Commentary

Countdown to the Crown

Updated: March 4, 2011, 12:52 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 the idea of a $1 million pseudo-match race between THE FACTOR and FLASHPOINT being tossed around for the April 3 Swale Stakes. Sometimes you just shake your head and wonder what people are thinking. (Seriously, in this economy, a million bucks for two sprint horses eligible for a second-level allowance?)

1. We made one of the most daring Countdown predictions ever when entries came out for a Jan 21 allowance race that not one, but two, major Triple Crown preps would be won by horses off of that overnight sheet (link: http://sports.espn.go.com/sports/horse/columns/story?columnist=plonk_jeremy&id=6045132 ). Mission accomplished before the end of February as both DIALED IN (Nick Zito) and SOLDAT (Kiaran McLaughlin) went on to score graded stakes wins in the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth, respectively.

2. SOLDAT replaces UNCLE MO (Todd Pletcher) as the new Countdown No. 1-ranked Triple Crown contender this week. A pair of wins at 1-1/8 miles against legitimate competition has to count for more than our memories of a race that's nearly 4 months old now. That's not to say 'MO won't leap-frog back on top after his return bid March 12, but give me 18 furlongs of performance over a projection of how we think the 2-year-old champ will progress at age 3.

3. Not wild about SOLDAT being a turf horse last year and now "suddenly" finding life on the dirt trail to the Derby? How quickly we forget Barbaro and Big Brown, who were essentially turf-to-dirt Derby champs all the way back in 2006 and 2008, and Pioneerof The Nile, merely the 2009 Derby runner-up. Last year's Kentucky Derby third Paddy O' Prado was as green as his Irish name suggests, too.

This week's fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. The bat signal will be shined brightly on the G3 Gotham this week at Aqueduct, clearly the headline race of the winter season to date in New York. But Sunday's surprise allowance appearance by G3 Holy Bull Stakes winner DIALED IN (Nick Zito) will be a show-stealer for the weekend. We've also got some fringe 3-year-old Saturday stakes action with the Grindstone on turf at Fair Grounds, the Battaglia Memorial on Polytrack at Turfway and the Mountain Valley sprinting 6 furlongs at Oaklawn.

On the undercards this weekend, all eyes will be on DIALED IN as he takes on 4 rivals, including a trio of 4-year-olds, in a 1-1/8 miles second-level allowance at Gulfstream Park in Race 4. Trainer Zito wanted to run him 2 turns before the Florida Derby, and got his wish when the racing office took this race with the help of stablemate Equestrio to fill the lineup. Among those entered is William's Kitten, who last year with third in the G3 Holy Bull before injuries sent him to the sidelines. This is a really good test for DIALED IN, who gets in light at 116 pounds and should prep him perfectly for the tougher G1 Florida Derby on April 3.

Let's see if CHICO D'ORO (John Sadler) can flatter the form of G2 San Felipe hopeful ALBERGATTI (Steve Asmussen) when the former returns in a Race 2 maiden sprint Saturday at Santa Anita. 'CHICO was the man in his debut, running a bang-up second. The challengers include rookie WILBURN (Steve Asmussen), a $625,000 son of Bernardini and G3 Arlington-Washington Lassie upsetter Moonlight Sonata.

The other maiden sprint this weekend worth watching is Race 5 Saturday at Gulfstream, where JACK LONDON (Barclay Tagg) could give us a key barometer on hotshot debut winner CAL NATION (Todd Pletcher), whom he chased Feb. 5. BREAK UP THE GAME (Shug McGaughey) exits a solid fourth in a very key race behind HERON LAKE (Nick Zito) and 2-time meet winner ARCH TRAVELER (Jimmy Jerkens). Nick Zito unveils rookie BOMBER BOY, a half-brother to G1 Kentucky Oaks heroine Summerly, by Bernardini. FIRE WITH FIRE (Bill Mott), half-brother to millionaire turf star Cosmonaut, returns from a freshening since a close fourth to BRETHREN (Todd Pletcher) in a very strong Belmont fall maiden dirt sprint.

Saturday's Race 7 maiden route at Fair Grounds could produce a late bloomer for the Louisiana Derby as Steve Asmussen sends out a pair of runners in AWESOME BET and HOT FAUCET. The former reminds me a bit of Zanjero, a nibbler who had some versatility in pace. The tough field includes SOCAROONI (Bill Mott), who exits a good second to the talented SOUR (Al Stall, Jr.).

On Aqueduct's Saturday Gotham undercard, the $65,000 Capossela Stakes matches 6-furlong sprinters with 2-time Canadian stakes winner SENSATIONAL SLAM (Todd Pletcher) the only Triple Crown nominee. RIFT (Rick Dutrow) was razor-sharp recently and merits favoritism vs. a field that includes G3 Sapling second VENGEFUL WILDCAT (Ben Perkins, Jr.).

G3 Gotham (Saturday/Aqueduct)

There's a lot to like about this year's Gotham: a solid field size of 9, an intermediate distance of 1-1/16 miles and a field that includes returning commodities, rising hopefuls and horses who recently have proven their mettle. Fast-working STAY THIRSTY (Todd Pletcher) has been aimed this way for some time and should come north from Florida ready to give a solid effort carrying only 116 pounds.

Heading into last year's Breeders' Cup, I actually stated in print that I thought STAY THIRSTY may be the stronger router of Todd Pletcher's Juvenile hopefuls. The "other" horse was a little ditty named UNCLE MO, so maybe I was way off base. Then again, time will tell the distance tale for all these horses coming back from 2-year-old campaigns. Half-brother to Belmont Stakes-placed Andromeda's Hero, there's no reason to think STAY THIRSTY won't be better around 2 turns than he was when second in last year's G1 Hopeful at 7 furlongs.

STAY THIRSTY will have to overcome some rust Saturday while facing a pair of horses who come out of a pretty good renewal of the Whirlaway over this same course and distance. TOBY'S CORNER (Graham Motion) finished up very nicely that day despite a slow pace favoring those in front of him in the short, 5-horse field. He's only had 1 published workout since that race 4 weeks ago, but trainer Motion gets a lot of side work into his horses at the Fair Hill training center that's not your normal breeze and blowout kind of thing. Don't expect him to be a short horse.

PREACHINTOTHEDEVIL (Gary Contessa) really caught my eye beating state-breds on New Year's Day, and I was mystified how flat he ran when third in the Whirlaway at shorter odds than winner TOBY'S CORNER. With the presence of STAY THIRSTY near odds-on, and more money sure to flow on 'TOBY this time around, the 'DEVIL could approach double-digit odds Saturday and be the value play. If you give him a mulligan on the wet track last time, a forgiving handicapper could find rewards at the end of some blind faith.

THE FED EASED (Rick Violette) was visually strong last out despite a troubled start, but twice has had issues at the gate, draws the rail and has a sprint pedigree. I'll stand against him in the Gotham. NACHO SAINT (Kelly Breen) looks the more dangerous of the last-out maiden winners. Second last year in the G2 Sanford while still a maiden, he's that classic "nibbler breaks out" who got a big confidence boost Jan. 28 with a blowout win after several narrow defeats.

I think STAY THIRSTY will win and is a very legitimate Triple Crown prospect, but I'll be betting the price horse PREACHINTOTHEDEVIL at anything 8-1 or more. After all, that's what you want to know, right? Honesty is my only policy.

Gotham Stakes selections: W) PREACHINTOTHEDEVIL; P) STAY THIRSTY; S) TOBY'S CORNER.

Mountain Valley Stakes (Saturday/Oaklawn Park)

Just a field of 5 passed the entry box, maybe in part because of a fellow 6-furlong allowance race for straight 3-year-olds also offered on the same Saturday program. GLINT (Kellyn Gorder) is the lone Triple Crown nominee in the Mountain Valley, unbeaten at Hoosier and Presque Isle at age 2. TRUBS (Al Stall, Jr.) figures to be very tough off of a strong win in the Black Gold at Fair Grounds and has found a home as a 1-turn sprinter. He will have to regress to be beaten from this eye.

KEEP ON GIVING (Larry Jones) won emphatically here Feb. 20 and wheels back on 13 days' rest, while FAIRING (Donnie K. Von Hemel) tries to keep a very promising winter going for that barn's 3-year-old scene. SMOKE IT RIGHT (Bernard Chatters) has won easily in all 3 starts vs. lesser at Evangeline and Delta Downs, but will be controlling speed in a short field, always dangerous.

Horses like PHILIPPE (James Baker), PARENT'S HONOR (Tony Dutrow) and BILLY TWO HATS (Don Von Hemel) all would have looked solid in the Mountain Valley, but instead are in a Race 7 allowance on the Saturday undercard.

Mountain Valley Stakes selections: W) TRUBS; P) SMOKE IT RIGHT; S) GLINT.

Grindstone Stakes (Saturday/Fair Grounds)

Given its 2-turn configuration, the 7-1/2 furlong $60,000 Grindstone Stakes actually is a very good launching pad into bigger stakes. The return of last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf third WILLCOX INN (Mike Stidham) adds a lot of intrigue and figures to be a steppingstone toward the G1 Blue Grass Stakes on April 16 at Keeneland for that late-running colt. But the mid-range distance of the Grindstone attracts a versatile crowd of sprinters and route hopefuls, making for a very cool race to handicap.

CLOSE ALLY (Neil Howard) and GREAT MILLS (Steve Asmussen) come off successful runs in turf sprints, MAVERICKING (Neil Pessin) has been rock-solid this meet in turf miles, ACES N KINGS (Bobby Barnett, new trainer) and MOONBIE (Tom Amoss) exit big-time dirt sprint wins, and ACTION READY (Bret Calhoun) makes the class drop out of graded stakes efforts that include a third in the G3 Lecomte. Toss in European import CAFÉ ELEKTRIC (Roger Attfield) and you have one of the slickest races on paper anywhere this year on the trail so far.

WILLCOX INN has 5 works into him since late January and rider Rosie Napravnik has proven to be one of the absolute best turf riders to come along in some time. She jumps off ACTION READY to ride WILLCOX INN for the first time. I don't know if the 'INN is fast enough or fit enough to throw down the rapid acceleration I think it's going to take to win this race, but I think he'll run well enough to build toward the next race.

ACES N KINGS struck me as a better turf horse last year and I like that he got a confidence boost last time out in the restricted Groovy Stakes at Sam Houston. GREAT MILLS has impressed as a turf sprinter and he's by red-hot sire War Front of THE FACTOR and SOLDAT fame. He should handle the 7-1/2 furlongs with a clean break. Pedigree-wise I absolutely love MAVERICKING by Empire Maker out of a Lord At War mare; that's a delicious combo for turf, and MAVERICKING was completely compromised by slow paces in his last 2 narrow defeats. He's trained very well for this.

CAFÉ ELEKTRIC is a total wildcard, but given his turf and Polytrack experience in England, you can be sure master horseman Roger Attfield will have options come the spring meets at Keeneland or Woodbine if this horse can run.

Grindstone Stakes selections: W) MAVERICKING; P) GREAT MILLS; S) WILLCOX INN.

John Battaglia Memorial Stakes (Saturday/Turfway Park)

A surprisingly strong rendition of this $100,000 listed stakes has taken shape as 9 runners march toward the G3 Spiral Stakes in the final local prep. The 1-1/16 miles cast includes the logical 1-2-3 finishers in Turfway's WEBN Stakes, but interestingly also challengers from Florida and Northern California. TWINSPIRED (Mike Maker) was pretty dominant in the WEBN despite coming home slowly, which apparently didn't scare away ADMIRAL PERRY (Shug McGaughey), BLUE LASER (Mark Casse) and ADULARE (Rusty Arnold) from Florida. Add in G3 El Camino Real Derby third POSITIVE RESPONSE (Bill Morey), who has been rock-solid this year.

BLUE LASER won the G3 Grey in Canada last fall over Polytrack before being tangled in a mess in the Delta Jackpot that was not of his doing, and had to be pulled up. Other than a little 13-day gap in his workout tab around the beginning of February, he's been working steadily in Florida for his return bid. ADULARE was third twice last year to ANTHONY'S CROSS (Eoin Harty) and TAPIZAR (Steve Asmussen), both of whom went on to be graded stakes winners this year. You have to think he's better than his non-effort in the G3 Sam F. Davis at Tampa suggests.

TAPTOWNE (Wayne Mogge) has a really sharp turn of foot and was poorly ridden by Rodney Prescott in the WEBN Stakes. Once again he draws wide, however, and perhaps he's best around 1 turn. I wouldn't be shocked to see his number light the board at a big price Saturday, but he might also have distance limitations.

If POSITIVE RESPONSE runs as well as he did on the Tapeta at Golden Gate, and since he won on the Polytrack at Woodbine at age 2 you'd assume he will, he will be a total handful in the Battaglia. The Cal Derby and El Camino Real Derby races were stronger this year than their past reputations.

Battaglia Memorial selections: W) POSITIVE RESPONSE; P) BLUE LASER; S) TWINSPIRED.

Last week's selections: 5: 2-2-0. Top-choice wins by SOLDAT (Fountain of Youth) and JJ'S LUCKY TRAIN (Miracle Wood) were joined by a second-place finishes from top picks TRAVELIN MAN (Hutcheson) and INDIAN WINTER (Turf Paradise). Maiden 35-1 shot WHAT THE TOCCET (Borderland Derby) ran an even fifth.

Season selections: 23: 6-4-4. (23 races, top pick won 6 times, ran second 4 times and third 4 times).

Everyone's a critic

This section reviews the week that was in the 3-year-old ranks. By any barometer, the big race last week was the G2 Fountain of Youth, and Saturday's big dance at Gulfstream Park proved to be miles better than anything else we saw over the past 7 days.

Let's take on the 1-1/8 miles Fountain of Youth in some detail, a race won by front-running SOLDAT (Kiaran McLaughlin). While it's true SOLDAT "got away" with a moderate pace, to say this race was a carousel ride would be disingenuous. First, without consulting the clock, the pace was indeed contested. Not only did you have a hopeless 80-1 longshot (EL GRAYLING) breathing down the neck of the eventual winner, you had a horse highly regarded by most everyone in TO HONOR AND SERVE (Bill Mott) pressing within 1-1/2 lengths of the lead most of the way. Where I come from, when 2 top-quality favorites and a cheap speed horse contest the issue all within 1-1/2 lengths, that's never been considered a free pass.

Then comes the clock. Here's how the Fountain of Youth played on the teletimer in fractional splits -- :24.34, :23.65, :24.44, :24.76, :13.04 for a final time of 1:50.23. Notice the second quarter was quicker by far than the first, often a situation that will lead to a pace meltdown. Again, this is another sign that there were no "get out of jail free cards" issued in the Fountain of Youth. The pace was legitimate, now how about the performers?

This was not a very deep field from my eye, and the only 3 legitimate contenders wound up 1-2-3. To me, anyone going beyond SOLDAT, TO HONOR AND SERVE and GOURMET DINNER was really reaching and hoping. SOLDAT validated his sloppy track win from Jan. 21, his second straight wire-to-wire score. But twice he tracked from midpack to run bang-up races on the turf last year against graded stakes company, so his ability or willingness to "settle" already is founded. No doubt he would be better-served to sit off the pace as he's not a blinding speed horse, but I've got little doubt that he can do that if need-be, given that he's already done it twice. A horse who pounds out the :24s like SOLDAT is very effective sitting just behind that first flight of distance-challenged speed horses come May. I'm not here to say he's the next coming of Affirmed, but SOLDAT is pretty rock-solid, folks. And pretty rock-solid horses are good enough to win Triple Crown races most years.

As for TO HONOR AND SERVE, no doubt we expected more than he gave, even if this was an easy "outing" to something bigger, which, of course, it was to anyone with a noodle. The G2 Nashua and G2 Remsen winner was pancake flat and tired over the final 3 furlongs. It wasn't an ideal starting off race to be sure, but it's the first race of the year. We know he can stay 1-1/8 miles with strong fractions as you don't run 1:11 for 6 furlongs and cruise home in the Remsen without some talent. Remember, that race has been flattered this year by the G2 Risen Star winner MUCHO MACHO MAN (Kathy Ritvo). I would anticipate a much better TO HONOR AND SERVE when he returns in the G1 Florida Derby, where he will get a rematch with SOLDAT. He may not beat SOLDAT again, but I doubt you'll see 6-3/4 lengths separate them on April 3.

Fountain of Youth runner-up GOURMET DINNER (Steve Standridge) is as honest as they come and continues to outrun his sprint/miler pedigree. His good second in the FoY only bolsters the reputation of G3 Holy Bull conqueror DIALED IN (Nick Zito). It will be curious to see if 'DINNER can avoid going stale as he's been in constant hard training since before last April's Ocala 2-year-old sale with no breaks. He may head back west for the G1 Santa Anita Derby next, a move that would only further add to his heavy lifting. I'd rather see him aim for Keeneland's 1-1/16 miles G3 Lexington, getting a break now and then making a single trip to Kentucky to race 2 weeks before the Derby for a horse who thrives on work and should be best at 1-1/16 miles.

FLASHPOINT (Rick Dutrow) smashed his opposition in the G2 Hutcheson despite coming home in a paltry :24.31 and :13.19 over the final three-eighths of the 7-furlong sprint. To compare, the final furlong of this dash was slower than SOLDAT ran on the back end of the 2-turn, 1-1/8 miles Fountain of Youth. Yet still, FLASHPOINT was drawing off by more than 7 lengths. That tells you 1 thing: those behind him were gassed in a race that looked completely devoid of any late-running horses on paper. Runner-up TRAVELIN MAN (Todd Pletcher) held second throughout, but had his lofty reputation dashed. Dutrow and owner Peachtree Stable indicate they have Derby fever and will go next perhaps in the Florida Derby, or try the Swale route and go to Kentucky off of just sprints. FLASHPOINT has zero chance at that trip from my handicapping eye, but could incinerate other speed horses. Not only was he slow on the back end of the Hutcheson, but he's by sprinter Pomeroy out of a clearly sprint damsire in Two Punch. Focus on the Swale, Bay Shore and Derby Trial and you've got yourself something.

In other listed stakes action around the country last week, the top performance from the Turf Paradise Derby, Borderland Derby and Miracle Wood Stakes came from Maryland, where JJ'S LUCKY TRAIN (Bill Anderson) and BANDBOX (Rodney Jenkins) locked up in a serious duel in the Miracle Wood. After an opening half-mile of :45.90, which is blazing over a dull Laurel strip, JJ'S LUCKY TRAIN capitalized on his recent fitness coming out of the 2-turn Count Fleet and Whirlaway to prevail by a head. BANDBOX was game in defeat. Both deserve a shot at something slightly tougher, but appear to be fringe players at best on the highest level.

The disappointment of the week, without doubt, was the dud delivered by INDIAN WINTER (Jerry Hollendorfer) against overmatched rivals in Saturday's $50,000 Turf Paradise Derby. Promoted from third to second via disqualification, the result was not nearly as so-so as it sounds; it was worse. INDIAN WINTER didn't appear to have his head into running from before the gate load, and was hard to settle once leaving the gate. Still, 'WINTER loomed at the quarter-pole 3-wide and had zilch when it counted. In what should have been an exhibition for the Grade 1-placed son of Indian Charlie, it turned out to be an off-putting effort. 40-1 winner BEER MEISTER (Manuel Ortiz) had only a $20,000 maiden claiming win in 3 previous tries.

Saturday's $100,000 Borderland Derby didn't do anything to scare away the outsiders for the March 27 G3 Sunland Park Derby. The even-paced race threw :24s up on the board throughout as then-maiden FUSA CODE (Steve Asmussen) tracked close-up and outfinished them by less than a length. By 2000 Derby champ Fusaichi Pegasus, FUSA CODE had placed in maiden races at Churchill and Santa Anita, so he may have had a class edge despite his humble 0-4 record. Given this result, you can expect a very large field for the rich Sunland Park Derby unless THE FACTOR (Bob Baffert) shows up.

Saturday's Gulfstream Park undercard included a 1-1/8 miles allowance in Race 3, won by ARCH TRAVELER (Jimmy Jerkens), now a 2-time winner at the meet after chasing HERON LAKE (Nick Zito) in a key maiden race Jan. 15. This race went more than 10 lengths slower than the Fountain of Youth, so enthusiasm must be tempered in 1:52.36. ARCH TRAVELER is out of Mettle, who was an allowance sprinter for Michael Dickinson in the Mid-Atlantic. Given his head-strong run into the first turn, completely awful gallop-out and slow time of this race, it all conspires to make me think 'TRAVELER won't outlast good horses at these kind of distances. COOL BLUE RED HOT (Angel Penna) was absolutely empty in the drive for no reason other than perhaps having spent himself chasing SOLDAT in late January. Trainer Penna had been reported to have removed 'COOL BLUE from Triple Crown trail consideration in previous weeks, and the horse ran like one who wasn't interested in going on. Break time? Runner-up NACHO BUSINESS (Kelly Breen) wasn't doing anything special. This was a bad allowance.

SAN PABLO (Todd Pletcher) staggered home in a slow maiden mile Saturday at Gulfstream, holding off the late run of Pine Island's little brother POINT OF ENTRY (Shug McGaughey). This is a tale of 2 horses, one who won't get 2 turns and 1 who is begging for it. POINT OF ENTRY stretches out to score next time.

Santa Anita had a pair of mile races of compare on Saturday's card, a first-level allowance won by MR. COMMONS (John Shirreffs) and a maiden registered by RED SHARP HUMOR (Jerry Hollendorfer). MR. COMMONS came home much quicker after a slower early pace than did RED SHARP HUMOR, but the final time was about a length difference only, with MR. COMMONS the quicker winner of the duo. By BC Mile winner Artie Schiller, MR. COMMONS is out of the stakes-winning mare Joustabout, heroine of the 1997 Natalma at a mile on turf at Woodbine. The complete non-effort in the Saturday allowance by WEGNER (Bob Baffert) did nothing to flatter the G2 Bob Lewis Memorial form of horses like ANTHONY'S CROSS (Eoin Harty). The maiden race did, however, flatter RUNFLATOUT (John Sadler), as his pursuers from Jan. 29 stretched out with some success, led by Saturday runner-up MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE (Bob Baffert).

Trainer Al Stall, Jr. pulled double-duty Saturday when his entry of LEFT and SOUR ran 1-2 in a strong Fair Grounds route allowance. LEFT made a successful move from turf-to-dirt to advance to 2-for-2 lifetime, while SOUR might have been considered the stronger of the pair going into the race. Both ran well enough for Louisiana Derby consideration and are plenty strong on pedigree. By Arch, LEFT might be an extremely strong candidate for Keeneland's Polytrack, and based on the gene pool he's certainly one to watch in the G1 Blue Grass come April 16.

Sunday's Race 2 route allowance at Oaklawn likely won't have much influence on the local stakes calendar as ex-maiden claimer THE OLE GEN (Larry Jones) scored a 15-1 upset in a race where all the speed totally collapsed. Runner-up SUPREME RULER (Jinks Fires) made another deep close for second after rallying from 18 lengths back to win his debut.

Quick Hitters

DIALED IN's stablemate HERON LAKE got back on the workout tab after a curious absence on Saturday with a 3-furlong breeze in :36.90. Let's hope Nick Zito has him back on the beam … The G2 Rebel at Oaklawn on March 19 already figured to have a big field and some California influence. Santa Anita-based ASTROLOGY (Steve Asmussen) reportedly is headed that way. He drilled 6 furlongs Tuesday in 1:12.60, a pretty significant move for that barn … JAYCITO (Bob Baffert) hustled 5 furlongs Monday at Santa Anita in :58.60. His 1-time trip to Hollywood to drill was a short-term experiment. He'll start next likely in the G2 San Felipe on March 12 … Fleet COMMA TO THE TOP (Peter Miller) may have lost the endurance battle in the G3 El Camino Real Derby, but he hasn't lost anything off his fastball if Monday's 5-furlong work in :58.80 is any indication. He got a super-rare "breezing" designation from the official clockers at Hollywood Park … Don't sleep on MACHEN (Neil Howard), who suffered his first loss in the G2 Risen Star when flattening out late. The normally conservative Howard had his rising star 3-year-old back on the workout tab at Fair Grounds a mere 9 days after the effort, breezing a half-mile Monday in :50.60. That's a great sign of trainer intent … Not only will MACHEN be back for the G2 Louisiana Derby on March 26, but also ROGUE ROMANCE (Ken McPeek) and Risen Star champ MUCHO MACHO MAN (Kathy Ritvo) have booked the return date.

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)
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)
4. ALTERNATION (Oaklawn, 1/15)
5. JAKESAM (Golden Gate, 12/30 * starter allowance *)

Stakes Race 1. SOLDAT (Fountain of Youth, Gulfstream, 2/26) * NEW *
2. DIALED IN (Holy Bull, Gulfstream, 1/30)
3. MUCHO MACHO MAN (Risen Star, Fair Grounds 2/19)
4. BRETHREN (Sam F. Davis, Tampa Bay Downs, 1/12)
5. TAPIZAR (Sham, Santa Anita, 1/15)

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, ninth week of the 2011 season

1. SOLDAT (up from No. 3)

11. STAY THIRSTY

2. UNCLE MO

12. SWAY AWAY (new)

3. TO HONOR AND SERVE

13. SANTIVA

4. DIALED IN

14. MACHEN

5. PREMIER PEGASUS

15. THE FACTOR

6. BRETHREN

16. SILVER MEDALLION

7. JAYCITO

17. JAKESAM

8. ROGUE ROMANCE

18. GOURMET DINNER (returns)

9. MUCHO MACHO MAN

19. ANTHONY'S CROSS

10. ALTERNATION

20. JP'S GUSTO

Reader-submitted top 20, ninth week of the 2011 season: Nolan Nelson from Louisville, KY

1. DIALED IN

11. SWAY AWAY

2. JAYCITO

12. ARCHARCHARCH

3. SOLDAT

13. CRIMSON CHINA

4. UNCLE MO

14. GOURMET DINNNER

5. BRETHREN

15. ASTROLOGY

6. TO HONOR AND SERVE

16. ELITE ALEX

7. MUCHO MACHO MAN

17. ANIMAL KINDGDOM

8. STAY THIRSTY

18. ROGUE ROMANCE

9. AWESOME PATRIOT

19. CAL NATION

10. SANTIVA

20. THE FACTOR

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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