Countdown to the Crown

Editor's Note: Countdown to the Crown returns for a fifth season online as one of the most comprehensive handicapping analyses of the 3-year-old scene. Posted each Friday from Jan. 8 through the Belmont Stakes, Countdown keeps you apprised of the rising stars in the 3-year-old class from the maiden ranks through the Grade 1 stakes.

3 things you won't read anywhere else

Opinions are like another movie sequel. A good one is impossible to top, and shame on those trying to piggyback the success of the original.

1. That golden sheen on the Bob Baffert barn all winter has dulled a bit in recent days as horses like CONCORD POINT and TIZ CHROME seriously underperformed last week. Older star MISREMEMBERED also lost as an odds-on performer last Saturday. Given the admitted sickness of LOOKIN AT LUCKY in recent weeks, perhaps it's the barn that stays healthiest together that wins together.

2. Wednesday's loss by LENTENOR caught soft-spoken Michael Matz by surprise and disappointment. Before the race, Matz said Barbaro's kid brother would move along the Triple Crown trail if he won "easily." But after a green, runner-up performance, Matz said LENTENOR "definitely is the type that can run in the big races, it's just a matter of the timing and whether he can get the experience he needs." You don't hear Matz talk like that often, which tells you the depth of talent he thinks the colt possesses.

3. John Sadler's only Triple Crown experience came with Corby in 1993, and he has that look of a "newbie-to-watch" this spring on the sport's biggest stage. After Derby dominance by guys like Woolley, Dutrow, Matz, Shirreffs, Tagg and Servis in the past seven years, Sadler fits the profile of a successful local waiting for a big horse to take him to the masses. His duo of SIDNEY'S CANDY and DAVE IN DIXIE looked outstanding last week, and Sadler fires next with DOMONATION and RANGER HEARTLEY in Saturday stakes events.

This week's fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. Six stakes races dot the Triple Crown trail on Saturday, including a trio with big-time implications in the G2 Fountain of Youth from Gulfstream, the G2 Risen Star from Fair Grounds and the rescheduled G3 Southwest from Oaklawn. The dance card also includes the G2 Hutcheson sprinting at Gulfstream, the G3 El Camino Real Derby around two turns in Northern California and the listed Turf Paradise Derby around two bends on dirt.

With so many major stakes this weekend, we'll be light on the undercard preview discussion. Be certain if anyone pops up with a major undercard performance, we'll spotlight it in next week's review. The big one to watch undercard-wise is Sunday's Race 3 at Gulfstream where FLY DOWN (Nick Zito) makes his long-awaited return as a Top 20-ranked Countdown performer against superb maiden winner COLIZEO (Todd Pletcher). FLY DOWN comes out of a super-key race at Churchill last fall.

As for the week's listed stakes, only two of the nine entrants in Saturday's Turf Paradise Derby are Triple Crown nominees, INDIAN FIREWATER (Bob Baffert) and MAJESTIC AFLEET (Robert Troeger). The two California invaders tower over this cast, which consists mostly of local sprinters.

Fountain of Youth Stakes (Saturday/Gulfstream Park)

Ten hopefuls try the 1 1/8 miles of the Fountain of Youth, but G2 Remsen winner BUDDY'S SAINT (Bruce Levine) is the only graded winner in the field. Half of the entrants have never placed in a graded stakes, so this race will either prove top-heavy in class or launch the campaign of some upstarts.

The race does appear top-heavy to this eye, as BUDDY'S SAINT, JACKSON BEND (Nick Zito) and ESKENDEREYA (Todd Pletcher) come into the Fountain of Youth ranked No. 5, 9 and 15, respectively, in this week's Countdown poll. I'll be incredibly surprised if the winner is not among that trio.

While horses like PULSION (Patrick Biancone), AIKENITE (Todd Pletcher) and LOST APTITUDE (Dale Romans) are graded-stakes placed, each has major questions to answer. PULSION was forced to miss the Holy Bull Stakes with a minor illness, but was back on the workout tab in 12 days and must answer the question if he's anywhere near his form of last year. He trained poorly going into the BC Juvenile, so it's been a long time since we've seen the good PULSION. Then there's AIKENITE, who strangely locked horns early with speed horses in the Holy Bull. Can he settle returning to two turns, or is he best around one as a son of sprinter Yes It's True? Finally, and hardest to read, may be LOST APTITUDE. He looked like a world beater in the Grand Canyon on turf last fall. But when you watch this colt run, he's got a very piston-like turf action with a lot of head movement. He could be very hard on himself on the main track physically, and his workouts on dirt have been mediocre at best.

From a pace standpoint, things don't look too hot early in the Fountain of Youth, which really plays well for BUDDY'S SAINT and JACKSON BEND, who have superb tactical speed. ESKENDEREYA can also sit a good trip close-up under an increasingly aggressive Johnny Velasquez. The recent effort this meet by JACKSON BEND should prove the difference against the come-backing 'BUDDY. The works for JACKSON BEND also point to him being primed for a major-league effort.

Fountain of Youth Stakes selections: W) JACKSON BEND; P) BUDDY'S SAINT; S) ESKENDEREYA.

Risen Star Stakes (Saturday/Fair Grounds)

So how fast will TEMPTED TO TAPIT (Steve Klesaris) and DISCREETLY MINE (Todd Pletcher) go in this 1-1/16 miles prep for the Louisiana Derby? The old rule of thumb is to never fear one other speed horse ... that it takes more than two to create a true, speed-duel tango. But both of these 3-year-olds have incinerator-type gas, and if the riders lose their cool, this field could string out early and fall apart late for the closers.

STAY PUT (Steve Margolis) never has had the kind of juicy pace to close into that he'll have Saturday, and he's done splendidly without it so far. He's been aimed at this spot for some time and gets 6 pounds off his impressive allowance win Jan. 3. The son of Broken Vow has few to fear in here if he's as good as I think he is. If the pace is fast, certainly Lecomte 1-3 finishers RON THE GREEK (Tom Amoss) and LETSGETITONMON (Steve Asmussen) will be thankful. This trio figures to be far back early in a big field of 12 and will either need a clean trip or be much the best rolling wide.

If not the blazers and not the Silky Sullivans, then the Risen Star should be custom-built for the mid-pack stalkers. DROSSELMEYER (Bill Mott) could not have looked any more impressive when he leveled off and drew away to a fantastic allowance win at Gulfstream on Jan. 31. He rates strictly the horse to beat. HOTEP (Mark Frostad) also comes off a stellar allowance win, his at Fair Grounds on Feb. 1, and should get a very similar trip to DROSSELMEYER if Robby Albarado can work it out from the 12-hole. Given that posts 9, 10 and 11 are all drop-back closers, HOTEP should be able to keep from being hung unmercifully wide. Albarado tends to be very aggressive early in races, so don't be surprised if he uses HOTEP a bit early to be third into the clubhouse turn behind the two speeds.

WORLDLY (Paul McGee), who also figures to get a good trip just behind the pace, was said to be in need of a freshening and to be given time off. But, after three weeks, the impeccably-bred colt returned to the workout tab and has just a single, five-eighths breeze this past Saturday since disappointing with a flat Lecomte effort. He's a big favorite of mine with much respect, but I can't recommend WORLDLY this time until he shows me he wants to be a serious racehorse. If he can do that, he'd rocket up my rankings. But I have to see it now.

If it seems crazy picking a trio of allowance runners to finish 1-2 in a Grade 2 stakes, keep in mind that 8 of the 12 entrants in the Risen Star are eligible for non-winners of 2 lifetime. RON THE GREEK is the only stakes winner in the field at any level.

Risen Star Stakes selections: W) DROSSELMEYER; P) STAY PUT; S) RON THE GREEK.

Southwest Stakes (Saturday/Oaklawn Park)

The post position re-draw for the Southwest did a 180 from how the field looked a week ago. DUBLIN (D. Wayne Lukas) went from a terrible draw to a favorable one, while horses like CONVEYANCE (Bob Baffert) and MISSION IMPAZIBLE (Todd Pletcher) now are hung out wide after good draws a week ago. All this is very important, as the one-mile race at Oaklawn uses the sixteenth pole finish line with a very short stretch run. Get hung wide on the first turn and you don't have much chance to make up ground later. It's a double whammy, unless you are fast enough to clear the other horses with burner's speed.

The big changes from last week also come via the saddle. CONVEYANCE loses Garrett Gomez to commitments at Gulfstream, and instead will be ridden by Martin Garcia, who fast is becoming Baffert's go-to rider in California. MISSION IMPAZIBLE loses John Velazquez to the Fountain of Youth, where he'll ride stablemate ESKENDEREYA. Eibar Coa now accepts the 'MISSION mount.

Of the post draws, MISSION IMPAZIBLE appears most against it because he's not a blinding early speed horse. I think he has a big upside, but he'll have to be superiorly best to win this race Saturday. Look for a good effort and move forward for 'MISSION next time. CONVEYANCE likely will be sent hard early and Garcia told to make them come beat him. No one in the field can run with CONVEYANCE early unless they want to sacrifice their chances. Given that, I still think CONVEYANCE is good enough to wire the field, and possibly getting away from a bug in the barn in California might do him some good.

DRYFLY (Lynn Whiting) should sit second early to CONVEYANCE and the jury will be out to see if he can pass a top-class horse. His Smarty Jones win was fast early and slow late over a very, very slow track, but he was back on the work tab 9 days later as if he got a lot out of it. With the change in posts and scenarios, he stands a bigger shot this week than last from this eye. DUBLIN continues to sizzle in the a.m. for D. Wayne Lukas and if he can answer the two-turn question, he'll be a buzz horse for many. I'm going to make him beat me first.

PLEASANT STORM (Joe Petalino) vanned back to Louisiana Downs instead of staying at Oaklawn in-between, and you wonder what that travel will do to him this week. He remains a much bigger threat in the Rebel when the entire stretch will be used, but could be a bottom of the gimmicks horse in the Southwest with much upside.

Southwest Stakes selections: W) CONVEYANCE; P) DRYFLY; S) PLEASANT STORM.

Hutcheson Stakes (Saturday/Gulfstream)

While it's a solid renewal of a Grade 2 stakes, I don't envision a single player in the Hutcheson projecting out to Triple Crown-type distances. This 7-furlong affair makes for good discussion in February and for sprint talk down the road.

D'FUNNYBONE and RADIOHEAD are a pair of Rick Dutrow trainees returning from Breeders' Cup breaks. The former gets back to what he should be doing, sprinting, and has logged six perfectly spaced drills since mid-January. The latter was brilliant sprinting in Europe last year, his Norfolk win a sight to behold of explosive energy. RADIOHEAD ran deceptively well in the Juvenile before coming to Team Dutrow and is a very big threat to outrun his more ballyhooed stablemate.

If not those two Dutrows, then Dutrow III? A LITTLE WARM runs for Tony Dutrow and impressed in the Spectacular Bid last month, rallying over a sloppy track that should have carried the speed. He's trained well since, despite needing 20 days to return to the workout tab after the win.

WILDCAT FRANKIE (James Hatchett) wheels back on two weeks' rest and figures to be flying on the lead. He was gassed late in his mile allowance win, so the turn back in distance will help Saturday, but you wonder about him on such short rest as hard as he's run this meet. I thought 'FRANKIE was 1-5 to win the Swale in March if he was laid off and aimed for that one. This move seems impatient.

Hutcheson Stakes selections: W) A LITTLE WARM; P) RADIOHEAD; S) D'FUNNYBONE.

El Camino Real Derby (Saturday/Golden Gate Fields)

The El Camino Real Derby may have picked up four more starters than its prep, the California Derby (10 vs. 6), but it's essentially an identical pace scenario as to what unfolded Jan. 16 when RANGER HEARTLEY (John Sadler) took them wire-to-wire on a soft pace. None of the new shooters who will challenge the 1-2-3-5 finishers of the Cal Derby appear to have designs on the front end.

Two scenarios exist to change the dynamic for the 'RANGER on Saturday as this G3 event extends the runners an extra half-furlong to 1-1/8 miles. One, jockey Frank Alvarado on OUR MINESWEEPER (Michael Lenzini) could use much more of his mount's speed than he did last month when he decided to track RANGER HEARTLEY. Two, new rider Tyler Baze on THOMAS BAINES (Doug O'Neill), could resort to his penchant for gunning early given the two-hole post draw for his charge. My gut tells me one of those two things will happen, and the additional distance will help the closers in a big field of 10.

RANGER HEARTLEY's principal challenger once again will be Lion Heart's little brother CONNEMARA (Todd Pletcher). That pair has split decisions so far, with the Cal Derby a three-quarter length score for the former and a Santa Anita allowance last November a 1-3/4 length victory for the latter. CONNEMARA was terribly disappointing in the Cal Derby when unable to produce any turn of foot. But what I really, really like about CONNEMARA is that he returned to the workout tab for Pletcher just eight days after the Cal Derby, a signal that the race took nothing out of him and the barn really wanted him to get his mind back on working harder. By contrast, his Cal Derby rivals took 14, 15 and 16 days to return to serious, timed works.

An extremely dangerous new shooter to the field is FOG ALERT (Steve Sherman), a son of Thunder Gulch who exits a 1-1/8 miles turf allowance at Santa Anita that was as strong as any allowance race on the West Coast this year when ALFARABI and SETSUKO ran one-two. With a bullet drill over this surface on Monday, be on the upset alert for FOG ALERT in the El Camino Real.

El Camino Real Derby selections: W) FOG ALERT; P) CONNEMARA; S) RANGER HEARTLEY.

Last week's selections: 2-1-0-1; Rule won the Sam F. Davis leading a cold exacta for Countdown, while second choice Caracortado upset the Lewis Memorial as top pick American Lion finished third.

Season selections: 9-2-1-2.

For more on this weekend's races, including handicapping strategies and a chance to interact live with Jeremy, visit the all-new Countdown to the Crown LIVE CHAT every Friday from 2-3 p.m. ET at HorseplayerNOW.com.

Everyone's a critic

This section recaps the week that was for the sophomore set. For the second straight week, a big part of the story was what wasn't. Monday's Oaklawn Park program was cancelled midway through due to unsafe track conditions, forcing the G3 Southwest Stakes showdown to be re-slated to this Saturday.

And, in a peculiar twist of fate, Santa Anita's all-weather surface that had been maligned all winter, actually turned out to save the week as a pair of superstar performances were turned in by Saturday's G2 Bob Lewis Memorial Stakes winner and Monday's G2 San Vicente Stakes winner. But fear not, dirt lovers. The G3 Sam F. Davis at Tampa turned heads as well.

CARACORTADO lived up to all the praise heaped on him in Countdown to the Crown since his Dec. 26 win in the Cal Breeders Championship, blasting a classy field in Saturday's G2 Bob Lewis Memorial Stakes. Once again showing a sensational turn of foot, the Cal-bred son of Cat Dreams was much the best while posting a final time nearly identical to St. Trinians' feat later in the G2 Santa Maria Handicap for top-class older fillies/mares. Runner-up DAVE IN DIXIE (John Sadler) ran a sensational race in defeat and bears serious consideration moving forward, while third-place AMERICAN LION (Eoin Harty) disappointed in his first two-turn attempt, but certainly did not leave the party in tatters after dueling through :23.27 and :23.74 opening quarter-miles with TIZ CHROME (Bob Baffert), who fell apart late. AMERICAN LION galloped out best of all and should have gotten a ton out of this race moving forward.

How good was the Lewis? They ran the mile split about 3 lengths faster than the final time BLIND LUCK posted in the G1 Las Virgenes earlier in the card. Check out these splits and appreciate them -- :23.27, :23.74, :24.14, :24.07 and :6.37. That :24.07 fourth quarter was phenomenal considering CARACORTADO made up about 2 lengths or more during that run, meaning he went a :23-and-change fourth quarter after stalking a fast pace. The top three in this race are all serious, serious horses on the Triple Crown trail, folks. 'CARA already has won on dirt, breaking his maiden at Fairplex.

CARACORTADO, which means scarface in Spanish, is slated to return in the G2 San Felipe next month for Mike Machowsky, where he could face champion LOOKIN AT LUCKY (Bob Baffert). I would expect DAVE IN DIXIE back for that fray, while AMERICAN LION makes sense as well. TIZ CHROME will hit the road for the G3 Gotham.

I absolutely, positively did not expect to see SIDNEY'S CANDY (John Sadler) turn in the kind of smashing performance he did in Monday's G2 San Vicente at 7 furlongs. The shin problems that sidelined him for nearly five months were a distant memory as he blazed home 4-1/4 lengths in front in 1:20.91.

As noted in Countdown after his flat run Dec. 30, the key to SIDNEY'S CANDY's next start would be found in the workout tab. Not only did SIDNEY get back on the tab within two weeks, but he trained exceptionally well with a series of six-furlong drills that had him race-ready. But he ran a hole through the wind and finished up like he wanted more on Monday.

Make no mistake: SIDNEY'S CANDY beat no one of any Triple Crown consequence whatsoever in the San Vicente. But by the same token, sprinter extraordinaire TINY WOODS (Bob Baffert) could not keep paces with SIDNEY, and he beat a very good sprinter at his rival's game. Trainer Sadler calls for a two-turn stakes race next, and he'll have some options for this powder keg. The G3 Gotham at Aqueduct appears on the radar brightest, and could be a doozy of a matchup with come-backing SUPER SAVER (Todd Pletcher).

On the East Coast, RULE (Todd Pletcher) controlled Saturday's G3 Sam F. Davis from start to finish in a performance that underscored what class and pace advantage mean to horse racing. The son of Roman Ruler led all the way despite a 2 1/2-month layoff and was clearly best at 1-1/16 miles. When he got away with a second quarter in :24.01, all comers were in big danger. RULE continued to pound out a nice tempo in :24.64 and :24.89 quarters before finishing the final sixteenth in :6.90 while ridden out in earnest by John Velazquez.

SCHOOLYARD DREAMS (Derek Ryan) ran a monster race for him, but was clearly second-best over the final furlong. He continues to progress nicely for the connections of last year's Derby third, Musket Man. Still, he'll need to get better to factor as the distances progress. UPTOWNCHARLYBROWN (Alan Seewald) suffered his first loss in three tries while rallying mildly from last to be a distant third. 'CHARLY did gallop out best of all, but was hard-ridden for three furlongs without any marked progress when the running counted. There's chatter about him coming off the bit in the race, but he's a tough read coming out of this race. Given his lack of experience (especially around two turns), 'CHARLY will deserve a legitimate look when the Tampa Bay Derby returns next month. Adding blinkers has been discussed and would be a good idea from what this eye saw in the Davis.

RULE is headed next for a Grade 1 final Derby prep, either the Wood, Blue Grass or Arkansas Derby in all likelihood, but the Florida Derby would be possible. This was an awfully easy race on him pace, distance and competition-wise, so RULE had better get a ton out of his one and only remaining prep. The final verdict of the Davis is that the top three finishers all showed something positive, yet all three leave you really wanting to see more before embracing or eliminating.

Also last week in stakes company, champion 2-year-old filly BLIND LUCK returned with a desperate nose victory in the G1 Las Virgenes on Saturday at Santa Anita. She'll stay with the fillies for now in the G1 Santa Anita Oaks, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer indicated afterward. MACIAS (Bob Baffert) outdashed his foes in the Baffle Stakes on the same program, showing his versatility on the cut-back to 6 1/2 furlongs down the hill. He's a handy horse who likely won't reach 1-1/4 miles, but could be a danger in a race like the 1-1/16 miles Lexington at Keeneland this spring on Polytrack.

No doubt the undercard performance of the week came Wednesday at Tampa Bay Downs when ODYSSEUS (Tom Albertrani) absolutely annihilated a soft field in his two-turn debut. The 15-length win margin and 1-1/16 miles time in 1:44.37 catch the eye. The clocking was within a length of RULE's time a few days prior in the Sam F. Davis. Among those vanquished Wednesday was EXHI (Todd Pletcher), a Belmont maiden winner who was sixth in last year's G3 Bourbon on turf, as well as WAVE ME BY (Kathleen O'Connell), winner of Calder's Seacliff Stakes at 2.

The news was not nearly as good for well-backed Wednesday undercard performers LENTENOR (Mike Matz), who dropped a tough decision while second in a turf route allowance at Gulfstream, or LISTON (Kiaran McLaughlin), who had a nightmare return at Aqueduct. LISTON stumbled badly at the start and had a loose horse tormenting him throughout in a race that does nothing but set him further behind. As for LENTENOR, Barbaro's kid brother split a three-way photo with gritty Churchill turf maiden winner DOUBLES PARTNER (Todd Pletcher) and impressive Gulfstream maiden victor SAINT ELIGIUS (Kiaran McLaughlin). The pace was probably too slow for their own good as SAINT ELIGIUS and LENTENOR walked six furlongs in 1:13.61, then sprinted home wildly in :34.80 the final three furlongs. Wednesday's loss was a setback in LENTENOR's rapid-moving progression, but not an excluder from the trail discussion.

WOW WOW WOW (D. Wayne Lukas), hung miserably wide in the Smarty Jones Stakes, bounced back swiftly in an allowance route at Oaklawn on Saturday, smoking them wire to wire despite another poor draw in the 10-hole. WOW WOW WOW blitzed :23.18 the opening quarter to clear into the clubhouse turn and ran everything off its feet in winning by nearly 5 lengths. Nobody came at 'WOW late, witnessed by a :26.16 fourth quarter while advancing his margin. It appears the top Fair Grounds maiden/allowance 3-year-olds are leaps and bounds above the Oaklawn class at this point as Lukas wins another in Hot Springs via New Orleans. Runner-up A STUDENT (Mac Robertson), who ran well as our bet-back special, indeed was live on the stretch-out in distance.

Well-bet ROYAL STRAIGHT (Jimmy Jerkens) failed for the second straight time in Saturday's maiden sprint at Gulfstream, finishing third to first-timers TIZ THE ONE (Chard Brown) and LAUNCESTON (Eddie Kenneally). The top two all flash sprint-laden pedigrees on the dam side. The loss by ROYAL STRAIGHT chips at the reputation of SAVEMYSPOTIMBETING's big debut win over that rival.

Saturday's turf mile maiden special weight at Santa Anita saw LINE OF DAVID (John Sadler) add blinkers and wire the field in strong fashion. The son of Lion Heart flattered the form of Feb. 5 maiden route winner BOULDER CREEK (Craig Dollase). Last Friday at Santa Anita, odds-on CONCORD POINT (Bob Baffert) was extremely flat late when finishing fourth to late-running Cal-bred star in the making HIGH SUCCESS (Doug O'Neill). The winner could become a sprint beast, but his late-running dash style does not look like it will translate around two turns at this point.

At Fair Grounds on Monday, ROCK HARD (Bobby Barnett) rebounded from a last-place run in the G3 Lecomte to win a last-to-first rally in an entry level route allowance (washed off the turf). This race was ugly as a slow pace of 1:15.40 for 6 furlongs still saw all of the speed collapse and finish out of the money. It also was hard to take much out of a Monday maiden route at Gulfstream, where DESERT LORD (Kiaran McLaughlin) notched a half-length win over a small and soft field by Gulfstream Park standards, but in a decent-enough 1:50.37. CITY WOLF (Todd Pletcher) was third in his first try around two turns as the brother of Ghostzapper was beaten 2 lengths to fall to 0-for-4. Also Monday, LOCKSLEY HALL (Simon Callaghan) wired a maiden sprint dash at Santa Anita in a race that did nothing really except to flatter the form of Jan. 30 winner KURO (Mike Machowsky).

Finally, the Triple Crown nominee FROZEN POWER (Saeed bin Suroor) finished second in Thursday's G3 UAE 2000 Guineas at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai. The son of Oasis Dream has dropped back-to-back decisions to Australian MUSIR, a Southern Hemisphere 4-year-old.

Quick Hitters

Next week's stakes menu includes the 1 1/8 miles G3 Sham at Santa Anita as well as the listed Borderland Derby at Sunland Park around two turns ... The Sham field includes promising upstarts SESTUKO (Richard Mandella) and NEXTDOORNEIGHBOR (Mike Machowsky), the latter will be making his stakes debut off an awesome maiden route win ... EIGHTYFIVEINAFIFTY (Gary Contessa) returned to the track Sunday, eight days after his bit snapped in the Whirlaway Stakes, causing a crash-and-burn rampage that ended up back in the stable area ... SAVEMYSPOPTIMBETING (Danny Miller) will be out indefinitely with an undisclosed leg injury, stamping out any spring dreams for the fleet Gulfstream maiden breaker ... BC Juvenile winner VALE OF YORK (Saeed bin Suroor) missed Thursday's UAE 2000 Guineas at Meydan Racecourse while behind in his training schedule, but the "Big Blue" Godolphin camp could still get a prep in him before the G3 UAE Derby ... NOBLE'S PROMISE (Ken McPeek) could be pulling an Oaklawn double in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby, or return to the Polytrack at Keeneland where he's had success.

High Fives

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

Maiden Race
1. LENTENOR (Gulfstream, 1/20 -- turf)
2. NEXTDOORNEIGHBOR (Santa Anita, 1/24)
4. ODYSSEUS (Gulfstream, 1/14) * upgraded *
5. TAHITIAN WARRIOR (Gulfstream, 1/3)
Removed: SAVEMYSPOTIMBETING (Gulfstream, 1/23) * injured, sidelined *

Allowance Race
1. DROSSELMEYER (Gulfstream, 1/31)
2. ODYSSEUS (Tampa Bay Downs, 2/17) * new *
3. STAY PUT (Fair Grounds, 1/3)
4. ESKENDEREYA (Gulfstream, 1/7)
5. ICE BOX (Gulfstream, 1/20)

Stakes Race
1. CARACORTADO (Bob Lewis Memorial, Santa Anita, 2/13) * new *
2. SIDNEY'S CANDY (San Vicente, Santa Anita, 2/15) * new *
3. RULE (Sam F. Davis, Tampa Bay Downs, 2/13) * new *
4. CARACORTADO (Cal Breeders Champion, Santa Anita, 12/26) * upgraded, class proven *
5. CONVEYANCE (San Rafael, Santa Anita, 1/16)

Put 'em in the gate!

Can't wait for the first Saturday in May? Me either. Each week I'll give my top 20 contenders based on potential for the 1-1/4 miles distance for the Kentucky Derby. This will be a fluid list throughout the season. Note: fillies are only included when their connections make a clear indication they are pointing for Triple Crown races.

Send your list to me at Jeremy@HorseplayerNOW.com and I'll pick one fan's top 20 each week to appear with mine in Countdown to the Crown here at ESPN.com. Please put "TOP 20" in the subject line and include your first name and city/state in which you reside.

Jeremy Plonk's top 20: Week 7 of the 2010 season

Dropped out: TIZ CHROME (writer's decision); MAXIMUS RULER (injury); INTERACTIF (writer's decision); DUBLIN (writer's decision)

Countdown reader Tricia Y. in Greensboro, N.C.

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.