Commentary

Countdown to the Crown

Updated: March 11, 2011, 11:53 AM 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 jockey Victor Espinoza's post-race quotes following the Santa Anita Handicap. You're best off when you cut right to the chase. "I think the stewards are blind," Espinoza said when Game on Dude was not disqualified. "They need to have some education so people know what's going on at the races. Obviously, those three stewards, they don't know what they're looking at." Yee-ouch. Hopefully I can be as adamant this week as Victor!

1. Before you cross recent prep losers DIALED IN (Nick Zito) and TO HONOR AND SERVE (Bill Mott) from your Kentucky Derby wish list, remember that the past 2 rose-bearers were a combined 0-for-4 in their spring preps. Super Saver lost to horses like Line of David and Odysseus, while Mine That Bird failed to cut the mustard against Kelly Leak and Scorewithcater. Those 4 dragon slayers are a woeful 1-for-16 combined since beating the eventual Derby champs. All is not lost in a loss, in other words, nor is all won in a prep victory.

2. It's last call for big-time 2010 juveniles to get back out of the stall  namely Saturday returnees and Grade 1 winners UNCLE MO (Todd Pletcher) and JAYCITO (Bob Baffert), as well as turf ace PLUCK (Graham Motion). It hasn't been a bumper return for the name 2-year-olds of '09 as COMMA TO THE TOP, TO HONOR AND SERVE, SANTIVA, JP'S GUSTO and ROGUE ROMANCE all returned losers. Meanwhile, BOYS AT TOSCANOVA was stopped before he got started.

3. The always-vilified Frank Stronach comes up with a good idea now and again. The new-fangled Preakness 5.5 bonanza certainly will keep potential bonus babies SOLDAT and DIALED IN penciled in for the G1 Florida Derby, a race that might have lost one or both otherwise to the Blue Grass or Wood Memorial  as you know, Lexington's Kiaran McLaughlin is big at Keeneland and Brooklyn's Nick Zito is a big-time player on the NYRA circuit. For a cool $5 million, neither will be ducking the other and heading home.

This week's fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes. It's mid-March, so the undercard offerings are light on importance as the calendar winds toward the first Saturday in May. We'll continue to track the undercard races in review each week, but leave the preview section to the marquee races.

What more could we ask for than the reigning 2-year-old champion UNCLE MO and major graded stakes in Florida and California? Mother Nature's monsoon last weekend in New Orleans also puts the re-slated Grindstone Stakes back on the menu this Saturday (see last week's archive for analysis), and we get Pool 2 in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager this weekend. Saddle up!

At this stage in the KDFW, I still think you want to be looking at price horses at least 20 to 25-1 or more. We're still at least 1 or 2 starts away for all involved, and remember that consistently 17 of the runners in a 20-horse field will be 10-1 or more on raceday. Horses coming off losses recently like ELITE ALEX (Tim Ritchey) and MACHEN (Neil Howard) at 50-1 in the morning line for the KDFW Pool 2 are the ones who interest me. With one big rebound performance, they jump right back into play. And regarding 'ALEX, wouldn't you like to have Calvin Borel at 50-1 on Derby Day as he aims for a fourth Derby win in 5 years?

G2 San Felipe (Saturday/Santa Anita)

No ifs, ands, or buts, the most intriguing 3-year-old race this weekend from a competitive and wagering standpoint is the G2 $250,000 San Felipe Stakes. It lacks those odds-on favorites we'll see in Florida, while providing a key return spot for well-known horses and a launching pad for gaudy recent maiden winners as well. There's a little something for everyone in this 1-1/16 miles prep, part of the Preakness 5.5 bonus series. Win here, the Santa Anita Derby and the Preakness, and cash a $5.5 million check.

The come-backer of note is JAYCITO, who bolted on the backstretch of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile the last time we saw him on raceday and since has moved addresses from the shedrow of Mike Mitchell to Bob Baffert. JAYCITO has gone through more equipment changes than a Super Bowl halftime show in hopes of (literally) keeping his head on straight. The blinkers are off, the bit has been changed and the son of Victory Gallop gets an absolutely delicious pace scenario for his late-running style. That is, if he employs his late-running juvenile style? Or perhaps he's now speed-induced by Baffert and returns with more early zip? I told you this race is intriguing.

Let's talk pace. ALBERGATTI (Steve Asmussen) and RUNFLATOUT (John Sadler) both exit some of the fastest maiden races we've seen all year, stretch out around 2 turns for the first time, and have drawn next to each other on the rail. That alone should make things plenty fast. AWESOME PATRIOT (Baffert) breaks just outside them in post 4 and his only 2 wins have been wire jobs, while COMMA TO THE TOP (Peter Miller) leaves from the 5 hole and long has been regarded the top front-runner of the west coast class. If that's not enough heat, JAKESAM (Jerry Hollendorfer) is one of the toughest son-of-a-guns I've seen on the front end in some time, and now gets speed-fiend jock Pat Valenzuela up for the first time.

Whoever survives this front-end war will have earned it.

Two horses we haven't mentioned are a combined 7-for-8 lifetime and both making their 2-turn debuts while owning 4 stakes wins between them. PREMIER PEGASUS (Myung Kwon Cho) wisely removes the blinkers for the stretch-out, while BENCH POINTS looks to improve to 5-for-5 when he leaves the Cal-bred ranks for the second time. Remember how good Caracortado was last year before dismissing a Cal-bred out of snobbery.

PREMIER PEGASUS was the best 2-year-old I saw in California last year and it was my impression that he would only get better with distance. He comes back on 3 weeks' rest with a bullet workout last Saturday that indicates underrated trainer Cho has him doing exceptionally well after a better-than-you-think middle-move behind THE FACTOR (Bob Baffert) in the G2 San Vicente. Late-running riding ace Alonso Quinonez is a perfect, patient match. If he settles behind the rapid pace, he gets first run on JAYCITO perhaps and scores what should be a significant mutuel return.

San Felipe Stakes selections: W) PREMIER PEGASUS; P) JAYCITO; S) JAKESAM.

G2 Tampa Bay Derby (Saturday/Tampa Bay Downs)

Forgive Todd Pletcher if he can't bear to watch at Tampa Bay Downs. No, not because UNCLE MO will be racing at Gulfstream, but rather because of his barn's recent history in the Tampa Bay Derby. Not only was he upended last year with heavy favorite Super Saver, but the TAP team also suffered tough beats in recent years despite daylight stretch leads by Join In The Dance ('09) and Atoned ('08), not to mention an excruciating duel loss by Any Given Saturday ('07) to champion Street Sense. More pain was suffered when 2-5 shot Bluegrass Cat failed to deliver in the '06 renewal. At least Limehouse gave the stable something to smile about when he punched it home in the '04 Tampa Bay Derby.

BRETHREN (Todd Pletcher) is even-money in the morning line for this $350,000 Grade 2 event at 1-1/16 miles and looks every bit that on paper for two reasons. First, he overcame the 10-hole to win the G3 Davis over this same course with ease. Second, there are absolutely no "new shooters" to the mix to raise an eyebrow. Unless the younger brother to Super Saver takes a major step backwards in form, BRETHREN should avenge big brother's loss in this race last year and become the Pletcher barn's first Tampa Bay Derby winner '04.

If not BRETHREN, then who? TOO EXPERIENCE (Mark Passley) was a good second in the Sam F. Davis and is working like he came out of the first start of the year in fantastic fashion. He actually carried 4 more pounds than BRETHREN last time out and today totes equal weights. A consistent knocker, I like his chances Saturday. Also from the Davis cast, BEAMER (Carl Nafzger) must deliver back to his maiden win Dec. 30 to factor. He's either a nibbling plodder or capable of a breakout. BEAMER made a decent middle-move in the Davis, and his third to SOLDAT (Kiaran McLaughlin) looks better every week at least.

None of the newcomers really intrigue me as upset candidates. STRIDING AHEAD (Bill Mott) appears to have come out of his local maiden romp blossoming in the morning. He's the best of the new faces. FREE ENTRY (Chad Brown) has won 2 straight races around 1 turn at Gulfstream, but has not struck me as a horse begging to go farther. He probably will be a solid second choice in the wagering and I'll be tossing him. ECONOMIC SUMMIT (Rick Violette) has a spotty workout tab with stops and starts to it, often an indication of a horse who will need a race.

Tampa Bay Derby selections: W) BRETHREN; P) TOO EXPERIENCE; S) BEAMER.

Timely Writer Stakes (Saturday/Gulfstream Park)

When the Gulfstream Park racing office added this race to its agenda specifically to lure UNCLE MO (Todd Pletcher) away from the G2 Tampa Bay Derby, it seemed like a decent marketing ploy to bring some people out to the track. Not only did it work in luring the champion 2-year-old of 2010, they managed to find 5 rivals willing to play along, including some horses with better-than-average upside. I'm surprised to see horses like GALLANT DREAMS (Tom Albertrani), MADMAN DIARIES (Wesley Ward) and ROCKING OUT (Rick Dutrow) answering the bell. Let's hope they all stay until post time.

From the rail with excellent speed to his outside, UNCLE MO could be geeked up early and sucked along quicker than you'd like to see in this 1-turn mile. MADMAN DIARIES is top-class speed among this 3-year-old class, and ROCKING OUT hustled up to the lead in his return bid after a troubled beginning. Either could apply some pressure to 'MO. ROCKING OUT really caught my eye last year at Aqueduct and I think he's a much better horse than he showed Feb. 13. But barring anything totally stupid on the front end, UNCLE MO should dispatch this pair at John Velazquez's asking and then march toward the G1 Wood Memorial on April 9 at Aqueduct.

If you must swing for an upset, the only way I envision it happening would be for that craziness outlined above to ensue and then the race's best closer, GALLANT DREAMS, could come along and spring the surprise. By Bernardini out of superstar mare Dreams Gallore, I'm in love with the pedigree and potential for this guy. He could be a very good one.

I hate to chalk-out and take both heavy Pletcher favorites this weekend, but I don't see the Florida races as upset traps.

Timely Writer Stakes selections: W) UNCLE MO; P) ROCKING OUT; S) GALLANT DREAMS.

G3 Palm Beach Stakes (Saturday/Gulfstream Park)

Last year's G3 Palm Beach Stakes champ Paddy O'Prado wound up third in the Kentucky Derby when he springboarded from the turf to Keeneland's Polytrack to the fair, old dirt at Churchill Downs. That's reason enough, including $150,000 in hard-earned graded stakes dough, to take a look at this 1-1/8 miles turf event. Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf winner PLUCK (Graham Motion) is cross-entered here and at Tampa Bay Downs in a 1-mile turf allowance, his connections' first choice. We're going on the assumption PLUCK heads to the Gulf Coast for purpose of this analysis.

QUEEN'SPLATEKITTEN (Todd Pletcher) will try to emulate dear old dad, Kitten's Joy, who won this race in 2004 en route to a championship grass season. The younger 'KITTEN was highly impressive here going a mile Feb. 5 and likely will be solidly favored despite making his stakes debut. The Pletcher barn wields an iron first this weekend with QUEEN'SPLATEKITTEN, BRETHREN and UNCLE MO all favored to deliver stakes wins. What's more, Pletcher also counters in the G3 Palm Beach with a second bullet in ARI C, who should provide the early pace to stablemate QUEEN'SPLATEKITTEN making his late move.

The Hallandale Beach Stakes on Feb. 6 left me unimpressed and I'm not wild about EAST OF DANZIG, LIBERTY CAP or winner-by-disqualification MASTER DUNKER coming out of that race. LIBERTY CAP (Kiaran McLaughlin) has the most upside if he doesn't come unglued in the pre-race like he did last month. Last-out maiden winner NEWSDAD (Bill Mott) won despite no pace help on Jan. 28 over this distance and seems like the lightbulb has gone on with a series of very strong workouts since then.

Palm Beach selections: W) QUEEN'SPLATEKITTEN; P) NEWSDAD; S) LIBERTY CAP.

Last week's selections: 3: 2-0-0. Top-choice wins by STAY THIRSTY (Gotham) and POSITIVE RESPONSE (Battaglia Memorial) make us 4-for-7 on top over the past 2 weeks. Second-pick SMOKE IT RIGHT won the Mountain Valley while top pick TRUBS finished off the board in our only misfire of the week.

Season selections: 26: 8-4-4. (26 races, top pick won 8 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. STAY THIRSTY (Todd Pletcher) had the biggest drink in winning the G3 Gotham, while DIALED IN (Nick Zito) left fans' wallets a bit parched after losing a Sunday Gulfstream allowance at 1-5 odds. Those were the 2 headliners on a weekend that also included a big performance in Kentucky and an unbeaten sprinter in Arkansas. Let's get to it.

STAY THIRSTY had his head moving when they sprung the latch of the 2-turn G3 Gotham Stakes, broke a beat slow and got off to an auspicious start to his 3-year-old debut. A slow pace and his eagerness to get back into the fray wound up costing him position as Ramon Dominguez titled him out into the 4-path into the clubhouse turn. The pace didn't quicken decidedly down the backstretch (:24.39, :24.29), which left 'THIRSTY still 3-wide as they straightened out for the stretch drive. Sprinter THE FED EASED (Rick Violette) gave way inside the eighth pole, while longshot Maryland-based raider NORMAN ASBJORNSON (Chris Grove) continued on gamely making his third straight route start of the winter.

STAY THIRSTY wore down the leading pair inside the sixteenth pole while lugging in a bit before righting the ship in the final strides and really reaching out nicely. He probably looked better in the last 10 strides of the Gotham than at any other point in the race. The race finished up in :24.90 and 6:41 splits, which were okay, but not spectacular given the moderate to slow pace. STAY THIRSTY galloped out with good energy and appears to have gotten a very good first prep of the year. Given his antics in the gate and late in the race, and past similar antics, STAY THIRSTY is a prime candidate to add blinkers. Many jurisdictions won't allow you to add blinkers off of a victory, so you may not see them for STAY THIRSTY in the immediate future, but they could be a big help. Next up likely will be the G1 Florida Derby on April 3 as Pletcher maps out a way to separate his many charges.

As for the Gotham also-rans, runner-up NORMAN ASBJORNSON is not Triple Crown nominated, but could be a late nominee with an eye on the Preakness for his Maryland connections. Third-place TOBY'S CORNER (Graham Motion), also Maryland-based, ran on decently for third behind the slow pace. He's a solid runner, but I'm not sure he factors in the Wood Memorial if/when some of the Florida heavyweights arrive on the scene. Fourth-place NACHO SAINT (Kelly Breen) might have been best of those behind STAY THIRSTY and deserves a start in the Wood Memorial with cleaner sailing. PREACHINTOTHEDEVIL (Gary Contessa), my upset hope in the Gotham, scratched because of a foot bruise.

Now let's talk DIALED IN, one of those aforementioned heavyweights from Florida. His loss Sunday against older stablemate Equestrio isn't probable cause to shred your future book tickets just yet. I'm not an excuse monger, but realistically we warned in recent Countdown editions about that suspiciously missed workout between Feb. 11 and Feb. 25. That alone makes you wonder how cranked DIALED IN was for this race. Behind a slow pace, he got a 1-1/8 miles education at least before the Grade 1 Florida Derby in 4 weeks' time. You would expect DIALED IN to have won this race, just as we saw ALTERNATION (Donnie K. Von Hemel) handle older allowance horses at Oaklawn on Feb. 21. But you can also see some good in this true prep race. The final furlong was clocked in :12.79, but DIALED IN made up at least 2 lengths during that time while Equestrio drifted out late. So with a final furlong in the lower :12s and a very strong gallop-out, DIALED IN got something out of this race. I see no reason to move him down your rankings or mine.

However …

I will say that I was disappointed with DIALED IN at the top of the stretch. It took him far too long to get motoring once straightened out, far longer than it did in his 1-turn races. He didn't appear to be a push-button horse around 2 turns like he did previously. Given his running style, he's going to need that instant burst to come and get a very good front-runner like SOLDAT at 1-1/8 miles. The kind of grind shown in Sunday's allowance won't reel in SOLDAT, who you recall was last beaten only by a fabulous turn of foot from PLUCK in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf.

Also in stakes action last week, POSITIVE RESPONSE (Bill Morey) boosted the reputations of his G3 El Camino Real Derby conquerors SILVER MEDALLION (Steve Asmussen) and JAKESAM (Jerry Hollendorfer) with an easy victory in the listed Battaglia Memorial Stakes at Turfway Park. The race didn't come home with any flair on the clock (:25.59 fourth quarter and then a 6:70 final sixteenth), but POSITIVE RESPONSE drew away to a 7-length score with emphasis. Times often are misleading-to-useless at Turfway, so trust your eyes, not the digits. POSITIVE RESPONSE could run in the G3 Spiral at Turfway or G1 Blue Grass at Keeneland next, depending on who's going where. You could hit both if you're not really thinking of the Kentucky Derby since the races are 3 weeks apart March 26 and April 16.

SMOKE IT RIGHT (Benard Chatters) advanced to 4-for-4 lifetime with yet another front-running sprint score in Saturday's listed Mountain Valley at Oaklawn. It's a long way from 6 furlongs to the 1-1/8 miles G1 Arkansas Derby, but the connections are dreaming big. If he shows up in the major route stakes, you instantly have a game-changer in terms of pace.

SENSATIONAL SLAM (Todd Pletcher) gave his stable a sweep of the Saturday stakes at Aqueduct with a victory in the 6-furlong Capossela. Owned by chef Bobby Flay, he's now won 3 of 4 career starts, losing only when pummeled by SOLDAT et al in last September's 1-1/16 miles G3 With Anticipation. 'SLAM looks like a good candidate for the G3 Bay Shore on the April 9 Wood Memorial undercard.

On the undercards last week, BREAK UP THE GAME (Shug McGaughey) scored a 7-furlong maiden win Saturday at Gulfstream Park and further flattered one of Countdown's key races of the new year, the Jan. 15 maiden win by HERON LAKE (Nick Zito). Speedy JACK LONDON (Barclay Tagg) backed up to salvage fourth money after dueling Saturday and that didn't flatter the dominant debut win by CAL NATION (Todd Pletcher) to any degree.

One of the biggest head-turners of the week came in Saturday's Race 2 maiden sprint at Santa Anita, where WILBURN (Steve Asmussen) debuted a razor-sharp winner over a promising cast. The well-bred son of Bernardini-Moonlight Sonata was flattered to some degree by the insane, run-off early pace from CHICO D'ORO (John Sadler), who blitzed the first half-mile in :43.73. 'CHICO's inability to control his speed was his Achilles heel on Saturday as he wound up third.

Quick Hitters

The G2 Louisiana Derby lost a big hitter with the news that ROGUE ROMANCE (Ken McPeek) is out with a foot bruise. The multi-surface threat makes a lot of sense for the G1 Blue Grass if he heals in time for the April 16 test on Keeneland's Polytrack … Next Saturday's G3 Rebel gets better by the day as the connections of THE FACTOR (Bob Baffert) and SWAY AWAY (Jeff Bonde) confirmed their intentions to head to Oaklawn from their California bases … Speaking of the Rebel, Sunday was a huge work day for that race's hopefuls. ARCHARCHARCH (Jinks Fires) drilled 6 furlongs in 1:13.40 in his first move since winning the G3 Southwest on Feb. 21, while ELITE ALEX (Tim Ritchey) went the same distance in 1:12.40 working in a 3-horse team drill. Said jockey Calvin Borel after the 'ELITE move, "That was very awesome. He reminds me of ('07 Kentucky Derby champion) Street Sense. That's why I love him so much." Meanwhile, my Rebel rouser ALTERNATION (Donne K. Von Hemel) breezed 5 furlongs in :59.80 in company, but disappointingly shut it down after the wire to gallop out 6 furlongs in just 1:15. Let's see about his next drill … TO HONOR AND SERVE (Bill Mott) was right back on the workout tab this Monday, breezing an easy half-mile in :51 at Payson Park training center. That's a good sign just 9 days after his comeback bid in the G2 Fountain of Youth came up flat late … Dominant debut winner CAL NATION (Todd Pletcher) breezed 5 furlongs in 1:01.20 at Palm Meadows training center as the brother to 2006 Derby runner-up Bluegrass Cat aims at a stakes unveiling.

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)
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, 10th week of the 2011 season

1. SOLDAT

11. SWAY AWAY

2. UNCLE MO

12. SANTIVA

3. TO HONOR AND SERVE

13. MACHEN

4. DIALED IN

14. THE FACTOR

5. PREMIER PEGASUS

15. SILVER MEDALLION

6. BRETHREN

16. ROGUE ROMANCE (drops from #8)

7. JAYCITO

17. JAKESAM

8. MUCHO MACHO MAN

18. GOURMET DINNER

9. STAY THIRSTY

19. J P'S GUSTO

10. ALTERNATION

20. ELITE ALEX (returns)

Reader-submitted top 20, 10th week of the 2011 season: Don from Harrisburg, PA

1. SOLDAT

11. ASTROLOGY

2. STAY THIRSTY

12. ANTHONY'S CROSS

3. UNCLE MO

13. MUCHO MACHO MAN

4. BRETHREN

14. ROGUE ROMANCE

5. TO HONOR AND SERVE

15. J P'S GUSTO

6. ARCHARCHARCH

16. GOURMET DINNER

7. SANTIVA

17. SILVER MEDALLION

8. THE FACTOR

18. PREMIER PEGASUS

9. DIALED IN

19. SWAY AWAY

10. JAYCITO

20. ELITE ALEX

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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