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.

No time to mess around this week as we hit the final stop of the 2011 Triple Crown. I don't even have time to ponder why they call it a rubber match, only time to try and solve who just might win it. Let's get rolling.

This week's fearless forecast

We'll begin our look at each contender and his relative chances after a quick look at how I see the Belmont Stakes pace shaping up.





Not On My Tickets

ISN'T HE PERFECT: Overmatched in the Preakness and any big stakes of repute, he's the least likely winner and longest shot on the board in terms of the win pool. But doubt he'll run last as he's got some endurance and probably outruns a handful of horses. ISN'T HE PERFECT won't outrun enough horses to land in the superfecta, however.

PRIME CUT: No one has more respect for trainer Neil Howard than I do, but the distance of the Belmont simply seems far beyond this horse's best trip, based both on pedigree and past performances. He could challenge SHACKLEFORD a bit down the backstretch if pressed into duty, but that's a recipe for retreat later in the race.

STAY THIRSTY: If his older brother wasn't Belmont Stakes runner-up Andromeda's Hero, he might not even be in the lineup Saturday based on his recent sour form. But if there's a Triple Crown race out there where STAY THIRSTY might be competitive, I guess this is the one. He's trained well heading into the race, but was training and looking well before running in the back half of the field in the Kentucky Derby. For a horse who is supposed to be a true router, he's lost ground in three of his four races around two turns. Not for me.

RULER ON ICE: Picking up significant weight (8 pounds) off of his Tesio second at a distance that was a seven-sixteenths of a mile shorter than the Belmont is a tall order. Pedigree-wise, there's no reason to think that the 12-furlong Belmont will be advantageous to him. While his third in the Sunland Derby looked better after Astrology came back to run third in the Preakness, there simply are too many other horses I trust more at the distance Saturday than this son of Roman Ruler.

SANTIVA: His decent run in the Kentucky Derby gives him every license to take a shot in the Belmont Stakes. There's plenty of pedigree top and bottom and nothing in his running lines suggests that he'll stop at any point. It's just a matter of whether he can run fast enough and finish with the kind of oomph it will take to win. My answer to both points is "probably not" and I'll leave him off my tickets while expecting him to run a respectable, mid-pack race. He would not shock to run third or fourth in the gimmick wagers, but I'll take my chances by only including him on the very bottom of some gimmick tickets.

MUCHO MACHO MAN: My inclination was that he was over-traveled and over the top heading into the Preakness and he didn't show much after a troubled beginning. The jury remains deadlocked on whether his Preakness sixth was a product of the former or latter reasons. Or if you buy into all this talk about shoes. I've become increasingly less interested in excuses from trainers over the years as you simply don't know what's viable and what's not. Use your handicapping noodle here. If you think he's good enough, play him. If you don't, don't. Don't try to read between the lines. I'm going to take a stand against him again because it worked for me at Pimlico.

Exotics Contenders

MONZON: Along with ANIMAL KINGDOM and SHACKLEFORD, here's your only other three-time winner in the Belmont Stakes cast. And, he's sired by 1995 Belmont and Kentucky Derby champion Thunder Gulch, who already has sired a Belmont winner in 2001 champ Point Given. Given his long-winded style and one-paced nature, you could do a lot worse than including him on the bottom of a few exotic wagers at huge odds. Would be a shocker to run better than third or fourth, however.

BRILLIANT SPEED: If the Belmont comes down to a rider's race, and it often does, nobody will be in better hands than BRILLIANT SPEED. Joel Rosario, simply put, is a tactical, cerebral rider with few peers in the game today. Some are as good, but no one will school him. Tons of pedigree for this race and a run-all-day style makes him a prime candidate to factor late for the exotic wagers. He answered the dirt question well enough in Louisville and I like his chances for a decent run second, third or fourth Saturday.

MASTER OF HOUNDS: If the exceptional amount of travel doesn't get to him (about 18,000 air miles), the globetrotter figures to have a large say in the Belmont Stakes outcome. As equipped as anyone to handle the distance, I liked the way he leveled out in the Derby stretch and he impressed me on the dirt. But what is left after long trips from Ireland to Dubai, Ireland to Louisville and now Ireland to Long Island? I wish I had a more concrete answer, but I've seen enough of him in the UAE and Kentucky derbies to include him in my wagers Saturday.

Win Contenders

SHACKLEFORD: Jesus Castanon has won 2,040 career races, but exactly five of them at Belmont Park. And when you factor out the turf races, he's ridden in only 16 races on the Belmont Park main track in his career. That inexperience, and the fact he's not riding anything at Belmont all week or on the undercard to get acclimated is a big deal to me. When he opts to set SHACK down for the drive is crucial as he'll be on the front end, and moving too soon is something that absolutely cost veteran riders who lacked Belmont know-how like Calvin Borel and Stewart Elliott in recent years.

I love the way SHACKLEFORD worked over the track and he looks ready to put in a machine-like tour de force on the front end. He'll pound out :24s as long as they'll let him and you have to take him very seriously even at this distance. If no one forces Castanon's hand too soon, he might win it all on the front end. But that jockey inexperience at Belmont leans me toward the other big contenders here for top billing, even if Preakness winners historically have had a big upper hand in rematches at Belmont against the Derby champs (10-5 edge).

ANIMAL KINGDOM: Almost a third of John Velazquez's 4,500-plus career wins have come at Belmont Park, so there's a definitive rider edge at this locale when matched up against Jesus Castanon aboard SHACKLEFORD. Jockeys often get way too much credit when they win and way too much criticism when they lose. They're like coaches and managers in other sports that way. But it's fair to think that the Belmont Stakes could come down to a rider's race given it appears to be a soft pace on tap, and my thought is that everyone will be in with a chance heading into the far turn.

ANIMAL KINGDOM physically is holding up very nicely, just like SHACKLEFORD, and the connections of both have to be tickled with what they visually see. One thing that wasn't so exciting to me, and perhaps to an even understated-for-him Graham Motion, was the blistering half-mile workout ANIMAL KINGDOM turned in on Monday. I don't know that I ever want to see my horse work a half-mile in :47-and-change before having to run 1˝ miles. Call it fresh; call it cranked up; call him feeling good. Pick your description. Just don't be surprised if he makes a fantastic mid-race move and then hits a proverbial wall given that hot workout and the fact this is his third race in five weeks. I think ANIMAL KINGDOM will make a special, winning-type move in this race. It's just a matter if it's the last act in the 12-furlong play. If it is, we'll remember this as only the fourth horse in history to come within a half-length of winning the Triple Crown.

NEHRO: Since 2000, only two horses have won the Belmont Stakes that even competed in the Preakness. It's almost unfathomable to think that it took superstars like Point Given and Afleet Alex over the past 11 years to wheel back and win the Belmont after racing at Old Hilltop. Given that fact, you have to like a fresh horse who has been waiting in the wings like NEHRO. Sure, he will be over-bet based on his relative career résumé (1-for-6 lifetime), and plenty of wiseguys will be on the bandwagon. That's fair for a value player to critique. But his Derby effort was fantastic and coming into the first Saturday in May, you may recall here in Countdown we were all over the Arkansas Derby alumni as our elite contenders in Louisville. All that race has done since is produce the winners of the Peter Pan and the Ohio Derby among its also-rans, further strengthening the schedule NEHRO has kept.

The Derby-to-Belmont layoff has been a successful tune sung since 2000 by horses like Commendable, Empire Maker, Birdstone, Jazil and most recently Summer Bird in 2009. That's right, the same Summer Bird who rose from the maiden ranks to major stakes player at Oaklawn. And the same Summer Bird who waited to make the last move in the Belmont Stakes and pass a late-running long shot Kentucky Derby winner (Mine That Bird) after that runner rallied and ran out of steam. I see a replay of 2009 on tap.

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.