Countdown to the Crown: Feb. 6, 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 Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. No matter how hard they are to pronounce sometimes, it's the results that people most remember.

1. Is it just me or is Larry Jones constantly involved in drama? I've never seen a guy so beloved by so many who felt wronged by so many at the same time. The Oaklawn stewards were supposedly out to get him last week. All this comes from a barn who claimed fellow trainers were sabotaging his horses last year at Delaware Park, while he was simultaneously and publicly firing his own staff member who was allegedly trying to bring him down, too. Not sure Hollywood would even make this movie -- a drama queen in a cowboy hat. But man, does the guy have some serious runners.

2. Look for already conservative trainers to be even more cautious following this week's announcements that SQUARE EDDIE, my top-rated 3YO until this week, will be sidelined for perhaps one month with shin issues, and G3 Holy Bull winner SARATOGA SINNER has a knee chip that will force him to miss the Derby. Get ready for a bunch of two-prep contenders come the first Saturday in May.

3. If you think super-filly STARDOM BOUND is a Derby horse, you might also want to root against PATENA to improve your Derby chances. 'BOUND is now a stablemate in the IEAH Stables' murderer's row lineup, and you can bet if PATENA does not advance along the trail that the "chance to make history" and "she deserves this opportunity" talk will surface mighty quickly. STARDOM BOUND opens her season Saturday in the Las Virgenes vs. the gals.

This week's fearless forecast

This section includes a preview of the coming week's 3-year-old races to watch. What a huge stakes weekend to kick off February! From California to Louisiana to New York to Kentucky, it's that time of year. Let's roll through some undercard horses to watch before cutting into our sizable stakes.

Friday's Race 8 allowance feature at Gulfstream matches sophomore turf sprinters, led by Dixieland Stakes third-place finisher REGARDLESOFOUTCOME, who had the misfortune of being ground up by rising superstar SILVER CITY at Oaklawn. Turf sprinters also are on the Friday docket at Fair Grounds, where Race 7 includes Bret Calhoun's third-timer BLUE HEAT, who solidly chased the rising Oaklawn allowance winner POLTERGEIST in their maiden showdown last fall at Remington Park. That one could give us more of a line on POLTERGEIST as he moves to the Arkansas stakes ranks next time out.

Congaree's half-brother, CARY AWAY, makes his dirt debut Saturday on the Whirlaway undercard at Aqueduct. Trained by Todd Pletcher, the Unbridled's Song colt ran fourth with trouble on the turf at Tampa Bay Downs in his unveiling last December. He will have his work cut out for him against a field that includes HAITIAN SENSATION, who has chased very strong fields in his three starts to date and is bred to run all day for former Pletcher assistant Seth Benzel.

On Saturday's G3 Risen Star undercard at Fair Grounds, I can't wait to see HILLSWICK back in action in a Race 11 maiden sprint. The well-bred colt (by Grand Slam out of Up and Eighth) is from Broad Brush's female family and figures to move way forward after chasing Steve Asmussen's more experienced, heavily-favored winner, DOC POSSE, in a rapid time on Jan. 15. He could be a factor Saturday, but should stretch out very nicely in the coming weeks, too. Fast-working rookie HULL appears to have the quicks for Dale Romans and is well-meant early in his career. Meanwhile, Asmussen debuts $350K Speightstown colt OUTTA SPEIGHT and returns the promising RONDEVOUS, off since finishing third to eventual G2 Remsen runner-up ATOMIC RAIN at Monmouth last June.

The Santa Anita Saturday card, loaded with stakes intrigue, also has a pair of sophomore maiden heats to follow. Race 1 is a stout 1 1/8 miles turf maiden, featuring stakes-placed HERR MOZART returning after a tough beat to MARK S THE COOLER, who shows up in the G2 Bob Lewis Memorial off that impressive score. The deep Saturday opener also includes MILLENNIUM LAKES, who will love the 9 panels (by Storm Cat out of Tweedside), and who exits two superb maiden routes. Race 4 figures to be far more speculative, a 5 1/2 furlong dash on the main track with a mere four running lines among its 11 entrants. Eoin Harty debuts the regally bred GREAT LEGACY (Storm Cat-Affluent), while the Ron McAnally/Craig Family firster CANDY FOR PASEANA also makes his first start with excellent drills.

Oaklawn has a lone sophomore heat in Race 8 Saturday at six furlongs, where maidens led by D. Wayne Lukas' rookie SEA ADMIRAL square off. DWL's firster is a $290K Distorted Humor colt from a strong female family that includes Cozzene and Conte di Savoya. Steve Asmussen returns the Keeneland autumn also-ran AQUINAS, a Vindication colt out of a half-sister to Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Desert Stormer.

Philadelphia Park has one worth tabbing in Saturday's Race 8 allowance route feature. TAP MAN is a Tony Dutrow trainee by Tale of the Cat and out of Tap Dance, winner of the G2 Bonnie Miss routing and third in the G2 Black-Eyed Susan. TAP MAN was third most recently to the solid Aqueduct performer PITCHED PERFECTLY.

In the Sunday spotlight, Gulfstream presents a turf route maiden in Race 3, where Shug McGaughey has the impeccably bred CONSERVATIVE (Unbridled's Song-Oh What a Windfall) sitting on a big effort vs. Ian Wilkes' hard-trying Dynaformer colt BEARPATH.

G3 Risen Star (Saturday/Fair Grounds):

Because of a far larger field size (13 vs. 8), a full-length stretch finish vs. a sixteenth-pole finish line, and the absence of runner-up PATENA, you can pretty much take everything you thought you knew about the Lecomte Stakes and forget it in terms of the Risen Star. So while the temptation might be to just wheel back with Lecomte winner FRIESAN FIRE as the circuit's top sophomore, this race does not look like that easy a handicapping exercise. Fresh faces like GIANT OAK (Equibase past performances here), FLYING PEGASUS and NOWHERE TO HIDE are just part of a puzzle that also includes one of my top national maiden winners of the season, SOUL WARRIOR.

Post position will be critical, just as it was in last week's G3 Holy Bull at Gulfstream, and FLYING PEGASUS and AU MOON will be completely compromised by their draws in posts No. 12 and 13. FLYING PEGASUS has never raced around two turns, which is a major negative with a draw like this, and AU MOON failed to rate in the Lecomte and was going to use this race as a learning tool to sit and pounce. Trainer David Carroll had been working him in company to develop patience. But that style likely will see him 4-5 wide on the first turn given the fact there's no breakaway early speed in the lineup to stretch this field out.

Surprising morning-line favorite GIANT OAK appears to be a better turfer to me, running his best races when the pace is slowish-like-grass, and then producing a strong kick. His main track rally for second in the Kentucky Jockey Club is absolutely deceptive on paper. Close inspection of the replay showed a horse who completely hung and was leaning all over the place coming down the lane out of gas. It's far different chasing opening half-miles in :47 on dirt than :49 on the grass, even when you're eight lengths off the lead. He's training lights-out and should run an excellent race off the bench, but I think he'll be seriously under-laid on the toteboard and more of a nibbler in the gimmicks than a win threat.

Video study of SOUL WARRIOR gives you the impression that this son of Lion Heart is begging to do more. Despite losing ground on the first turn 3-4 wide, and having to wait behind an absolute wall of horseflesh turning for home, he produced a phenomenal finish in his two-turn maiden score Dec. 29 with HUGE strides through the finish line and a strong gallop-out. While Shaun Bridgmohan winds up on Steve Asmussen stablemate DUMAR, shed no tears for the 'WARRIOR, who lands P. Val in the saddle. He also gets a six-pound weight break to likely favorite FRIESAN FIRE. As for his sidekick, DUMAR looked all-out in his Jan. 17 allowance win, sitting the PT (perfect trip) as 26-1 and 6-1 shots slugged it out in front of him.

NOWHERE TO HIDE scratched from the G3 Holy Bull after drawing wide and shows up in New Orleans in post No. 3. That's the good news. The bad news is that it's never a perfect storm when plans change. If he was ready to run last week, what can we expect from him after having to wait and ship? Nick Zito doesn't bring many A-listers to Fair Grounds.

Back to the Lecomte alumni, FRIESAN FIRE let a 66-1 shot chase AU MOON last time out and the trip figures to be a bit more complex in this 13-horse field. It's a little curious to see only two published workouts for this horse since his Dec. 18 loss to UNO MAS. Larry Jones has given 'FIRE only one drill since the Lecomte, while rival UNO MAS has had three for Asmussen. How tight are the screws on FRIESAN FIRE for this, and are we looking at a "just get him to Louisville" kind of training schedule? He's a tough, tough read, but it's hard to imagine he won't factor seriously Saturday.

If we forget the Lecomte totally, as suggested, the rebound story of INDYGO MOUNTAIN would be among the top handicapping storylines. After missing training time with an abscess issue, he had a terrible start in the Lecomte and never entered the mix. The A.P. Indy colt has worked well twice since then and appears to be rounding back into his anticipated form. Quite honestly, he could wind up anywhere at the wire, but I'm not of the opinion that he's going to pop here with any tremendous breakout. He's talented, cost $600,000 and his trainer Bret Calhoun likely won't be looking at Saturday as the tell-all to this colt's spring. Look for an improved effort, but don't be overly fearful of leaving him off the top end of your tickets.

As we like to do in the two-turn races, here's a look at the projected G3 Risen Star Stakes pace scenario:

G2 Bob Lewis Memorial (Saturday/Santa Anita):

Only a nose separated PIONEEROF THE NILE and I WANT REVENGE in December's G1 CashCall Hollywood Futurity, and that dynamic duo returns Saturday in a tough spot in the G2 Bob Lewis Memorial at 1 1/16 miles. PIONEEROF THE NILE (Equibase past performances here) will have to concede 7 pounds to his rival after carrying equal weights at Hollywood, and the competition appears to be surprisingly deep for an early season prep out west. BITTEL ROAD also makes his seasonal debut after finishing a decent fourth to the top pair at Holywood.

After four straight stakes placings to close his 2008 season, CHARLIE'S MOMENT also will be making his '09 unveiling in this contentious spot. Meanwhile, MARK S THE COOLER, PAPA CLEM and SHAFTED, three of the Santa Anita meeting's most impressive undercard winners, all come to the party with a puncher's chance.

The pace figures to be quite solid, as BROTHER KEITH adds early sizzle after blowing the first turn in the G3 San Rafael. He should put heat on PAPA CLEM, while I fully expect much more speed from I WANT REVENGE than he showed when closing for second at Hollywood. Trainer Jeff Mullins adds blinkers and this colt is not just working fast, he's working insanely fast. I don't think throttling him down will be an option. And with so many top-class closers with a proven late kick, it's conceivable that this race will spread out a dozen or more lengths down the backstretch.

I absolutely appreciate the quality of this race, and it's conceivable you won't see a better prep in California the rest of the spring -- attrition often thins a sophomore class. Taking firm stands typically is my mantra, but I hate to be cliched and weak here: the ONLY horse in this field who would shock me in victory would be OIL MAN. Eight of the nine own solid cases, and while some of the less experienced may not have the resumes of the Grade 1 challengers, they have high-mark recent races on their side and experience over the track on raceday. Plus, 1 1/16 miles does not separate the herd; it's a come-together distance that most horses of any repute can handle.

That said, I'm going price shopping and putting my stock in the impressive visuals I've seen this meeting from the upstarts, namely MARK S THE COOLER and SHAFTED. Take them on top and figure either 'NILE or 'REVENGE will be talented and classy enough to produce the bottom of the exacta off of the layoff.

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

Whirlaway Stakes (Saturday/Aqueduct):

There's no sugar-coating it: The Whirlaway came up decidedly weak, and Aqueduct's winter heavyweight HAYNESFIELD should have his way with this bunch. Just five challengers take him on at 1 1/16 miles, three of which have never been in a stakes race. Maryland Juvenile Championship winner PEACE TOWN takes a swing up north for sharpie Mike Trombetta, while Count Fleet third-place finisher MIKE FROM QUEENS looks for a bit softer pace this time and hope for the best in the lane.

HAYNESFILED has won three straight races by 13 1/4 combined lengths, never threatened in his victories in the Count Fleet and Damon Runyon, both around two turns. The Steve Asmussen trainee already has over-achieved his $20,000 sales tag, but we unfortunately won't find out much more about his class until more serious challenges come to New York in the Gotham or Wood. He has yet to earn huge respect from me in the big picture, but he overflows the tiny fishbowl he's swimming in Saturday.

WEBN (Saturday/Turfway Park):

Icy conditions thwarted the WEBN Stakes last Saturday at Turfway, and after the re-drawn field was reassembled for this weekend, I feel even better about the handicapping process.

BABAMOON draws post No. 2, and trainer Eric Reed was one of the few conditioners to take advantage of the extra week and get another a.m. drill into his charge, which came Tuesday at Keeneland. The Malibu Moon colt opened his career in Chicago, racing well in four starts, all routes, and running into a pair of prospects that are taking part in Saturday's G3 Risen Star, GIANT OAK and DUMAR, either of which would be odds-on in the WEBN. Expect BABAMOON to lag early and fly late. Meanwhile, likely chalk MUSIC CITY should have to deal with a more stout pace than he got away with in his prep win Jan. 14. Impressive maiden winner AZICHARMYOU had the misfortune of landing post No. 11 with the re-draw.

Everyone's a critic

This section recaps the week that was. As indicated in "Countdown" last week, CAPT. CANDYMAN CAN most definitely was the "now" horse in last Friday's G2 Hutcheson Stakes, and he ran to those inclinations with a measured score over HELLO BROADWAY. The two classy characters found themselves in a cat-and-mouse game where no one wanted the lead after a quarter-mile in :23.76. As HELLO BROADWAY quickened boldly heading into the far turn and ran the second quarter in a :22.38 split that would melt weaker players, CAPT. CANDYMAN CAN took his cues from Julien Leparoux with improved professionalism and took back, waiting to pounce. To both of their credits, they widened on their four challengers through the lane and proved to be much the best. The final time of 1:24.15 was about two lengths faster than the fillies went earlier in the card in the Forward Gal Stakes.

CAPT. CANDYMAN CAN already has over-achieved his $25,000 sales tag, and the son of Candy Ride looks to be prepped in a manner to collect what they can now, and let the Derby chips fall where they may. HELLO BROADWAY, on the other hand, held on well despite failing to finish his final 'Hutch work in a stylish manner. When they stretch out around two turns, I'm not dead-set on either horse running as well as they do in these one-turn heats. But of the two, a slight, two-turn edge goes to 'BROADWAY, while both certainly would benefit from having a target to run at. Let's keep a close eye on HELLO BROADWAY's worktab moving forward. The pace of the Hutcheson changed drastically with the scratch of fleet Z DAY, and the late challenges were nil when BREAK WATER EDISION, the G3 Nashua winner, failed to show up for work. His non-effort is nothing new, and this inconsistent soul will need to get much more out of his next two preps to be back on my Derby speed-dial.

Gulfstream's major stakes double rolled on Saturday with the G3 Holy Bull, where morning-line favorites WEST SIDE BERNIE and BEETHOVEN were hung out in posts 9 and 10, respectively, and conceding eight pounds to the field. Everybody and their Uncle Sal wound up on unbeaten DANGER TO SOCIETY, who was well-drawn in post 2, and you could do a heckuva lot worse than to use the Ken McPeek free bingo space this season at GP. Hence, a 9-5 underlay ensued that really defied handicapping-hindsight logic.

But Saturday's G3 Holy Bull result won't tell us much moving forward and turned out to be a race of circumstance more so than substance, given the post draw, lack of legitimate pace and spread in the weights. The result became even more insignificant, of course, when winner SARATOGA SINNER came out of the race with a knee chip and it was announced he would be off the Triple Crown trail.

The Holy Bull begged to be won on or near the lead, and front-running BEAR'S ROCKET and SARATOGA SINNER obliged the common-sense 'cappers. With my support on BEAR'S ROCKET at 33-1 (when's the last time you saw a public handicapper at 33-1 in a graded stakes?), don't you know I was snapping the fingers and going to the whip as the Reade Baker trainee turned for home with the lead. But, alas, when you look next door and see the fabulous Frenchman, Julien Leparoux, in the next-saddle-over, your stomach sinks. That cat just doesn't get out-finished often. And, so it was, SARATOGA SINNER outslugged a very game BEAR'S ROCKET in 1:51.45 for nine panels, just over two lengths off the time posted later by Albertus Maximus in the G1 Donn Handicap for elders.

The Holy Bull's come-home splits of :25.47 and :13.25 weren't dipped in sparkles, but actually were faster than the Donn's :25.64 and :13.57. Only WEST SIDE BERNIE really was running on at the end of the Holy Bull. He turned a role reversal of what I expected, pace-wise, when jockey Elvis Trujillo took him back and made one run. That's the approach I wrongly projected Calvin Borel would take with BEETHOVEN, who instead was gunned out of the gate like a Quarter Horse for the first time in his career. John Ward said BEETHOVEN might resurface in the Fountain of Youth before a run in the Florida Derby, a move that would help the trainer build muscle on the colt. Also of significance, post-Holy Bull, is that the owners of the disappointing DANGER TO SOCIETY have since moved their horse to the care of none other than Rick Dutrow. He'll be aimed at a Gotham-Wood run in New York.

One horse who already is buzzing up the charts is New York-bred MR. FANTASY (Equibase past performances here), who has the performances to back up his catchy name. We wrote that his maiden win was superstar-hinting in this year's inaugural "Countdown," and I'm convinced that's where he's headed. Kiaran McLaughlin's second-time starter turned in the best allowance race in America this year, hands-down, with Sunday's 1 1/16 miles promenade at Aqueduct. State-breds or not, you had to be impressed to see a horse make the lead from post 10 with ease while being restrained, not gunned. The son of E Dubai is a half-brother to G2 Indiana Derby winner Tin Cup Chalice and appears to have much more brilliance than big bro. MR. FANTASY spurts when asked, like a push-button horse should, and cornered magnificently on the far turn of his two-turn unveiling. And his lineage links back to none other than Silky Sullivan, even if MR. FANTASY's natural speed is the polar opposite of that historic runner.

Getting back to Gulfstream, where Saturday's card boasted a full lineup of sophomore lead-ins, opening in Race 1 when Todd Pletcher put the kibosh on the superstar-in-waiting inauguration of WELL POSITIONED. While the dominant New York maiden winner was well-beaten at odds-on, the Pletcher Posse ran 1-2 with TAKE THE POINTS and MASALA opening seven lengths on the balance of the one-mile field. TAKE THE POINTS, bred significantly for grass, did not gallop out with any vigor and failed to give me positive, two-turn vibes. They came home in a room temperature :25.01 and the final time (1:38.37) was slower than the one-mile split of the nine-furlong G3 Holy Bull. My inclination is to stand against this cast next out, while WELL POSITIONED did have some excuse, breaking slow and rushing to contention before an early checkout. Still, his reputation took a George Foreman-sized body blow.

Saturday's third at Gulfstream was too screwy for it's own good with two different horses losing their riders in separate incidents, and an ultimate carousel ride seeing the 1-2-3-4-5-6 runners basically holding their spots for the entire six panels. A slow 1:11.10 time for wire-to-wire winner CAPTAIN RIO didn't inspire delusions of grandeur. I'm still sick that my bet-back recommendation GALLIGAN ROAD finished third at 16-1 odds, even after having his heels clipped severely by a loose horse as the field made its way to the far turn.

With all due respect to the big-name horses people thought might shine Saturday at GP, the star of the undercard show was Race 6 turf sprint maiden debut winner ECHO IN ETERNITY (Equibase past performances here). We warned you he might be a stud, and this half-brother to Ferragamo turned in the kind of "wow" performance we get giddy over this time of year. Rolling up the rail, he went from even terms to three lengths clear in exactly 12 strides (who's counting?), showing a turn of foot reminiscent of Goldikova in the BC Mile last fall. I'm not saying he's Goldikova, I'm just saying it was wham-bam-thank-you-dam kinda stuff. Ken McPeek's Lion Heart colt galloped out like an absolute beast and is totally chiseled in the looks department. Fear ECHO IN ETERNITY whatever he does next, short/long/turf/dirt. How good was this maiden win? I rank in Numero Uno in America this year. While you're at it, bet back with two hands STORM'N WARRIOR, who did all the dirty work up front in his debut and held nicely for third. The horses he dueled with wound up eighth and tenth, while this guy stuck around to have his head put on a swivel in the final sixteenth by a freak.

Finally on Saturday at Gulfstream, Barbaro's full-brother NICANOR did not write the next feel-good chapter, debuting a banged-up 10th after grabbing his front-left quarter early in the race. He showed a decent middle-move before retreating, indicating there's some flicker inside. But this Race 8 maiden was a dull 1:39.69 on the clock for a mile, more than six lengths slower than TAKE THE POINTS ran his allowance mile to open the day. WARRIOR'S REWARD needed :26.20 the final quarter-mile. If you're going to bet any of these back, mark down SINGLE MALT, the third-place finisher who looked awesome on the track in the post parade and galloped best of all. His dam is a half-sister to champion Jewel Princess and he should want two turns.

Nick Zito hopped on the trail last Friday at GP with sharp allowance sprint winner BRAVE VICTORY, who closed home a shade under :12 the final furlong in running down loose-leading FITZASLEW for Ken McPeek. Both were making their seasonal debuts after stakes fizzles last fall, but BRAVE VICTORY really impressed with a super-strong gallop-out. He faced all the bears at age 2, and should be ready for a two-turn date. Ballyhooed debut winner CHECKLIST stumbled badly in the opening stages of the race, made a solid middle move, and then tossed in the towel late. While his obvious excitement (bet to 3-5) is now tempered some, he's definitely worth a look given the horses he beat at first asking have come back to run so strongly. Don't lose the faith, but it will be hard to jump into a route stakes off this effort. He'll need to be well-spotted.

Out west, we grinned from ear-to-ear when our Horseplayerpro.com Alert "bet-back" special MR. HOT STUFF returned an overlaid $20 to win in Sunday's Race 5 maiden route at Santa Anita. The full-brother to Colonel John (Equibase past performances here) had looked like he had turned the corner, and on Sunday, he kicked the door down. The good-looking physical specimen blitzed his last quarter in :23-and-change while making up six lengths from the top of the lane, and galloped out 10 lengths in front. This was an "oh, baby" kind of mile in 1:35.82. Runner-up LIFE GOES ON, who carved out the pace, should be a prompt maiden breaker at next asking.

Congaree's second-timer JERANIMO won Saturday's Race 5 maiden sprint at Santa Anita over the more route inclined PAUPER'S PRIZE. The Michael Pinder-trained JERANIMO is from a heavy sprint family that includes the likes of A Huevo, First Samurai and Sky Blue Pink.

An early Belmont Stakes shout-out goes to MAJHOOD, Sunday's Race 6 route maiden winner at Aqueduct. The Kiaran McLaughlin-trained colt has to take a backseat to stablemate MR. FANTASY's same-day allowance win, but we're talking about a massively long-striding colt here who takes forever to get in gear, then appears to be able to run all day. While I don't think he has Derby brilliance, MAJHOOD could be a late Belmont developer in that Jazil mold, and is by Awesome Again.

Green as grass, but with a physique that catches your eye, SUMO scored a Tampa Bay Downs allowance route win last Friday for Graham Motion. When the second quarter slowed down the backstretch, he took his cues from Jeremy Rose and spurted up the fence and took control of the race. Clear by daylight in the lane, he ducked out badly, surrendered his lead, and then re-broke when he saw Saratoga maiden special weight winner REMARKABLE STORM overtake him on the inside. He then put his head down with good energy and finished up well. The son of FuPeg has a lot of upside, and he's bred to the hilt for grass if they ever try that route. That combination also makes him an intriguing Turfway or Keeneland player on Polytrack.

Trainer James Casey admits 7 furlongs is optimal for his West Virginia-bred star RUSSELL ROAD, who ran his win streak to six straight in Saturday's Dancing Count at Laurel. So Preakness dreams probably aren't in the mix. But for a horse who spent six weeks on the farm and had only three weeks back in training before the Dancing Count, you had to be impressed with the grandson of Alydar's six-furlong time of 1:09.79.

Trainer Bob Holthus had a good weekend with his sophomores, winning Saturday's Black Gold Stakes at Fair Grounds with grass sprinter TURFISTE and Sunday's Race 7 allowance sprint at Oaklawn with DANCE CALLER, a grandson of Gate Dancer who simply has blossomed on the dirt as we warned a few weeks ago in "Countdown." DANCE CALLER flew early against rapid-dasher MERKEL in :21.69 (insanely quick at Oaklawn) and finished up his six panels in 1:10.50, more than two lengths faster than a good N3X allowance race for elders in the very next race. DANCE CALLER seriously legitimizes Dixieland Stakes winner SILVER CITY's credentials after being dusted by that Bret Calhoun trainee in mid-January. In fact, I'm moving SILVER CITY up to No. 9 on my list this week, given so many horses he's beaten have run back so well.

Also at Oaklawn, Saturday's Race 5 allowance route provided redemption for Larry Jones' DR LARGE, who was a completely different animal while always in control of this one. He bombed in his local unveiling two weeks prior, but was a total bear to pull up for jockey Terry Thompson this time around. He got away with a :48.68 opening half-mile and then coasted home in :25.76 and :6.63 splits that looked better to the eye than the watch. Runner-up FLYING PRIVATE sleepwalked out of the gate and made a nice, wide rally for second, but did not bring any "wow" in his recovery efforts from this corner. Dominant Fair Grounds maiden sprint winner AWESOME PREACHER never factored for Steve Asmussen, who is not lighting up OP the way he has FG.

Heavily-favored HIDDEN BOUNTY won Saturday's Rattlesnake Snakes at Turf Paradise, finishing the final quarter of the one-mile race in just :26.64 and appearing tired with no challengers making headway.


Each week, we'll give you a race video worth a second look. On Saturday, PIONEEROF THE NILE and I WANT REVENGE rematch from their G1 CashCall Hollywood Futurity tussle. The margin was just a nose. Can you split the hairs? Video here.

Quick hitters

OLD FASHIONED made the move to Oaklawn seamlessly, breezing a half-mile Thursday in a sharp :48-2/5 for Larry Jones, readying for next week's Southwest ... PATENA, second in the Lecomte, is expected to make his next start in the Louisiana Derby, trainer Rick Dutrow told Daily Racing Form. THIS ONE'S FOR PHIL will represent the barn in the Fountain of Youth next, while Dutrow's impressive maiden winner ALMA D'ORO will be aimed at an allowance race and then a possible Florida Derby run ... San Rafael champ THE PAMPLEMOUSSE drilled a half-mile Wednesday at Santa Anita in a bullet :46.60 in preparation for the 9-furlong Sham on Feb. 28 ... Looking ahead to next week's extended holiday weekend, the jammed slate includes the G3 Southwest from Oaklawn, G3 San Vicente at Santa Anita, G3 Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs, G3 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate, Hallandale Beach at Gulfstream, and a weekend kickoff Thursday in the UAE 2000 Guineas at Nad al Sheba, expected to feature multiple G1 winner VINEYARD HAVEN ... Finally this week, count me out for the Preakness press box this year. With Thursday's announcement that Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members ZZ Top will be performing live on Preakness Day, the infield will be the rockin' place to be.

High fives

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

Maiden Race
1. ECHO IN ETERNITY -- Gulfstream 1/31 (turf sprint) * NEW *
2. SOUL WARRIOR -- Fair Grounds 12/29
3. MR. HOT STUFF -- Santa Anita 2/1 * NEW *
4. CHECKLIST -- Gulfstream 1/3
5. PERFECT SONG -- Philadelphia Park 1/20

Allowance Race
1. MR. FANTASY -- Aqueduct 2/1 * NEW *
2. FREE COUNTRY -- Gulfstream 1/8
3. THEREGOESJOJO -- Gulfstream 1/10
4. SHAFTED -- Santa Anita 1/2
5. DANCE CALLER -- Oaklawn 2/1 * NEW *

Stakes Race
1. NOTONTHESAMEPAGE -- Spectacular Bid 1/3
2. TAQARUB -- Jimmy Winkfield 1/19
3. THE PAMPLEMOUSSE -- San Rafael 1/17
4. FRIESAN FIRE -- Lecomte 1/10
5. SILVER CITY -- Dixieland 1/16

Stakes selections

G2 Bob Lewis Memorial Stakes Picks:

G3 Risen Star Stakes Picks:

Whirlaway Stakes Picks:

WEBN Stakes Picks:

How did we do last week?

Top choice CAPT. CANDYMAN CAN won Hutcheson; top choice BEAR'S ROCKET ran a heart-breaking second at 33-1 in the Holy Bull; second choice RUSSELL ROAD won Dancing Count.

How are we doing on the season?

4-for-12 (33 percent) with top pick; 6-for-12 (50 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: Sixth week of the 2009 season

** SQUARE EDDIE was removed from the Top 20 after holding down the No. 1 spot. We'll reevaluate his status if, and when, he returns from his projected, 30-day hiatus due to shin issues.

Reader-submitted top 20: From Karen in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

What happens in Vegas

This section highlights the steamers in the Las Vegas future book odds. Odds updated Feb. 2, 2008, here.

Wynn Las Vegas Derby Favorites

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.