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 e-mails. No one wants to read one that's more than a few sentences long.
1. Trainer Steve Asmussen is going all-in for Derby 136. He's won everything else on the planet of importance, and his maiden, allowance and stakes horses are bursting the nation's seams right now. He might be Lukas-like this spring.
2. The reduction in distance from 1-1/8 miles to a one-turn mile for next month's Fountain of Youth Stakes might prove to be the most important change to the Triple Crown scene since Oaklawn's $5 million Centennial Season Bonus reshaped that track's posture on the trail. In an era of sprint pedigrees and throwing unprepared horses into the stakes fire, the one-turn mile could springboard the season for many performers, while saving several others.
3. Expect the darkness from Dubai to continue. When approached via e-mail to open a discourse between "Countdown" and Godolphin's Triple Crown contenders like MIDSHIPMAN and VINEYARD HAVEN, an unnamed public relations rep for the big blue machine responded to say, "Please continue to monitor the news section of our website as we may issue updates in due course." From America's horseplayers, I say, "Gee, thanks." I guess no news is Sheikh Mo news.
This week's fearless forecast
This section includes a preview of the coming week's 3-year-old races to watch. All eyes will be on Saturday's Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds with $100,000 in all-important graded-stakes money up for grabs. This time of year also provides a bevy of key undercard maiden and allowance heats. Let's open with those.
Set the TiVo or Dish DVR or, heaven forbid the VCR (any of those still out there?) for Saturday's Race 10 finale at Gulfstream.
This promises to be the top allowance of the early season when Jimmy Jerkens' debut dazzler QUALITY ROAD meets winners for the first time, including a much anticipated return to dirt for Ken McPeek's TAR BEACH. This seven-furlong test will be stout for both, but QUALITY ROAD certainly got some good news recently as you'll read below in last week's recap. QUALITY ROAD's dam is a full-sister to champion Ajina, and the Elusive Quality colt sizzled five-eighths in :59-1/5 handily at Palm Meadows last Friday. (QUALITY ROAD past performances, courtesy of Equibase) TAR BEACH, on the other hand, was one of Saratoga's most impressive main track winners, and the feeling here is that he's much better than his last two starts on all-weather and grass courses show. This might be his lone chance to show McPeek he's Derby trail material, and I expect a big try. Others in the mix include Todd Pletcher's 100 Beyer-earner OBLIGINGLY, a son of Officer who is expected to be a win-early type.
Saturday's GP card also includes a way-popular maiden turf route, which not only was split into races three and seven, but has also-eligibles in both halves. While grass races might not sound like your Triple Crown trail bag, keep in mind with all-weather surface preps like the Blue Grass, Lane's End and Lexington on the map for the east coasters, a great Gulfstream grass performer is only a race away from running for the roses (ala Adriano and Cowboy Cal in 2008). Notable entries in race three include DISTANT STRIKE, who has had some turf and dirt experience and whose grand dam was millionaire G1 Spinster winner Wilderness Song. He hails from the same female family as Belmont winner Sarava. Also watch FLORENTINO, a Kiaran McLaughlin trainee who is half-brother to superstar Japanese miler and multiple G1 winner Rhein Kraft. This one has chased bears in three starts to date on dirt and Polytrack. As for race seven, the supremely bred Phipps-Shug rep CONSERVATIVE tries turf for the first time, by Unbridled's Song out of blue-blooded, G1-winning producer Oh What a Windfall. Also tab ZIFZAF, a Shadwell-Kiaran McLaughlin charge who debuted third on the Polytrack at Keeneland to the highly respected SILVER CITY. Todd Pletcher's TREVELYAN is a FuPeg colt who is closely related to European import Oonagh McCool, who became a dirt star in the United Stakes a few years back. Don't be surprised to see him try dirt again.
At Santa Anita on Saturday, race three will match maiden special weight runners at seven furlongs, including Bob Baffert's second-timer TURK, a $20,000 Vindication bargain who debuted second by a nose in a quick Hollywood sprint Dec. 20. Later in the card, maidens clash at a mile on turf in race seven when new Baffert acquisition HERR MOZART, one of the most talented turfers in New York last fall, makes his west coast unveiling. Will he move Mott-to-Baffert as well as stablemate PIONEEROF THE NILE? The turf tilt also features the maiden return of the well-meant MARK S THE COOLER, who has been dabbling in stakes for Doug O'Neill and tried to get into the Breeders' Cup last fall, but could not draw in.
G3 Lecomte (Saturday/Fair Grounds):
Things just haven't gone right in the past month for INDYGO MOUNTAIN. First he was scratched from a Dec. 18 allowance test at Fair Grounds when jockey Jamie Theriot felt something amiss in the pre-race warm-up. Trainer Bret Calhoun said his $600,000 son of A.P. Indy popped an abscess since then, but note he had a 28-day break in his serious training (Dec. 3-31) because of that racing void. Now, the top Derby prospect for Alysheba's one-time owner, Clarence Scharbauer Jr., returns to live competition and draws terribly in the far outside post. That's a tough assignment in a flat-mile race at FG with a short run into the first turn, but even more magnified when the horse challenged has never raced around two turns. By no means will this be a tell-tale race for INDYGO MOUNTAIN; don't lose faith if he does not fire to the level at which you think he has the potential. I have him ranked No. 7 in my current Triple Crown contenders poll.
The "now" horses in the G3 Lecomte obviously become UNO MAS and FRIESAN FIRE, who ran one-two in that aforementioned allowance prep. Steve Asmussen trains UNO MAS, who opened up a daylight win Dec. 18 in his initial two-turn try, but did not impress on the clock. Note the fractions that day were :23, :23, :25-2/5 and :26-2/5. Part of the reason for the fast-early, slow-late result that day was because FRIESAN FIRE did not settle well while racing first-time blinkers. He spurted off a bit mid-race and must relax more to be a route factor for trainer Larry Jones. Like INDYGO MOUNTAIN, FRIESAN FIRE is a son of A.P. Indy. But 'FIRE' is out of a Dehere mare, and that typically means sprinter. It will be very interesting to see if he can actually get a route distance, especially since he's lost ground from the half-mile marker to the wire in each of three lifetime starts beyond six furlongs. I lean heavily toward UNO MAS in the re-match, and I especially like the connections' apparent focus for this particular race when you see he's worked twice since the Dec. 18 showdown vs. just once for FRIESAN FIRE in that 23-day span.
The balance of the Lecomte field includes sprinters BIG PUSH and CITIZEN, the two-four finishers in the six-furlong Sugar Bowl Handicap who should insure a decent pace. The lineup also includes Canadian prospects PATENA and DYNAMIC FORCE, both well-versed on turf and all-weather tracks, but never tested on natural dirt. The former has a wonderful pedigree for trainer Josie Carroll, by Seeking the Gold out of Handpainted, a multiple stakes winner who competed for Carroll. PATENA is from a wonderful female-side Canadian bloodline that also includes Belmont Stakes hero Touch Gold. If you're looking for an exacta buster outside the likely three favorites, PATENA deserves a vote as most likely to succeed. I know PATENA is 4-1 second choice on the morning line, but I can't envision the public following that pattern whatsoever.
PROFESSOR Z was entered in the Lecomte, but will scratch in favor of the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn. He had looked extremely live on paper for the Lecomte; in fact, he would have been my top choice. Keep a close eye on him as a threat in Arkansas. (PROFESSOR Z past performances, courtesy of Equibase)
As we like to do in the two-turn races, here's a look at the projected G3 Lecomte Stakes pace scenario:
Everyone's a critic
This section takes a look back at the week that was. Heading into the Spectacular Bid Stakes, I questioned if NOTONTHESAMEPAGE could regain his early juvenile form after falling off the wagon last year. Not only did the Wesley Ward trainee run back to that level at Gulfstream last Saturday, but he exceeded it by a wide margin. His six-furlong win in 1:08.48 simply must be talked about in superlatives, and this comes from an analyst who not only doubted him, but also historically is unfazed by sophomore sprinters in the big picture.
NOTONTHESAMEPAGE drew away to an 8-1/2 length victory over a field that included three existing stakes winners, and did so with remarkable fractions. When you run the final quarter-mile in :23.75 and the final furlong in :11.92, it's fantastic stuff. When you do it after setting :21.98 and :44.73 splits, it's out of this world. Obviously 'PAGE' is over the breathing and bleeding problems that trainer Ward said plagued him last year. Next stop: the G2 Fountain of Youth Stakes, which this year has been shortened to a one-turn mile, a key factor that now provides NOTONTHESAMEAGE the perfect prep course if he's good enough to stretch out. His sire, Catienus, placed in the Suburban and Whitney and has produced successful sprinters and routers. On the dam side, Blue Holiday cleared through to her N2X allowance condition and ran out more than $300,000 sprinting for Rick Dutrow and Richie Schosberg during her career. She was tried only once routing, but that was on turf, and finished ninth. But she is out of a Lear Fan mare and perhaps could pass along some endurance beyond her personal resume. Time will tell, but 'PAGE' impressed me enough to land at No. 14 in this week's national ranking. (NOTONTHESAMEPAGE past performances, courtesy of Equibase)
Other fall-out from the Spectacular Bid includes the solid try by runner-up YOU LUCKIE MANN, who clearly was second-best on this day. He led a two-three finish for the Calder-based brigade, which we warned was ever-dangerous in the early portion of the Gulfstream meeting. My top pick, BEE CEE CEE, was dead on the board, but out-ran his 54-1 odds to finish third and make me feel like I was at least handicapping the race with clean glasses. Anytime your top pick goes off at such ghastly odds, even seasoned handicappers start questioning what they're doing.
The reputation of OLD FASHIONED and last year's Remsen took a hit Thursday at Gulfstream when a pair of 1-1/8 miles allowance races saw that race's 2-4 finishers both go down in defeat. In the first division, Remsen runner-up ATOMIC RAIN dueled a good pace before being out-finished on the rail by Ken McPeek's sneaky-good FREE COUNTRY. It was a solid effort by both, while FREE COUNTRY did benefit from closing into opening quarter-miles of :23.66 and :23.70. But moving forward, ATOMIC RAIN is more from a sprint-oriented female family, while FREE COUNTRY's little-known sire Big Country is a half-brother to Surfside. And FREE COUNTRY hails from the same female family as Include, a true-blue router. The closing furlong in :13.19 turned out to be faster than this allowance race's second division (:13.36), even with a much faster early pace. The second division saw Todd Pletcher's Remsen fourth-place finisher IDOL MAKER quit with absolutely no excuse, setting a half-mile in :48.30. Second-division winner DANGER TO SOCIETY gives young sire Harlan's Holiday a second serious Triple Crown trail player in just two seasons, following freshman crop sensation Denis of Cork in 2008. And, DANGER TO SOCIETY's dam, Elrose, is half-sister to Derby and Preakness winner Silver Charm. Well-bred runner-up A.P. CARDINAL (A.P. Indy-Smok'n Frolic) was second-best and improved nicely in his first start since moving to Kiaran McLaughlin's barn. He could be a real player later this year for basketballer Rick Pitino.
At Santa Anita last Friday, the well-bred SHAFTED turned in an exemplary effort against a suspect cast, winning a 1-1/16 miles entry-level allowance race by daylight. Despite being squeezed badly at the start and racing four-wide on the far turn, Mark Casse's son of Mineshaft-Twist Afleet rallied with zero pace help to score by 2-1/2 widening lengths. The five-horse field featured a dawdling :48-4/5, 1:13 early pace, but SHAFTED's final time of 1:43.68 turned out to be less than four lengths slower than top older mare Victorina ran later that day in the Paseana Handicap. This one looked quite good visually through the wire. (SHAFTED past performances, courtesy of Equibase)
At Aqueduct, the Count Fleet fell apart (:27.33 fourth quarter in the 1 mile 70 yard race) and HAYNESFIELD outclassed four challengers to win by 3-1/2 uninspiring lengths. Video here. My Saratoga heartthrob JESS NOT JESSE returned to a one-run, closing style and picked up pieces for second, at least validating some of the opinion I had of him from the Spa. But there's not much future for this cast moving forward, though they could be the name players in the upcoming Whirlaway if no one new emerges. I can't foresee any Gotham-Wood dreams.
On the Count Fleet undercard, a stupid-fast second quarter in :23.14 decimated the competitors in a race six maiden special weight route that looked important on paper. Odds-on favorite TOULOUSE LAUTREC set an easy opening quarter-mile, but sped off down the backstretch for Rick Violette and finished a disappointing third. He commanded much attention after chasing potential star QUALITY ROAD in his sprint debut, but took a serious step back in this two-turn try. The race was won by the phenomenally bred TRANQUIL MANNER, an A.P. Indy-Composure colt who has made a giant improvement in his four starts for Kiaran McLaughlin. He rallied last-to-first to win this heat, but when the final quarter-mile of a flat-mile race gets clocked in :28.07, it's hard to leave a giddy impression.
Speaking of what I like to call "second-quarter suicide," we had a prime example in Saturday's ninth race maiden special weight at Gulfstream. The one-turn mile saw the opening quarter-mile go in :23.27 and then the second-quarter sizzle faster in :22.84. That's racing's sure-fire recipe for a meltdown, and begs for a late-running closer. Mark Hennig's Grand Slam colt COPPER CASCADE took full advantage with a five-wide sweep to score the 27-1 upset. What's very intriguing about this race is how it restored the reputation of the aforementioned QUALITY ROAD, who was so impressive at Aqueduct on Nov. 29.
While TOULOUSE LAUTREC failed to deliver out of that race when coming back on Saturday at the Big A, COPPER CASCADE and TIPPITY TAP rebounded nicely to run 1-2 at Gulfstream. How's this for price shoppers? Horses coming out of the best maiden race during the New York fall season produced a $760.40 exacta at Gulfstream while also getting beat at 2-5 odds back home. From this GP heat, you had better put PROSPECTIVE LOVE on your "bet back" list. Ken McPeek's colt ran a solid fourth, the only of the speed horses to light the board despite the wicked second-quarter, and he's had nearly impossible assignments through three races in his career (two-turn grass debut, seven-furlong sprint and a ridiculous pace situation). In fact, this was a phenomenal race on paper, potential-wise, and I think the pace situation gives a mulligan to many runners. Expect this race to produce horses who reverse their fortunes by the multiples.
Also on Gulfstream's first Saturday card of the season, Todd Pletcher debuted the nice-looking sprint winner CHECKLIST, a wire-to-wire blowout performer who ran to his focused and strong workout tab. By Gone West out of Black-Eyed Susan winner Yearly Report, he should get a distance of ground and the hope is that they can find a one-turn mile to ease his progression, instead of having to throw him to the 1-1/8 miles wolves. CHECKLIST was brilliant early, running the opening half-mile in :44.91, which was only .18 slower than NOTONTHESAMEPAGE clocked in the Spectacular Bid. However, he did not come home nearly as strong as that more seasoned classmate, finishing up in :25.37 the final quarter-mile. Keep a close eye on third-place finisher GALLIGAN ROAD, who was part of that wicked pace for Terri Pompay, as well as Barclay Tagg's first-timer COZY LION, who had just four prior workouts and stumbled at the start before recovering to finish sixth. Runner-up MORE THAN WILLING, who had missed a workout in the days leading up to this start, probably needed the race and should be dangerous next out at a smallish price for McPeek.
Wednesday's Gulfstream card saw a big field of maidens struggle with the 1-1/8 miles distance, lumbering home the fourth quarter in :25.90 and the final furlong in :14.02. SARATOGA SINNER won the carousel ride, which saw a slow pace not get any quicker and front-end factors remain prominent throughout. Eddie Kenneally's son of Harlan's Holiday edged a troubled BEAR'S PROSPECTOR, a Canadian trying dirt for the first time and possibly best with a better trip, as well as the well-meant MIRO, Bill Mott's $450,000 FuPeg colt who is half-brother to Demoiselle winner Mushka. MIRO should move forward off this effort and be a dangerous grandson of the top-class mare Lakeway.
Saturday's $50,000 Turfway Prevue was won by $15,000 claim LOCH DUBH, who now has rattled off three straight wins and two since being haltered by trainer Jeff Talley. The son of Florida Derby winner Friends Lake sat a PT (perfect trip) behind a three-way pace duel and scored by two lengths. The timer was flattering, getting 6-1/2 furlongs in 1:16.72 with moderate come-home splits (:24.78 and :6.54). He's been well-beaten in two maiden route tries, however, and hard to embrace moving farther down the trail.
Sprinter SMOKIN HERO looks to have turned the corner with a commanding win Wednesday at Aqueduct against fellow New York-breds. Allen Iwinski's one-time money burner has now won two of his last three and this 1:10.10 performance was two lengths faster than open-company allowance sprinters on the same card.
Each week, we'll give you a race video worth a second look. This week, it's imperative to look back at a key Dec. 18 Fair Grounds allowance race between FRIESAN FIRE and UNO MAS, the top contenders for Saturday's Lecomte Stakes. Youtube video here.
My top-ranked sophomore, SQUARE EDDIE, drilled a bullet 6 furlongs on Thursday at Hollywood in 1:13-2/5. "Fantastic," trainer Doug O'Neill said of the drill. "He was by himself and absolutely cruising. He galloped out really strong and we're looking forward to the San Rafael." ... Remsen winner OLD FASHIONED had his first work of 2008 on Wednesday, breezing a half-mile in :48.20 at Fair Grounds for trainer Larry Jones. He's likely to come back in the Southwest at Oaklawn next month, but could resurface in the Risen Star at FG ... Bob Baffert's new recruit, PIONEEROF THE NILE, drilled five panels Sunday at Hollywood in :58.40 with Garrett Gomez up, a time that the trainer called "a little faster than we wanted, but good horses will do that." 'NILE' is expected to re-appear Feb. 7 in the Grade 2 Bob Lewis Memorial at Santa Anita ... BEETHOVEN, John Ward's Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club winner, drilled 3 furlongs in :36 under Calvin Borel last Saturday at Gulfstream Park with an eye on the Grade 3 Holy Bull and Grade 1 Florida Derby. Stablemate STRATEGIC MISSION, Ward's son of champion Beautiful Pleasure, worked a half-mile in :50-1/5 the same day, and aims for a maiden race ... Barbaro's full-brother, NICANOR, breezed five panels on the turf Tuesday at Palm Meadows, clocking 1:04-2/5, while trainer Michael Matz targets a potential debut by month's end ... Grade 3 Delta Jackpot winner BIG DRAMA breezed an easy five-eighths in 1:02-2/5 Sunday at Palm Meadows, his second drill since his big road win, and is aimed at the G3 Holy Bull ... CAPT. CANDYMAN CAN strolled the same distance in 1:04 Thursday morning at Palm Meadows in his second work of the season for Ian Wilkes ... At Payson Park on Sunday, Rusty Arnold's impeccably bred IMPERIAL COUNCIL (Empire Maker-Jaramar Rain) breezed a half-mile in :51-4/5 ... Dates for the three 2009 Kentucky Derby Future Wager pools were announced Tuesday and are as follows: Feb. 12-15, March 12-15 and April 2-5.
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. CHECKLIST -- Gulfstream 1/3
4. PAPA CLEM -- Santa Anita 12/29
5. MR. FANTASY -- Aqueduct 12/29
1. FREE COUNTRY -- Gulfstream 1/8
2. SHAFTED -- Santa Anita 1/2
3. DANGER TO SOCIETY -- Gulfstream 1/8
4. SMOKIN MEL -- Aqueduct 1/7
5. GATO GO WIN -- Santa Anita 12/28
1. NOTONTHESAMEPAGE -- Spectacular Bid 1/3
2. HAYNESFIELD -- Count Fleet 1/3
3. LOCH DUBH -- Turfway Prevue 1/3
4. ALL SAINT -- Cal Breeders Championship 12/26
5. PEACE TOWN -- Maryland Juvenile Championship 12/27
G3 Lecomte Picks:
1- #8 UNO MAS
2- #9 INDYGO MOUNTAIN
3- #1 FRIESAN FIRE
How did we do last week?
HAYNESFIELD and JESS NOT JESSE ran 1-2 for a cold exacta in the Count Fleet; Top pick BEE CEE CEE finished third at 54-1 bomber odds in Spectacular Bid; Top pick RUDY FLYER fizzled to third in Turfway Prevue as the 2-5 favorite.
How are we doing on the season?
1-for-3 with top pick; 1-for-3 with top two picks.
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, email@example.com, 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: Second week of the 2009 season
Reader-submitted Top 20: From Smitty in New Orleans, La.
What happens in Vegas
This section highlights the steamers in the Las Vegas future book odds. Odds updated Jan. 5, 2009.
Wynn Las Vegas Derby Favorites
POINT ENCOUNTER 15-1
OLD FASHIONED 15-1
PIONEEROF THE NILE 20-1
VINEYARD HAVEN 22-1
BREAK WATER EDISON 25-1
SQUARE EDDIE 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.