While most men scurry around America's malls on last-minute gift scrambles, late December annually means an entirely different juggling act at my three-ring circus. This is the time when a list of about 350 potential Triple Crown aspirants takes shape.
Some might call it overkill, others obsession. I call it Countdown to the Crown.
"Countdown" returns for another season at ESPN.com beginning next Friday, Jan. 2. The weekly handicapper's analysis of the 3-year-old scene runs every Friday through the Belmont Stakes. My promise is to give horseplayers the most in-depth and scrutinized analysis available. No fluff, no love letters to my favorite horses and horsemen, just a critical analysis of what takes place. Most importantly, "Countdown" puts into context just what those performances mean to the big picture come the first Saturday in May.
Preparation for Countdown to the Crown begins with the Saratoga and Del Mar meetings in July. That said, this has become a 10- or 11-month project. Juvenile races go under the microscope from summertime through the dead of winter, and literally have expanded to all corners of the map in recent years.
On a blustery December day last year, for instance, the afternoon was spent scribbling excited notes about a pair of weekday, 2-year-old winners from Philadelphia Park of all places. That turned out to be time well spent, as Texas Wildcatter would go on to run second in the Gotham and Wincat third in the Swale. You see, "Countdown" is not just about landing on Big Brown on Derby Day, although there's plenty of gushing toward the roses as well.
The same, but quite different
The 2009 "Countdown" kicks off as curious as I can recall, given the Dubai passports already stamped for Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Midshipman and Hopeful/Champagne dominator Vineyard Haven. They figure to embark on two of the most intriguing Triple Crown trail campaigns since the 2000-01 winter, when Norfolk winner Street Cry and Florida Stallion Series sweeper Express Tour also became apples in the eye of Sheikh Mohammad's endless checkbook. Prior to that, the Godolphin blue haltered Worldly Manner after he won Del Mar's Best Pal and Futurity in style, and brought him back for the 1999 Kentucky Derby, where he had a big chance to win in the stretch.
Look for "Countdown" to have an expanded presence in coverage of the Dubai-trained Derby contenders.
What also makes this year's trail unique is the fact that the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and several of its prep races were contested on all-weather surfaces. With races like the Arlington-Washington Futurity, Breeders' Futurity, Kentucky Cup Juvenile, Hollywood Futurity, Del Mar Futurity and Norfolk all gracing all-weather tracks, there's a legitimate indecisiveness about the evaluation of 2-year-old form.
My approach for 2009 will be to focus more on the "here and forward" than I ever have to date. In the past, I'd look strongly at the foundation built and the progression of circumstances a contender has checked off his "to-do" list. But vastly changed training methodologies have presented Triple Crown horseplayers with late-season graded-stakes preps that look like entry-level allowance races. Race spacing and foundation have gone the way of the dinosaur, blown up by the likes of Big Brown and Barbaro.
I love the Kentucky Derby chase as much as anyone; but even I have to admit that a handicapper's approach to evaluating a contender's chances has to take a fresher look at things. The beauty of stability, however, is that I don't think you have to change the way you evaluate pure talent. A sensational horse is still a sensational horse, and it's those brilliant movers who we dig through miles of past performances to find, even in the maiden races. Once we spend our many months discovering the brilliant, it is then that we have to be fresh in how we go one-by-one through the contenders in landing on the race's most serious win threats.
Join the "Countdown"
Each week I present a top 20 list (since there are a maximum of 20 starters permitted in the Derby starting gate) and invite readers to contribute their lists for publication as well. Simply email your list here, and each week I'll pick one reader's list to be shown here on ESPN.com. This interactivity annually provides a neat look at regional biases and evaluations. Make sure you include your name and hometown with the email.
Until next week ...
Be on the lookout for all the features you've enjoyed in Countdown to the Crown in years past, but also expect to see more video links and free Equibase past performance links for several hot-moving contenders each week.
Oh, and in the interest of honesty, I completed my Christmas shopping on Dec. 22. Hardly a Martha Stewart performance, but don't you dare call me last-minute!
Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000. You can email Jeremy about Countdown to the Crown or anything racing related at Jeremy@Horseplayerpro.com.