Countdown to the Crown

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 the hideous tales (pun intended) of those poor New Jersey saps hospitalized this week after buttock enhancements went awry. Some people can take making an ass out of themselves to new levels.

1. In the past seven graded Triple Crown preps contested at Oaklawn, five have contained at least one starter based on the California synthetic tracks. Of those five Oaklawn invasions, the West Coasters own four wins and a second-place finish. Keep that in mind as you analyze Saturday's Rebel and recall the recent years' dominance by invaders Sierra Sunset, Gayego, Papa Clem and Conveyance.

2. Saturday marks the return of the winners of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (LOOKIN AT LUCKY), Kentucky Jockey Club (SUPER SAVER) and Breeders Futurity (NOBLE'S PROMISE). If that sounds significant, it should. The last time three different winners of those key races all made it to the Kentucky Derby gate was 1995, when Timber Country (BC Juvenile), Tejano Run (Breeders Futurity) and Jambalaya Jazz (KJC) faced the starter.

3. How Derbyesque would it be for Alexis Barba, she of the six-horse stable, to bring not one, but two contenders to Churchill Downs? After 32 years in the game, Barba's story with recent winners MAKE MUSIC FOR ME and ALPHIE'S BET offers a script that keeps Thoroughbred racing as fresh as it's ever been.

This week's fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. Five of the top seven horses in this week's Countdown rankings are in action; can it get much better than that? Now that we're snugly into March, we'll focus solely on the stakes races that become increasingly important. In the event of a big undercard performance, you'll read about it in Countdown's review section next week.

In a week where both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta make their seasonal debuts in the older filly and mare ranks, the 3-year-olds still won't go overshadowed. After all, champion LOOKIN AT LUCKY (Bob Baffert) is back to work. What a stakes weekend with the Rebel, San Felipe and Tampa Bay Derby!

How important? These three mid-season preps have produced eight of the 15 Kentucky Derby placings in the past five years.

  • The G2 San Felipe has produced a Kentucky Derby top two finisher twice in the past five years, Giacomo as the 2005 winner and Pioneerof The Nile as the 2009 runner-up.

  • The G2 Rebel produced the Kentucky Derby's third-place finisher in 2005 (Afleet Alex), 2006 (Steppenwolfer) and 2007 (Curlin), with two of those horses then going on to Preakness victories.

  • The G3 Tampa Bay Derby produced 2007 Kentucky Derby champ Street Sense, as well as 2006 runner-up Bluegrass Cat and last year's third-place finisher Musket Man.

    G2 Rebel Stakes (Saturday/Oaklawn)

    Californians have owned the Oaklawn 3-year-old stakes in recent years, which SHOULD alleviate some of those synthetic-to-dirt worries, but somehow doesn't for most pundits and players. In 2008, Sierra Sunset raided to win the Rebel after running second in the Southwest; Gayego followed up the next month in winning the '08 Arkansas Derby; Papa Clem invaded to win the '09 Arkansas Derby; and Conveyance wired last month's Southwest Stakes from his west coast base for Bob Baffert.

    Make no mistake: None of those horses had a blip of the credentials of 2-year-old champion and current Countdown No. 1-ranked LOOKIN AT LUCKY, who comes east for his sophomore season debut in Saturday's Rebel. Just as was the case last week with MAKE MUSIC FOR ME in the Pasadena Stakes, you can say the Rebel is just an "outing" for 'LUCKY to get back into the mix after a long layoff, but the addition of blinkers Saturday also provides a decided measure of seriousness and importance for this start.

    With Southwest pacesetters CONVEYANCE and DRYFLY absent in the Rebel, the pace figures to be dictated by a sprinter with much less respect around two turns, namely ROYAL EXPRESS (Spanky Broussard). That's decidedly different than what we saw in Hot Springs last month, when the pace players were the horses to beat.

    LOOKIN AT LUCKY has a tactical running style that puts him into the race without the need of dueling on the lead. Given the freshness of the horse, along with Team Baffert's recent, wire-to-wire success at Oaklawn with ship-in winners of the Southwest and Azeri Stakes, don't be shocked if 'LUCKY finds himself the first horse in pursuit of ROYAL EXPRESS. That's probably his best trip, and it's not out of the question given the situation. UH OH BANGO (Kory Owens), the naturally quick Delta Jackpot runner-up, also will be fresh after a three-month break. The honest-trying, over-achieving CARDIFF GIANT (Jorge Periban) also has a bit more "quicks" than he was asked for in the Southwest. But none of these chasers would be considered dead-set speedballs.

    DUBLIN (D. Wayne Lukas) does not figure to be as far back against this crew as he was in the Southwest, and should be sitting on a major advantage Saturday. New rider Corey Nakatani likely will be aggressive with him and get him into the race. Making his second start off of a long layoff, DUBLIN got a ton out of the Southwest and has trained smartly since. Given an edge in fitness and proven fondness for the racetrack, he should be armed and dangerous in the Rebel. While you might not slot a horse like DUBLIN as high as you regard LOOKIN AT LUCKY, or even the fellow comebacker NOBLE'S PROMISE, you do have to respect the here and now. DUBLIN's best chance to ever beat those kind of horses likely comes Saturday at 1-1/16 miles, with the fitness edge and his home-track advantage.

    NOBLE'S PROMISE is a real wild card, I'll just be honest. He had a long 2-year-old campaign that spanned from an early-season Keeneland dash to the CashCall Hollywood Futurity at season's end in late December. That's not what you expect of a horse who is supposedly a Triple Crown contender. NOBLE'S PROMISE was campaigned like a win-early juvenile, and by young sire Cuvee, you can understand why they'd emulate dad's career. On the flipside, McPeek also ran Tejano Run at Keeneland in the spring of his 2-year-old year and made the gate to finish second in the 1995 Derby. But horses aren't made like they used to be, as they say. Rafael Bejarano rode NOBLE'S PROMISE at Hollywood and you'd assume the mount would be his if he wanted it. Instead, he's staying west to ride Saturday. I'll play against 'PROMISE this time, but respect his finish and slot him accordingly coming out of the race since I respected him so much as a 2-year-old.

    Rebel Stakes selections: W) LOOKIN AT LUCKY; P) DUBLIN; S) CARDIFF GIANT.

    G2 San Felipe (Saturday/Santa Anita)

    The Nos. 4,5,7 and 11-ranked horses in this week's Countdown rankings clash in a race that makes for difficult separation. With an intermediate, 1-1/16 miles distance, everyone remains in play at this point in the season. Toss in multi-surface X-factor INTERACTIF (Todd Pletcher), and it really gets interesting. So to say there are five legitimate win options in this seven-horse field should not be taken as waffling, but rather as an honest assessment from a straight-shooting handicapper.

    CARACORTADO (Mike Machowsky) clearly was best on Feb. 13 in the G2 Bob Lewis Memorial, sitting behind dueling leaders, tipping out at the head of the lane and accelerating like a very good horse while winning in hand. Given the make-up of the San Felipe field, if you substitute newcomer SIDNEY'S CANDY (John Sadler) in the role of front-running speed for the departed TIZ CHROME, you could have the exact same set-up for CARACORTADO once again. Pace-pressing AMERICAN LION (Eoin Harty) figures to be the first to get an early lick at 'CANDY.

    In the Lewis, 2-1/4 lengths separated CARACORTADO and AMERICAN LION at the wire, but the edge in fitness that day should have clearly been with the winner, who had the advantage of two more-recent starts. I'm looking for that gap to close Saturday as these two highly legitimate Kentucky Derby contenders re-match on a level playing field this time. AMERICAN LION appeared to struggle a bit early over the track, really bouncing and wasting motion as he pursued TIZ CHROME in the Lewis. He had spent most of the winter at Hollywood Park prior, but since has been kept at Santa Anita with a logical assumption as a handicapper that he'll be more comfortable with the surface than he was a month ago.

    Nothing CARACORTADO has done makes you think he'll take any step backward whatsoever in the San Felipe. In fact, his form was flattered by the results of last week's Sham when ALPHIE'S BET took the prize. He's not going to beat himself, so the only way to beat CARACORTADO will be for one of his rivals to make a major leap forward, and from this eye the most dangerous leap forward would be from AMERICAN LION.

    DAVE IN DIXIE (John Sadler) certainly deserves much respect and consideration in the San Felipe off his late-running second in the Lewis and razor-sharp workout tab since the race. Like AMERICAN LION, 'DAVE should improve and appears to be a horse who may peak in the Santa Anita Derby next time. Still, if the others falter in the least bit, he's a win candidate Saturday. Stablemate SIDNEY'S CANDY has a world of talent and should be on the lead in his first start around two turns. He's regally bred and there's no reason the Candy Ride-Fair Exchange colt can't get 1-1/16 miles and more based on pedigree. If not pushed hard early, it would be no shock to see this guy wire them -- he's that good. Put it this way: I think much, much more of front-running SIDNEY'S CANDY than I did of TIZ CHROME in the Lewis.

    What to do with INTERACTIF? The slow canter and late blast of the Hallandale Beach Stakes should have served as a perfect return race, not too taxing, but not without some test. Jockey Kent Desormeaux has been replaced with Rafael Bejarano and he gets a five-pound weight break from his recent tries. You know he can ship west, having run so well in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Santa Anita last fall. But is he this good? His running lines are littered with horses who would be 30-1 in this race, and BIM BAM, who vanquished him in the tough Hallandale Beach stretch run, floundered to run fifth at a short price in his next start at the G3 level. I'm willing to take a stand against INTERACTIF on Saturday, but also respectful enough to know that if he runs well here that he's a rising star in the Countdown rankings and will be treated as such next week.

    San Felipe Stakes selections: W) AMERICAN LION; P) CARACORTADO; S) SIDNEY'S CANDY.

    G3 Tampa Bay Derby (Saturday/Tampa Bay Downs)

    When Street Sense made his 2007 return in the Tampa Bay Derby on a two-prep path to Louisville, he ran his guts out in a track record-setting performance over Any Given Saturday. Then, he came back to get just what he needed in the Blue Grass with a soft pace and flourishing final quarter-mile. Countdown's No. 3-ranked SUPER SAVER (Todd Pletcher) would be best-served with a similar scenario, getting the stuffing knocked out of him Saturday against challengers who have more 2010 early season seasoning.

    And he just might have that kind of front-end tussle if ODYSSEUS (Tom Albertrani) is sent after the favorite early. The Tampa Bay Derby looks like a two-horse race on paper to me, and both appear to have the most early speed to set up the test at whatever point their respective riders choose. Rajiv Maragh on ODYSSEUS holds the keys to the Tampa Bay Derby pace vault. What he decides to do, and when he and ODYSSEUS do it, determines the outcome of the race.

    In the local prep, the Sam F. Davis, neither SCHOOLYARD DREAMS (Derek Ryan) or UPTOWNCHARLYBROWN (Alan Seewald) was able to reel in loose-leading RULE (Todd Pletcher). Their hopes strictly rely on ODYSSEUS to soften up SUPER SAVER, since ‘SUPER appears to be a much more talented front-runner from this eye than RULE. If those guys couldn't catch RULE, they won't touch SUPER SAVER without some help.

    If the pace incinerates, which could happen with two aggressive horses (one of which could be fresh from the long layoff since November), certainly you can make the argument that SCHOOLYARD DREAMS and UPTOWNCHARLYBROWN are moving the right direction and capable of picking up the pieces. 'DREAMS has been working exceptionally well since the Davis; 'CHARLY desperately needed blinkers and gets the hood Saturday in what has to be deemed a smart move by Seewald. I like both of these horses and have respect for them, but, again, they'll need some pace help.

    So if the showdown is ODYSSEUS and SUPER SAVER, where's the edge?

    SUPER SAVER has been away since his G2 Kentucky Jockey Club victory, loses rider Calvin Borel to Rachel Alexandra's comeback race in New Orleans, and never has raced over the Tampa surface. But still he's a graded stakes proven commodity against a field that includes a grand total of two listed stakes wins. To that end, SUPER SAVER spots his principal rivals 6 pounds each on Saturday.

    ODYSSEUS has yet to take on any sort of competition at his level, but his 15-length local allowance win was a spectacular dress rehearsal over the surface. To the negative, the horses he beat at Gulfstream in January have genuinely underperformed in their subsequent starts.

    I'm looking for SUPER SAVER to have a gut-wrenching race like Street Sense did in 2007, but find a way to win the Tampa Bay Derby on class like that superstar did a few years back.

    Tampa Bay Derby selections: W) SUPER SAVER; P) ODYSSEUS; S) UPTOWNCHARLYBROWN.

    Last week's selections: 2-0-0-0; off the board in the Sham (Nextdoorneighbor) and Gotham (Wow Wow Wow). I've been rightly disciplined for lack of performance.

    Season selections: 16-3-3-2.

    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 www.HorseplayerNOW.com.

    Everyone's a critic

    This section recaps the week that was for the sophomore set. Three stakes held last weekend were won by Jeremy Noseda (Gotham) and Alexis Barba (Pasadena, Sham) trainees. Say what?! Exactly. This is not your father's Triple Crown trail, gang.

    Let's start with the Barba double at Santa Anita, where MAKE MUSIC FOR ME stormed home late to win the one-mile Pasadena on grass over a game and fleet MACIAS (Bob Baffert). This was the best performance of the weekend to me without a doubt.

    For 'MUSIC to make his first start since finishing third in December's G1 CashCall Hollywood Futurity and beat a turf mile specialist like MACIAS at his own game was remarkable. The Pasadena was run a tick faster than the G1 Kilroe Mile for elite older horses on the same card, while they flew home in :23.50 the last quarter and :11.71 the final furlong. MACIAS didn't quit; MAKE MUSIC FOR ME ran by him, opened up and then galloped out like a beast. This is a very dangerous racehorse. Third-place runner ALFARABI (Eoin Harty) had recently beaten SETSUKO (Richard Mandella) in allowance company, and his form was flattered a few races later when SETSUKO ran a clear second in the G3 Sham.

    The Santa Anita Derby will be next up for MAKE MUSIC FOR ME, and you had better respect his chances in that one. It's fair to question the pedigree for the Kentucky Derby, by middle-distance grass horse Bernstein out of a Carson City mare. But let's see how 'MUSIC sings late in the Santa Anita Derby at 1 1/8 miles before making any final judgments. As for MACIAS, I could see him being dangerous in the G2 Lexington at 1-1/16 miles on Polytrack, but likely will find a home as a turf miler.

    The G3 Sham Stakes, run two races after the Pasadena, put the little-known Barba stable front and center once again when ALPHIE'S BET rolled past them all with a convincing score. The winner ran the last three furlongs of the 1-1/8 miles in about :36 flat, very strong, and got the final furlong in about :12-1/5, again strong. The California-bred's win further flatters what we already knew: rival CARACORTADO, who vanquished him in stakes company previously, is one legitimate racehorse. Look for ALPHIE'S BET to hit the road next as MAKE MUSIC FOR ME stays home for the Santa Anita Derby. My projection would be the G1 Blue Grass at Keeneland for 'ALPHIE.

    Clearly the pace of the Sham helped the late-runners' causes, as NEXTDOORNEIGHBOR (Mike Machowsky) needlessly was pushed along by jockey Mike Smith on a wicked pace after the rider panicked when faced with being fanned wide on the first turn. The inexperienced 'NEIGHBOR was unable to re-settle. Note that the 1-mile split time of this 1-1/8 miles race was nearly five lengths faster than that of the G1 Santa Anita Oaks. It's hard to say where 'NEIGHBOR will regroup from this, and exactly how taxing the effort was. He certainly ran too hard early and came up empty. Maybe look for him at Sunland Park, but watch the workout tab for clues.

    SETSUKO (Richard Mandella) ran on well in the Sham and clearly was second-best in his stakes debut. It was a promising try for the son of Pleasantly Perfect and he appears a horse well capable of handling a classic distance. He'll have to get better to win the Santa Anita Derby for sure, but he's moving the right direction. THE PROGRAM (Bob Baffert), is expected to wheel back quickly and run in the G2 Louisiana Derby March 27 off his third-place Sham finish. OUTLAW MAN (Ken McPeek) ran a very even fourth and should be considered a candidate to peak next out at Keeneland in either the grassy Transylvania or even as a Blue Grass upset candidate.

    Just like California's Sham, the G3 Gotham at Aqueduct sported a weak field based on proven credentials and was more of a break-out opportunity for a horse good enough to do so. In a way, I guess you could say AWESOME ACT (Jeremy Noseda) delivered on that chance. The English raider rolled to a no-doubt-about-it victory under Julien Leparoux, bounding up to a tiring field at the top of the stretch with consummate ease. He answered my chief question posed last week concerning a European's ability to handle a legitimate American pace. The :46-3/5 opening half-mile thrown on the board by WOW WOW WOW (D. Wayne Lukas), no doubt, provided legit U.S. fractions.

    AWESOME ACT ran the fourth quarter of this 1-1/16 miles race in about :25 flat, which isn't horrible and isn't remarkable; so was his visual whoosh really as impressive as the eye offers? Probably not, but, still, he overcame the plane, the quarantine and a layoff since the Nov. 7 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. In other words, the positives outweigh any criticism you can come up with. This was a nice return win against a bad field. He'll have to get much better to win the G1 Wood Memorial, but you'd expect that of any G3 prep winner advancing to his region's main event. Many highly respected people in the industry long have told me to watch out for the Euro-bounce in the second race off the plane. If 'ACT II turns out better than the Gotham opening act, then we're probably looking at a horse who can make noise in Louisville.

    What was behind AWESOME ACT at Aqueduct? New York-bred sprinter YAWANNA TWIST ran second and fellow sprinter NACHO FRIEND was third in his first start since Saratoga a summer ago. The Whirlaway's 1-2-3 finishers came back to run 6-9-10, while Oaklawn invader WOW WOW WOW was simply GASSED GASSED GASSED. So not much.

    Finally, for all the moaning and synthetics-hating that goes on with unproven horses on dirt, someone explain to me how the public had no problem making a European turfer the favorite in Aqueduct's Gotham? If AWESOME ACT had won at Keeneland or Santa Anita, all you would hear about is how the synthetic surface helped the turf horse. Double standard, anyone?

    Quick Hitters

    Next week marks the big day at Gulfstream with Saturday's G1 Florida Derby and G2 Swale. East Coast leader ESKENDEREYA (Todd Pletcher) looks for a Fountain of Youth-Florida Derby ... ESKENDEREYA breezed a half-mile Sunday at Palm Meadows in :49.30 ... Risen Star winner DISCREETLY MINE (Todd Pletcher) worked a half-mile in :49.30 Sunday at Palm Meadows in preparations for the March 27 G2 Louisiana Derby, while stablemate RULE went the same morning 5F in 1:01.70 with a possible G1 Florida Derby Date in his crosshairs ... Fellow Pletcher trainee AIKENITE bounced back from his Fountain of Youth third in good order, working a half-mile Sunday in :49 flat at Palm Meadows. He's readying for the G1 Blue Grass at Keeneland ... Risen Star runner-up TEMPTED TO TAPIT (Steve Klesaris) breezed a half-mile Saturday in a rapid :47.60 at Gulfstream Park and could run in next in the Louisiana Derby ... CONVEYANCE will make his next start in the G3 Sunland Park Derby.

    High Fives

    Jeremy Plonk's Top-5 rated performances by class so far this year (Dec. 26-present). Maiden and allowance races have now been dropped as we're in serious stakes-prep mode.

    Stakes Race
    1. ESKENDEREYA (Fountain of Youth, Gulfstream, 2/20)
    2. CARACORTADO (Bob Lewis Memorial, Santa Anita, 2/13)
    3. SIDNEY'S CANDY (San Vicente, Santa Anita, 2/15)
    4. RULE (Sam F. Davis, Tampa Bay Downs, 2/13)
    5. MAKE MUSIC FOR ME (Pasadena, Santa Anita, 3/6 -- turf) * new *

    Where are they headed?

    This new section tabs the upcoming final preps and who might be in attendance. Certainly many more names running in key preps this weekend will be added to those races for April 3 and 10 once the dust settles this Saturday.





    Santa Anita Derby (April 3, SA): MAKE MUSIC FOR ME, SETSUKO, OUTLAW MAN (or Blue Grass).


    Illinois Derby (April 3, Haw): I'VE GOT THE FEVER.

    Blue Grass (April 10, Kee): AIKENITE, ALPHIE'S BET, LENTENOR (or allowance), OUTLAW MAN (or SA Derby).

    Arkansas Derby (April 10, OP): BACKTALK, RULE (or Wood or Arkansas Derby)

    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 10 of the 2010 season


    Countdown reader Paul E. in Charles Town, W.V.

    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.