Countdown to the Crown


Let's count down the Belmont Stakes contenders, and selections, in Countdown to the Crown style. One last time in 2010, dim the lights and turn on the music.

12. SPANGLED STAR (post 2, 30-1 odds)
It's a pretty balanced field when you have a Rick Dutrow-trained, Garrett Gomez-ridden horse as the biggest outsider in the bunch. He's run nothing more than mile races since Jan. 2 and will be tested big-time for not only distance, but class. That's too much to ask. Bottom line: Not on my tickets.

11. UPTOWNCHARLYBROWN (post 3, 10-1 odds)
After the passing of trainer Alan Seewald, you can't help but root for this likeable runner who tries hard every time. New conditioner Kiaran McLaughlin will keep the price under-laid on what you deserve, trying to go from the Triple Crown prep fringes to the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes. McLaughlin removes the blinkers, but the distance question looms very large. Cheer hard, leave the wallet closed. Bottom line: Not on my tickets.

10. DAVE IN DIXIE (post 1, 20-1 odds)
Here's your classic Belmont Stakes entrant that never seems to pan out. Plodders who are not quick enough to impact the top prep races at 1 1/16 miles and 1 1/8 miles are sent to New York in hopes that the pack comes back to them at 1 1/2 miles. It's a recipe for a lackluster finish with many horses, and many of which who have looked as talented as Dave on paper. Bottom line: Not on my tickets.

9. GAME ON DUDE (post 8, 10-1 odds)
Remove the name Bob Baffert from the program and wipe away the memories of Martin Garcia riding the Preakness winner three weeks ago, and this 'Dude' probably goes to post as the second- or third-longest shot in the race. Lone Star Derby winners historically offer little in the Belmont Stakes, and his victory May 8 came against clearly the weakest group in that race's 14-year history. The slowish early pace could keep him from plummeting completely back in the pack. For all the respect I have for Baffert, I still can't put this one near the wire. Bottom line: Not on my tickets.

8. DROSSELMEYER (post 7, 12-1 odds)
Countdown followers know I've been high on this guy all year, and let's just be candid: He's been a complete disappointment. His efforts in the Risen Star, Louisiana Derby and Dwyer were more excuse-laden than provocative. My appreciation for him goes all the way back to a sparkling allowance win Jan. 31, but no one from that race turned out to be anything special. Recent foot problems had him training in a bar shoe, and that's a bad deal, even if he's not racing with it on Saturday. The rider change to Mike Smith might help, but the thought here is it won't change things much for a horse whose pedigree has never been one that screamed for the Belmont. I'm officially off the bandwagon as a Triple Crown horse, though he could factor later in the year at more reachable distances. Bottom line: Not on my tickets.

7. STAY PUT (post 10, 20-1 odds)
Like Drosselmeyer, this Steve Margolis trainee also has been a Countdown heartthrob for some time. With no pace help at all in the Risen Star, Louisiana Derby or his Kentucky Derby day opening-race victory, his efforts on paper don't look that bad. No doubt he'll get a distance of ground. He's a bit of a sucker horse in the mold of Dave In Dixie when you talk about the Belmont Stakes win-end, but I'm confident he has the talent and preparation to be a factor in the superfecta if he's at his best. A lackluster string of workouts since Derby day, however, raises some doubt as to whether or not he's coming into the race in top form. Bottom line: Will use sparingly on bottom of trifectas and superfectas.

6. MAKE MUSIC FOR ME (post 4, 10-1 odds)
With a pure miler's pedigree, the question with the Music maker will be this: Have his visually pleasing finishes been a product of pace help or pure talent? I've got some mixed emotions, as I feel this is an extremely talented horse with a great burst, but not a sustained closing kick. How can I say that after he closed from last to fourth in the Kentucky Derby, making up nearly 24 lengths? Look at his running lines and you'll notice he made up only 1 1/4 lengths over the final quarter-mile of the Derby. Ice Box rolled past him in the final yards and had much more to complain about in the trip department. Joel Rosario actually gave him a great Derby ride after a terrible start, keeping him in the clear. Losing ground didn't help, but not losing momentum was more important. Bottom line: Will use sparingly on bottom of trifectas and superfectas.

5. FIRST DUDE (post 11, 7-2 odds)
If you want to make a future bet today on which of these dozen horses could win the fall's Breeders' Cup Classic, I'd make First Dude the prohibitive favorite. The big beast has so much upside and ran a ridiculously good race in defeat in Baltimore -- probably the best Preakness losing effort since Touch Gold's troubled fourth in 1997. You remember what happened with Touch Gold as he came back to win the Belmont over Silver Charm et al. But First Dude's Preakness may have been the most taxing defeat in recent memory, too. He ran so hard, for so long, that it's not handicapping parlance and numbers-making to yell "bounce," it just is common sense.

Few will appreciate First Dude any more than me heading into the Belmont Stakes. But for a horse who was 13-1, 9-1 and 23-1 in his three stakes efforts (all losses, granted), he will be seriously under-laid on the toteboard Saturday and a major question mark as to if he can repeat his Preakness effort in three weeks' spacing. If he does, look out, because he might not lose again this year. As for this Saturday, I think you have to bet against him on the top end. Bottom line: Will use second, third and fourth in the exotic wagers.

4. FLY DOWN (post 5, 9-2 odds)
Every time you turned around this spring, yet another horse was popping up out of Fly Down's fall win at Churchill Downs and producing a big effort. It's what we handicappers call a "key race," and his Nov. 28 performance at the Downs was about as key as any race I've seen at this level. Among those in his wake that day was none other than First Dude, a horse he would come back and beat again at Gulfstream. If you like First Dude as a serious racehorse (and why wouldn't you?), then you have to have similar love for Fly Down.

No doubt his Louisiana Derby effort was subpar and disappointing, but Nick Zito's well-bred son of Mineshaft appeared to get back on the beam with his Dwyer victory May 8 over this Belmont track. A very important note needs review about the Dwyer before you make that prep your reasoning why Fly Down is unstoppable Saturday. First, the race was run into a ridiculously strong headwind down the mammoth 1 1/8-mile backstretch at Belmont, which softens up front-runners and favors those drafting behind. Then, turning for home, he had that same wind working at his back when posting what appears a world-class 12.20-second final furlong. Visually, Fly Down did not look anywhere near as impressive in the Dwyer stretch run as the past performances indicate.

If you like Fly Down for his body of work and potential, you get no argument from me. But if you're jumping on board because of the Dwyer alone, I think you'll be misled. He needs to run much, much, much better than he did in the Dwyer to win this race. But his training at Saratoga the past few weeks indicates that's precisely the direction he's going. Bottom line: Win contender will be used in all spots in the exotics.

3. STATELY VICTOR (post 9, 15-1 odds)
The preferred route of Belmont Stakes success in recent years has been for Derby alumni to skip the Preakness and use the five weeks leading up to the final jewel as a training ground. Trainer Mike Maker follows that path with a horse who had a weird trip in the Kentucky Derby. You may recall he was the horse doing the hand jive with Lookin At Lucky as they bounced off each other and the rail early on. Stately Victor proceeded to do nothing more than pass what appeared to be tired horses when finishing a well-beaten eighth. Perhaps the sloppy track did him no favors, as he's bounced out of the race to train absolutely gangbusters since the Derby.

If you watch the full Kentucky Derby gallop-out, no horse was moving better after the run for the roses than Stately Victor. That can be a sucker angle many times for a handicapper who thinks a horse might have more than he showed in a race. But it also can be an indicator of a horse who will keep on pounding out the tempo in a race like the 1 1/2-mile Belmont.

If you were trying to project a never-has-been horse into a Belmont Stakes winner based only on the gallop-out of a race, you'd certainly be guilty of stretching. But the fact of that matter is Stately Victor ran perhaps the most impressive prep race of any horse not named Eskendereya when he annihilated the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. In hindsight, that race has gone on to produce the third- and fourth-place finishers in the Kentucky Derby (Paddy O' Prado and Make Music For Me) as well as the Preakness runner-up (First Dude).

The price should be right in the 10-1 to 15-1 range, and you get a rider in Alan Garcia who rides this track very well. Bottom line: Win contender will be used in all spots in the exotics.

2. ICE BOX (post 6, 3-1 odds)
After closing into a pair of 1:10-and-change paces in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, the fair question for Ice Box's Belmont Stakes evaluation will be: Just what can he do without pace help? Saturday's projected pace appears rather pedestrian on paper unless First Dude fails to settle and runs off in a Preakness-like tempo.

I find Ice Box to be a very genuine racehorse, and that his allowance win Jan. 18 at Gulfstream was accomplished in exactly the style questioned, behind a slow pace with no help whatsoever. It was that race four-plus months ago that signaled him in Countdown as a horse to watch on this Triple Crown trail. Now he comes to the Belmont Stakes as a deserving favorite who has only a mistimed (but visually impressive) middle-move in the Fountain of Youth Stakes blemishing his 2010 resume.

Like Stately Victor, he's taking the Derby-to-Belmont approach with nothing but strong workouts between. Zito used that formula to success with Birdstone in 2004 when foiling Smarty Jones' Triple Crown bid. Ice Box appears every bit Birdstone's equal in terms of accomplishment to this point in his career, if not superior. Of course, Birdstone went on to win the Belmont and Travers, so Ice Box has some work to do before eclipsing that full body of work. But if you're Zito or a fan of Ice Box, you have to like where you stand coming into the Belmont. Bottom line: Win contender will be used in all spots in the exotics.

1. INTERACTIF (post 12, 12-1 odds)
Because Ice Box's three career victories have come by a combined margin of one length, there's no shame in a horseplayer looking for some value in the top spot. The search for the "now" horse with a pedigree, trainer and upside to close out the 2010 classics has landed this eye on Interactif.

For those who followed our live reports from Churchill Downs on Derby week, I thought Interactif could not have looked any better after his bullet workout April 26 and was not breathing hard in the least bit. While trainer Todd Pletcher was busy saddling a roster of seemingly thousands, the connections opted to bypass the Derby with Interactif and look down the road. That decision became reasonably questioned after horses from Interactif's fourth-place run in the Blue Grass Stakes all came back to light up the toteboard in the Derby and Preakness.

If there were any bumps or bruises along the way that impacted the Derby decision, they were quickly gone as Interactif returned home to Belmont Park and has worked four perfectly-spaced drills every seven days since the Saturday after the Kentucky Derby. His works prompted Pletcher to make him the last addition to the Belmont field, which likely cost him jockey Rafael Bejarano, who, by then, already was committed to ride a Grade 1 stakes in California. But fear not as hot-riding Javier Castellano steps in as a fantastic riding replacement.

It's been Pletcher's year on the Triple Crown trail, winning races from coast to coast. This is a horse who ran within a half-length of Sidney's Candy despite shipping out to California, and ran within 1 1/2 lengths of First Dude at Keeneland behind a slow pace. He doesn't need to move that far forward to be in the discussion against the tops of this Belmont Stakes field. The price is right, and so is the stable. Bottom line: Win contender will be used in all spots in the exotics.

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.