Countdown to the Crown

Editor's Note: Countdown to the Crown returns for a sixth season online as one of the most comprehensive handicapper's analyses of the 3-year-old scene. Posted each Friday from Jan. 7 through the Belmont Stakes, Countdown keeps you apprised of the rising stars of the 3-year-old class from the maiden ranks through the Grade 1 stakes. You can access daily updates and interactive features at the all-new www.Countdowntothecrown.com as well.

3 things you won't read anywhere else

Opinions are like trainer Dale Romans' dress shirts. Half in, half out.

1. My team of a half-dozen 20, 30 and young 40-somethings at Horse Player NOW spent all of Preakness Day in the Pimlico infield teaching thousands of young and older folks how to bet and understand racing, most of them for the first time. So when you read all the negativity about Kegasus, catering to drunks, and how the Maryland Jockey Club cares only about one day per year, come talk to me about Pimlico's Wagering 101 Tent and how "dead" racing is.

2. Dale Romans' streak of 5 consecutive Triple Crown races with a horse placing in the top 4 culminated with his first classic win by SHACKLEFORD in Saturday's Preakness. Bob Baffert ran off 7 straight Top 4 crown finishes with Silver Charm, Real Quiet and Prime Timber from the 1997 Derby through the '99 Derby. And, of course, D. Wayne Lukas WON 6 straight Triple Crown races from the 1994 Preakness through the '96 Derby, a feat that probably will never be matched. Lukas ran out 8 straight Top 4 finishes with Editor's Note running third and first in the '96 Preakness and Belmont. So while Romans has a long way to go to get in that DWL stratosphere, still what a remarkable run this has been.

3. Kudos to television analyst Donna Brothers for having the courage to point out the physical flaws in SHACKLEFORD before the Preakness Stakes, regardless of the end result. Even if SHACK did win the Florida Derby while washed out in March, his pre-race appearance Saturday was relevant, live analysis to the Preakness storyline and a tremendous service to bettors making last-minute decisions. Sometimes you wind up wrong in this racing game even when you're spot on. Show me someone willing to make the tough calls, and I'll show you someone worth listening to.

This week's fearless forecast

With the Belmont Stakes looming in 2 weeks, the prep discussions are complete. We'll reserve our next forecast for the final jewel of the Triple Crown. Entries for Monday's listed Lone Star Derby won't be drawn until after our Countdown deadline. A California invasion led by THIRTYFIRSTSTREET (Doug O'Neill) and either COIL or UNCLE SAM (Bob Baffert) is expected.

Everyone's a critic

This section reviews the week that was in the 3-year-old ranks. Annually we give a first-through-last rundown of the Preakness field in this week's space. Let's get to it.

SHACKLEFORD: One could argue that Dale Romans should have been winning his second straight Preakness on Saturday. After all, his First Dude set a pace 2-3 lengths faster last year than SHACKLEFORD went this time around, yet still battled to a tight photo-finish loss at the hooves of dual-champion Lookin At Lucky. Last year's cast ran a full second faster on the clock to boot. The terms "gusty" and "determined" have been attached to SHACK after Saturday's win, while First Dude was labeled an underachiever, one-paced and heartless by some following his 3-year-old season. My, what a difference a few feet make, huh? Regardless of the comparisons, my hat is off to Romans and SHACKLEFORD for a well-deserved Preakness score.

Having FLASHPOINT as a Preakness target worked well for SHACKLEFORD, who was forced to set all the tempo in the Derby and then be put into a drive 3 furlongs from the wire when OTHERS decided it was time to apply pressure. Anyone who thinks his Derby trip was easy is over-simplifying fractions on the clock through 6 furlongs and belittling exactly what 1-1/4 miles means. As the outside presser in Baltimore, it was Jesus Castanon and SHACKLEFORD this time who had the liberty to call their shots if good enough. And, he certainly was plenty good when called upon. This was not a beautiful win, nor a brilliant one. It wasn't Curlin and Street Sense, circa 2007, coming home in about 18 seconds the final three-sixteenths from far back. This was a solid :19.25 finish on par with most Preaknesses and nothing for which to apologize.

SHACKLEFORD likely moves on to the Belmont Stakes and certainly has to be respected to handle the distance, no matter his front-running style. Pressing and pouncing to Preakness glory enhances him as more than a need-the-lead horse, and in case you stopped watching at the wire, SHACKLEFORD drew away from ANIMAL KINGDOM in the gallop-out as well. I'm not certain if the Preakness was 10 furlongs vs. 9.5 that ANIMAL KINGDOM roars by, but it would have been a fun scenario to watch (especially given my wagers' need to get AK on top!).

The Preakness winner has won champion 3-year-old honors each of the past 10 years (including Rachel Alexandra as top 3-year-old filly in 2009). This year's title looks far more up for grabs, however, and a big second half or a rousing Belmont Stakes performance appears to be a prerequisite for SHACKLEFORD at this stage to secure any year-end hardware.

ANIMAL KINGDOM: Even in defeat, the Kentucky Derby winner absolutely legitimized his performance from Louisville with a dynamite Preakness second. Jockey John Velazquez rode a remarkable race, closing from 13th while not losing ground and not once even tapping on the brakes. Look up "sustained run" in the dictionary, and this is the kind of performance that typifies it. The only thing that failed to happen was SHACKLEFORD forgot to stop running. ANIMAL KINGDOM made up 18 lengths and fell a half-length short. He was marginally less brilliant than he was in the Kentucky Derby, a fact that was expected by trainer Graham Motion and discerning handicappers alike. Motion figured he'd have to win the Preakness on something a bit less than he showed on Derby Day given the quick turn-around and likelihood that there would be no move forward. ANIMAL KINGDOM did his part and lost little in the end result from an evaluation standpoint. He won't become an all-time great and win the Triple Crown, but that's hardly a character assassination. Moving on to the Belmont Stakes, with 3 weeks of R&R time at Fair Hill Training Center and a short van ride to New York, you'd have to think ANIMAL KINGDOM would be strictly the horse to beat in the final jewel of the Triple Crown.

ASTROLOGY: Sometimes you dog an athlete because you weren't impressed early on and it's hard to shake that opinion. I admit that happens to me, no matter the sport. I was not impressed at all by ASTROLOGY as a 2-year-old and felt he was irrelevant to the longer-distance picture this spring. But I have to tell you that this guy really impressed me in the Preakness and I have to re-think my criticisms. Despite pressing the hot pace, he still was trying exceptionally hard in the stretch, reaching forward with every stride through the wire, while running a very game third. I particularly loved how Mike Smith pumped him hard with his elbows twice just before the quarter-pole and immediately got a spurt from ASTROLOGY to zip past, and cross in front of, pace-setting FLASHPOINT. It's moves like that which keep horses out of bad trouble lines, and a push-button acceleration that only the good ones have. You had better circle this one for the Haskell Invitational in August at Monmouth, where his natural speed and developing determination will be tough to beat.

DIALED IN: Shuffled back at the start by MUCHO MACHO MAN, he once again found himself dead last early in the race. That's a position DIALED IN has been in every single start of his career, regardless of class or distance, so I found some backstretch banter from those connected with the horse almost humorous. Post-race, you can't be critical of the ride and being too far back with a horse like DIALED IN. Buyer beware: You know what you're getting into when you support horses devoid of early speed. It's what makes Zenyatta's run of consecutive victories so ridiculously impressive. Great horses like Cigar made their own perfect trips, don't get me wrong, but with these deep, 1-run closers like DIALED IN or Zenyatta, they almost have to win in spite of themselves. For any talk about DIALED IN being too far back to impact the race, he was a length or 2 off the tail of ANIMAL KINGDOM down the backstretch and nearly 4 lengths behind him at the wire. Julien Leparoux followed John Velazquez through every single hole during the trip and simply couldn't close as fast as ANIMAL KINGDOM once again. I would not play DIALED IN to improve any more in the Belmont Stakes, and the fact that he's not in the immediate Belmont discussion lends credence to those who said he was trained lightly all year because of some physical reasons and just trying to make it to Preakness day for the potential $5.5 million bonus. Can you imagine Nick Zito with a long-winded horse not trying the Belmont in his backyard?

DANCE CITY: The seas parted for him at the break and he left as clean as any horse in the race. With a straight shot toward the front, jockey Ramon Dominguez made the visually obvious choice to allow the speed horses go as you can readily see him looking around on a swivel early on for a place to tuck in and slow down. That changed the pace dynamic a great deal, as many expected DANCE CITY to be the third-prong of an early-speed trio with FLASHPOINT and SHACKLEFORD. Dominguez letting off the gas pedal about 200 yards into the race was one of the most critical, albeit subtle, junctures in this entire Preakness Stakes. Instead of instigating pressure, DANCE CITY settled 4-5 lengths off the pace into the first turn. Dominguez wound up 4-5 wide on the far turn as a "stalker," appeared to be loaded with horse at the quarter pole while advancing to third place in-between points of call on the chart, and then simply flattened out. There's no embarrassment in running fifth, but I would have preferred to see him engaged early and in better position on the far turn. He ran well enough to be in the stretch discussion had DANCE CITY remained in his normal speed/press style and not lost so much ground.

MUCHO MACHO MAN: He broke out a bit into DIALED IN, then was forced in by ISN'T HE PERFECT and wound up bouncing a bit off of KING CONGIE. It was not a good first 50 yards for MUCHO MACHO MAN. After being stuck down inside with ISN'T HE PERFECT glued to him, he was able to spurt nicely from that rival on the backstretch and get away from the fence some, which is important for a big horse like 'MACHO. But Rajiv Maragh had him too far out by the time they rounded the far turn, racing some 6-7 paths off the rail. He plugged along rather 1-paced through the stretch and never threatened a big-money placing. This effort was nothing like his Derby and he definitely regressed off of a big try in Louisville when third. If he's my horse, I'm not moving on to Belmont. There's a big future with MUCHO MACHO MAN once he develops into his body. Don't squeeze the lemon dry now, especially when he's taking steps in the wrong direction. More talk about losing a shoe in the Preakness, like he did in the Louisiana Derby, but the handwriting appears clearer on the wall to me. Rest him up, let him get into the feed bucket, and make a big run at the late summer and fall races.

KING CONGIE: He was taken a bit out of his position early when part of a chain reaction from the outside-in. But KING CONGIE was able to save ground throughout and get an otherwise perfect trip. Splitting the field in seventh at 21-1 odds, he ran to his ability and take nothing away from a reasonable performance on the dirt attempt. West Point Thoroughbreds' Terry Finley reported in Night School online this past Monday that King Congie would be headed back to the turf, which appears to be a smart move though he ran adequately on the dirt in Baltimore and could beat listed stakes-type horses on just about any surface. But certainly appears a higher-tiered, graded stakes performer on turf.

MR. COMMONS: Trainer John Shirreffs brought him east looking about as good in the flesh as a horse could look, but mentally, MR. COMMONS was not all there. A tad skittish behind the gate to load, then did not handle the far outside draw with space to his outside and broke like he was a bit lost. MR. COMMONS moved into solid contention turning for home, but was completely out of horse when the real running began. A lack of seasoning showed up with this horse, both in terms of experience and endurance, and he figures only to get better with time. Look for him to be a late-season player as he showed enough mid-race to warrant some respect as a horse who at least belongs on this level.

ISN'T HE PERFECT: He dove toward the inside early in the race and caused a chain reaction by forcing MUCHO MACHO MAN toward the fence, which bounced around KING CONGIE. He had little impact after that while beating 5 horses across the wire, 4 of which were in front of him early and tired. It was a 1-paced performance that fit his 30-1 odds and he didn't embarrass himself.

CONCEALED IDENTITY: Because the initial quarter-mile pace was so fast, the field spread into the first turn and his post 13 didn't necessitate a wide trip on the clubhouse turn. Not fast enough to maintain a good spot on the backstretch, he wound up wide on the far turn and simply couldn't keep pace with the classier rivals. Expect the Marylander to remain a local stakes player.

SWAY AWAY: He was a disaster from the start, breaking awkwardly and then racing very rank for Garrett Gomez through the stretch the first time. Rarely do you lose a horse's mental focus early and recoup it, and even more rarely in a big field size and with a fast pace. There's no place to relax and regroup. The race for SWAY AWAY was over with a mile to go, and he never got into the mix. He had a little spurt of interest and then totally stopped the final furlong after bumping MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE. He'll be better with a return to 1-turn races.

MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE: Bob Baffert has won the Preakness 6 times and has every right to be there with a Santa Anita Derby winner when you balance those credentials. But nothing of sound mind indicated to this handicapper that a rebound was anywhere near possible, and MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE chased the pace and steadily faded. A turf career has been mentioned next from the barn, so maybe you'll see him aimed at the Oceanside Stakes and/or Del Mar Derby this summer.

FLASHPOINT: This is what happens when good sprinters are poorly placed. After dueling for the better part of 7 furlongs, this sprint-bred colt retreated rapidly through the field to finish last. Hopefully he emerges no worse for the wear and returns to a solid sprint career. Remember the silliness of a $1 million match race between him and THE FACTOR this spring? Ah, hubris. To trainer Wesley Ward's credit, he could not have had FLASHPOINT looking any better before the race, but the pedigree limitations and pace did this guy in. FLASHPOINT didn't pick the distance, after all.

Quick Hitters

Early prospects for the Belmont Stakes are lining up, alphabetically, like this: ALTERNATION, ANIMAL KINGDOM, ANTHONY'S CROSS, AWESOME PATRIOT, BRILLIANT SPEED, JAYCITO, MASTER OF HOUNDS, MONZON, MUCHO MACHO MAN, NEHRO, PRIME CUT, RULER ON ICE, SANTIVA, SHACKLEFORD, STAY THIRSTY, TECH FALL and UNCLE SAM … STAY THIRSTY breezed a fast half-mile Sunday at Belmont in :47.97, his first move since running 12th in the Kentucky Derby.

High Fives

Jeremy Plonk's Top-5 rated performances by class so far this year (Dec. 26-present). Maiden and allowance races have been eliminated as we've reached Triple Crown season.

Stakes Race
1. ANIMAL KINGDOM (Kentucky Derby, Churchill, 5/7)
2. SHACKLEFORD (Preakness, Pimlico, 5/21) * new *
3. ARCHARCHARCH (Arkansas Derby, Oaklawn, 4/16)
4. THE FACTOR (Rebel, Oaklawn, 3/19)
5. DIALED IN (Florida Derby, Gulfstream, 4/2)

Rank 'Em!

Now that we're beyond the Derby and Preakness, we'll rank the Top 20 horses using the premise of horses aiming for the Belmont Stakes only. That said, we'll fall short of 20 this week. We'll do a complete 3-year-old ranking to end the season following the Belmont Stakes which will include inactive horses and the entire sophomore picture.

Jeremy Plonk's top 20, 21st week of the 2011 season

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is the owner of the handicapping-based Web site HorseplayerNOW.com. You can E-mail Jeremy your Top 20 contenders list, or any questions about the 3-year-old or national racing scene, at Jeremy@Horseplayernow.com.