Commentary

Countdown to the Crown

Updated: April 15, 2011, 11:25 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 a mid-April trip to the accountant. You rarely walk away feeling as good as you walked in.

1. While it's true Secretariat DID lose the Wood Memorial in 1973, let's not forget he won 10 straight races prior to that, yet was only a 1.50-to-1 favorite, not 10 cents on the dollar. One loss does not a career make when you have a large body of work, but when you're trained with kid gloves in 2011 ala UNCLE MO and your race schedule mirrors the appearances of Haley's Comet, one loss accounts for 20 percent of your entire career and 50 percent of your races in the 6 months directly leading up to Derby Day.

2. To be fair in my criticism of light campaigns, from April 12 to May 7, DIALED IN will have only one workout. And, he'll stay at Palm Meadows? Nick Zito with a powerful Derby contender is opting for seclusion and serenity. Pardon me for being a wee bit cynical and not buying it. The last time seclusion and serenity were used as reasons for staying at Palm Meadows, 2010 would-be Derby favorite Eskendereya turned up lame. I'm rooting hard for DIALED IN and UNCLE MO to both be at their very best on May 7.

3. Convinced there are no iron horses anymore? Look no further than Saturday's Arkansas Derby. The race features the 1-2-3 finishers of not only the G3 Southwest Stakes, but also the 1-2-3-4-5-6 finishers of the Rebel Stakes, and the 1-2 finishers of the San Vicente and the 2-4 finishers of the Louisiana Derby for more clout. Why is it that this series can stick together, while drawing out of town classy shippers, and the others can't? This field has been battled-tested since January, folks.

This week's fearless forecast

Be sure to join us for a live handicapping chat Saturday all afternoon at the all-new Countdowntothecrown.com as we take a look at the full Blue Grass Stakes Day card at Keeneland, as well as special coverage of the Arkansas Derby from Oaklawn.

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes. It's the final big-time weekend of preps, as the G1 Arkansas Derby and G1 Blue Grass at Oaklawn and Keeeneland, respectively, figure to have a big impact on things. Last year's Arkansas Derby produced Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver and Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky, while last year's Blue Grass produced the 3-4 finishers in the Kentucky Derby in Paddy O' Prado and Make Music For Me, as well as the Preakness runner-up First Dude.

G1 Arkansas Derby (Saturday/Oaklawn)

Hands down, there hasn't been a prep race this year nearly as deep as the $1 million Arkansas Derby. The field of 13 includes nothing but legitimate horses who belong with absolutely zero body fat to it. The least-appealing horses on paper are trained by Nick Zito and Tony Dutrow, which tells you an awful lot about a true lack of filler in this 1-1/8 miles headliner. Horses who have not won a stakes race in their careers are given a 4-pound weight allowance and carry just 118, which could be a factor over this distance of ground.

THE FACTOR (Bob Baffert) is a deserving morning line favorite, though at 7-5 odds I'd say this field is much tougher than he faced in the Rebel and the additional distance and bump of 4 more horses in field size makes the price too low for reality. From a pace standpoint, you know THE FACTOR goes to the front, while the question becomes just who will try to go with him? DANCE CITY (Todd Pletcher) is fast enough to make it nasty if he chooses, SARATOGA RED (D. Wayne Lukas) may be forced to be hard-sent from a horrendous post No. 13 to save ground, and naturally talented horses like BRETHREN (Todd Pletcher), SWAY AWAY (Jeff Bonde) and JP'S GUSTO (Joe Petalino) all add blinkers and all are in must-have races where they need a bounce-back.

The Arkansas Derby pace doesn't HAVE TO get super-hot, but given the above statements, it's a solid possibility that any winner on the front end will have had to work mighty hard for the money. THE FACTOR might be that kind of good. We'll know with certainty after this race. More certainly, I'd say, is that anyone who chases THE FACTOR likely will be left jello-legged in the stretch, and this race's under-placings, at the very least, are begging to be won by late-running closers in the 2, 3, 4 spots. Those who could really benefit would be NEHRO (Steve Asmussen), ELITE ALEX (Tim Ritchey) and the Donnie K. Von Hemel-trained duo of CALEB'S POSSE and ALTERNATION, who run as a mutuel entry. JW BLUE (Tony Dutrow) also has some closing kick, but I prefer the other late-runners.

The ever-steady ARCHARCHARCH is very appealing and his one-paced style could bode well if THE FACTOR gives way. He's got the best chance to put the upset because of his style, consistency and superb foundation. He could inherit the lead in mid-stretch and survive the closers' bids if all plays out perfectly for him.

To be honest, I like about 7-8 horses in this race better as Triple Crown prospects than many horses I have ranked in this week's Top 10. But the reality is they won't all make the Kentucky Derby's big dance, nor belong there, if they can't run well enough in the Arkansas Derby to earn a bid. Depending how this race winds up, I can say wholeheartedly that I conceivably could make up an entire superfecta ticket on Kentucky Derby Day just with the Arkansas Derby alumni. Let's see what happens here first on Saturday.

THE FACTOR may not be a great bet at 7-5, but I think he's brilliant and the best of a very, very strong group of horses. I'd be more inclined to use him in exotic wagers on top for value than to try and unearth value with other win-pool hopefuls. After all, if it's not THE FACTOR winning, which of the other 12 stands out from the rest? It's still a horribly tough 12-horse puzzle to pick apart.

G1 Arkansas Derby selections: W) THE FACTOR; P) 1/1a Von Hemel-trained entry; S) ARCHARCHARCH.

G1 Blue Grass (Saturday/Keeneland Racecourse)

Everyone's going to tell you how irrelevant the Blue Grass is because of the Polytrack, and I'm going to tell you that it's still very prominent and you're going to listen or ignore me based on your preconceived notions of synthetic surfaces. But just keep in mind, you don't come close to cashing a trifecta or superfecta ticket in last year's Derby, much less the exacta in the Preakness, if you drew a line completely through the 2010 Blue Grass Stakes.

You may not appreciate the horse who wins Saturday's Blue Grass, but you sure ought to study the event post-race and make heads or tails out of which direction its alumni are headed. The horses who emerge from this race are going to be strongly tested 3 weeks out from the Derby and fit as a fiddle.

SANTIVA (Eddie Kenneally) has been pointed to this race all winter-spring long and already has proven form on dirt, turf and the Keeneland Polytrack. He's a wonderfully versatile colt with a pedigree to get the classic distances. He lost a ton of ground in the Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 19 when a solid runner-up, a race that he was sure to have gotten a lot out of. That's key in this era of 2-prep campaigns. SANTIVA has continued to drill every 7 days like clockwork, and it appears has not had a single hiccup along the way. He's strictly the horse to beat Saturday.

Six of the 12 horses in the Blue Grass exit races over the turf course most recently, and while that's perceptually "the winning surface move" on Polytrack, statistics don't support that. Horses exiting dirt, turf and synthetic preps have won at an alarmingly identical rate throughout Keeneland's entire Polytrack era. The Blue Grass itself has been run 4 times on Poly, twice won by dirt preppers, once by a synthetics prepper and just last year by turf-prepped Stately Victor.

Which of the turfers appears most dangerous? KING CONGIE (Tom Albertrani) scratched from the G2 Spiral Stakes with some hind-end stiffness, but has crossed the wire on top in 3 straight races on turf. JOES BLAZING AARON (Mike Maker), QUEENSPLATEKITTEN (Todd Pletcher) and NEWSDAD (Bill Mott) ran 1-2-3 in the Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream for high-powered barns one and all. WILLCOX INN (Mike Stidham) was second to speedy GREAT MILLS last time out in the Grindstone at Fair Grounds, and that race looked stronger when 'MILLS came back to run a crackerjack second on the front end opening weekend in Keeneland's G3 Transylvania. WILLCOX INN was third here in the Breeders' Futurity on Polytrack last fall. Those factors conspire to make him the strongest turfer entered. Trainer Stidham opened the door back up for a possible Kentucky Derby run this week as well, something he closed for months. Stay tuned.

The dirt preppers include sprinter SENSATIONAL SLAM (Todd Pletcher), though you rarely see a sprinter stretch out to win a Keeneland Polytrack route, and WILKINSON (Neil Howard), who tried to close against no pace in the G2 Louisiana Derby last time out. Big edge to WILKINSON in that head-to-head.

As for the Poly preppers, CRIMSON CHINA (Graham Motion) was a good second in the Rushaway at Turfway, a race that traditionally has been a good lead-in to the Blue Grass. Don't sleep on him. TWINSPIRED (Mike Maker) was third in the Spiral Stakes, but appears a cut below the top ones here. He could land a small exotics share on his best effort.

G1 Blue Grass selections: W) SANTIVA; P) WILLCOX INN; S) WILKINSON

Last week's selections: 3: 0-2-1. Top choices COMMA TO THE TOP (SA Derby) and ZOEBEAR (Illinois) both ran excellent seconds at solid prices, while top pick UNCLE MO stunned everyone by running third (Wood).

Season selections: 40: 13-7-6. (40 races, top pick won 13 times, ran second 7 times and third 6 times).

Everyone's a critic

This section reviews the week that was in the 3-year-old ranks. Last weekend, it was all about UNCLE MO's disappointing performance in the G1 Wood Memorial and what was left of the G1 Santa Anita Derby and G3 Illinois Derby. Let's pick them off in order of Triple Crown trail importance.

Wood Memorial

Here's a memo: TOBY'S CORNER (Graham Motion) won the G1 Wood Memorial, every bit as much as UNCLE MO lost it. And while I totally agree with the initial reaction that MO's stunning loss was indeed the news lead and what deserved the discussion, a week later it's time to talk about what really happened, not what we THOUGHT was going to happen. Obviously, UNCLE MO didn't deliver expectations, losing at 1-10 odds, no matter the reason.

The winner TOBY'S CORNER, turns out, is awfully good, folks. He showed toughness between horses late and still had a burst after 9 furlongs that's quite appealing. Motion simply rates as one of the very best trainers in all of America and has this guy moving completely the right direction at the right time. Not only does the distance look within him limits, TOBY has that blow-out ability I love in a modern Derby contender. He showed the ability to crush inferior horses when winning his maiden at Laurel last fall, and now he knows how to win a dogfight against top-level competition. There will be no 2 horses more dangerous on the finishing end of the Kentucky Derby than TOBY'S CORNER and DIALED IN. It will just be a matter if anyone's brilliant enough to run away from them before they get on-corked or stymied in traffic.

Visually, the way UNCLE MO lost the Wood was about as unpleasing at it gets. You just don't get away with a second quarter (:24.49) that easy and give up a race without a fight like he did. The immediate aftermath that included countless self-delivered press releases from the UNCLE MO camp about his veterinary status was almost as peculiar as the performance itself. I realize there's a ton of interest in UNCLE MO, but the constant statements about how "we'll get to the bottom of what was bothering him" to describe his defeat almost seem an admission that owner Mike Repole and trainer Todd Pletcher have been dealing with some physical concerns. The whole "where there's smoke there's fire" kind of feeling abounds, doesn't it? Start printing those "Blame it on the GI infection" posters if you're still a fan. E-bay beckons.

Now, don't fire up REM's "It's the end of the world as we know it" for UNCLE MO just yet. This was not a damning performance that underscores a fraudulent champion or impossible Triple Crown race winner. The Wood Memorial exposed UNCLE MO as a bit closer to ordinary than outstanding, and that's the bottom line I'll take away from this performance. Could you like him more after this race than before it? Absolutely not. But can he look outstanding again? Absolutely, that's what the mornings are for leading up to Derby 137. We'll have our eyes on the prize and see what UNCLE MO tells us once we hit the ground in Louisville.

Unfortunately, Wood runner-up ARTHUR'S TALE (Tom Albertrani) exited the race with a popped splint bone and will be sidelined, missing the entire Triple Crown season.

Santa Anita Derby

Pardon my brevity here as I truly don't know what to take from the G1 Santa Anita Derby. The scratches of PREMIER PEGASUS and JAYCITO obviously derailed the event's top rung of quality. And if JAYCITO didn't have a bum foot, one that Bob Baffert admitted made him consider declaring the horse out on Santa Anita Derby entry day, would Baffert have even entered recent maiden breaker MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE in last Saturday's G1 headliner? Oh, it's good to have options, isn't it?

MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE was an impossible read pre-Santa Anita Derby. After all, his lone victory came against 4 rivals over a sloppy track. Most handicappers will tell you that blowouts happen most often in short fields and/or over sloppy tracks. Put the pair together and you have a recipe for a romp. So who knew what 'MIDNIGHT' had to offer? Turns out, he's an up and comer. Sometimes you have to be flexible and open minded on the trail. This is such a horse. I'd have a hard time putting him anywhere near the top of my ticket at this stage, but I want to get a good look at him in Louisville and learn as much as I can since his past performances don't tell me nearly enough.

Heading into the Santa Anita Derby, trainer Peter Miller was pretty adamant that speedy COMMA TO THE TOP would not be pointed to Louisville regardless of his finish. After a game, front-running second on Saturday, that tune now has changed with a bout of Derby fever. I hate seeing that, and COMMA is such a battle-tested, tough, warrior-type that he would be so much better-suited NOT to be sent into the Kentucky Derby fray. He's just not going to hold up in a field of 20 with his style from my eye. Only bad things could come from that decision, and this comes from a writer who has been a huge 'COMMA fan since Del Mar last summer.

As for the Santa Anita Derby disappointments, SILVER MEDALLION (Steve Asmussen) ran a flat, but even-paced fourth. He's the kind of horse who is never going to disgrace himself. Even off this unspectacular try, you could see him running top 6 or 7 in Louisville because of his style and consistent nature this year. If I trained him, he'd move on to Louisville and we'd take our chances that he gets a check if everything broke just right for him. On the other hand, ANTHONY'S CROSS (Eoin Harty) had a very easy campaign this year and did next to nothing in the Santa Anita Derby, a race from which he needed to get a little more. I can't see him trending upward and factoring in Louisville.

Illinois Derby

Speed again reigned supreme in the G3 Illinois Derby as the historically speed-inclined race saw JOE VANN (Todd Pletcher) run away with things. Unless there are several defections for the Derby, he won't make the gate based on graded stakes earnings and that's a very good thing. I'd be inclined to consider JOE VANN merely a pace casualty in the Derby, not fast enough to run them off their feet. It is pretty cool, however, for a guy who grew up on Maryland racing like I did, to see a pair of Laurel Park winter warriors like JOE VANN and TOBY'S CORNER win the Illinois Derby and Wood Memorial just minutes apart.

WATCH ME GO (Kathleen O'Connell) did not do enough in the Illinois Derby to make you think the G2 Tampa Bay Derby winner is going the right direction at the moment. But like we saw with Denis of Cork in 2008, chasing speed at Hawthorne isn't necessarily a Derby death sentence. Denis rebounded nicely to run third at the Downs at a big price under Calvin Borel. If WATCH ME GO moves on to the Derby, I'll give him a look as a horse who could get a bottom rung of the gimmicks at a monster number. Trainer O'Connell and owner Campbell have been in game for a long, long time and they're not going to show up just for a box seat. He'll need to flourish between now and then, however, to be considered for the bottom of the superfecta.

Quick Hitters

JAYCITO returned to the track Monday morning as he battles back from a foot abscess and hopes to make the Apr. 23 G3 Lexington at Keeneland … With ASTROLOGY (Steve Asmussen) not running in either of the 3-year-old stakes at Oaklawn this Saturday, I've dropped him from my Top 20 as a run at the Kentucky Derby appears more and more unlikely … Perhaps the trail's biggest news away from the races came last Saturday when MUCHO MACHO MAN (Kathy Ritvo) returned to the workout tab with a bullet, 5-furlong drill in :58.20 at Gulfstream. It came exactly 2 weeks after his minor hoof injury in the Louisiana Derby and was welcome news for a horse who is becoming more and more of a top-end player as the others fade away.

High Fives

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.

Stakes Race
1. PREMIER PEGASUS (San Felipe, Santa Anita, 3/12) * INJURED *
2. THE FACTOR (Rebel, Oaklawn, 3/19)
3. DIALED IN (Florida Derby, Gulfstream, 4/2)
4. SOLDAT (Fountain of Youth, Gulfstream, 2/26)
5. TOBY'S CORNER (Wood Memorial, Aqueduct, 4/9) * new *

Who's In The Derby Gate?

My best estimation of how the Derby Gate looks this week before the Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass.

Kentucky Derby (May 7): DIALED IN, UNCLE MO, TOBY'S CORNER, COMMA TO THE TOP, MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE, SHACKLEFORD, SOLDAT, STAY THIRSTY, MUCHO MACHO MAN, PANTS ON FIRE, ANIMAL KINGDOM, DECISIVE MOMENT, TWICE THE APPEAL, MASTER OF HOUNDS, WATCH ME GO.

On the fringe: SILVER MEDALLION, ANTHONY'S CROSS.

Expected to advance: At least 5-6 runners from the Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass and/or Lexington.

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, 15th 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.

1. THE FACTOR

11. CALEB'S POSSE

2. DIALED IN

12. SHACKLEFORD

3. TOBY'S CORNER

13. ANIMAL KINGDOM

4. MUCHO MACHO MAN

14. MASTER OF HOUNDS

5. SOLDAT

15. STAY THIRSTY

6. SANTIVA

16. WATCH ME GO

7. BRETHREN

17. COMMA TO THE TOP

8. UNCLE MO

18. PANTS ON FIRE

9. ARCHARCHARCH

19. TWICE THE APPEAL

10. MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE

20. DECISIVE MOMENT

Reader-submitted top 20, 15th week of the 2011 season: Charlie Thomas from New York, NY.

1. UNCLE MO

11. ELITE ALEX

2. DIALED IN

12. MIDNIGHT INERLUDE

3. TOBY'S CORNER

13. DANCE CITY

4. BRETHREN

14. JOE VANN

5. MUCHO MACHO MAN

15. ARCHARCHARCH

6. PANTS ON FIRE

16. COMMA TO THE TOP

7. JAYCITO

17. SILVER MEDALLION

8. THE FACTOR

18. SANTIVA

9. SHACKLEFORD

19. WATCH ME GO

10. SOLDAT

20. MASTER OF HOUNDS

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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