Commentary

Countdown to the Crown

Updated: April 22, 2011, 2:46 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 finding a Kentucky Derby mount for Calvin Borel. Neither should take more than 60 seconds to formulate when you know what you're doing.

1. Memo to jockeys (and handicappers): Saturday's G1 Blue Grass pace was the slowest opening half-mile of the entire Keeneland meet at :50.33, slower than even the $10,000 claimers had gone in 51 previous meet races. There hasn't been another race the entire season look remotely close to that one with 12 horses across the track at the eighth pole banging off one another. Instead of tip-toeing through the tulips, I just wish the riders in that race would have made a legitimate run toward the roses so that we could have made more sense of the result.

2. After watching this past weekend's prep races, as well as further video study of spring preps, I'm not certain DIALED IN has to be ranked among the three best late closers in this crop. That honor might belong to NEHRO, TOBY'S CORNER or BRILLIANT SPEED. Don't snicker. Read on &

3. THE FACTOR hitched a plane ride from Hot Springs to Louisville on Tuesday of this week, three days after a performance in the Arkansas Derby that should make him a 4-5 favorite to win the 7-furlong Woody Stephens on the Belmont Stakes undercard. Let's hope he's just stopping off in the 'Ville for a Crispy Crème and a good gnawing of that Kentucky bluegrass. I'm a big fan, but can't see him getting the 1-1/4 miles trip.

This week's fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes. We may be looking at Preakness and/or Belmont auditions this weekend in the Grade 3 Lexington and Grade 2 Jerome, except for SILVER MEDALLION (Steve Asmussen). It's all about the earnings as this late stage when you talk Derby.

G3 Lexington Stakes (Saturday/Keeneland)

With JAYCITO (Bob Baffert) still in California nursing a bad foot, the G3 Lexington becomes a Derby dress rehearsal only for SILVER MEDALLION, who needs the winner's share Saturday to secure a Top 20 earnings perch for the first Saturday in May. The five others in the cast have some upside, as PRIME CUT (Neil Howard) would make sense as a Preakness prospect with a big effort, and CASPER'S GHOST (Ken McPeek) in all likelihood would be a Belmont candidate with a promising performance. You may recall those 2 trainers having success with Midway Road and Sarava in the Preakness and Belmont, respectively, as late bloomers to Triple Crown trails past.

The way McPeek has been winning races at Keeneland, especially routes on the Polytrack, you might as well just circle CASPER'S GHOST on your program and start looking for the exacta. CASPER'S GHOST already has won at the meet, at a sprint distance you'd think would have tripped him up. Visually he could not have been much more impressive.

TAPTOWNE (Wayne Mogge) has been high on our Countdown radar all year since winning his maiden at Turfway on New Year's Eve. He's got a nice, short-burst run that could play well on the Polytrack at 1-1/16 miles, where the race ends at the sixteenth-pole finish line. This race configuration is not for the sustained late runner.

With little early pace in the race, you'd expect Javier Castellano to put SILVER MEDALLION on the lead with PRIME CUT applying the token pressure. Given the short stretch and lack of a burning pace, it's conceivable both of them hold on to be in the trifecta. PRIME CUT chased a ludicrous second quarter at Fair Grounds and didn't back up, but rather finished well, in a razor-sharp try. I prefer him to SILVER MEDALLION among those forwardly placed.

G3 Lexington Stakes selections: W) CASPER'S GHOST; P) PRIME CUT; S) TAPTOWNE.

G2 Jerome (Saturday/Aqueduct)

Kudos to trainer Steve Asmussen for doing the right thing with ASTROLOGY, bypassing the Kentucky Derby with only 1 prep race under his belt this year, and instead opting for the Jerome. Not that the Jerome is a walk in the park, but it's a more realistic immediate goal. If he runs well, he should be well-equipped for the Preakness.

Five of the eight entrants are legitimate horses for this Grade 2 level, not the least of which is CAL NATION (Todd Pletcher), who will be making his stakes debut, and GALLANT DREAMS (Tom Albertrani), who has yet to try graded stakes company. Both supremely bred animals have big-time futures ahead of them and have experience at the Jerome's 1-turn mile distance.

GALLANT DREAMS has been let go at 18-1, 14-1 and 41-1 odds in 3 starts and probably will be overlooked to some degree as the fourth wagering choice at best. Trainer Albertrani exits a 1-3 finish in last week's G1 Blue Grass. While not as brilliantly fast as some of these, GALLANT DREAMS would be my preferred Triple Crown or Travers-type prospect out of this entire Jerome lot.

CAL NATION was flattered by a strong showing last week from stablemate DANCE CITY in the G1 Arkansas Derby. From the standpoint that a 1-turn mile is more like a sprint than a route, his superb speed will be well-served in this spot. RATTLESNAKE BRIDGE (Kiaran McLaughlin) has struck me visually as a win-early sprint type, and he, too, could be looking at one of his big days of the year given this race's configuration.

JUSTIN PHILLIP should move forward off of a third in the Bay Shore in which the rail draw did him no favors. Trainer Asmussen does not hesitate to run him back on 2 weeks' rest even with stablemate ASTROLOGY in the gate, a very promising sign for 'JUSTIN.

G2 Jerome selections: W) CAL NATION; P) GALLANT DREAMS; S) JUSTIN PHILLIP.

Last week's selections: 2: 0-0-0. Top choices SANTIVA and THE FACTOR both flopped badly as beaten favorites in the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby. Third choice ARCHARCHARCH won the Arkansas Derby at 25-1.

Season selections: 42: 13-7-6. (42 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. The big two final Grade 1 preps of the spring came an hour or so apart Saturday when Keeneland's Blue Grass and Oaklawn's Arkansas Derby were presented. Let's start with the Arkansas Derby, given its ridiculously important place on the Triple Crown roadmap in recent years.

Arkansas Derby

There will be talk about a hot pace setting things up for the closers in the Arkansas Derby, but I can't find a clock or the commonsense to agree with that. Sure, the first 440 yards went in :22.54, but where I come from a second-quarter backed up to :23.99 and third quarter in :24.69 hardly make for a blistering pace. Six panels in 1:11.22 not only was a fair Grade 1 pace, it was 3 lengths slower than the G2 Rebel pace THE FACTOR (Bob Baffert) set in March, and about that same amount slower than the listed 1-mile Northern Spur Stakes contested an hour earlier and won by front-running 3-year-old UNCLE BRENT (Lynn Whiting). Sure, you're comparing 1-1/8 miles to races at 1 mile or 1-1/16 miles, but with the longer straightaway run from the gate, you'd expect the first quarter-mile for a 1-1/8 miles race to actually be quicker than its shorter counterparts.

There's no disputing JP'S GUSTO (Joe Petalino) was dead-set on making the lead. Unhappy with his tracking style, the connections changed riders to Cliffy Berrry, and trainer Petalino dead-panned afterward that they weren't about to let THE FACTOR beat them the same way he did in the Rebel. Kudos for trying, but JP simply didn't have the 'GUSTO to last this trip. Still, he finished only a nose behind THE FACTOR, though neither factored in the final three-sixteenths of a mile, battling for what turned out to be a seventh-place photo.

Once the two pace players were done punching, the Arkansas Derby looked to be inherited by DANCE CITY (Todd Pletcher), who did not even apply token pressure while second down the backstretch, and SWAY AWAY (Jeff Bonde), who made a premature move on the far turn under Patrick Valenzuela. Visually pleasing for a fleeting time, that move by SWAY AWAY validated my chief concern with this talented horse  he's got a short-burst run that defines a sensational closing sprinter, but rarely translates to serious route races of high repute.

When SWAY AWAY flattened out, to his credit DANCE CITY kept on running. But the closing brigade wasn't waiting for free lunches. A fourth-quarter in :24.96 does not exactly translate to "stopping in their tracks," so those come-from-behinders like ARCHARCHARCH, ALTERNATION and NEHRO made progress on their own. Here's a startling frame of reference. Last year's Arkansas Derby offered only a :25.77 fourth quarter that became a stagger-fest of front-runners surviving to the wire. Papa Clem and company needed :25.60 two years ago, and Lawyer Ron walked that same split in :26.78 in '08, while the mighty Curlin's fourth-quarter in '07 came home in :25.54 despite an even slower early pace than what we saw Saturday.

In other words, :24.96 on the fourth-quarter of an Arkansas Derby is mighty, mighty fine running, folks. Consider that ARCHARCHARCH and NEHRO made up significant ground, both of these horses ran the final 3 furlongs in the mid to upper-:36s, which is strong stuff over an Oaklawn track that doesn't elicit rocketing returns on the clock.

We discovered that ARCHARCHARCH can pound out the tempo as a very strong galloper, and then finish on the back end. We also found our Derby horse when NEHRO exploded late and galloped out past the winner with ease. The two of them were well clear into the clubhouse turn of the gallop-out, with NEHRO the superior of the two leaders by a wide margin. DANCE CITY ran well to be third, appears to be an up-and-comer, and will be aimed at the Preakness, his connections have indicated, given his lack of sufficient graded stakes earnings. Another up-and-comer, ALTERNATION, really proved his mettle with a more composed performance after melting down in the Rebel pre-race. He rallied nicely to be fifth, and this guy will win some big stakes in the future, mark my words. He might be one to watch for the Belmont Stakes as he's not a plodding closer whatsoever, but rather a long-winded sort who will go all day.

As for THE FACTOR and SWAY AWAY, they appear to me to be the absolute future of the California sprint scene, and let's be honest, there's no better place to be a great sprinter than on the west coast.

Blue Grass Stakes

As noted at the top of Countdown, the perplexing approach horsemen take to the Blue Grass continues to baffle me. They treat the race like it's from the moon, while the rest of the Keeneland meet looks absolutely nothing like this. I guess if you keep stuffing the entry box with turf closers and nobody wants the lead that you'll wind up with a Blue Grass result that reinforces what you asked for in the first place. What we wound up with was Coney Island bumper cars and a wild, rallying finish that was either sensational or happenstance. Now we have to figure out which.

The easy thing to do is say BRILLIANT SPEED is irrelevant and the race lacks merit. You could have said the same thing last year when Stately Victor won at 40-1, and dismissed everything behind him. Problem is, you didn't hit a single trifecta or superfecta wager in the entire Triple Crown without using Paddy O'Prado, Make Music For Me and First Dude, all part of Stately Victor's Blue Grass wake.

Drawing a line through the Blue Grass at first blush may serve your disdain for the randomness of synthetic surfaces, but you're also drawing a line though two Triple Crown character traits of major importance, recent performance and fitness. If a horse is fit enough to run a decent 1-1/8 miles on Polytrack 3 weeks out from the Derby, you've got someone battle-tested for the rigors ahead. These aren't your babied horses on 5-6 week layoffs who ran hard early in their final preps and coasted home late. When the cardio was called upon, the Blue Grass horses responded. BRILLIANT SPEED came home in :35 flat the final 3 furlongs, according to Trakus, and your hand calculations might have him even faster in the upper-:34s. To go last-to-first from the top of the stretch after that dawdling pace is nothing short of remarkable.

TWINSPIRED (Mike Maker) could wind up in the Derby gate if things break his way on the earnings Totem Pole. He needs some help, but rest assured he's running if he can get in. The fair knock on these 2 is that BRILLIANT SPEED and TWINSPIRED already have tried dirt, didn't fare well at all, and now are rightfully not trustworthy to your dollar moving back to dirt. I went back and watched both dirt races last summer for BRILLIANT SPEED this week, and I thought he was moving pretty nicely at Saratoga in his second start chasing a solid pace and backed out of it, but definitely was not fighting the track. He got better on turf, for sure, but the difference could have been chasing a :45-3/5 half-mile vs. a :52 half-mile. By Dynaformer, he's an interesting horse because that sire was responsible for Derby winner Barbaro and Derby third-place runners Perfect Drift and Blumin Affair. And damsire Gone West was the sire of Belmont champ Commendable and Kentucky Derby runner-up Proud Citizen.

I'm not quick to toss out BRILLIANT SPEED and will reserve judgment until I see him train Derby week. And don't lose all respect for well-beaten SANTIVA, who was leaned on by other horses like a drunk on the subway the entire trip under Julien Leparoux. He'll get a rider change if he runs in the Derby as Leparoux will opt for DIALED IN. (Calling all Calvins. Calling all Calvins.) Given that SANTIVA won the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club over the CD natural soil last fall, there's plenty of reason to think he's a Blue Grass also-ran who could make some noise ala Paddy O'Prado, Make Music For Me or First Dude.

Quick Hitters

If you gave up on SOLDAT (Kiaran McLaughlin) after the Florida Derby, Thursday's workout may make you want to reconsider. The Fountain of Youth champ breezed 5 furlongs in :59 flat at Palm Meadows. His splits were :12, :23 4/5, :35 3/5, :47 1/5 and he galloping out an extra furlong to 1:12 2/5 (:13-2/5 is a superb gallop-out time). Maybe SOLDAT can't handle dirt in his face and/or traffic, or maybe the Florida Derby was a result of him overheating before the race? You'll get a good price to find out … The connections of JAYCITO still have Derby aspirations despite making only 1 start this year, his second in the G2 San Felipe. Lingering foot issues could thwart that, however … MUCHO MACHO MAN (Kathy Ritvo) steadily has been galloping at Churchill Downs as one of the early arrivals and apparently has shown no ill effects from an injured hoof at the start of the G2 Louisiana Derby & The status of THE FACTOR and COMMA TO THE TOP could make all the difference in how the Kentucky Derby is won. They are clearly the two fastest early runners in this crop. Without one or both, this Derby lacks real early zip other than horses like SHACKLEFORD, SOLDAT, UNCLE MO and DECISIVE MOMENT. Without that traditionally sizzling California speed, this Derby easily could be won by a horse sitting a garden fourth or fifth early on.

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. ARCHARCHARCH (Oaklawn, 4/16) * new *
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)

Who's In The Derby Gate?

My best estimation of how the Derby Gate looks this week after 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, NEHRO, ARCHARCHARCH, BRILLIANT SPEED, JAYCITO and SANTIVA.

On the fringe: SILVER MEDALLION, ANTHONY'S CROSS, TWINSPIRED, SWAY AWAY, DANCE CITY, MR. COMMONS. I'm going on the assumption THE FACTOR will not run.

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, 16th 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. NEHRO

11. SHACKLEFORD

2. ARCHARCHARCH

12. ANIMAL KINGDOM

3. DIALED IN

13. MASTER OF HOUNDS

4. TOBY'S CORNER

14. PANTS ON FIRE

5. MUCHO MACHO MAN

15. STAY THIRSTY

6. SOLDAT

16. COMMA TO THE TOP

7. UNCLE MO

17. WATCH ME GO

8. MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE

18. JAYCITO

9. BRILLIANT SPEED

19. TWICE THE APPEAL

10. SANTIVA

20. DECISIVE MOMENT

Reader-submitted top 20, 16th week of the 2011 season: Robert Raynor from El Paso, TX

1. NEHRO

11. SHACKLEFORD

2. DIALED IN

12. MIDNIGHT INERLUDE

3. TOBY'S CORNER

13. ANIMAL KINGDOM

4. ARCHARCHARCH

14. PANTS ON FIRE

5. SOLDAT

15. SILVER MEDALLION

6. MUCHO MACHO MAN

16. COMMA TO THE TOP

7. DANCE CITY

17. MASTER OF HOUNDS

8. UNCLE MO

18. TWINSPIRED

9. THE FACTOR

19. WATCH ME GO

10. BRILLIANT SPEED

20. KING CONGIE

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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