Countdown to the Crown: Jan. 16, 2009

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. Click on the links below for videos and past performances, courtesy of Equibase.

3 things you won't read anywhere else

Opinions are like a phone call from Rob Blagojevich. Be careful what you say, because you never know who might be listening.

1. Renowned turf writer Joe Hirsch, who passed away last week, will be sadly missed by his legion of colleagues and readers. He set the tone for columns like this one that preview the Triple Crown trail. None of us can claim to fill the void, and we'll be lucky to be respected one-tenth as much by our future peers as Mr. Hirsch was by his.

2. Larry Jones has said that 2009 will be a swan song toward "retirement." But the home-spun trainer also decided to keep in the mix long enough to see his burgeoning cast of 3-year-olds work toward the Derby. For a Kentucky boy, bet your last dollar that two straight runner-up finishes for the roses are stoking Jones' fire. He does not want his final chapter and legacy to be remembered for Eight Belles' tragedy.

3. To say trainer Ken McPeek is media-friendly is an understatement. He once returned a message to me that I didn't leave. "This is Ken McPeek," he responded. "You were trying to call me?" Based on the massive early season run he's making at Gulfstream, Kenny won't have many rollover minutes left this spring.

This week's fearless forecast

This section includes a preview of the coming week's 3-year-old races to watch. The biggee will be Saturday's G2 San Rafael, with solid stakes support nationally from Friday's Dixieland at Oaklawn and Saturday's Pasco at Tampa Bay Downs and the California Derby at Golden Gate Fields. As always, we begin with a quick look at the undercard races coast-to-coast.

The G2 San Rafael undercard Saturday at "The Great Race Place" includes a 1 1/16 miles maiden special weight in Race 3, topped by Bob Baffert's money-burning MAYOR MARV. Three times a beaten favorite, the speed-bred son of Distorted Humor-Miss Wineshine ran a much improved race last time when second to PAPA CLEM in a slow-paced race that blitzed home late. This race looks surprisingly light on early gas, giving 'MARV a big chance to finally reward his backers. But if he gets any pace pressure whatsoever, expect MILLENNIUM LAKES to turn the tables. Third vs. 'MARV last time without pace help, this son of Storm Cat-Tweedside should relish the additional distance. Bobby Frankel stretches out and adds blinkers to the Empire Maker colt MOLTEN LAVA, following a dull debut for the half-brother to G1 Malibu winner Latent Heat. And if you need any more pedigree incentive to watch, how about G1 Santa Anita Derby and Travers winner Colonel John's full-brother MR. HOT STUFF, even though he's finished off-the-board in all three career starts so far for Eoin Harty.

Saturday's Fair Grounds lineup includes a trio of races to watch. Midnight Lute's half-brother CAPTAIN CHEROKEE stretches out around two turns in Race 1 for trainer Steve Asmussen. The $650,000 purchase is by Arkansas Derby winner Sir Cherokee and debuted a late-running sprint second in his first try at Churchill Downs. ANOTHER DANCER comes out of a key Dec. 29 maiden route behind SOUL WARRIOR and looms a danger. Later, alowance sprinters clash in Race 6 with Asmussen holding the likely ace in NUCLEAR WAYNE, a $650,000 Mineshaft colt out of the stakes-winning sprint mare Flashy Four. Finally, route prospects battle in a Race 8 allowance, highlighted by Doug O'Neill's California invader ESCALON and the omnipresent Asmussen's late-runnign DUMAR. Third in his local unveiling, ESCALON has running lines among the best of his generation, having faced MIDSHIPMAN, FRIESAN FIRE, STREET HERO and CHOCOLATE CANDY among others. Meanwhile, $500,000 Hennessy colt MAP OF THE WORLD stretches out around two turns for the first time after closing some in the Sugar Bowl for Al Stall Jr. Also watch route-loving COAL BARON, outrun in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club, but training well for David Carroll. The Mineshaft colt is out of $608K earner Miss Grindstone, a 14-time winner in her racing career.

This afternoon's Friday card at Gulfstream includes a Race 7 turf allowance at 1 1/16 miles. G3 Nashua fifth-place finisher TIRE KICKER returns to the green for Mark Hennig against a field that includes Shug McGaughey's well-bred RESCUE SQUAD (Dynaformer-Search Party).

We get a grassy stakes at Gulfstream on Saturday with the $100,000 Dania Beach at one mile. Tom Albertrani's DUKE OF HOMBERG and Tim Ritvo's SHOW ME THE CASH reunite after disputing the pace in last fall's G3 Pilgrim at Belmont. Impressive Kentuckian KOPITAR puts his unbeaten mark up for a third time when Rusty Arnold's son of Military makes his stakes debut. And three of the top five finishers in Churchill's Grand Canyon Stakes renew acquaintances in SMART SHOT (second), JACK SPRATT (third) and ROCKIN' JOE (fifth), though all three have drawn dastardly wide post positions in the two-turn mile.

Sandwiched between Friday's Dixieland and Monday's Smarty Jones is a pair of sophomore races worth tabbing on Saturday's card at Oaklawn. Race 6 goes as a six-furlong maiden special weight and includes the improving INFLIGHT for Bret Calhoun, who chased impressive Gulfstream return winner FREE COUNTRY back in Kentucky. Race 7 offers the meet's first 3-year-old allowance for the boys, contested at 1 mile. Saratoga maiden breaker FLYING PIRATE will have to overcome a wide draw in the 8-hole for Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas. The $700,000 son of Fusaichi Pegasus meets Fair Grounds last-out winner DR LARGE, who draws the rail for Larry Jones. The 'DR wired a two-turn cast with easy splits at Fair Grounds and is an A.P. Indy colt out of a half-sister to star turf mare Anguilla.

Please note that Monday's Martin Luther King Jr. holiday trio of the Smarty Jones (Oaklawn), San Pedro (Santa Anita) and Jimmy Winkfield (Aqueduct) will not be included in previews this week due to the entry schedules, but will be recapped in next Friday's Countdown.

G2 San Rafael (Saturday/Santa Anita):

Even though he's never raced on dirt, SQUARE EDDIE holds my top ranking as we hit mid-January en route to the Kentucky Derby. There's no doubt about his class, consistency, pedigree, endurance or ability to travel. His Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland was the best European 2-year-old performance in America since Arazi's 1991 BC Juvenile romp, and if not for being stuck down on the rail, he very well might be your 2008 BC Juvenile winner and lock for the Eclipse Award. He'll start his march toward the roses Saturday in this one-mile event around two turns, which has lured a field of otherwise unproven commodities. SQUARE EDDIE must give 3-6 pounds to his challengers in a race that historically provides speed-types a major upset chance. That said, 'EDDIE won't be the slam-dunk his odds likely will lead people to think.

Eagle-eyed Horseplayerpro.com clocker Donald Harris offered "Countdown" this a.m. analysis of SQUARE EDDIE: "The big favorite has trained in front of me for the last few weeks at Hollywood Park. He is a beautiful mover. His running motion is an effortless style that will always catch the eye. The only way this guy gets beat is fitness. He has not been cranked. There is a bigger picture involved with this talented runner."

BROTHER KEITH might be second choice on the strength of his lone start, a daylight sprint win at Churchill Downs in November. Bobby Frankel appears tepidly high in his public comments about the son of BC Turf winner Johar, who has been training very well at Santa Anita. Not a rousing "to the windows" kind of endorsement, but you can read into it that Brooklyn Bobby thinks he has a decent runner. Garrett Gomez takes the mount, which says volumes when he rides for Frankel.

FEISTY SUANCES ran too good to lose in the 7-furlong Cal Breeders' Championship, the only speed horse left standing after swift fractions. The Darrell Vienna trainee draws the far outside No. 8 post and likely will be gunned by speed-friendly rider David Flores. He's also cross-entered in the California Derby and drastically changes the complexion of both races. Another west coaster coming off a stellar performance is the stakes-debuting PAPA CLEM, who got away with an easy lead in his maiden score Dec. 29, but came home quickly and determinedly. He'll have to work much harder if there's a 'FEISTY front-runner joining him in the gate instead of traveling north. The ever-consistent CHARLIE'S MOMENT has turned the corner in his recent training, according to clocker Harris, and rates a look under ace longshot rider Joel Rosario.

The G2 San Rafael could give us a bit of a line on top New York sophomore HAYNESFIELD. That's because Damon Runyon Stakes runner-up FIDDLERS AFLEET comes west for the first time after chasing Steve Asmussen's elite New York-bred. Of course, if the 'FIDDLER does not take to the all-weather track, it could be a misleading case of comparing Big Apples to oranges.

The X-factor is Irish-bred RYEHILL DREAMER, who makes his US debut for John Shirreffs, skipper of 2005 Derby victor Giacomo. RYEHILL DREAMER was G2-placed back home and has twice earned triple-digit Racing Post Ratings when sprinting seven furlongs on turf. He'll try two turns and an all-weather track for the first time. He's by little-known sire Catcher In The Rye, a Danehill stallion who was second in the French 2000 Guineas, but never won beyond a mile. The damside provides plenty of endurance, sporting a female family that includes imported marathon turf winner MACAW.

As we like to do in the two-turn races, here's a look at the projected G2 San Rafael Stakes pace scenario:

Dixieland Stakes (Friday/Oaklawn):

This race should be all about my No. 20-ranked sophomore, SILVER CITY, expected to be odds-on for trainer Bret Calhoun. After back-to-back sprint victories in Kentucky on all-weather and dirt tracks, the $700,000 son of Unbridled's Song was refocused to sprinting just after the New Year. Calhoun said he was not ready to stretch the colt out following a one-mile workout in late December, so the Dixieland came into sharp focus. SILVER CITY's dam, Proposal, was stakes-placed and earned $115K in her own right, but also is a half-sister to Jaipur, Sports Page Handicap and Gravesend winner Multiple Choice. While that sounds all "sprint," do note this is the same female family as G1 Ashland heroine Well Chosen, G1 Manhattan turf route winner Academy Award and G1 Wood Memorial runner-up In Contention. No doubt, SILVER CITY will need to show patience not only to do well down the road as a Derby prospect, but just to survive what figures to be sensational Dixieland fractions.

Expect plenty of early gas in this 5 1/2-furlong dash, especially with the long-awaited return of Tremont Stakes runner-up REGARDLESOFOUTCOME. The rapid Cal-bred has been training at Gulfstream with Wesley Ward's string, but obviously the dash distance of the Dixieland held enough appeal to bring him halfway across the country. Rail-drawn MALIBU MAVERICK can flat-out burn early, too, for trainer Ronny Werner and is searing bullets in the a.m. Meanwhile, don't be surprised to see big improvement from Bob Holthus' DANCER CALLER, who has raced exclusively on Polytrack through four starts. He's working like a maniac on dirt at Churchill and Oaklawn in recent months, and could get a rail-skimming, late-running trip from you-know-who, Calvin Borel.

California Derby (Saturday/Golden Gate Fields):

FEISTY SUANCES, cross-entered here and in the G2 San Rafael, could wreak havoc on the pace situation for the California Derby. Trainer Darrell Vienna did not indicate which direction he was leaning as "Countdown" was being filed, but his presence in NoCal vs. sprinter REVOLUTA would drastically change this race's shape. Otherwise, REVOLUTA could be free-wheeling and challenging everyone to "catch me if you can."

No matter what happens up front, most eyes will be on CHOCOLATE CANDY from the back of the back. Like REVOLUTA, this is a Jerry Hollendorfer trainee, but unlike his stablemate, much more proven and seasoned. CHOCOLATE CANDY should be a short price on a major class drop from the G1 CashCall Hollywood Futurity, where he was a good third to PIONEEROF THE NILE. The son of Candy Ride has excelled since stretching out to two turns and will appreciate the 1 1/16 miles more than any of seven Cal Derby entrants. Russell Baze rides as jockey Rafael Bejarano opts to stay in SoCal to ride SQUARE EDDIE in the G2 San Rafael.

GALLANT SON, the top rookie in the Northwest last season, returns after a decent seventh in the G1 BC Juvenile, beaten less than four lengths for all the money despite a traffic-filled trip. He's had five well-spaced drills since, but does not appear to be fully cranked by trainer Frank Lucarelli. Gold Rush Stakes 1-2 finishers MERUS MIAMI and ADRIATIC MOON square off for a third time in their budding rivalry, with 'MIAMI shining in both previous meetings.

Here's a look at the projected California Derby pace scenario:

Pasco Stakes (Saturday/Tampa Bay Downs):

The Tampa Bay Derby has taken on more importance with each passing spring, but it's hard to imagine this year's Pasco having much impact on that key prep after studying the field. What appears to be a second-tier sprint field, this group of seven does not have a rep who has won in an open-company stakes.

Of those who might be able to route, MEDAGLIA d'ONORE returns for the first time since the Saratoga meeting and has some pedigree for Jamie Sanders. He was off the board in three graded tries, however, after breaking his maiden at Churchill. He fits here, but how much higher or longer is suspicious as best. GENERAL QUARTERS flew late in the six-panel Inaugural at Tampa Bay Downs last month and should be the one to beat. His running lines are sprinkled with some classy runners in Kentucky.

A pair of unbeatens will take some looks, but I'm not sold on either at this point. Bill White's A CENTURIAN crawled home late in his blowout debut win at Calder, and would be suspect from this corner with the extra furlong. Meanwhile, 2-for-2 MUSKET MAN has trained bullets at Tampa after registering slow-on-the-clock wins at Belmont and Philly Park for Jersey-based Derek Ryan. He'll add Lasix, but I'd make him beat me Saturday while using him underneath.

Everyone's a critic

The first big stakes of the season took place last Saturday with the G3 Lecomte at Fair Grounds. Larry Jones notched his second victory in the race in three seasons when FRIESAN FIRE added to the barn's 2007 win with Hard Spun. FRIESAN FIRE was a completely different horse in the Lecomte than he was in his disappointing Dec. 18 allowance runner-up. Gone was his geeked-up demeanor in which he allowed himself to be hustled into a speed duel. The son of A.P. Indy was completely relaxed going down the backstretch as new rider Gabriel Saez might well be credited as the elixir. He had his feet in the dashboard as 'FIRE just smoldered and waited. It was especially notable to see FRIESAN FIRE sit as calmly as he did early on when the teletimer threw up splits of :24.09 and :24.59 for the opening quarters. He rhythmically took his cues and proceeded to post strong :24.86 and :24.14 closing fractions to complete the flat-mile in 1:37.67. The time proved about two lengths faster than the 3-year-old fillies went in the same-day Tiffany Lass Stakes. Sure, he got a nice pace set-up; but give credit that 'FIRE finally was relaxed enough to change his style and capitalize.

The Lecomte was not a one-horse race, however. FRIESAN FIRE's 1 1/2-length victory margin was being gobbled up late by Polytrack-to-dirt mover PATENA, who was equally as or more impressive than the winner. In fact, this Josie Carroll trainee (by Seeking the Gold-Handpainted) has a much more fluid action visually and should only continue to improve moving over the dirt with experience. He could be a serious player, especially when you consider he was giving six pounds to the winner and was picking up five pounds himself off his Display Stakes win at Woodbine. Third-place finisher AU MOON had no excuse for David Carroll, setting the easy pace and still giving way after a rail trip with minimal pressure. UNO MAS, who beat FRIESAN FIRE last time out, ran even for a well-beaten fourth and never appeared to be a threat while giving away insignificant ground on both turns. He's better than this, but his ceiling might have been exposed.

And then there's INDYGO MOUNTAIN. The dominant Churchill maiden winner had every reason to come up short Saturday. A foot problem and abscess limited his training time, and he drew the outside post. Then, when the gate popped open, he broke sideways into it, bobbled and began a nightmarish journey. The $600,000 A.P. Indy colt climbed early and never looked to get his big, leggy frame comfortable at any point in the mile journey. In the stretch, he was tired even though he had not made any discernable progress in the running, and his head was cocked out in the stretch like a horse who did not want to be there. Truth is, this was a rush job of sorts. After missing training time, the need to toss him to the graded-stakes wolves proved ineffective and detrimental. Triple Crown trail rookie Bret Calhoun has to take the responsibility and the opinion here is that he should have waited for a first-level allowance. What's even more frustrating is that there are two such races this Saturday at Fair Grounds, one short and long. As it turned out, the Lecomte was a bad experience for an inexperienced horse and trainer on the trail. INDYGO MOUNTAIN has a lot of progress to make to reassert himself back into my Top 20. The way he looked visually, I'm not confident he's completely over what was bothering him before the Dec. 18 allowance scratch.

Now let's unwrap the undercard races of repute last week. Saturday's Race 10 allowance sprint at Gulfstream was supposed to be QUALITY ROAD's second stop en route to stardom. But the Jimmy Jerkens trainee broke a step slow, rushed like a mad man to assume the lead within a few rapid strides and found himself embroiled in a speed duel with Todd Pletcher's fellow upstart OBLIGINGLY. The duo both exited 100-plus Beyer Speed Figures in their most recent maiden wins, so this was legitimate speed-on-speed, clipping off :22.30 and :22.94 opening quarters. Meanwhile, red-hot trainer Ken McPeek had to be sporting a big, toothy grin as his THEREGOESJOJO sat the PT (perfect trip) third behind the slugfest. Not seen since finishing fourth in July's G3 Bashford Manor at Churchill, 'JOJO rocketed by the softened pair to win by 2 3/4 lengths in 1:22.73 for seven panels, getting the final furlong in a solid :12.37 given the early sizzle. THEREGOESJOJO is expected next in the G2 Fountain of Youth at one mile. QUALITY ROAD has the pedigree for more distance (his dam is a full-sister to Ajina), but must learn to harness his immense speed in the coming months.

Also at Gulfstream last week, Saturday's Race 3 turf maiden route was captured wire-to-wire by Kiaran McLaughlin's FLORENTINO, who scored about three lengths quicker than Rusty Arnold's A.P. Indy colt EL CRESPO did in his second division score in Race 7. FLORENTINO, who raced without blinkers and around two turns for the first time, relaxed nicely and could factor in a dirt route as a maternal grandson of Sunday Silence. Keep an eye on second division's third-place finisher ZIFZAF, who loomed a major threat, but flattened out in his first try beyond six furlongs and first grass start. He, too, is trained by Kiaran McLaughlin for Darley Stable.

Wednesday at GP, an exceptionally slow racing surface all day made it difficult to assess the debut score by Hennessy colt PRIMARY WITNESS. Mark Hennig's sharp-working colt is half-brother to G3 winner Primary Suspect and finished 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:17.96, running the final splits in :25.32 and :6.43. He was able to wear down loose-leading chalk STOMP, who similarly failed to close the deal in two prior tries at Saratoga last summer. From this race, bet back third-place finisher UNFORGIVINGMONARCH. Trainer Angel Penna's horses typically make huge leaps from their first to second starts, and this Came Home colt is from the female family of Kentucky Oaks winner Buryyourbelief and Alabama heroine Pretty Discreet. You have to think he'll want more than the sprint distance he tackled at first asking.

The Thursday card at Gulfstream welcomed Rick Dutrow back the sophomore scene when his ALMA D'ORO romped by five lengths in a 1-mile maiden special weight. What's more, the top pair put more than 21 lengths on the rest of the field (yes, 21 lengths from first to third). The one-time Joe Deegan trainee, who debuted fourth at Churchill, had been firing bullets at Gulfstream since moving to Dutrow's shedrow and ran to those works. A son of top-class router Medaglia d'Oro, ALMA D'ORO has a very sprint-intensive dam side pedigree, however. Well-bred firsters UNBRIDLED CARDINAL (whose dam is half-sister to Rockport Harbor) and PASS CODE (who is a full brother to Cara Rafaela, the dam of Bernardini) were ice-cold on the tote at 20-1 and 13-1, respectively, and ran non-threatening races in fourth and fifth, respectively. ALMA D'ORO only managed a final quarter in :26.43 and would be a stand-against for me stretching out to 1-1/8 miles at this point.

Saturday's Santa Anita card saw the heavily sprint-pedigreed NEW BAY register a seven-furlong victory by a dirty nose over hard-luck TURK. The two opened nearly seven lengths on the rest of the field, but it was NEW BAY who upset the 2-5 favorite. NEW BAY is a son of Cuvee out of a dam named Royal Dove, who set the Pleasanton track record for five furlongs during her 2-year-old season. Meanwhile, TURK is now 2: 0-2-0 in a pair of starts with a combined margin of defeat of two noses. Ouch, babe, for the Bob Baffert trainee, who is owned by the trainer's wife, Jill.

Also at "The Great Race Place" on Saturday, a Race 7 turf tilt produced one of the sweet overlay payoffs of the season. A $30 exacta does not sound like big balloons, but when the players involved are proven, graded-stakes class runners competing in the maiden ranks, you have to wonder what the gambling public was thinking. Doug O'Neill's MARK S THE COOLER absolutely flew home late in :11-and-change for the last furlong of the one-mile test, opening up on Baffert's new recruit HERR MOZART. Older allowance runners went only about two lengths faster on the same program for this course and distance, but note MARK S THE COOLER came home much quicker than those more experienced peers. By BC Turf winner Johar, 'MARK might stick to the green from here out after unsuccessful, but not embarrassing, tries on the Cushion Track in the G1 Hollywood Futurity and Real Quiet Stakes. But the thought here is that this performance was "wow" enough to elicit another chance against the tops in the division. Bettors beware fourth-place finisher EGYPT, who was making his US debut for trainer Patrick Biancone. He took a while to get his sea legs under him and then had to wait once in gear. He won't be a maiden past his next start.

It's hard to feel wowed by WILDCAT BRIEF's 2-5 score in Thursday's Race 3 open maiden special weight sprint at Aqueduct. The Benny Perkins trainee exited a debut 90 Beyer when second to Z DAY on the inner-dirt and cruised wire-to-wire on Thursday by daylight, but only managed six panels in 1:12.24, a time eclipsed on the same card by $20,000 claimers.

Finally, trainer Steve Asmussen continued his maiden and allowance dominance at Fair Grounds Thursday when second-timer DOC POSSE registered a strong six-furlong maiden score in his second outing (1:10 flat). Third here in December at 29-1 odds, he was hammered to 6-5 and bested a field that had some fairly promising pedigrees. DOC POSSE appears to be a sprinter at most, but keep an eye on third-place finisher HILLSWICK, a Grand Slam colt for Malcolm Pierce who debuted with some interest and is out of $466K earner Up an Eighth. This is the same female family as Broad Brush, giving HILLSWICK multiple surface options.


Each week, we'll give you a race video worth a second look. With the return of SQUARE EDDIE in the G2 San Rafael, let's take a look back at his runner-up in the BC Juvenile. The slowish early pace and rail position put him in an uncomfortable position throughout in my estimation, and it appeared as though he was unable and uncertain about pushing through a rail opening in the stretch run. If he would have gotten outside, as they say -- you be the judge.

Quick hitters

A soft tissue injury will force POINT ENCOUNTER to miss the rest of the Derby trail, trainer Carla Gaines said this week. The impressive debut winner had plummeted to 15-1 co-favoritism in the Wynn Las Vegas Derby Futures prior to the news ... The Jan. 31 G3 Holy Bull should lure G2 Kentucky Jockey Club victor BEETHOVEN, G3 Delta Jackpot champion BIG DRAMA, Kentucky Cup Juvenile hero WEST SIDE BERNIE and Ken McPeek's Jan. 8 allowance-winning duo of FREE COUNTRY and DANGER TO SOCIETY ... BEETHOVEN drilled five panels in 1:01-4/5 breezing on Saturday ... WELL POSITIONED, who had a Big Brown-like maiden splash for Pat Reynolds and Paul Pompa in New York last fall, sizzled a half-mile in a bullet :46.98 Sunday and has a Gulfstream route allowance in his crosshairs ... Nobiz Like Shobiz's lil bro HELLO BROADWAY headlines the G2 Hutcheson on Jan. 30, and fired a bullet five-furlong drill last Friday in 1:00 flat. He has trainer Barclay Tagg looking big picture, telling the Gulfstream notes team, "The 'Hutch' is a sprint, so I can let that race do some of the work for me. He's a natural distance horse and there's a grind coming up. It's six major races in less than six months." ... The Bob Baffert-trained PIONEEROF THE NILE continues to smoke bullets in the a.m. at Santa Anita, and has moved up to No. 7 on my Top 20 list this week ... BC Juvenile Fillies winner STARDOM BOUND sizzled 5F in :59-2/5 Monday at Santa Anita ... Nashua winner BREAK WATER EDISON has logged a series of more than a half-dozen half-mile breezes at Payson Park in Florida for John Kimmel.

High fives

Jeremy Plonk's Top 5-rated performances this year by class. (Dec. 26-present)

Maiden Race

1. POINT ENCOUNTER -- Santa Anita 12/26 * injured/out *
2. SOUL WARRIOR -- Fair Grounds 12/29
3. CHECKLIST -- Gulfstream 1/3
4. MARK S THE COOLER -- Santa Anita 1/10 (turf)
5. PAPA CLEM -- Santa Anita 12/29

Allowance Race

1. FREE COUNTRY -- Gulfstream 1/8
2. THEREGOESJOJO -- Gulfstream 1/10
3. SHAFTED -- Santa Anita 1/2
4. DANGER TO SOCIETY -- Gulfstream 1/8
5. SMOKIN MEL -- Aqueduct 1/7

Stakes Race

1. NOTONTHESAMEPAGE -- Spectacular Bid 1/3
2. FRIESAN FIRE -- Lecomte 1/10
3. HAYNESFIELD -- Count Fleet 1/3
4. LOCH DUBH -- Turfway Prevue 1/3
5. ALL SAINT -- Cal Breeders Championship 12/26


Dixieland Picks:

G3 San Rafael Picks (without FEISTY SUANCES):

G3 San Rafael Picks (with FEISTY SUANCES):

Pasco Stakes Picks

California Derby Picks (without FEISTY SUANCES):

California Derby Picks (with FEISTY SUANCES):

How did we do last week?

Third choice FRIESAN FIRE won Lecomte, while top pick UNO MAS was a non-threatening fourth.

How are we doing on the season?

1-for-4 (25 percent) with top pick; 1-for-4 (25 percent) 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 spring.

Think I'm off my rocker? Send your Top 20 list to me, jeremy@horseplayerpro.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: Third week of 2009 season

Reader-submitted top 20: From Michael in High Point, N.C.

What happens in Vegas

This section highlights the steamers in the Las Vegas future book odds.

Wynn Las Vegas Derby Favorites

POINT ENCOUNTER ... 15-1 * injured/out *
BEETHOVEN ... 20-1

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.