Editor's Note: Countdown to the Crown returns for its fourth season as one of the most comprehensive handicapper's analyses of the 3-year-old scene. Posted each Friday from Jan. 1 through the Belmont Stakes, Countdown keeps you apprised of the rising stars in the sophomore class from the maiden ranks to the Grade 1 stakes.
3 things you won't read anywhere else
Opinions are like navigating a maze. If you don't think it all the way through to the end, no doubt you'll get hung up in the middle somewhere.
1. Watch America's trainers avoid the all-weather tracks like the plague this spring following a chorus line of European winners on the plastics at the Breeders' Cup. Those results will only reinforce their skepticism as to what's best for their best runners. And that's bad news for the major preps at Santa Anita, Turfway and Keeneland.
2. Keep close tabs on jockeys Garrett Gomez and Rafael Bejarano this spring. While both have dropped anchor in California over the past year, the limited number of Triple Crown contenders from that singular circuit, and their huge success nationally over the years, ought to send them packing for multiple weekend junkets. When they hit the road, take notice, because they're likely giving up 2-3 winners on a single card the way they're riding.
3. Expect IEAH Stables back at the Derby. When you're in the business of selling excitement, love 'em or hate 'em, these guys were on the ultimate high last spring. As a syndicate, you can bet their business model includes a late-season acquisition if need-be.
This week's fearless forecast
This section includes a preview of the coming week's 3-year-old races to watch. We have a trio of listed stakes from New York to Florida to Kentucky to open the season slate, not to mention some of those all-important, early season undercard races to unravel.
Saturday's opening-day line-up at Gulfstream Park includes the $100,000 Spectacular Bid Stakes and a pair of must-see maiden special weight events (Races 6 and 9). The sixth is a six-furlong sprint with a full field of first and second-time starters. Barclay Tagg saddles $310,000 yearling COZY LION for Roy and Gretchen Jackson of Barbaro fame. By Tale of the Cat out of the strong turf mare Cuando (who is a half-sister to Honey Ryder), this one may need a race. Six panels on dirt and only four published workouts make COZY LION an interesting, wait-and-see runner. Nick Zito debuts VINDICAT off a slow and steady work tab, while Todd Pletcher has the firster with the most serious and pointed workout ledger in CHECKLIST. This $400,000 buy is by Gone West and out of Yearly Report, winner of the Black-Eyed Susan and Delaware Oaks at age three. Two runners to gauge for next time might be COMPLIANCE OFFICER, who looks to take some time to bounce back after fast workouts, and MORE THAN WILLING, a strong debut third at Churchill for Ken McPeek, but he appears to have missed a work recently with a 10-day gap in his training last month. Canadian Reade Baker's rookie BRAVE INDY also appears to have some run.
Race 9 at Gulfstream on Saturday is a 1-mile maiden special weight on the main track, and features the second career start for champion War Pass' half-brother RULER'S VISION. The Nick Zito-trained son of Monarchos debuted third to the rock-solid duo of HELLO BROADWAY and IMPERIAL COUNCIL at Saratoga. Both of those horses, by the way, are among my season-opening Top 20 Derby contenders' list this week. Saturday's ninth also could give Pletcher another live rookie with the superbly drilled TIGER TRACKS. The Storm Cat colt is out of Canadian stakes winner Paiota Falls and hails from that country's royal female family that includes Dance Smartly, Smart Strike et al. Meanwhile, Baker counters in this sophomore heat as well with debut runner-up BEAR ALWAYS, who is smoking bullets at Palm Meadows. Bill Mott sends out Calder debut disappointment CAUSEWAY'S KIM, a regally bred son of Giant's Causeway and multiple G1 winner You. Also keep an eye on the shrewdly bred MAESTRO AND MASTER, a son of Smarty Jones out of the unraced mare White Gulch, who happens to be a half-sister to Phantom on Tour. This Frank Brothers trainee debuted fourth at Churchill behind JAZZANDTHEMAGICIAN, who returns Saturday to compete in the $100,000 Spectacular Bid. Late-running Kentuckians DISCREET STREET (Ian Wilkes) and PROSPECTIVE LOVE (Ken McPeek) ought to love the one-turn mile distance and add tons of depth.
Saturday's Count Fleet program at Aqueduct also includes a Race 6 maiden special weight route at one mile (around two turns). Rick Violette's TOULOUSE LAUTREC demands attention after running second in his career debut to Jimmy Jerkens' monster QUALITY ROAD. The runner-up earned a 94 Beyer Speed Figure and should be a short price in his first two-turn test, which could be a hurdle as he's by More Than Ready out of a Meadowlake mare. The supremely bred TRANQUIL MANNER appears to be "on the improve" for Kiaran McLaughlin. The Darley maroon color-bearer is by A.P. Indy and out of the G1 star mare Composure.
The Saturday action at Santa Anita includes a Race 3 maiden special weight sprint. If you're one who looks for win-early runners who possess obscure pedigrees, but high-priced sales tags as two-year-olds in training, you're in luck. Bob Baffert debuts $325,000 Barrett's March purchase WALL STREET WONDER, by $5,000-a-pop sire City Place. John Salder counters with $160,000 Barrett's May baby GOTMYMOJOWORKIN, who is by another $5,000 stallion, Gimmeawink. Both appear to be training smartly and are win-early candidates. Baffert also sends out STREET CAR, a $170,000 son of Street Cry. This rookie probably is the ace of the two Baffert runners, given Garrett Gomez's presence in the saddle. Also keep an eye on rookie MR. PRESIDENT for John Shirreffs, who is a Vindication colt from a very strong female sprint family. Of the experienced runners, SNAPSHOT makes his long-awaited return after being a beaten favorite in his Del Mar debut for Cliff Sise. He was beaten by top stakes juvenile BELIEVE IN HOPE back in August, but adds blinkers and is firing sharp in the a.m. SHAPSHOT is by Awesome Again, but likely a sprinter from the same fleet female family as Sewickley and Forestry.
Friday's Santa Anita card has a weak, six-horse allowance going 1-1/16 miles. Half of the runners have appeared at least once for a claiming tag, but the heat does include Canadian invader SHAFTED, a fantastically bred colt by Mineshaft out of 13-time winner and G1 Test heroine Twist Afleet. Mark Casse might have a good one there, but we won't know much, even if he wins, based on the competition. MASSONE has kept superb running lines, but took seven tries to break his maiden for Ron McAnally. He appears capable of more.
Also this afternoon at Aqueduct, Race 6 matches Tom Albertrani's $500,000 A.P. Indy colt PRECURSOR against seven rivals in a 1-1/16 miles maiden special weight affair. So far a nibbler in four starts, this colt from the female family of BC Turf winner Pilsudski has not quite lived up to expectations yet.
Spectacular Bid Stakes (Saturday/Gulfstream):
I'll say it right off the bat, just so we don't all forget it when the toteboard opens: do not underestimate the Calder juveniles early in the Gulfstream meeting. Every year they blow up the toteboard with big balloons and horseplayers wonder what hit them. Why? They typically have long two-year-old campaigns in terms of length and starts, and most are in racing shape as they've competed up through late November and December. They don't have an edge down the road, but certainly should be considered dangerous as the Gulfstream curtain rises.
BEE CEE CEE and YOU LUCKIE MANN should be factors in the Spectacular Bid based on their superb Calder form. Both are working bullets for respected trainers Eddie Plesa and Marty Wolfson, respectively. From a pace standpoint, BEE CEE CEE's ability to rate might be the preferred style, given YOU LUCKY MANN could find himself in a tussle with the supremely fast NOTONTHESAMEPAGE, who draws directly inside him on the rail. As for 'PAGE, the Wesley Ward trainee set the Churchill track record at 4-1/2 furlongs in the spring and simply fizzled from there out. His works are flashy, but he has to prove to me that he's more than an early-season juvenile freak. There's certainly enough pedigree to think he's more than a dasher, but his running lines have not given a hint that he's anything more than that.
If NOTONETHESAMEPAGE does not go favored, that title could land with SILENT VALOR, Todd Pletcher's eighth-place finisher in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The Lion Heart colt drops out of back-to-back G1 attempts and is 2-for-2 on conventional dirt tracks, winning the G3 Sapling at Monmouth with a stalking style that would suit him very well in this race. He's the horse to beat, but the price should be richer on the capable Calder runners.
Count Fleet Stakes (Saturday/Aqueduct):
The season's first two-turn stakes of repute comes in the Count Fleet, a race best known for catapulting Smarty Jones on the Triple Crown trail. Dominant New York-bred HAYNESFIELD looks to parlay his two-turn Damon Runyon win into his first open-company trophy for Steve Asmussen. The son of BC Sprint winner Speightstown got away with a soft second and third quarter in the Runyon, which does not figure to be repeated in the Count Fleet. Still, he might be superior enough to shake the challengers off, especially in a race without a confirmed stretch runner.
Empire Maker's baby ASWAAQ makes his stakes debut and looks to recoup some of his $525,000 pricetag for Shadwell Stable. He exits a wire-to-wire win at 1-1/8 miles and has a pair routes on his resume. His dam, Queen Mama, is half-sister to Behrens, so this horse should run as far as they card the races for Kiaran McLaughlin. PITCHED PERFECTLY gave ASWAAQ all he could handle in a Dec. 3 route battle, coming up a neck short. He'll love the trip. Another who will relish the distance is Graham Motion's mid-Atlantic shipper SMART BID. The Smart Strike colt scored his first attempt around a pair of bends at Philly Park and has that Augustin Stable route influence.
Finally, it will be fish-or-cut-bait time for JESS NOTE JESSE. I was completely wowed by his debut win at Saratoga in a turf sprint, ranking it among the Top 20 juvenile performances of the meeting. However, he's failed to finish with any gusto in three subsequent starts around one turn. Interestingly, trainer Linda Rice sends him long in the Count Fleet. If there's a twinkle to this horse, we'll see it Saturday. Otherwise, I'll simply have to look everyone in the eye and admit I was wrong about his Spa unveiling.
As we like to do in the two-turn races, here's a look at the projected Count Fleet Stakes pace scenario:
Turfway Prevue (Saturday/Turfway Park):
There's not a lot here, folks. Four of the 10 entrants won maiden claiming races and none has competed in an open-company stakes. Based on an 87 debut Beyer Speed Figure romping win, RUDY FLYER should go favored for Billy Connelly. He returns 22 days later with no published works between and you wonder how he'll bounce back. But, there's not much opposition. BACK TO GOLD adds blinkers for Moises Yanez and raids from Hawthorne. Was it the Lasix or conventional dirt in his last two starts that righted his ship? We'll see how he handles the Polytrack in the Prevue, but do note he hooked UNO MAS on the all-weather at Arlington and ran reasonably well. That runner was highly impressive at Fair Grounds recently. Others to consider include MELO from the Dale Romans barn and unbeaten GIMMEAWINN, who has overpowered two casts at Mountaineer Park to date.
Everyone's a critic
This section takes a look back at the week that was.
From 300-to-1 opening odds to a 30-to-1 steamer last week to the 12-to-1 Kentucky Derby Winter Book favorite at the Wynn Las Vegas this week, it didn't take long for the cash to come in on POINT ENCOUNTER.
Carla Gaines' first-timer was a poorly kept secret on opening day at Santa Anita last Friday, hammered to 6-to-5 favoritism in a 6-1/2 furlong maiden special weight. He set very legit fractions (:21.80, :44.54) before a third quarter in a very good :23.83 and final sixteenth in a reasonably gassed :6.44. POINT ENCOUNTE is by dual classic winner Point Given and out of 21-time winner Rita Rucker, giving plenty to like. One word of caution is that he debuted in front wraps, and is not the most fluid mover in the world, but certainly appears long on promise. Said my fellow Horseplayerpro.com clocker/cohort Toby Turrell prior to this colt's unveiling, "Working like a freak for debut. Very rare to see a 2-year-old this far along. Stamped himself as a runner in my eyes early on." Meanwhile, runner-up UNIONIZE sat a PT (perfect trip) third behind a speed duel and was second-best. By Dixie Union out of sprint star Silent Sighs, this one may not go on around two turns.
An extremely deep and potentially key maiden race took place Monday at Fair Grounds when the Steve Asmussen-trained second-timer SOUL WARRIOR looked like a good thing, drawing off to win the 1 mile and 40-yard heat by 3-1/4 lengths. The son of Lion Heart lost ground on the first turn, stalked a bizarrely run pace where the third quarter was run in :26.08, then finished with strong-enough fractions for FG's lengthy lane. He's a half-brother to My Miss Storm Cat, who won 5 of 7 career starts (including the Desert Stormer Stakes) in an injury-shortened career. Mark Race 6 down from Dec. 29 and follow the combatants coming out of here. When a deep field like this gets spread 10 lengths from just first to third, it signifies superb performances at the top. Note that the 1-mile split of 1:39 flat was about six lengths faster than 2-year-old allowance fillies went for a flat-mile race later in the card.
Asmussen appears loaded for bear this season. He unveiled two other impressive Fair Grounds winners in the past week, UNION STRIKE on the grass New Year's Eve in a determined route allowance win and AWESOME PREACHER in a main track sprint performance on New Year's Day. The latter's dam is half-sister to Awesome Again and Macho Uno, so routes should be in the cards for the son of Belmont iwnner Touch Gold. He AWESOME PREACHER got six panels in 1:10-3/5 and ran the final quarter in a solid :24.75.
GATO GO WIN, a Jeff Mullins trainee who has zero pedigree for his $145,000 juvenile sales pricetag, lived up to his win-early expectations with a wire-to-wire allowance win Dec. 28 at Santa Anita. He beat the well-meant G3 Kentucky Stakes-placed DREAM OF KAYLEE, the Bob Hess trainee who was the most talked-about, hyped undercard horse on Derby Week last year. Don't expect either to be much of a factor beyond a mile, however. The best router moving forward from this race might be fourth-place finisher POSITION A, a Richard Mandella charge who is a full-brother to Grace Anatomy, and hails from a wonderful female family of route stakes winners.
Also at Santa Anita, ALL SAINT won the Cal Breeders' Championship vs. state-breds on opening day last Friday, but the real performance came from Darrell Vienna's runner-up FEISTY SUANCES, who was the only speed horse to live to see the top five. Those who finished around him were sixth, seventh, tenth and eleventh early on in the seven-furlong meltdown.
A slow-paced carousel didn't tell us much about Monday's potentially salty 1-mile maiden special weight at Santa Anita, won wire-to-wire by Gary Stute's PAPA CLEM, who dragged along runner-up MAYOR MARV, a well-intended Bob Baffert trainee who has yet to have the light bulb pop on. After walking six furlongs in 1:12.64, they motored home the final quarter in a blistering :23.29, getting the last furlong in a sizzling :11.98. It's difficult to imagine a similar scenario, pace-wise, playing out in the next route for either, however, so I'd tread against these two next time. The time was just two lengths faster than $12,500 claimers opened the card with, but you have to give some explanation to the slow early pace. Keep a big eye on third-place finisher MILLENNIUM LAKES, who had no shot with the pace set-up, but ran vastly improved from his debut. Mark Casse's prospect is by Storm Cat out of Coaching Club Oaks winner Tweedside, and simply born to route. Bobby Frankel's ANDIRON, half-bro to The Cliff's Edge, broke dull and never fired, finishing last.
Also on the west coast, Julio Canani might have a good one with turf sprint winner DREAM NOW, who ran decently in his debut on the Cushion Track at Hollywood, but really took to the downhill turf sprint and outside post draw on New Year's Day. He drew clear by 5-1/4 lengths, but didn't beat much and none of the firsters in the race showed up to party. The last sixteenth in :6 flat certainly merits some respect, and his dam is half-sister to Meadowlands Cup winner Peaks and Valleys, who was a stout 3-year-old router.
In New York, Kiaran McLaughlin and West Point Thoroughbreds unleashed an impressive, state-bred debut winner MR. FANTASY on Sunday. The half-brother to superstar state-bred Tin Cup Chalice romped by 10-1/2 lengths while geared down late in the six-furlong sprint. Also at Aqueduct, Saturday's maiden special weight sprint was won in front-end style by Tony Dutrow's favored Z DAY, who raided after three minor checks in the mid-Atlantic. This one appears to be all-sprinter, but perhaps a decent one, as his time was about five or six lengths off Fabulous Strike's clocking in the same-day Gravesend Handicap. Certainly bet back Benny Perkins' WILDCAT BRIEF, a solid runner-up behind the more experienced runner.
In Maryland, Graham Motion may have found one worthy of a Florida winter when SUMO won Saturday's opener, a one-mile maiden special weight. The son of Fusaichi Pegasus is out of grassy Grade 3 Valley View winner Dyna Da Wyna and from the female family of turf monsters Honey Ryder and Cuando, but certainly has run very well in two dirt tries. On that same card, a seven-furlong allowance was taken dominantly by Gary Capuano's ROCK ON JUSTIN, an enigmatic, all-or-nothing type who now has a pair of blowout wins on fast and sloppy tracks. Meanwhile, the featured Maryland Juvenile Championship at 1-1/16 miles saw odds-on chalk PEACE TOWN get a perfect trip sitting just behind the longest price on the board and score a workmanlike victory in his first try around two turns. The Peace Rules colt is trained by Mike Trombetta of Sweetnorthernsaint fame.
No great shakes from Northern California's $75,000 Golden Bear Stakes on New Year's Day. BACKBACKBACKGONE, a two-time stakes winner in SoCal, was mediocre in victory at 3-to-5, running the last quarter-mile in :25.64 and final furlong in a slow :13.12 for six furlongs. He is not a route prospect, and is being aimed at the Sunshine Millions Dash. Third-place finisher REVOLUTA tired in his second start for Jerry Hollendorfer. The Distorted Humor colt has some upside out of Commentator's half-sister Call Me Chief, but should have hung tougher here.
At Calder, the last of the pre-Gulfstream shows included a blowout debut win by the well-bred CENTURIAN on Saturday. The Bill White trainee romped by five lengths and is out of a dam who is a half-sister to G1 winner Wekiva Springs. But this six-furlong race was completed in just 1:12.80, and most excruciating was the :27.75 final quarter after a fast :45.05 opening half-mile.
Tuesday's allowance feature at Philadelphia Park saw Pennsylvania Nursery winner ST. JOHN'S GOSPEL successfully move into open company and reel in loose-leading, odds-on favorite RHYAD, who was coming off an 89 Beyer Speed Figure in his local maiden win. ST. JOHN'S GOSPEL is by the little-known Wild Again stallion Activist, who was a dazzling sophomore maiden winner for Bobby Frankel in 1997 before injuries stunted his career after attempts in the Wood Memorial and Swaps. Also at Philly Park, Tony Dutrow scored a MSW sprint win New Year's Day with OUR THING in his third career start, but come how very slow in the six-panel sprint.
Each week, we'll give you a race video worth a second look. This week, we're linking to an up-close look, pre- and post-race, at POINT ENCOUNTER's debut at Santa Anita on Dec. 26, courtesy of Youtube. Click here to watch.
The season's first major graded stakes for the sophomores takes place next week when the G3 Lecomte is renewed Jan. 10 at Fair Grounds. That one is slated to include UNO MAS, the impressive FG allowance winner for Steve Asmussen in mid-December who upset Larry Jones' ballyhooed eastern raider FRIESAN FIRE. The Lecome also features INDYGO MOUNTAIN, who scratched from the aforementioned allowance race and has since popped an abscess ... Look for BC Juvenile runner-up SQUARE EDDIE to headline the Jan. 17 G2 San Rafael at Santa Anita, then hit the road for a dirt test, according to trainer Doug O'Neill ... OLD FASHIONED, the Remsen winner, is pointed to the Risen Star at Fair Grounds or the Southwest at Oaklawn, trainer Larry Jones has reported ... Expect to see SILVER CITY make his stakes debut in the Dixieland, sprinting at Oaklawn ... A high white blood cell count has trainer Ron Ellis taking things slow with top west coaster BELIEVE IN HOPE, who now is unlikely to make February's G2 San Vicente Stakes ... Impressive debut winner MAJORMOTIONPICTURE has bounced back from a temperature, according to trainer Mike Machowsky, and will be pointed toward either the San Pedro or San Rafael Stakes ... In case you missed it in early December, BC Juvenile third-place finisher STREET HERO has been retired following knee surgery and sent to stud.
Jeremy Plonk's Top 5-rated performances this year by class. (Dec. 26-present):
1. POINT ENCOUNTER - Santa Anita 12/26
2. SOUL WARRIOR - Fair Grounds 12/29
3. PAPA CLEM - Santa Anita 12/29
4. MR. FANTASY - Aqueduct 12/29
5. AWESOME PREACHER - Fair Grounds 1/1
1. GATO GO WIN - Santa Anita 12/28
2. UNION STRIKE - Fair Grounds (turf) 12/31
3. St. JOHN'S GOSPEL - Philadelphia Park 12/30
4. ROCK ON JUSTIN - Laurel 12/27
1. ALL SAINT - Cal Breeders Championship 12/26
2. PEACE TOWN - Maryland Juvenile Championship 12/27
3. FLASHMAN'S PAPERS - Eddie Logan (turf) 12/27
4. BACKBACKBACKGONE - Golden Bear 1/1
Spectacular Bid Picks:
1- #8 BEE CEE CEE
2- #7 SILENT VALOR
3- #2 YOU LUCKIE MANN
Count Fleet Picks:
1- #4 HAYNESFIELD
2- #3 JESS NOTE JESSE
3- #2 ASWAAQ
Turfway Prevue Picks:
1- #5 RUDY FLYER
2- #4 BACK TO GOLD
3- #1 MELO
Put 'em in the gate
Can't wait for May 2? This section ranks my Top 20 and puts horses in the gate if the race was this weekend. Remember, this isn't about how they'll be on Derby Day, but rather how they rate today with Derby ability at 1-1/4 miles a main factor. This will be a fluid list over the the spring.
Think I'm off my rocker? Send your Top 20 list to me, firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick one fan's list each week to appear in Countdown to the Crown right next to mine. Please put 'TOP 20' in the subject line and include your state of residence!
Jeremy's Top 20 - First week of 2009 season
Reader-submitted Top 20 - From Joe S. in Boston
What happens in Vegas
This section highlights the steamers in the Las Vegas future book odds. This week, Santa Anita debut winner POINT ENCOUNTER took a free-fall from a 300-to-1 opening price to 12-to-1, and a new favorite for Derby 135. Odds updated December 29, 2008, here. (www.horseplayerpro.com/WYNNKD.pdf)
Wynn Las Vegas Derby Favorites
POINT ENCOUNTER 12-1
OLD FASHIONED 15-1
PIONEEROF THE NILE 20-1
BREAK WATER EDISON 22-1
VINEYARD HAVEN 22-1
SQUARE EDDIE 30-1
CAPT. CANDYMAN CAN 30-1
CHOCOLATE CANDY 30-1
COUNTDOWN TO THE CROWN is the ONLY major racing column where you can find the line of Johnny Avello, Vegas' premier oddsmaker!
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.