Commentary

Countdown to the Crown

Updated: May 5, 2011, 8:05 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

Countdown to the Crown

"Bless his heart, he must be the sickest man in America," legendary announcer Verne Lundquist famously said when Dallas Cowboys tight end Jackie Smith dropped a sure, game-tying touchdown in Super Bowl XIII.

I don't know if Jinks Fires had an interest in that outcome, or if the Jinks in his name really should be spelled "jinx." But when his budding star Archarcharch drew the rail on Wednesday for Kentucky Derby 137, there were at least three sick men in America. Jinks, jockey Jon Court and yours truly.

For the second straight year, my supreme confidence in America's best 3-year-old has been rattled to the core with a dastardly inside-rail draw. Lookin At Lucky drew the shortest straw last year and was rendered into a piņata for other horses to bounce to and fro without recourse. Now, the blossoming Arkansas Derby winner Archarcharch will have to channel some kind of good fortune to survive down on the fence.

No horse has won from the rail since Ferdinand in 1986. He turned out merely to be a $3.7 million earner and an all-time great, while just happening to have one Willie Shoemaker in the saddle for his fourth Derby victory. Good luck, Arch3 and Jon Court. May the trip be with you.

Unlike last year, when the post draw sent me spiraling toward stupidity and settling on speedy Conveyance as Plan Z, this weekend I'm sticking to my guns. Sure, Archarcharch will need racing luck to win from the rail. But tell me a horse among these 20 bumper cars that won't?

Here's how I see the Derby 137 pace taking shape.

Speed:
COMMA TO THE TOP
SHACKLEFORD
DECISIVE MOMENT
SOLDAT
UNCLE MO

Press:
PANTS ON FIRE
MUCHO MACHO MAN
MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE

Middle:
ARCHARCHARCH
SANTIVA
STAY THIRSTY
WATCH ME GO
TWINSPIRED

Close:
BRILLIANT SPEED
MASTER OF HOUNDS
DERBY KITTEN
ANIMAL KINGDOM
DIALED IN
TWICE THE APPEAL
NEHRO

Not On My Tickets

PANTS ON FIRE: Entered as a rabbit "who forgot to stop" in the Louisiana Derby, he appears up against a Derby pace that figures to be stronger than he can handle early and could leave him in a chase-and-tire mode. In seven career route races, he's lost ground in the stretch five times, giving credence to the theory. He's not a bad horse, but just needs too many things to go his way to do serious damage.

MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE: The Santa Anita Derby winner appeared to get strong as Derby Week progressed in his a.m. training, which is a good thing for his camp. Midnight Interlude did not impress in his last major Derby workout, appearing "gassed," according to a trainer to whom I talked to after the drill, who added that he wouldn't have been happy if that was his horse. I'm going to trust that judgment on a horse that I have a very difficult time getting a read on. You could make a case for him and not get too big an argument from me, but you have to take stands somewhere. Given Bob Baffert's presence in the program, he's likely an underlay on the tote.

UNCLE MO: The before and after pictures of how 'MO looked last fall and how he looks today are startling, and give some weight to those discussions of just how much weight the 2-year-old champ lost since last year. No Wood Memorial alumni have hit the board in the last seven runnings of the Derby, and I'll take a stand against a horse who once upon a time had scary-good talent. UNCLE MO just doesn't pass the smell test when it comes to all the hub-bub about his health. If you're that torn about his status like I am, smile at the 5-1 on the toteboard and slide elsewhere. If he wins, welcome back a potential star to the game and enjoy the ride. This could all be moot by Saturday morning anyway, as the overwhelming buzz is that he'll scratch and not run.

COMMA TO THE TOP: Winless in three tries this year and losing ground in the stretch in each attempt, it's hard to imagine him wiring the field at 1-1/4 miles with his style, pedigree and performances. Patrick Valenzuela has a penchant for the lead and you could very well hear his named called for a while, but I don't look for COMMA to finish near the TOP.

WATCH ME GO: If you just went by his training at Churchill this week, you could make an outside case for the Tampa Bay Derby winner to light the board at a big price. Picking up Rafael Bejarano doesn't hurt; he's one of the game's four best riders in my eyes (Garrett Gomez, Joel Rosario, Ramon Dominguez enter that discussion). But his 43-1 win at Tampa lost luster when Brethren was nowhere in the Arkansas Derby next time out. Crazier horses have run third or fourth in the Derby, but I'll pass.

TWICE THE APPEAL: Deserving of 50-1 odds with just about any other jockey on the planet, it will be interesting to see what impact Calvin Borel has both on the toteboard and in the saddle. The comparisons to Mine That Bird are geographical and based on Borel, but let's not forget the Bird was a Canadian champion 2-year-old and this horse was 1-for-7 last year with merely a $30,000 maiden claiming victory. Calvin or not, here we come. Or, "here we toss," I should say. This would be Borel's most astonishing magic trick yet.

DECISIVE MOMENT: Determined morning worker gives a good physical impression that he's going to hang around a little bit longer than I thought. But no way do I see him factoring in the stretch and the expectation here is that he begins to ascend back through the pack in the final quarter-mile. He's doing well, but the assignment (class, distance) simply appear too much.

STAY THIRSTY: His form started going sour before the Florida Derby when he failed to deliver in morning workouts, forcing Todd Pletcher to try the blinkers. While he looks decent in the flesh, as most Pletcher trainees do, I haven't seen enough to make me think he suddenly gets his mojo back on track Saturday. He won't be embarrassed and has as good of a 10-furlong pedigree as most anyone in the starting gate. I just don't see him finishing in the top four to impact the tickets I'll be playing.

DERBY KITTEN: The short field in the 1-1/16 miles Lexington did little to prepare him for what he faces Saturday on two weeks' rest. But let me preface by saying that owner Ken Ramsey's horses by Kitten's Joy are on a tear like few I've ever seen over the past three to four weeks. Charismatic was an afterthought who got good at the right time and parlayed it into a Derby win out of the Lexington in '99. In a year when many horses are going the wrong direction, don't be shocked if a "now" horse can't outrun expectations for inferno-like connections. But he hits the ground like a turf horse and I would only consider him on a sloppy main track as an exotics threat.

In review, I've managed to throw out the jockey who has won three of the past four Derbies, the Santa Anita Derby 1-2 finishers, winners of the Tampa Bay and Louisiana Derbies, and the 2-year-old champion of 2010 along with his stablemate from the nation's most powerful stable. No wonder the Derby is deep grass to mow every year.

Exotics Contenders

ANIMAL KINGDOM: In Graham We Trust. The horse looks outstanding in the flesh and should have no trouble with the Derby distance. There's not a ton to like on past performances to be honest, but there's an infinite amount of respect for trainer Graham Motion and I love the grassy pedigree on the dam side, so key in past Derby success stories.

TWINSPIRED: I have become fascinated with horses who have turf breeding on the dam side of their pedigrees in recent weeks, and lest we forget that losers of the Blue Grass last year ran third and fourth in the Kentucky Derby with no prior success on dirt either (Paddy O'Prado and Make Music For Me). I have zero notions that he'll win the race, but if looking to fill out a third or fourth on your exotic wagers, I'll be including this one on some tickets.

BRILLIANT SPEED: If the track comes up sloppy, this guy absolutely skips over the mud as I've seen this week first person. Athletic, small and with a great turn of foot, he's what you want on a wet track. On a fast track, I have some doubts, but his closing kick in the Blue Grass (and that race's success here last year producing the third- and fourth-place Derby finishers) makes him very interesting. On a wet track, he's a must-use.

MASTER OF HOUNDS: Superb pedigree, and I was surprised to see how much he looked like an American racehorse when he stepped on the track Thursday morning for the first time. Muscular and powerful with a small foot, he doesn't look like your typical turf horse. He won't get embarrassed, but I'd have a hard time playing him to win. The pairing with American rider Garrett Gomez was an outstanding choice.

SANTIVA: While winning the Kentucky Jockey Club at age 2 does not guarantee any future success in the Kentucky Derby, it didn't hurt Super Saver last year to have had some local experience. Santiva never got a chance to run in the Blue Grass when hemmed in and leaned on the entire race. That could be good or bad. The good, he has an excuse for a terrible finish. The bad, he didn't get much conditioning out of the race since he never got to open up full throttle. He won't get embarrassed Saturday, and his best finish puts him third or fourth.

MUCHO MACHO MAN: His hoof issues from the Louisiana Derby appear to be in his past as the Macho Man has trained very well at Churchill Downs when it's been dry. He'll race with glue-on shoes, but honestly did not look good galloping in the slop to me. If it's wet, I'll throw him out. On a fast track, he's a very legitimate threat in this race. He's got the size and scope to develop into something special one day. The question becomes if May 7 is that day or not. I could listen to anyone's argument on either side. On a fast track, I'm using him in the exotics, bottom line.

SOLDAT: From this eye, he's had among the three-best training weeks at Churchill Downs of any Derby 137 contender, along with Shackleford and Archarcharch. His wide post position draw could help a horse that trainer Kiaran McLaughlin has been trying to teach to take dirt in his face all year. Remember the pressing, wide trip from runner-up Pioneerof The Nile in 2009? If he gets that kind of trip, he can be a danger to light things up. A fair price is in order and a fair chance at that. You could do worse. I can also see the point of those who think he needs the lead and retreats if he doesn't get it.

SHACKLEFORD: There's no doubt in my mind that Shackleford is coming up on the race of his life. That doesn't mean he is good enough to win the Derby, and will, but I promise you every other trainer in the gate wishes their horse was doing as well as Dale Romans' charge. Powerful, confident and fast, he's the epitome of a horse blossoming at the right time by the way he's training. Unfortunately, front-running speed horses rarely win the Derby, and horses like Comma to the Top and Decisive Moment could be pace forces hell-bent on breathing fire. Of the horses forwardly placed early, only Soldat and Shackleford appear classy enough to survive and finish in the top four to me.

DIALED IN: I've got very little knock on the morning line favorite other than a continued suspicion that he's more brilliant around one turn than two with his closing kick. And it's just a suspicion based on observation and inclination. With only four career starts, the ceiling for Dialed In is unknown and he could turn out to be any kind, plus or minus. I'd be shocked if he doesn't fire and finish in the top six or seven; he's highly unlikely to finish way up the track. Trainer Nick Zito called my 5-year-old daughter Sophia his angel from heaven today and showed her off around the barn because No. 8 is her favorite number. How can a proud dad say anything bad about that?

Win Contenders

NEHRO: I wish I was a body language reader. I've never, ever seen trainer Steve Asmussen around the racetrack acting as happy and light-hearted as he's been this week. And he and I go back to Remington Park in the early 1990s, long before his fame and repute. Known for his intense work ethic and competitiveness, Nehro's trainer has a fascinating smile and light nature about him this week. Nehro figures to drop back from post 19 and try to make the big late run for the roses, a trip that fell just short in New Orleans and Hot Springs recently. If you say a horse with only one career victory can't win the Derby, think Giacomo in 2005 and then rethink a very similar kind of late-plugging trip for the money. It can happen; you're just not going to get 50-1 on this possible second verse. He hasn't trained as smartly as Archarcharch since arriving at Churchill Downs, and that's the reason I'm leaning toward his Arkansas Derby rival for the top nod. But if Archarcharch encounters traffic trouble from that difficult rail draw, here's your ticket.

ARCHARCHARCH: Only Shackleford has been training even close to as well as Archarcharch from all the contenders I've watched this week. He exits the most important prep race of the past decade, the Arkansas Derby, and is experienced over the Churchill Downs racetrack, his home base. While jockey Jon Court has his work cut out for him from post No. 1, he's a cool rider at the controls and long underrated nationally.

Pedigree-wise, Archarcharch should be a natural. Sire Arch was proud papa of last year's Breeders' Cup Classic winner Blame over this exact same course and distance. And damsire Woodman sired Triple Crown race winners Timber Country and Hansel. One key aspect of Derby-winning pedigrees: almost without fail, the damsire is a horse best known for producing turf horses, or a turf horse himself. Endurance in American dirt pedigrees absent, that's a very key historical point worth tabbing as we've mentioned a few times here.

From just about any other post position on the track, I'd be absolutely unloading all my wagers on Archarcharch. From the No. 1 post, however, it's more than fair to question the selection and the amount of the wager. I'm not blind; I've seen enough Derbies to know it will take some divine intervention to get the trip from down there.

But at the end of the day, and the path to the Derby, I'm going to trust my eyes and what I've seen up close. Archarcharch needs only to avoid a traffic disaster to get to the winner's circle on time.

Enjoy the ride, it's Derby time!

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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