early, which left him a bit tight under the wire the first time. SYD then followed LOOKIN AT LUCKY on the far turn with a similar trip to the winner, but had no punch once straightened out. Given his NY/NJ connections, it makes sense that he'll be pointed to the summer series at Monmouth most likely. He can be a dangerous horse spotted properly and at the right distances. The West Virginia Derby might make a lot of sense this summer as well.

10. AIKENITE: His pedigree and running style continues to suggest he's better as a middle-distance closer, in the mold of a horse like Zanjero in recent years. AIKENITE had no closing effort in the Preakness and will need to be well-spotted in lesser Derby races around the country at shorter distances to be effective.

11. PLEASANT PRINCE: Shuffled back a little at the start, the 'PRINCE' never really had a chance. He was a tired horse training Friday morning from what I saw up close, and ran like it, never picking up any of the pieces. Four races in eight weeks at Gulfstream, Keeneland, Churchill and Pimlico proved too much. With some time off, he can come back as a decent horse later this year and down the road.

12. NORTHERN GIANT: Sure, he had a rough start in the Preakness, but NORTHERN GIANT had nothing when the real running began and finished where you would expect. A wet track horse on his best day, he's hard to project as a major graded stakes winner down the line.

High Fives

Jeremy Plonk's Top-5 rated performances by class so far this year (Dec. 26-present). Maiden and allowance races have been dropped as we're now in final exam mode.

LOOKIN AT LUCKY's Preakness moves to the top of the list, not because of its brilliance, but because of the race's historical trueness. The best horses of the crop annually have won the Preakness the past decade, and given its field size and distance, it has turned to be the truest-run of all the Triple Crown events. Given a victory at Pimlico, and knowing full well that LOOKIN AT LUCKY is a legitimate horse who did not just pop up from the blue, we move him up for those reasons.

Stakes Race
1. LOOKIN AT LUCKY (Preakness, Pimlico, May 15)
2. SUPER SAVER (Kentucky Derby, Churchill, May 1)
3. ESKENDEREYA (Fountain of Youth, Gulfstream, 2/20)
4. ESKENDEREYA (Wood, Aqueduct, April 3)
5. SIDNEY'S CANDY (Santa Anita Derby, April 3)

Put 'em in the gate!

This section ranks the Top 20 sophomores seen this season, both active and inactive, since we're now past Derby Day. We'll leave things to the colts and geldings at this stage.

Jeremy Plonk's top 20: Week 20 of the 2010 season

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.