Commentary

Countdown to the Crown

Updated: May 13, 2011, 12:32 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

Countdown to the Crown

3 things you won't read anywhere else

Opinions are like Team Valor point man Barry Irwin humming an old Keith Whitley tune. More often than not, "You say it best when you say nothing at all."

1. America's best horseman, bar none, now has a Kentucky Derby trophy. Graham Motion's first Derby victory with ANIMAL KINGDOM proves that you can win in this game with class and sans medication rap sheet. While Derby wins didn't change the careers of Chip Woolley or John Servis, don't be surprised if Motion skyrockets to the elite in the game now that potential owners see that he's much more than a one-trick turf artist.

2. If you cringe every time racing gets bad publicity, send a thank you card to Smoke'n Al. Not that anyone roots for a jockey to be injured at any time, but dumping and walloping Robby Albarado on Derby Week helped save the sport a literal black eye. Fair or unfair, imagine the talk post-race if Albarado had won the Derby, given he recently was mug-shotted on domestic violence charges. Strange karma sometimes this horse racing.

3. Maybe next year the chorus of incorrectness will end about the irrelevance of races on the Polytrack. Let me update your scorecard. Top 4 Kentucky Derby finishes for horses prepping on a synthetic surface since 2007: 6, including 2 winners and 2 runner-ups, the most recent of which was ANIMAL KINGDOM. Top 4 Kentucky Derby finishes for horses prepping in the Wood Memorial since 2007: 1. Thank goodness for Tale of Ekati's fourth in 2008, huh?

This week's fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes. Let's take a quick look at Saturday's Grade 2 Peter Pan, annually a key prep to the Belmont Stakes.

G2 Peter Pan Stakes (Saturday/Belmont)

While only around 1 turn, this 1-1/8 miles contest traditionally still has more than held its own in terms of Belmont Stakes importance. This year should be no exception given the field entered. One of my top-respected 3-year-olds of 2011 will be in the gate, ALTERNATION, and he's undeniably a horse I will be watching closely if he can advance to the final jewel of the Triple Crown.

The quality of the Oaklawn 3-year-old crop was validated Saturday in the Kentucky Derby with NEHRO running a strong second. Now we'll get to see two of that meet's fellow late bloomers, ALTERNATION and UNCLE BRENT, take their show on the road to New York. Both were highly impressive allowance winners at the meet who graduated to stakes players on closing day. ALTERNATION finished up very well in the Arkansas Derby after missing a start in the Rebel because of his bad gate behavior. UNCLE BRENT was sensational in the listed Northern Spur at 1 mile. While the latter is not bred to run much farther than a mile, he's got a nice way of moving and the 1-turn distance of 9 furlongs at Belmont could be a recipe that gets him the trip.

Another with distance questions, but aided by the 1-turn Peter Pan trip, is ADIOS CHARLIE, a determined winner of a strangely run edition of the G2 Jerome last month. He'll give us a better Preakness line perhaps on ASTROLOGY, the horse he vanquished in the slop at Aqueduct. I'm not sold on 'CHARLIE at big-time distances. Meanwhile, JOE VANN has won 3 straight for Todd Pletcher, but his G3 Illinois Derby win was against much easier than this cast and the lead will be much more contested Saturday. He'll have to prove it to me again.

PRIME CUT exits a solid second in the Lexington at Keeneland and his connections dabbled with thoughts of the Preakness. But, truth is, he had no excuse last time out and I question his late-game tenacity to some degree. Still, he's talented. Also from Keeneland comes NEWSDAD, who ran a better-than-you-think fourth in the G1 Blue Grass and has plenty of pedigree to transfer his form to the dirt. He will be hustling late in the Peter Pan along with ALTERNATION.

G2 Peter Pan selections: W) ALTERNATION; P) UNCLE BRENT; S) NEWSDAD.

Last Week's Result: 1: 0-0-0. Top choice ARCHARCHARCH was injured and finished 15th in the Kentucky Derby while second choice NEHRO finished second under the wire.

Season selections: 45: 13-7-7. (45 races, top pick won 13 times, ran second 7 times and third 7 times).

Everyone's a critic

This section reviews the week that was in the 3-year-old ranks. Annually we give a 1-through-20 rundown of the Kentucky Derby field in this week's space. Why change tradition?

ANIMAL KINGDOM: It's easy to overreact to a visually impressive Kentucky Derby winner. After all, blowouts on the first Saturday in May have become the norm over the past decade. The question we must pose to ourselves regarding ANIMAL KINGDOM is simply whether or not he was the product of being the "now" horse or is a "now and forever" kind of runner? Because of his light resume, lack of Grade 1 or Grade 2 form, and those over-simplified disregards for previous dirt experience, some will maintain that ANIMAL KINGDOM simply caught a bad field on his best day. I'm not among them.

The Derby 137 winner was explosive in victory, giving away ground while striding out like a good thing in razor-sharp closing fractions. He finished up in about :47-2/5, which is lightning good. Only Secretariat has finished up faster in the last 30 years. The only recent Derby winners to finish in that same area code, time-wise, were Mine That Bird (:47-3/5) and Street Sense (:48-3/5), and surely you remember their rail-skimming, no-feather-in-the-path trips. Imagine how much ground ANIMAL KINGDOM covered compared to that duo and simply subtract it from how much faster he was on the back end of this Derby triumph.

Once again, the Kentucky Derby winner was a horse with a serious turf pedigree on the damside, a fact that is so much more than a trend. Flip through the list of past Derby winners over the past 40 years or so, and you'll see turf influence after turf influence on the bottom of the pedigree. It came as no surprise here to see that endurance pay off for ANIMAL KINGDOM even though his sire was turf miler extraordinaire Leroidesanimaux. Credit goes to that German turf staying power on the damside of the pedigree headed by broodmare Dalicia and broodmare sire Acatenango. Add his name to the list of recent Derby-winning damsires that feature Smart Strike, Nureyev, Dixieland Band, Stop the Music, Lord At War and Danzig.

The question now becomes: Can ANIMAL KINGDOM bounce back in the Preakness and do it again? According to DRF.com's Formulator stats, trainer Graham Motion is 7-for-48 (15 percent) over the past 5 years with 3-year-olds racing back on 1-14 days' rest, and a 14-percent trainer on that same quick turnaround with horses of all ages. This is not Motion's normal strength, but ANIMAL KINGDOM does not appear to be a normal horse. We wrote in our final Countdown analysis before the Derby "In Graham We Trust," and that confidence certainly was emboldened after watching ANIMAL KINGDOM train, and then dominate, in Louisville.

The Preakness will be the toughest task for ANIMAL KINGDOM in the entire Triple Crown because of the quick turn-around and normally conservative nature of his trainer. Think Neil Drysdale with Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, Michael Matz with Barbaro in 2006 or Barclay Tagg with Funny Cide in 2003. Only Funny Cide delivered in Baltimore from those respected, true horsemen. ANIMAL KINGDOM should appreciate some real "horse time" at Fair Hill Training Center between the Preakness and Belmont, but the short nature of the calendar between the Derby road trip and the Preakness offers little time to recharge the battery.

NEHRO: Jockey Corey Nakatani sensed the slow pace and was among the few riders to adjust to the situation, keeping NEHRO closer to the Derby pace than many expected, including me. He galloped out best of all after the Derby, despite being outrun in the lane by ANIMAL KINGDOM. This was a rock-solid effort from a rising star horse who will certainly be a Grade 1 winner unless heath issues derail him before he realizes that goal. I'd be inclined to save him for the Belmont Stakes and bypass the Preakness, which appears to be the path Zayat Stables and Steve Asmussen are plotting. The fact that he showed he could pound out the tempo within reach of the leaders and keep on punching is a perfect Belmont Stakes recipe.

MUCHO MACHO MAN: As honest as they come, MUCHO MACHO MAN ran a very solid third in the Derby despite drifting a bit in the lane. At the time, it appeared maybe he was tired, but in hindsight Rajiv Maragh may have been looking for a path. He righted himself and finished up well to nab SHACKLEFORD for third. Either way, it was an excellent trip and highly commendable result for a horse who seems to bring the lunch pail to work every time. He'll likely move on to the Preakness and reminds me a lot of Musket Man, a horse who danced all the dances in 2009 and seldom failed to get his named called in the lane. The massive colt still hasn't filled out his body or potential, and, if healthy, could be the future of the handicap division as a 4-year-old. But that's a lot of projection given how fragile we know today's racing environment can be.

SHACKLEFORD: Few horses, if any, were set to peak on Derby Day any more than the race's eventual pace-setter and fourth-place finisher. Trainer Dale Romans had his entire barn in tip-top form for the weekend and SHACKLEFORD was at the head of that list. Romans played poker once again with the pace, just as he did in the Florida Derby, showing no fear in instructing Jesus Castanon to take it to the competition early. As Romans noted before and after the race, when everyone else fears a speed duel, that's when you "send." Given the Derby's slow pace (the slowest in more than 50 years), it's fair to be a bit disappointed if you backed 'SHACK and he still was caught by 3 horses. But note Romans has had a Top 4 finisher in each of the last 4 Triple Crown races and figure on SHACKLEFORD to be a legitimate threat in the Preakness, even conceding that the pace should be quicker in Baltimore. I'll take a future book bet on his speed for August's Grade 1 Haskell right now if you'll give me odds.

MASTER OF HOUNDS: Striding very nicely on the dirt from the opening few yards, you could tell right away that the dirt was not going to be the issue for the Irish invader. Jockey Garrett Gomez gave him a masterful ride, saved a lot of ground and had some serious horsepower underneath him in the upper stretch. He had to change paths to get around a tiring COMMA TO THE TOP around the eighth pole and that temporarily stunted his progress before he re-rallied. I'm not sure it impacted his placing, but it would have cut into his 5-1/2 length losing margin for sure. This was a very promising effort and I'd love to see MASTER OF HOUNDS back here for the Belmont Stakes or potentially the Breeders' Cup Classic in the fall.

SANTIVA: He ran one of the most even races of anyone in the Derby, steadily holding his position while gaining placings at the latter points of call. Trainer Eddie Kenneally and jockey Shaun Bridgmohan both were pleased with the trip and effort afterward and I can't find any fault as well. SANTIVA appears to be a legitimate stakes player on dirt or Polytrack down the line, though I'm not sure he improves enough in 2 weeks to make a big run at a top placing at Pimlico.

BRILLIANT SPEED: Shuffled around a tiny bit under the wire the first time, you could see him fighting some of the kickback early in the race before settling into a good stride on the backstretch. He moved wide into the far turn and put in a very solid run though the lane, dispelling any notion that he couldn't handle the dirt. The Blue Grass Stakes winner is simply a better horse now than he was at age 2 when debuting on dirt in New York. This was a solid effort by an improving horse and one to consider at the Belmont Stakes in a few weeks, as well as New York's summer races like the Jim Dandy and Travers.

DIALED IN: Critics bemoan that Julien Leparoux didn't sense the slow pace and gave the post-time favorite far too much to do. But let's not forget that DIALED IN has been dead last at some point in the race in every single race of his career to date. And, horses racing dead last early had finished in the Kentucky Derby superfecta in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 coming into Saturday. Granted, the pace indeed was too slow to make up that kind of ground. DIALED IN blitzed the final half-mile in less than :47, and according to my research this week, only Secretariat ran a final half-mile any faster than that by any Derby starter since 1973. Conspiracy theorists surmised in the aftermath that owner Bob LaPenta and trainer Nick Zito merely used the Derby as a prep for a potential $6.1 million payday in the Preakness. The Magna $5.5 Million bonus certainly is a tantalizing element to the story for the Holy Bull and Florida Derby champ, and may explain why the horse was given a grand total of 3 published workouts since February. He'll be a fresh horse at Old Hilltop and I expect him to be a legitimate force to hit the board in Baltimore.

PANTS ON FIRE: No horse got a better ride or trip in the Derby than PANTS ON FIRE, who broke quickly, crystal clean, and got a perfect 2-path position into the clubhouse turn. Rosie Napravnik, the Derby rookie, titled him out perfectly to the 3-path for a run into the far turn and just didn't have enough horse when the leaders picked it up. The 6-week gap between the Louisiana Derby and the Kentucky Derby might have been too much when you consider how NEHRO jetted by him when the running began, and given the fact that NEHRO worked in an extra race in the Arkansas Derby during that same timespan. This was a decent effort by a decent horse who maybe just isn't "10-furlong good." Look for him to be a Haskell threat this summer.

TWICE THE APPEAL: He split the field to finish 10th with a 7-wide move that was hardly classic Calvin Borel on Derby Day, but you couldn't expect much more than this from a horse who struggled to beat anyone early in his career. Trainer Jeff Bonde has an interesting dilemma with him moving forward as a deep closer based in Southern California where speed reigns supreme. Expect him to hit the road for some of the smaller Derbies in the Midwest this summer/fall.

SOLDAT: He walked by me from the paddock tunnel to the post parade on Derby Day with a curious outbreak of sweat under his front legs/shoulders, something I haven't seen much in my career to be honest. It was the same spot he had been sweating from late in the week in his a.m. training as well. Maybe he can't take the heat or can't handle a race where he's not controlling the pace on dirt. Maybe both. But I predict you'll see trainer Kiaran McLaughlin return him to the turf, and don't be surprised if he were to blossom in cool weather in the fall on grass in a form reversal if he struggles further this summer.

STAY THIRSTY: He recovered well enough from a slight bump at the start and had a good trip otherwise. The Gotham winner simply did not offer much resistance and continued a backward move this spring that started with his return to Florida in March. Given his pedigree, the younger brother of Andromeda's Hero could be pointed to the Belmont Stakes. I'd want to see some morning indicators that hint to a major rebound before investing, however. He's got some quality about him as a racehorse, though brilliance is not among his traits.

DERBY KITTEN: It took only a few minutes watching him gallop over the dirt to realize that he was a turf/synthetic kind of horse. His piston-like stride really hit the ground hard in the mornings leading up to the Derby. He didn't embarrass himself in Louisville, but look for him back on the grass soon and to be a promising player. Mike Maker will do right by him. He and ANIMAL KINGDOM were the 2 biggest visual stand-outs in the post parade, but the surface and competition did this guy in.

DECISIVE MOMENT: He ran as well as expected, pressing the early pace, but simply faded from the steep rise in competition and quality of the front-end opposition. Few horses trained as strongly as this one Derby Week and he's got a real shot to be a player on the lower-end of the 3-year-old stakes around the country later this year. Don't sleep on him in Derbies in places like West Virginia, Iowa, Oklahoma and the like.

ARCHARCHARCH: Jinks Fires has worked 50 years in this game to train his first Kentucky Derby starter and deserved better. His Arkansas Derby winner was the talk of everyone on the backstretch who understood what a blossoming horse looks like. Bob Baffert mentioned him repeatedly throughout the week as the one horse who looked awesome every single day. If you asked 19 trainers in the Derby, I'd bet at least 15 of them would like to have traded places with Fires heading into Saturday's race. But fate dealt a lousy hand to ARCHARCHARCH, who appeared to have injured himself very early in the Derby trip, perhaps with a stumble leaving the gate. Passing the eighth pole the first time, you can see him take a few awkward steps and then begin to reach and climb with his left-front leg from that point on. Retired just days after the Derby with a leg fracture and additional cartilage damage, the 3-year-old class and potential handicap division lost a real player with the too-soon departure of ARCHARCHARCH. His quality was validated even in injury as his Arkansas Derby rival NEHRO carried the torch for both with a solid runner-up effort.

MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE: The Santa Anita Derby champ faded badly, giving up more than a dozen lengths after stalking mid-pack for the first 6 furlongs. This is not the kind of effort that spells Preakness rebound, and frankly I'd be surprised to see Bob Baffert and Arnold Zetcher moving forward to Baltimore, though that appears a distinct possibility as of press time. The Santa Anita Derby cast did not inspire this year with defections of horses like PREMIER PEGASUS and JAYCITO, and the end result was 15th and 19th in Louisville for that race's alumni.

TWINSPIRED: His hard race in the Blue Grass left him empty on 3 weeks' rest as we observed and reported on him blowing pretty hard in his light training leading up to Derby Day. Look for him to return to turf and synthetics after a brief freshening that might do him some real good.

WATCH ME GO: His Tampa Bay Derby win proved un-resounding as the spring unfolded and he never got into contention in the Derby. Hard to imagine there's a big graded stakes out there with his name on it, but he could become one of those veteran Calder listed stakes campaigners that knocks around for many years to come.

COMMA TO THE TOP: Derby fever got the best of this horse's connections, who were applauded in Countdown before the Santa Anita Derby saying that race would be their big dance for the spring. A fantastic over-achiever and hard-trying racehorse, COMMA TO THE TOP is a throwback to warriors of yesterday, but deserved a much better fate than exiting the Kentucky Derby with an ankle chip. Let's hope he returns in a few months and adds depth to the older horse division out west.

UNCLE MO: His entry and scratch was a deplorable show of self indulgence over good judgment and/or sportsmanship. Not a single horseman I talked to all week thought there was a 1 percent chance 'MO would make the Derby race, and when other horsemen are willing to talk to you negatively about someone else's horse, that speaks volumes. I have no problem with Mike Repole or Todd Pletcher holding out hope that an everyday horse in an everyday race might get healthy enough in the final 72 hours to run on any given Saturday. But if a horse isn't healthy enough to go on Wednesday, what in the world are you thinking is going to happen in 72 hours to make them well enough to run in this country's most grueling horse race? UNCLE MO's most noteworthy accomplishment one day might be that he was the single reason a Kentucky Derby also-eligible list was instituted. A sincere hope here is that 'MO recovers and returns to his 2-year-old form and then some.

Quick Hitters

If you're going to Pimlico next week, be sure to come out into the infield (it's not as crazy as you've heard) and say hello to me and my Horse Player NOW / Night School crew in the Preakness Wagering 101 Tent. Pimlico is committed to fan education on this big day and our guys are proud to be there for the second straight year on-site and helping new fans get a grasp on the game. We'll also be conducting our live chat for Countdowntothecrown.com from Pimlico all week. Join us Thursday, Friday and/or Saturday all-day during the live races for those … Special thanks to ESPN Radio's national crew of John Clayton and Chuck Wilson for having me on the air and promoting Countdown on Derby Day just prior to post time for the Run for the Roses. I look forward to accepting their invite back for Preakness Day … Dogs don't like blimps. Who knew? While my fearless family leader was being walked on Derby morning, the Goodyear Blimp flew perilously low overhead. The reaction was not positive from our barking 9-year-old cocker spaniel Tilly. Every time I think there's nothing more to learn about Derby Week, something like this happens. Don't walk your dog near the blimp. Where else are you going to get info like that?

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 Triple Crown season.

Stakes Race
1. ANIMAL KINGDOM (Kentucky Derby, Churchill, 5/7) * new *
2. ARCHARCHARCH (Arkansas Derby, Oaklawn, 4/16)
3. THE FACTOR (Rebel, Oaklawn, 3/19)
4. DIALED IN (Florida Derby, Gulfstream, 4/2)
5. SOLDAT (Fountain of Youth, Gulfstream, 2/26)

Rank 'Em!

Now that we're beyond the Derby, it's not just about the 20 horses in the Louisville line-up, but once again about 3-year-olds who could show up in the Preakness and Belmont, too. For now, we'll take out horses who have been injured/sidelined. We'll include them back in the season finale Top 20 to put a ranking perspective on the crop after the Belmont Stakes. This week's Top 20 is a blend of horses that we could still see in Triple Crown races.

Jeremy Plonk's top 20, 19th week of the 2011 season

1. ANIMAL KINGDOM

11. FLASHPOINT

2. NEHRO

12. ASTROLOGY

3. SHACKLEFORD

13. MR. COMMONS

4. DIALED IN

14. DANCE CITY

5. MUCHO MACHO MAN

15. SOLDAT

6. MASTER OF HOUNDS

16. STAY THIRSTY

7. BRILLIANT SPEED

17. NEWSDAD

8. ALTERNATION

18. MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE

9. SANTIVA

19. KING CONGIE

10. PANTS ON FIRE

20. UNCLE BRENT

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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