Editor's Note: Countdown to the Crown returns for a fifth season online as one of the most comprehensive handicapping analyses of the 3-year-old scene. Posted each Friday from Jan. 8 through the Belmont Stakes, Countdown keeps you apprised of the rising stars in the 3-year-old class from the maiden ranks through the Grade 1 stakes.
3 things you won't read anywhere else
Opinions are like a greased pig. Most of them you wouldn't want to wrap your arms around, even if you could.
1. Oaklawn Park opens its doors today for its 2010 season, which means the star of the spring's Triple Crown class ought to be somewhere prowling the backstretch in Hot Springs about now. After all, it's a road taken in entirety or part by the likes of Summer Bird, Curlin, Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones and more in recent years.
2. If Nostradamus had been a jockeys' agent, he might have predicted that Calvin Borel and Bob Baffert would team up in the 2010 Derby. Baffert and his wife, Jill, are unabashed fans of Borel, and when I spoke with Baffert seconds after Pioneerof The Nile's runner-up last spring in the Churchill Downs tunnel, he was incredulous on how only "Calvin-freaking-Borel" could have beaten him. Given the chances Baffert could have a brigade of contenders come May, the prediction here is he puts Borel on something of repute out of an ever-deepening respect.
3. Last year I drank the Kool-Aid for New York winter wonder Mr. Fantasy. He turned out to be a nice stakes horse, but nothing to worry about for the Triple Crown. Until proven otherwise, last week's hot-shot Aqueduct dominator EIGHTYFIVEINAFIFTY isn't about to stain my lips red just yet.
This week's fearless forecast
This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races.
The weekend's stakes action boasts Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert prominently on the marquee, so that commands our attention right off the bat. Sophomore stakes at Santa Anita, Golden Gate, Oaklawn, Tampa Bay Downs and Aqueduct spread the talent this extended Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday weekend.
We won't be able to analyze Monday's Smarty Jones at Oaklawn or Jimmy Winkfield at Aqueduct in any depth because the entries were not finalized as Countdown reached deadline. Among those expected in Hot Springs is DRYFLY, a Lynn Whiting trainee with Calvin Borel aboard for Oaklawn Park owner Charles Cella. We'll give both races a thorough review next week, but until then let's get into some undercard treats and then the Saturday stakes.
Saturday's only 3YO race at Gulfstream Park, the grassy Dania Beach Stakes, boasts BIM BAM (David Brownlee), who traded Calder punches all last year with JACKSON BEND. He's already a stakes winner on dirt and turf. Challengers include the impeccably-bred RAGING WIT (Bill Mott), a son of Distorted Humor and Pleasant Temper.
Saturday's San Rafael program at Santa Anita opens with sophomore maiden sprinters in Race 1, including the promising ROYCE (Paco Gonzalez), who debuted third behind future stakes players MACIAS and VIA VERDE during the Oak Tree meeting. He's "all-Paco" by Came Home and out of a Smokester mare. Also at Santa Anita this weekend, there's a Sunday downhill turf sprint allowance in Race 3 that could flatter or diminish the company lines for many of the west's top prospects. Also on Sunday, a 6-1/2 furlong Cal-bred sprint on the main track boasts the promising debut winner A PLUS TOPPER (Mike Machowsky) and Cal Cup Juvenile runner-up WOLF TAIL (Doug O'Neill), who underachieved in his return race last time out.
A good-looking 3YO sprint is on the docket Saturday at Fair Grounds, while the only real potential route player appears to be BRAVO WHISKEY (Neil Howard). The son of Smart Strike romped in his debut in very un-Howard-like fashion, but we'll have to see upon his reappearance if a wet track flattered the margin. Saturday's race could give us a good line on Sugar Bowl winner COOL BULLET (Steve Margolis) since three alumni of that race move back into the allowance ranks.
Oaklawn has a pair of races to watch Saturday in the fifth (allowance) and seventh (maiden sprint). D. Wayne Lukas' ACTIVITY REPORT, fourth to SUPER SAVER in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club last fall, makes his seasonal bow in allowance company. In the maiden dash, HONOUR ROCKET (Bob Holthus) returns from a Churchill debut where he was second to the ballyhooed WALKING THE BEACH. The connections of Summer Bird return with rookie EXPLOSIVE WAR (Tim Ice), sidelined at Saratoga before his debut. Afleet Alex's trainer, Tim Ritchey, returns with SONAR, last seen running second to eventual Spectacular Bid Stakes winner A LITTLE WARM in a salty Philly Park maiden event.
Saturday's seven-furlong Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs rematches Inaugural Stakes 1-2 finishers GESU and HELLEN'S CHOICE, but the real prospects moving forward appear to be Alan Seewald's romping debut winner UPTOWNCHARLYBROWN and SILVER CRAFT (Tony Reinstedler), an easy Churchill maiden winner also with an allowance score at Tampa last month.
San Rafael Stakes (Saturday/Santa Anita)
Only a field of five accepted the San Rafael call at one mile. Bob Baffert's unbeaten CONVEYANCE figures to be odds-on in his two-turn debut off a Hollywood allowance sprint romp. The Indian Charlie colt has seen several of his pursuers come back and run well, making him look highly legit. The one-mile distance should be well within his grasp.
John Sadler takes two swings at Baffert with VIA VERDE and DOMONATION, who in recent stakes tries were no match for the Baffert barn's MACIAS and TIZ CHROME, respectively. To this eye, CONVEYANCE appears much more promising than either of those Baffert stablemates, so the Sadler crew faces a tall mountain. LUCKY RAVE (Peter Eurton), third in the G3 Generous on turf, is the field's most experienced router.
San Rafael Stakes selections: W) CONVEYANCE; P) VIA VERDE; S) LUCKY RAVE.
California Derby (Saturday/Golden Gate)
All eyes will be on Lion Heart's little brother, CONNEMARA, as the Todd Pletcher trainee looks to improve to 3-for-3 after wins at Turfway and Santa Anita. He'll go for the synthetic surface trifecta of Polytrack, Pro-Ride and Tapeta while luring Mr. NoCal himself, Russell Baze, to the pilot's seat. CONNEMARA will be making his third straight start around two turns, something so rare at this stage in the game, and a feather in his cap if he continues progressing. That's why he's No. 9 in the rankings this week in Countdown.
THOMAS BAINES (Doug O'Neill) also comes north for the Cal Derby following a third-place finish to the visually impressive MACIAS in the grassy Eddie Logan at Santa Anita. He appears a legitimate threat to CONNEMARA on his best effort. Speedball RANGER HERTLEY (John Sadler) also makes the northerly trek, and the one-time claimer ensures a legitimate pace. Three locals all have some early or pressing pace designs as well, topped by the class-proven sprinter SHUDACUDAWUDYA.
California Derby selections: W) CONNEMARA; P) THOMAS BATES; S) SHUDACUDAWUDYA.
Last week's selections: 1-0-0-0; Discreetly Mine finished fourth in the Spectacular Bid.
Season selections: 1-0-0-0.
For more on this weekend's races, including handicapping strategies and a chance to interact live with Jeremy, visit the all-new Countdown to the Crown LIVE CHAT every Friday from 2-3 p.m. ET at HorseplayerNOW.com.
Everyone's a critic
This section recaps the week that was for the sophomore set.
A LITTLE WARM (Tony Dutrow) only got a little muddy, and that was a good thing as Jeremy Rose kept the closer wide in a rallying win in the $100,000 Spectacular Bid Stakes. Last Saturday's Gulfstream feature didn't appear to launch any Derby Dreams, but was a solid performance by the winner, who did not gallop out with any real zest to make you think he's a 10-furlong horse. Runner-up WILDCAT FRANKIE ran well in defeat as a pure sprinter, while G1 Hopeful alum WESTOVER WILDCAT also showed he's no more than a sprinter when flattening out badly. There was nothing wrong with the 1:10.25 final time, only about a length slower than elite older sprinter Custom For Carlos ran later in the card in stakes company. But projecting any of these horses out over a route is a dubious forecast.
While no Derby Dreams were launched in the 'Bid, perhaps one was squashed. G1 Champagne runner-up DISCREETLY MINE lunged at the break from the rail, and then was pushed along by John Velazquez to try and secure the rail mid-turn inside of front-running WILDCAT FRANKIE. But he was not able to accelerate himself through the hole. At no point did 'MINE look like a winner in a performance that was thoroughly troublesome, and self-induced, on all counts. I will be stunned if the half-brother to Discreet Cat turns out to be a two-turn stakes force, even by Mineshaft. It's early, and he'll be given every chance to rebound. Some people I really respect still like him, so maybe I'm too harsh.
Despite wandering quite a bit in the lane, QUIET ALL AMERICAN (Dale Romans) rebounded from three uninspired efforts up north to win what appears to be a quite poor Gulfstream maiden special weight mile on Saturday. A :26.25 final quarter clocking backed up the staggering visuals. Runner-up DESERT LORD (Kiaran McLaughlin) may prove best of this lot. The poor showing by SYSTEMIC RISK (Rick Violette) did nothing to flatter the 2-year-old form of Nashua conqueror BUDDY'S SAINT. Also on Saturday at GP, a Race 1 five-furlong maiden dash was washed off the turf and saw MAJOR MOMENTUM (Steve Klesaris) romp by 6-1/2 lengths. Even though he ran third going long on the turf at Meadowlands in November, this one appears all sprint as a half-brother to elite dasher J Be K and by champion sprinter Speightstown. This was a good visual performance for a potential sprint force.
Fear not for Pletcher just because of the DISCREETLY MINE dud. TAP stablemates THREE DAY RUSH and MISSION IMPAZIBLE fired a head-bobbing, one-two finish in a carousel six-furlong sprint earlier Saturday at Gulfstream. Not only were they the class standouts in a weak bunch, but a :23.07 first quarter all-but-insured they'd draw off from the rest late. They responded in tandem like good horses, coming home sharply in :23.72 (:11.79 final furlong). The final clocking was only about a length slower than the Spectacular Bid Stakes later on the card. Mission accomplished for both as a solid starting out point for 2010. MISSION IMPAZIBLE appears to have the more upside, giving away quite a bit of experience to the winner, and note he's a half-brother to Forest Camp with flashy pedigree to burn.
Speaking of Forest Camp, his son EIGHTYFIVEINAFIFTY (Gary Contessa) turned in the boojah! performance of the weekend, romping by 17-plus lengths in an Aqueduct maiden sprint on Saturday. 'FIFTY absolutely cruised and Chop-Chop Chavez was more or less Peek-Peek Chavez as the only motions he made were to look under his arms the final furlong and a half. He didn't beat much, but he did it all right and will get a two-turn test in the Feb. 16 Whirlaway. Also at the Big A last Saturday, New York-bred MY FOREST BABY (Todd Pletcher) turned some heads with a blowout debut sprint win. By Forestry, he's a half-brother to Japanese $2.9 million earner Divine Silver, but was nowhere near EIGHTYFIVEINAFIFTY on the clock at the same distance.
On Florida's west coast Saturday, SCHOOLYARD DREAMS (Derek Ryan) notched a mixed-reviews performance in a Tampa Bay Downs route allowance score. I appreciated his patience early in the race, but he was hard-worked on the far turn, lacked a sensational burst when asked, and lugged in a few times down the lane while galloping out about third-best in the field. The Stephen Got Even colt tipped his hand in December as a potential player when he worked heads-up with stablemate Musket Man, last year's Tampa Bay Derby champ and Kentucky Derby and Preakness third-place finisher. He'll have to do better, but that demanding Tampa track will make you work and he'll only get better for it.
Sunday's maiden route at Fair Grounds offered a horrible trip for ENDORSEMENT (Shannon Ritter), who settled for second-best behind the rapidly improving DOWN WITH DIXIE (Paul McGee). The winner got away with a front-end heist in 1:14.81 for six panels and responded late to give Jay Em Ess Stables another solid hopeful, along with fellow FG stablemate WORLDLY. DOWN WITH DIXIE's win also enhanced the strong opinion we had of FLY DOWN, a Nick Zito trainee who handed him a loss at Churchill Downs in the fall; this only flatters the sharp-working Floridian FLY DOWN upon his reappearance. Meanwhile, ENDORSEMENT was hung miserably wide from the 10-hole, had no pace to chase and ran gangbusters for second. By Distorted Humor out of Charmed Gift, ENDORSEMENT looks to be a serious racehorse. Among those in the wake Sunday was NORTHERN GIANT (D. Wayne Lukas), who could only muster third after chasing top New Orleans early season hopeful STAY PUT in maiden company in December.
As Santa Anita on Saturday, EL MIRAGE KING (Moon Han) impressed in a downhill turf sprint that clocked less than a length slower than very good older allowance runners ran earlier in the program. The Out of Place colt chased the good John Sadler prospect DOMONATION in a main track sprint at Hollywood in his debut to no avail, but was much improved here.
Late-running sprint victor POSSE POWER (Frank Lucarelli) drew off under heavy urging like a good thing at Golden Gate at Sunday, stopping the clock in 1:10.78 over the Tapeta surface. The time was nearly 6 lengths faster than a corresponding MSW sprint in the next race. Though he's by sprinter Posse, the dam is Stellarina (by Pleasant Colony), a half million-dollar earner who finished second in the G2 Monmouth Oaks. He's a long-strider who takes a long time to uncork and that's a good thing looking at two turns, even if his gallop-out was uninspiring Sunday and he flopped around his leads in the stretch. POSSE POWER may be interesting come El Camino Real Derby time.
ASPHALT (Eddie Kenneally) scored a mid-week turf allowance route win at Gulfstream, boosting the War Chant's colt stock as well as the resume of WINSLOW HOMER, the Tony Dutrow trainee who drilled him by 10-plus lengths on the dirt last summer at Saratoga. Also on Wednesday, MINED (Christophe Clement) led an unimpressive carousel finish at Tampa Bay Downs in a maiden special weight route. MT. FUGI, the half-brother to Cashel Castle by Fusaichi Pegasus, failed to deliver around two bends.
The final shot of the week in review was a loud one Thursday as second-time starter ODYSSEUS (Tom Albertrani) really impressed in a seven-furlong maiden breaker. Runner-up to the highly respected MOOJAB in his debut in October, ODYSSEUS looks rate-able and carries a magnificent build. The son of Malibu Moon could be a very good one, finishing seven furlongs in 1:22.83 while getting past the six furlongs in a time equal to an upper-level allowance earlier on the card for fillies/mares. Only about six lengths separated the top eight here, but not because of a lack of ability. This was a deep cast, coming home solidly in :24.30 and :12.67 considering a half in :45.86. FORWARD HARCH (Rick Violette) and NADAL (Jonathan Sheppard) should graduate quickly from this race.
Next Saturday's G3 Holy Bull at Gulfstream should match JACKSON BEND (Nick Zito), HOMEBOYKRIS (Rick Dutrow) and possibly AIKENITE (Todd Pletcher) in an early season show-down. 'KRIS signaled his readiness with a bullet Tuesday at GP in 1:12.60 for six furlongs ... The menu next week also includes the G3 Lecomte at Fair Grounds, featuring WORLDLY (Paul McGee), COOL BULLET (Steve Margolis) and MAXIMUS RULER (Clark Hanna) ... LOOKIN AT LUCKY worked in blinkers for the first time Saturday at Santa Anita, drilling a half-mile in :47.40 with fleet 3YO stablemate INDIAN FIREWATER, who finished up in :48.20. "Gomez felt the horse might need blinkers," trainer Bob Baffert said, "because when he makes the lead, he feels like a sitting duck. Today, I worked him behind a horse, and as soon as he got by his workmate -- usually, he shuts it down -- but today he just kept on going. Garrett likes him better with the blinkers. It just keeps him focused. If he goes in the San Felipe, he would wear them." ... Baffert's A.P. Indy-Azeri colt TAKE CONTROL posted a solid :47.80 half-mile workout last Saturday at Santa Anita ... SIDNEY'S CANDY (John Sadler) got back on the work tab Thursday, two weeks after a flat run in allowance company at Santa Anita, breezing a half-mile in :49.20. That's a good sign for the colt who had past shin issues and appeared to lose his action in the comeback try ... Sadler stablemate DAVE IN DIXIE also worked Thursday in 1:01 breezing at Santa Anita, as both talented runners are expected to resurface in February ... DUBLIN worked five furlongs Thursday at Oaklawn in 1:00.80 for D. Wayne Lukas ... BUDDY'S SAINT (Gary Contessa) breezed a half-mile Tuesday at Gulfstream in :48.10 ... AMERICAN LION zipped six furlongs Thursday at Santa Anita in 1:12 flat, his second straight strong drill for Eoin Harty ... SUPER SAVER (Todd Pletcher) has yet to work back since his win in the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill in November. Stablemate RULE, the Delta Jackpot champ, breezed a half-mile Tuesday at Palm Meadows in :49.30, his second drill back ... BACKTALK (Tom Amoss), one of last year's hot early 2-year-olds by Smarty Jones, logged his first work of the year last Saturday at the Gold Mark Farm training center in Ocala, Fla. (3 furlongs in :36.40) and appears a long way off from the discussion ... Dates for the 2010 Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pools will be Feb. 12-14, March 5-7 and March 26-28.
Jeremy Plonk's Top-5 rated performances by class so far this year (Dec. 26-present).
1. TAHITIAN WARRIOR (Gulfstream, 1/3)
2. TAKE CONTROL (Santa Anita, 12/30)
3. EIGHTYFIVEINAFIFTY (Aqueduct, 1/9) * new *
4. ODYSSEUS (Gulfstream, 1/14) * new *
5. DISTORTED DAVE (Santa Anita, 1/2)
1. STAY PUT (Fair Grounds, 1/3)
2. THREE DAY RUSH (Gulfstream, 1/9) * new *
3. ESKENDEREYA (Gulfstream, 1/7)
4. TINY WOODS (Santa Anita, 12/30)
5. KETTLE RIVER (Santa Anita, 1/6)
1. CARACORTADO (Cal Breeders Champion, Santa Anita, 12/26)
2. MACIAS (Eddie Logan, Santa Anita, 12/28 - turf)
3. A LITTLE WARM (Spectacular Bid, Gulfstream, 1/9) * new *
4. LAUS DEO (Count Fleet, Aqueduct, 1/2)
5. FLY BY PHIL (Tropical Park Derby, Calder, 1/1 - turf)
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: Week 2 of the 2010 season
Countdown reader Vini of Knoxville, Tenn.
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.