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.
Opinions are like Butler shooting 18 percent from the floor in Monday night's NCAA basketball title game. One horrendous performance can make some forget all the times you were dead-eyed and spot-on.
1. The longer the spring goes, the more I think it might all be coming down to the Arkansas Derby once again. Thursday's trail-ending injury to Countdown's would-be new No. 1 this week, PREMIER PEGASUS (Myung Kwon Cho), only underscores that feeling. The Triple Crown's tell-tale circuit since 2004, the Oaklawn crew will get the last chance to make a big impression late in the day on April 16. No other race will be as talent-deep, nor have the type of dress rehearsal available with the crowd, pace, field size and more. That said, the new No. 1 this week is THE FACTOR, once again Oaklawn bound.
2. I absolutely love the energy and passion that Mike Repole brings to the racing game. But the owner of UNCLE MO and STAY THIRSTY might have better-served himself by running his two sophomores against one another in this weekend's Wood Memorial. After a lackluster workout, STAY THIRSTY showed that another week may have helped him vs. going straight into last Sunday's Florida Derby. And now UNCLE MO has absolutely no one to harden him for a test in the Wood Memorial. There's no insult in having sparring partners if the end result helps you win the Kentucky Derby, said the accounting firm of Real Quiet and Indian Charlie, circa 1998.
3. Dale Romans trains like a handicapper, because he is one. For all the talk about how speed-biased the track was Sunday at Gulfstream and how it likely helped Florida Derby runner-up SHACKLEFORD, the pacesetters in the day's 8 dirt races finished fifth, third, fourth, ninth, second, sixth, third and second on the day. Highways carry bad horses to extraordinary things. That was no highway. But it was one helluva poker hand played by Romans who banked on everyone else being too afraid to be too fast.
Be sure to join us for a live handicapping chat Friday night at 8:30 p.m. eastern when we take your questions on the Wood Memorial, Illinois Derby and Santa Anita Derby. Join us at the all-new Countdowntothecrown.com.
This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes. With UNCLE MO headlining the G1 Wood Memorial, we've got a serious heavyweight title contender in action this weekend. Add in the G1 Santa Anita Derby, the G2 Illinois Derby, as well as the sprinters battling in the G3 Bay Shore at Aqueduct, and this is about as good as it gets for us Countdown junkies.
No one in the 7-furlong Bay Shore appears headed to any Triple Crown events, but the race could give us some barometers on other hopefuls. JUSTIN PHILLIP (Steve Asmussen) might give us a better read on the Fair Grounds cast, while JJ'S LUCKY TRAIN (William Anderson) may tip how good Wood hopeful TOBY'S CORNER (Graham Motion) may be.
G1 Wood Memorial (Saturday/Aqueduct Racetrack)
How do you get 10 horses in a race when UNCLE MO (Todd Pletcher) towers over its very existence? How about these race conditions for Saturday's Wood Memorial? No nomination fee, $7,500 to pass the entry box. All starters get a $7,000 rebate. Any horse who ran in the Gotham earns $5,000 regardless of finish. And, oh by the way, the purse distribution guarantees that every horse who starts gets no less than $10,000. If I could Photoshop some foal papers for myself and claim to have been born in 2008 with a tail and mane, I'd be in the field, too.
So that explains why the Wood is not a 3-horse field. It's still a 1-horse race by any account. Given his early speed, UNCLE MO probably won't notice there are even 9 challengers in the race after they leave the paddock. If he were a closer, it would be a decent education to circle and weave through some traffic, but that's not the case unless something catastrophic happens at the break. Anyone remember I Want Revenge in the Wood a few years back?
I want to see UNCLE MO pushed in this race by jockey John Velazquez. He needs to get something strong out of it, even with a lack of competition. I want to see a time 1:49 flat or less with a strong gallop-out past the wire. The winning margin is irrelevant, but he should clear this group by no less than 5 lengths if given the kind of cardio workout I think he may need to be ready for the first Saturday in May.
As for the others in the gate, NORMAN ASBJORNSON (Chris Grove) has been training sharply at the deep Bowie Training Center in Maryland as he prepares for a potential Preakness date. You might have a better feel for DUCA (D. Wayne Lukas) after you see ZOEBEAR run in the Illinois Derby a few minutes before the Wood. TOBY'S CORNER (Graham Motion) adds blinkers Saturday and his daddy Bellamy Road ran one of the most memorable Wood Memorials ever on the Aqueduct outer track.
G1 Wood Memorial selections: W) UNCLE MO; P) TOBY'S CORNER; S) NORMAN ASBJORNSON.
G2 Illinois Derby (Saturday/Hawthorne Racecourse)
"Pace makes the race" is one of the time-honored axioms in all of handicapping. But the G2 Illinois Derby historically has been about just one pace style: front-running speed. The rub comes Saturday in that there's quite a bit of front-running speed, most of it drawn to the inside. The pace should set up for the late move of morning line favorite and G2 Tampa Bay Derby champ WATCH ME GO (Kathleen O'Connell). But "should" and "will" have been two different discussions when considering Illinois Derbies past.
This 1-1/8 miles race worth $300,000 likely will send only one horse to the Kentucky Derby given its $180,000 winner's share and lack of entrants with accumulated previous earnings. If WATCH ME GO were to run a good second or third, you could see a pair of Derby hopefuls emerge perhaps. WATCH ME GO picks up 6 pounds off a feathery 116 carried in the Tampa Bay Derby and adds distance to a pedigree that doesn't beg for more ground. Still, he's clearly the class and in rock-solid form.
You can probably see I'm fishing for a reason to play someone else. A quartet of intriguing options exist with SOUR (Al Stall, Jr.) and THE FED EASED (Rick Violette), who have faced better competition than many here while racing in New Orleans and New York. But those name players likely won't hold much value. I'm thinking a little more outside the box with horses like ZOEBEAR (Scott Becker) and even LAGOON OF DIAMONDS (Kelly Ackerman).
ZOEBEAR ran into a pair of stakes winners as a 2-year-old at Churchill and got a late start to his season this year when bad weather nixed a few races at Oaklawn that should have started his campaign. He's still a maiden after 5 starts, beaten twice by D. Wayne Lukas trainees in recent outings. SARATOGA RED, who beat ZOEBEAR on Feb. 24, came back to run a very strong race in the G2 Rebel Stakes, indicating that this maiden event was more than it appeared on paper. I like ZOEBEAR's even-paced style where he bangs out :24s around the track; he won't be a mile back early.
LAGOON OF DIAMONDS, admittedly, is a bit of a goofball reach horse for me, but I'm going to use him as a big price on the bottom of the exotic wagers. Visually he was one of the best-looking horses I saw at Del Mar and he looked like a router waiting to grow into his body at 2. I haven't seen him since, but he's been tearing up dash races at Mountaineer Park, which should not be his mojo. Who knows what the diamond miner Charles Fipke has here? I'll toss a few exacta, tri and super dollars to find out.
G2 Illinois Derby selections: W) ZOEBEAR; P) WATCH ME GO; S) SOUR.
G1 Santa Anita Derby (Saturday/Santa Anita Park)
Devastating news came to this racing fan Thursday upon reading that PREMIER PEGASUS would miss both this Derby and the big one due to a leg fracture. (Note to self: Never check your e-mail at a kid's birthday party; nothing good can come of it.) Deflation would be the proper word as I work on this re-write of my SA Derby preview, which I thought I had put to bed Thursday mid-afternoon.
Given existing earnings and the purse breakdown, this race potentially still could send anywhere from 2 to 4 players on to the Kentucky Derby. The defection of PREMIER PEGASUS keeps this race from a very valid argument of being the Spring's best prep to date after a less-than-satisfying Florida Derby last week that failed to live up to my hopes. Still, you've got the winners of the G3 El Camino Real Derby (SILVER MEDALLION), G1 Hollywood Futurity (COMMA TO THE TOP), G2 Lewis Memorial (ANTHONY'S CROSS) and G1 Norfolk (JAYCITO). But let's be honest: the 3 best sophomores in California are no longer punching locally with the injuries to PREMIER PEGASUS and TAPIZAR, along with THE FACTOR hitting the road to Oaklawn next week.
COMMA TO THE TOP (Peter Miller) was taken out of Kentucky Derby consideration in recent weeks by his connections, which appears a smart move to these eyes. I'm not sure he's a 10-furlong horse, but he might get 9 this week. What that admission means is that Miller & Company may really put all of their eggs in the Santa Anita Derby basket with COMMA TO THE TOP. You could see him asked for every ounce on the front end and leave nothing on the track. While that won't spell a :44-2/5 opening half-mile likely such as the San Felipe, it sure might find him in that ballpark. Pat Valenzuela takes over on INDIAN WINTER (Jerry Hollendorfer) and also may provide some heat. Bob Baffert has fast MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE also in the race, likely to help set it up for JAYCITO to make a late close.
ANTHONY'S CROSS (Eoin Harty) has had a very strong workout tab at Hollywood Park since winning the 9-furlong Lewis back on Feb. 12. By design, he's waited on this spot and looks to be coming into the race the right way. He won't get embarrassed, but also might not run his best until the next time out in the Kentucky Derby if he's fortunate enough to advance. Another horse aimed at this spot since Feb. 12 is SILVER MEDALLION, who has plenty of pedigree for dirt, but you wonder if he'll get the distance on pedigree with stiff fractions. He's run very well with slower paces and finished the deal sharply. I like him quite a bit, but "prefer others" would have to be the old-school comment Saturday.
With PREMIER PEGASUS out, I'm going to give COMMA TO THE TOP a shot to rocket one last time on the front end. It's not a terribly confident pick, but I think JAYCITO is using this as a building block more than a final destination.
G1 Santa Anita Derby selections: W) COMMA TO THE TOP; P) JAYCITO; S) ANTHONY'S CROSS
Last week's selections: 2: 1-0-0. Top choice TRAVELIN MAN won the Swale as we swept a cold trifecta. Meanwhile, third choice DIALED IN won the Florida Derby as top pick SOLDAT finished off the board.
Season selections: 37: 13-5-5. (37 races, top pick won 13 times, ran second 5 times and third 5 times).
This section reviews the week that was in the 3-year-old ranks. TRAVELIN MAN (Todd Pletcher) was a handy winner of a very soft renewal of the G2 Swale Stakes going 7 furlongs at Gulfstream this past Sunday, and is slated to reappear in the G3 Derby Trial on April 30 at Churchill Downs. But for the horses with aspirations for the first Saturday in May at Churchill, there was only one real race of consequence last week, Sunday's G1 Florida Derby.
What on paper looked to be easily the strongest prep of 2011 turned out to be, well, a disappointment. With an expected contested pace, several horses and jockeys had other ideas for various reasons of excuse and strategy, and frankly none of the closers fired at all except winner DIALED IN (Nick Zito). The winner was good; don't get me wrong. But too many horses we thought were lights-out forgot to flip the switch to make the overall quality of the race as good as expected. Maybe that's not the fault of anyone but handicappers like myself, who perhaps overrated the contenders. Going in, I had horses ranked No. 1,5,6 and 8 nationally among the Florida Derby entrants. After watching the race, it's difficult to support that stance without being stubborn, which can be hard work for handicappers. But how far should the fall from grace be? That's the tough question.
So instead of trying to make sense of the Florida Derby's totality, let's take a horse-by-horse look at the race's fall-out among its major players, listed by order of finish.
DIALED IN: Visions of Nick Zito's 1991 Kentucky Derby winner Strike The Gold not only played out on the track, but in the conditioner's post-race comments. The last-to-first running style that made 'Strikey' the first Triple Crown race winner for Zito was back on display with DIALED IN. Visually he looked better than the clock, which showed DIALED IN to run his fourth quarter in about :25 flat and the final furlong in about :13 flat. Neither is amazing for a closer making up that kind of ground, which often indicates a race was as much coming back to the closer as the closer was doing significant damage. But if we're going to talk Strike The Gold-esque, let's be fair. Strike The Gold's second in the 1991 Florida Derby saw him run his fourth quarter in about :25 flat and the final furlong in :12-4/5. Sound familiar? And do note that Hansel was third in that '91 race to Fly So Free, so you had the entire Triple Crown sweep in that Florida Derby field. Strike The Gold would come back to romp by Fly So Free in the G1 Blue Grass a few weeks later in 1:48-2/5 with a sizzling final 3 furlongs in :35 and change. You almost wish DIALED IN had 1 more prep before Derby Day, but that's the difference between 1991 and 2011. If Zito can move DIALED IN forward in his next start like Strike The Gold did for the Blue Grass, this horse will be draped in roses. That's the job at this point, and it's not over-reaching to think it could happen. History with this very barn has proven that, circa 1991. DIALED IN should be on anyone's short list of serious Kentucky Derby threats.
SHACKLEFORD: Forget his 68-1 odds for a moment (that is, unless you bet him and suffered a brutal loss at that price, then, by all means, you can vent). SHACKLEFORD was an improbable Florida Derby runner-up for so many more reasons than the fact he was fifth by 23 lengths in the Fountain of Youth. He only had 2 workouts since that debacle, the first of which took 21 days after the FoY to accomplish. By comparison, TO HONOR AND SERVE worked 4 times during that same span. There was no indication that improvement was imminent, and when you saw jockey Jesus Castanon using his whip as a squeegee to wipe the lather off the sweaty neck and shoulders of 'SHACK heading into the starting gate, your confidence had to flat-line. To boot, he picked up 6 pounds off of his Fountain of Youth disaster and carried 4 more than in any of his victories. There was NOTHING to like about SHACKLEFORD. Until the gates opened, that is. With less pace pressure than expected, he aggressively took command and set legitimate splits of :23.30, :23.05, :24.28 and :25.75 before the final furlong in :13.69. He's got that speed up top on the pedigree by sire Forestry and the stamina on the dam side out of an Unbridled mare. That's the pedigree blend that excels in today's racing: speed up top, stamina on the bottom. And note that trainer Romans placed horses in the Derby (Paddy O'Prado), Preakness (First Dude) and Belmont (First Dude again) last year, so he's knocking at the door.
TO HONOR AND SERVE: How's this for consistent? Third, beaten 6-3/4 lengths in the Florida Derby, an identical finish position and losing margin as his 2011 return in the Fountain of Youth. Did he move forward or stay the course? TO HONOR AND SERVE certainly turned the tide on SOLDAT from the FoY at least. I thought he was in a bad spot along the rail going down the backstretch with jockey Garrett Gomez never really knowing if he should shoot that gap and go after SHACKLEFORD early, or sit and wait. Gomez waited, then feared that the longshot may stop in front of him, and angled out for room, only to see 'SHACK kick on and 'SERVE flatten out. He's looking like the second act of Court Vision, the 2007 Remsen winner who finished third in the Fountain of Youth and Wood Memorial in his only 2 preps before the '08 Derby. Court Vision has earned $2.6 million in a stellar career, but was no better than 13th in the Kentucky Derby and TO HONOR AND SERVE, I reluctantly admit, is starting to look more and more like that kind of horse. Great career, just not brilliant enough for May 7, at this exact point in time. He's a difficult read, but has lost some shine with me.
FLASHPOINT: He ran better than I thought he could in the Florida Derby, finishing fourth, while still falling far short of the over-bet expectations of his legion of sprint speed-figure followers. You can make the excuse that FLASHPOINT broke outward and wasn't on the pace like was projected, but that's why you're supposed to steer clear of inexperienced horses in races of the Florida Derby's repute, or get 15-1 odds on them having to overcome a world of new hurdles. This was a move forward, and a good, but not great, one. FLASHPOINT could become an interesting Preakness player in the mold of Yawanna Twist, who was fourth in last year's middle jewel for Dutrow.
SOLDAT: He looked hot and uncomfortable during the pre-race warm-up, which set off real concerns for me that I voiced during our live chat for the Florida Derby. While it was a muggy and hot day, and horses all day were showing signs of the heat (including SHACKLEFORD, the Florida Derby runner-up), I just wish that SOLDAT would have looked good and run poorly. Then I could pinpoint problems with his need for the lead, or inability to accept dirt in his face, etc. As it is now, I'm not certain he would have even run well had he broken on top and gone to the front as he had in the past. I had ranked SOLDAT as No. 1 in Countdown since the Fountain of Youth based on his pair of 1-1/8 miles accomplishments this year. He's not to be discarded to the scrap heap at this juncture by any means. But horses very rarely win the Derby off of efforts this lackluster. We did see solid rebounds from horses like Make Music For Me, Noble's Promise and Denis of Cork in recent years to finish pretty well in Louisville, so he's still under serious consideration. But you have to be honest with yourself when posing the question, "Can this horse win the Kentucky Derby off of that effort?" The short answer is no. Iron Liege in 1957 is the last horse to run worse than fourth in his final prep and capture the roses, and it's only been done 5 times since 1906, according to my exhaustive stack of Derby past performances. SOLDAT still remains an underneath horse I will highly respect as the Derby approaches, but he's pretty much run his course as a win contender for me with this lackluster try, for whatever reason, heat or dirt.
STAY THIRSTY: This guy just didn't show up, very similarly to his final workout in company before the Florida Derby. Todd Pletcher hoped the blinkers would dial him in on raceday, but there was no response from STAY THIRSTY. We projected he could take a step back in last week's Countdown, yet still be a threat for Louisville with 5 weeks in-between. Maybe more than any other horse in the race, his workouts leading up the Derby will be crucial, and I think it's very significant that he arrived in Louisville already on Thursday of this week. Pletcher's style in recent years has been to stay in Florida seclusion as long as possible and show up late to the dance in Louisville. I'll need to see many first-hand, visual positives from STAY THIRSTY on Derby Week to get a strong feel if he can rebound or not. Right now, that Florida Derby disappearance will take a lot to forget, even for a handicapper who loves this horse and thought he'd take a step back Saturday regardless. I just didn't think it would be a backward leap.
In undercard news last week, yet ANOTHER big-time maiden winner failed to deliver on the hype when WILBURN (Steve Asmussen) could not run down UNCLE SAM (Bob Baffert) in a mile allowance Sunday at Santa Anita. The win by UNCLE SAM further flattered the form of January's G3 Sham Stakes, including third-place runner ANTHONY'S CROSS (Eoin Harty), who already had returned to win the G2 Bob Lewis Memorial.
BRETHREN (Todd Pletcher) signaled he could be ready for a big rebound in next Saturday's G1 Arkansas Derby with a bullet 5 furlong workout Sunday at Palm Meadows in :59.90 … JP'S GUSTO (Joe Petalino) will add blinkers for next Saturday's G1 Arkansas Derby and be ridden by Cliff Berry, who replaces Ramon Dominguez … THE FACTOR (Bob Baffert) sizzled 6 furlongs in 1:11-2/5 breezing Monday at Santa Anita and will be the Arkansas Derby favorite … Next Saturday's Northern Spur on the Arkansas Derby undercard could be a landing spot for ASTROLOGY (Steve Asmussen), runner-up in the G3 Sunland Derby in his only start this year, as well as ALTERNATION (Donnie K. Von Hemel), though both haven't been ruled out of the G1 feature. ASTROLOGY also could just train up to the Kentucky Derby if his connections opt for that auspicious path … Neil Howard apparently will separate his 3-year-olds at Keeneland, pointing WILKINSON to the G1 Blue Grass next week and PRIME CUT to the G3 Lexington the following Saturday … Derby horses already on the grounds at Churchill include STAY THIRSTY, SHACKLEFORD and DECISIVE MOMENT.
Jeremy Plonk's Top-5 rated performances by class so far this year (Dec. 26-present). Maiden and allowance races have been eliminated as we've reached April and deep stakes season.
1. PREMIER PEGASUS (San Felipe, Santa Anita, 3/12)
2. THE FACTOR (Rebel, Oaklawn, 3/19)
3. DIALED IN (Florida Derby, Gulfstream, 4/2) *new *
4. SOLDAT (Fountain of Youth, Gulfstream, 2/26) * downgraded *
5. DIALED IN (Holy Bull, Gulfstream, 1/30)
Unofficial prospects for upcoming major Triple Crown prep races will follow, based on reported intent and some educated speculation.
Blue Grass (April 16): SANTIVA, DATA LINK, WILLCOX INN, SWIFT WARRIOR, CRIMSON CHINA, JOE'S BLAZING AARON, KING CONGIE, MONZON, BRILLIANT SPEED, SENSATIONAL SLAM, PRAETEREO, QUEEN'SPLATEKITTEN and WILKINSON.
Arkansas Derby (April 16): THE FACTOR, SWAY AWAY, ARCHARCHARCH, ELITE ALEX, BRETHREN, CALEB'S POSSE, TRUMAN'S COMMANDER, JP'S GUSTO, SARATOGA RED, JW BLUE, NEHRO, ALTERNATION, DANCE CITY.
Kentucky Derby (May 7): DIALED IN, SHACKLEFORD, TO HONOR AND SERVE, SOLDAT, STAY THIRSTY, MUCHO MACHO MAN, PANTS ON FIRE, ANIMAL KINGDOM, DECISIVE MOMENT, TWICE THE APPEAL, ASTROLOGY, MASTER OF HOUNDS.
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, 14 week of the 2011 season
I'm now including horses confirmed for the Kentucky Derby starting gate who appear to have more than enough in graded earnings. In other words: They're here, so we might as well rank them, Top 20 quality or not.
Reader-submitted top 20, 14th week of the 2011 season: Aubree R. from Port Arthur, TX.
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.