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 loved ones in our lives. Appreciate them for what they are, and never take them for granted.
1. Countdown sends out is warmest sympathies to the family of Alan Seewald, known here as the trainer of UPTOWNCHARLYBROWN, but known at home as a husband, father and far more important things. Mr. Seewald passed away Monday after a heart attack at the age of 62. His longtime assistant trainer, Linda White, will run 'CHARLY in Mr. Seewald's honor in Saturday's Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. Let me tell you, there's a legion of racing fans cheering for the Seewald family. God bless.
2. On a far less significant note: Why is it that every time a European turf horse comes to America to race on dirt, we get all schoolgirl-giddy and think how sporting of a venture it is, but when one of our own synthetic-surface horses dares race on dirt, they're dispatched as bums only cluttering up the field?
3. Because no one else will tell you, not a single Wood Memorial alumnus has finished in the money in the Kentucky Derby since Funny Cide and Empire Maker in 2003. That's six years of blanks, 13 off-the-board finishes and an average placing of 10th. So before one more gas-blower tells you about how bad the Blue Grass has been for three years, which somehow includes a Kentucky Derby winner in 2007 (Street Sense), remember how stupid you can look when you short-sight your statistics. This is not to disparage the Wood or its alumni this year, just to remind those who are openly lambasting other races without the facts.
This week's fearless forecast
This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. Now that we're into April, 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.
We're down to a solo act on the road to Louisville, Keeneland's G2 Lexington Stakes, a few miles up the road on Interstate 64.
G2 Lexington (Saturday/Keeneland)
It's been the Year of Pletcher on the Triple Crown trail, so it's almost fitting we wind down the chase in a race that he's won two years running with Behindattthebar and Advice. The powerful barn has two shots at the three-peat, G3 El Camino Real Derby winner CONNEMARA and listed Rushaway Stakes champ EXHI. They're two in a 12-horse field competing for the $180,000 winner's share of a $300,000 purse.
The purse is significant, or insignificant depending on how you look at it. In terms of qualifying for the Kentucky Derby's 20-horse limit, the $180,000 top prize likely won't be enough to get you to Louisville on its own. Perhaps it would be enough to bump the earnings reports of UPTOWNCHARLYBROWN and/or CHIEF COUNSEL. Meanwhile, Pletcher has said CONNEMARA, the only horse who could securely find a spot in the Derby gate with a victory, likely won't start in the Derby regardless.
The sentimental choice has to be UPTOWNCHARLYBROWN, who races for a group of everyday racing fans syndicated as Fantasy Lane Stables. After a horrendous ride from Daniel Centeno in the Tampa Bay Derby, Garrett Gomez now gets the call in the Lexington. Gomez has been riding with aggression and passion the past two weeks at Keeneland since his outburst in the Santa Anita Derby on LOOKIN AT LUCKY. It's as if he's out to prove he's the best rider in the world, and he IS.
The knock on 'CHARLY has little to do with him, but, then again, could have everything to do with him. The horses who beat him in the Tampa Bay Derby all came back and underperformed: ODYSSEUS finished last when injured in the Blue Grass; SCHOOLYARD DREAMS was a well-beaten fourth in the Wood; and SUPER SAVER had a million chances to run by the front-runner in the Arkansas Derby and failed to muster the necessary finish. He's raced only at Tampa Bay Downs, and you wonder what might have been in that Tampa class. A handicapping aside: Tampa Bay Downs shippers have run extremely well in the allowance ranks at Keeneland the past two Spring meetings, so don't buy into the single-case talk about ODYSSEUS as to why a dirt horse from Tampa has no shot on the Polytrack. Remember, too, General Quarters came out of last year's Tampa Bay Derby and won the Blue Grass on the Keeneland main track.
DISTORTED DAVE (John Sadler) was visually impressive in his March 26 victory at Santa Anita and has been on my radar since winning his debut Jan. 2. He's built like a router, and has a gorgeous look about him physically, so for him to win going 5-1/2 furlongs that day tipped him off as one to watch. His workouts in early March suddenly went off the charts and you could see he was a horse who had the "light bulb" turn on. He ran to that with a powerhouse win in which he strode out late like a good thing. And how can you argue with the Sadler barn right now, loaded with Arkansas Derby and Santa Anita Derby winners?
CONNEMARA is a terrible gate horse in terms of leaving the gate smoothly. Breaking from post 10 might be a good thing for him in that regard. Russell Baze will tuck him in after leaving slowly and save the ground, giving Lion Heart's little bro every chance if he's good enough. While not brilliant, this is an honest-trying horse and you have to respect his chances.
The Lexington pace ought to be pretty salty. EXHI has early quicks, and jockey Robby Albarado loves to get his route horses into a race early anyway. From post 12, expect Kent Desormeaux to use quite a bit of energy with former sprinter CHIEF COUNSEL (Bill Mott) as well. KRYPTON (Kiaran McLaughlin) exits a local sprint win two weeks ago and drew the wood inside.
In the end, I really like the way Gomez is riding right now and that gives 'CHARLY the slightest edge over DISTORTED DAVE. At the windows, a heavy exacta box will be the call to order for me, looking at this race on paper a day ahead of time.
Lexington Stakes selections: W) UPTOWNCHARLYBROWN; P) DISTORTED DAVE; S) CONNEMARA.
Last week's selections: 2-0-0-0; Countdown was completely shut out and whiffed badly on the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby.
Season selections: 28: 8-4-3.
Everyone's a critic
This section recaps the week that was for the sophomore set. While I'll readily admit I didn't see either result coming in last week's G1 Blue Grass or G1 Arkansas Derby, the post-script to both races deserves inspection.
Blue Grass Stakes
I joked during our live XpressBet RaceChats for Keeneland that I could not have hit STATELY VICTOR had you spotted me the replay and the winning ticket; I would have tossed it in the garbage cans for the stoopers. Still, in evaluation, you have to be open-minded about what we saw in the Blue Grass, and the winner was astonishingly good. How the heck he did it, I still have few clues. But you could say the same thing about Charismatic's victory in the 1999 Lexington Stakes, which also was visually sensational and from out of nowhere. Could STATELY VICTOR (Mike Maker) be blossoming at the right time?
While the division's heavyweights were absent, you did have the G3 Tampa Bay Derby winner (ODYSSEUS), as well as the runner-ups in the G1 Florida Derby (PLEASANT PRINCE) and G2 San Felipe (INTERACTIF). Historically this was a weak edition of the Blue Grass, but in the context of 2010, I challenge you to name a Derby prep that was considered very strong in terms of depth outside of the Santa Anita Derby. It might be said the Arkansas Derby had a better field than most, but all of its collective (while sizable) accomplishments were made as 2-year-olds. In short, I'm not saying the Blue Grass was a great bunch, it was "about as good as the rest of 'em" this spring.
There's no disputing the clock, however. STATELY VICTOR came home in a startling :35-2/5 the final three furlongs and ran the last furlong while opening up on the field in :12 flat. And while you might argue General Quarters put up similar closing fractions in last year's Blue Grass and flopped in Louisville (with a nightmare trip, it should be added), keep in mind the 2010 Blue Grass was run a solid 5 lengths faster at every early point of call than the '09 renewal. This was a much, much sharper finish by STATELY VICTOR than last year's Blue Grass victor.
Runner-up PADDY O'PRADO (Dale Romans) probably ran too good to lose, but still was no match for the winner late. Undeniably, he's a turf horse with a turfer's pedigree, but note sire El Prado did just fine with Grade 1-winning dirt offspring like Medaglia d'Oro and Borrego. He has gotten very good of late and might have a big future outside of the Triple Crown. ODYSSEUS suffered a bone chip behind his left front knee and will be sidelined indefinitely, and you wonder with as rank as he appeared from the outset of the Blue Grass just when the injury might have occurred. As for the others, pure dirt horse FIRST DUDE (Dale Romans) ran a solid third and outfinished many who were supposed to be the synthetics specialists, ala INTERACTIF and MAKE MUSIC FOR ME. And AIKENITE just didn't show up, though blaming the surface seems misguided since he ran easily the best race of his career on this same Polytrack last fall.
Favorites were winning 34 percent of the 2010 Spring Meet races on Keeneland's Polytrack at the time of 40-1 upsetter STATELY VICTOR shocking the Blue Grass. Such high-profile results historically have skewed public perception toward chaos and calamity when handicapping the meet. I've read ridiculous accounts in the racing press about the need to strip the Blue Grass of its grade, and how it's become irrelevant to the racing landscape. Let's get to the facts of that.
Which Kentucky Derby prep in the past 3 years has produced winners of the G1 Kentucky Derby, G1 Travers, G1 King's Bishop, G1 Forego, G2 Strub, G2 Jim Dandy, G2 Kentucky Cup Classic, G2 Indiana Derby and G2 San Pasqual, while also adding two additional G1 Travers placings, a G1 Preakness placing, a G1 Haskell placing and a G1 Hollywood Derby placing? Please stop the anti-synthetics smear campaign against the Blue Grass Stakes and look at the facts of a legitimate Grade 1 race. Three different horses have eventually placed in the Travers on dirt out of this race in three years of Polytrack, so stop the garbage of discrediting a race because Monba, General Quarters and Dominican ran poor races in Louisville. Anyone want to recount the subsequent careers of 1998-2000 Florida Derby winners Cape Town, Vicar and Hal's Hope and strip that race of grading after the 2000 spring? Of course not, and we shouldn't in either case.
Lest we also forget, STATELY VICTOR ran second on dirt in his Saratoga debut at a sprint distance too short for him to WINSLOW HOMER, a horse everyone had in their Top 10s to open the season after winning the Holy Bull before injury sidelined him. The kicker with STATELY VICTOR is I desperately want to watch him train over the dirt at Churchill Downs before making any final decisions. However, he's stabled across town at the Trackside Training Center and might not be among the regular ebb and flow of horseflesh on parade. Here's hoping my assignments allow me to get some eyes on this guy in Louisville.
Last week's Countdown readers know that I was spinning in circles trying to figure out the Arkansas Derby. The premise turned out to be 100 percent correct: none of the horses in the race wanted to run 1 1/8 miles. And while I reached and grabbed at a late-running longshot straw with BERBERIS, it was the front-running long shot LINE OF DAVID (John Sadler) who took advantage of the no-passing zone ordinance.
We'll get to the winner in a moment, but first let's discuss the disappointing finishes by SUPER SAVER (Todd Pletcher) and DUBLIN (D. Wayne Lukas). I can't recall a race I've watched where every horse in the race's leg action appeared to be going simply up-and-down, tired, before the quarter-pole. Midway on the turn, you could tell these guys all were going nowhere. Not even in the gallop-out, when shutting down the engines, did anyone pass.
SUPER SAVER was on a loose reign down the backstretch, allowed to run as free and quick as he wanted to by Calvin Borel, and could not keep up with LINE OF DAVID, who was under a firm hold and still running smoking-fast fractions. This is a telling sign for SUPER SAVER. He's not fast enough to be a true speed horse in a race with burners, and he won't pass anyone. It's kind of like we talked with AMERICAN LION and RULE earlier this year. There are a bunch of "no lead, no pass" types in this year's Derby, and they'll be in no man's land among the sea of 20 piranhas.
DUBLIN looks to be a miler, pure and simple, and is a very, very genuine racehorse. He's fired each time asked this year and has certain quality about him. But by no means has he once this year even intimated that he wants to run on beyond 1 1/16 miles to me. SUPER SAVER fits that same build. He's a very, very nice racehorse, don't get me wrong. He's done more than enough to earn a chance in the Kentucky Derby; it's not as though he doesn't belong. But the Kentucky Derby isn't a nine-horse affair like the Kentucky Jockey Club, and you won't be able to get away with a nearly :25 third quarter on the first Saturday in May as you did on the last Saturday of November.
NOBLE'S PROMISE (Kenny McPeek) likely deserves mulligan consideration for his fifth-place performance, losing his normal, tracking running style with a troubled start that was not his fault. The consistent shooter came out of the race with cuts and scrapes and word of a lung infection. Whether that was known by the connections before the race is any horseplayer's guess. You don't want to see any hiccups this time of year, and if NOBLE'S PROMISE would continue on to the Kentucky Derby, I would be hard-pressed to like him at all. Don't forget: the distance always was a question with this guy anyway, even in perfect health and training regimen.
Fourth-place finisher UH OH BANGO (Kory Owens) suffered a fractured left front cannon bone that will require surgery and several months on the sidelines.
Now, back to the surprise winner LINE OF DAVID. As someone who followed Santa Anita's winter/spring meeting very closely, I have to admit this guy was nowhere even on my radar. So back to the videos I went this week for closer inspection. LINE OF DAVID has been very keen from the gate since adding blinkers, running with his head restrained and clicking off legitimate fractions without being asked. But looking at his March 11 win out west, when let loose at the top of the stretch, he didn't level off, put his head down and get to serious running. He came home in :12 flat the final furlong on turf going one mile and didn't gallop out with any indication that the Arkansas Derby was going to be his coming out party.
Turning for home at Oaklawn, LINE OF DAVID again raced with his head up, drifted in and out some from the left and right-hand stick of Jon Court and was not inspiring late. The speed figure gang will like him some because of the fast early fractions, which always help generate the numbers. But coming home in :38-3/5 the final three furlongs, this simply was a case of running a distance-challenged field off of its feet and then taking the top prize as the challengers simply hung in pursuit. LINE OF DAVID is many, many lengths behind stablemate SIDNEY'S CANDY on the overall pecking order of Kentucky Derby contenders.
As far as a pace scenario goes, John Sadler could be considered in a predicament with two confirmed front runners. But let's be honest: You don't get the Derby trip that you map out in the paddock once they spring the latch. To try and draw up the X's and O's of a Derby pace scenario cannot be done as it is done on a daily handicapping basis.
Next week's lineup includes "last call" for the Derby preps, the G3 Cliff's Edge Derby Trial at Churchill Downs, featuring fleet EIGHTYFIVEINAFIFTY (Gary Contessa) vs. the likes of AIKENITE (Todd Pletcher) and TIZ CHROME (Bob Baffert) ... The connections of CARACORTADO (Mike Machowsky) have changed course and now are expected to try and qualify for the Derby via the Derby Trial next week as well ... LOOKIN AT LUCKY and CONVEYANCE (Bob Baffert) arrived at Churchill Downs for their Derby 136 preparations on Tuesday of this past week, and both turned in easy works on Thursday morning. LOOKIN AT LUCKY went 5F in 1:01-1/5, while CONVEYANCE went in 1:00-3/5 ... JACKSON BEND (Nick Zito) sizzled a half-mile in :47-3/5 Thursday at Churchill Downs as he settles in early ... EKSENDEREYA (Todd Pletcher) was sent back to Palm Meadows training center in Florida following the Wood Memorial and is expected to get one local workout at Churchill Downs ... Jockey Robby Albarado has committed to ride ENDORSEMENT (Shannon Ritter) while NOBLE'S PROMISE remains in limbo as a Derby hopeful.
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.
1. ESKENDEREYA (Wood, Aqueduct, April 3)
2. SIDNEY'S CANDY (Santa Anita Derby, April 3)
3. ESKENDEREYA (Fountain of Youth, Gulfstream, 2/20)
4. LOOKIN AT LUCKY (Rebel, Oaklawn, 3/13)
5. SIDNEY'S CANDY (San Felipe, Santa Anita, 3/13)
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.
For now, I'm still going to rate the 20-best active 3-year-olds in the game, because anything can happen with injuries to the graded stakes earnings list between now and May 1. When we get to the Derby Week edition of the Countdown rankings, we'll put the 20 finalists in order. Remember, Countdown to the Crown also is tracking Preakness and Belmont contenders who need to remain respected even if they don't compete in Louisville.
Jeremy Plonk's top 20: Week 15 of the 2010 season
Countdown reader Shelly in Sarasota, Fla.
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.