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 on handicapping the horses are like ordering off a Chinese takeout menu. Unless you really know what you're talking about, it's best not to say too much and just fire off a number.

1. Saturday might be a good time to kick off a two-prep campaign for the Derby. Last year Mine That Bird made his first start of the year Feb. 28, while the year previous Big Brown kicked things off March 5. Street Sense opened his two-prep slate in 2007 on March 17. Average them together and what do you get for the last three Derby winners? A March 6 return, which just happens to be the date this Saturday.

2. LOOKIN AT LUCKY (Bob Baffert) had his best morning in a more than a month Monday when he drilled 7 furlongs in a racehorse time of 1:25.20 at Santa Anita. Still, Countdown's No. 1 and the reigning juvenile champion will be hard-pressed to find a good spot to return as the San Felipe and Rebel both look like awfully salty spots on the immediate horizon. I would have MUCH preferred to see him ready to run in this weekend's MUCH easier Sham, 9 furlongs or not.

3. If you don't think D. Wayne Lukas is serious about DUBLIN, perhaps you missed Sunday's workout tab at Oaklawn. The Southwest Stakes runner-up wasted no time getting back to work, drilling a bullet half-mile in :48.40, just eight days after his 2010 return rally -- wow! The jury still deliberates whether DUBLIN can be a true, classics-distance kind of runner, but there's no doubt Lukas thinks he has a special racehorse on his hands.

This week's fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. The East-West discussion fuels up this weekend with the G3 Gotham in New York on dirt and the re-slated G3 Sham Stakes in California on the Pro-Ride surface. Meanwhile, Florida and California's green grass will be put to the test in the G3 Palm Beach at Gulfstream and the listed Pasadena Stakes at Santa Anita. And for future forecasters, the Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool #2 runs this Friday through Sunday at racetracks and online outlets around the country.

BIM BAM (David Browlee), a stakes winner on turf and dirt, headlines Saturday's G3 Palm Beach at 1-1/8 miles on the Gulfstream grass. He's not among the four Triple Crown nominees in the lineup, but after nosing out INTERACTIF (Todd Pletcher) in the Hallandale Beach Stakes, you can bet he's the horse to beat. None of the Triple Crown nominees entered have shown any penchant for dirt ability.

Three-time stakes winner MACIAS (Bob Baffert) could be the lone speed in Saturday's one-mile Pasadena Stakes on the Santa Anita lawn. He's been nothing short of outstanding in two grass stakes wins at the meet, and the son of Purge is Triple Crown nominated if the itch comes later to test the big boys of the division. G1 CashCall Futurity third-place finisher MAKE MUSIC FOR ME (Alexis Barba) makes his first start of 2010 in an interesting spot. The Bernstein colt would appear to be getting an "out" in this race, but the barn adds blinkers in a measure of seriousness. ALFARABI (Eoin Harty) has much talent and highly impressed in beating SETSUKO (Richard Mandella) in a turf allowance Jan. 27, while Cal-bred sprinter HIGH SUCCESS (Doug O'Neill) is oddly placed here with a bright, bright future, but horrendous post position for a surface and distance change.

Also Saturday at the Great Race Place, leading west coast filly BLIND LUCK (Jerry Hollendorfer) headlines the G1 Santa Anita Oaks. She'll have her hooves full with a filly who looks like a future star from this eye, COZI ROSIE (John Sadler). Don't be surprised to see an upset here.

The Gotham undercard at Aqueduct Saturday includes the six-furlong Capossella Stakes, where Triple Crown nominee LISTON (Kiaran McLaughlin) tries to get back on the beam after a disastrous Feb. 17 return bid. A big performance could set him up for something like the G2 Lexington at Keeneland around two turns. Challengers include the impeccably-bred Ghostzapper-Mandy's Gold colt GOLDEN GHOST (Mike Gorham) and WESTOVER WILDCAT (Tony Dutrow), who was third in a very good renewal of the Spectacular Bid at Gulfstream.

If you can't wait for the weekend (good for you!), there's always a pair of races to watch today (Friday, March 5). A one-mile turf allowance at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai features impressive Gulfstream debut winner TAHITIAN WARRIOR (now Saeed bin Suroor). The former Calabrese color-bearer now dons the Big Blue of Godolphin with Frankie Dettori slated to ride. He gets a decent class test vs. stablemate FROZEN POWER, runner-up in the G3 UAE 2000 Guineas two weeks ago. Also Friday, keep an eye on Race 5 at Santa Anita, where we could get a better line on Saturday's G3 Sham contender BOULDER CREEK (Craig Dollase). This 1-1/16 miles maiden includes no less than five alumni whom 'CREEK outran Feb. 5, including the promising ZIGGY'S STARDUST (Jerry Hollendorfer).

As for undercards, I can't wait to see PULPIT'S SECRET (Cecil Borel) in Saturday's eighth at Oaklawn. He was well thought of at Churchill Downs in the fall and has yet to make that big leap forward. Likely he's only a sprinter, but could be a good one by Pulpit out of Forest Secrets.

Kentucky Derby Future Wager (Friday-Sunday)

Pool 2 of the KDFW gives players little chance to analyze the individual wagering interests in action this weekend. NEXTDOORNEIGHBOR and SETSUKO will tussle in the Sham Stakes. After that, you're on your own with the rest. I would be looking to play horses who could be one big win away from being a fairly short price on Derby Day in this pool.

To do so, evaluate the 23 individual interests and look at what their next, and in some cases final, prep will be. If you think a horse like SUPER SAVER or DUBLIN will plummet off their 20-1 and 15-1 KDFW opening prices if/when they win their next preps, that's the kind of horses you're looking to tackle. You want to be ahead of the curve in this pool and project what price the horse you like might be on Derby Day if he advances with quality performances.

A horse like CARACORTADO at 12-1 offers no value, no matter how much I like him, because with his connections and all-weather form, he'll be close to that price on Derby Day even if he runs the table out West. Good bets to me include horses like ODYSSEUS at 50-1, who will be a hot commodity if he wins the Tampa Bay Derby, as well as AMERICAN LION, who could still end up the West's best and make you snicker at that 30-1 offering.

G3 Gotham Stakes (Saturday/Aqueduct)

For all the talk about big-name horses who might come to the Big A for a chance on dirt in the middle-distance Gotham, it simply didn't happen. None of the 10 entrants are among the latest Top 20 Countdown rankings. This 1-1/16 miles prep for the G1 Wood Memorial landed a largely local field, including the 1-2-3 finishers of the Whirlaway Stakes. Two invaders of note include WOW WOW WOW (D. Wayne Lukas), who looks to avoid stablemate DUBLIN at Oaklawn, and AWESOME ACT (Jeremy Noseda), the English-based son of Awesome Again who last was seen closing for fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf in November.

Only 1-1/2 lengths separated PEPPI KNOWS (Tim Kreiser), AFLEET AGAIN (Robert Reid) and THREE DAY RUSH (Todd Pletcher) in a strangely-run Whirlaway Stakes. That was the day odds-on favorite EIGHTYFIVEINAFITY (Gary Contessa) blew the first turn when his bit snapped, thus changing the outlook and trips for many. THREE DAY RUSH took the worst of it when floated extremely wide on the first turn.

Based on trips and end result, you'd have to assume THREE DAY RUSH to be the most dangerous of the Whirlaway alumni. But I find it remarkably odd that jockey David Cohen, riding first call for Pletcher all winter in New York, would head west to ride the same connections' hopeless long shot Tiger's Rock in the G1 Santa Anita Handicap. You'd have to stick with THREE DAY RUSH if they thought at all like he was a potential Derby horse. Cohen would have to run second in the Big 'Cap to equal the winning payday of the Gotham. Either that or Cohen has given a firm Triple Crown trail commitment to trainer Steve Klesaris and Risen Star runner-up TEMPTED TO TAPIT. That vote of "no confidence" regarding 'RUSH puts me in the PEPPI KNOWS camp for the most legitimate of Whirlaway alumni in Saturday's Gotham. Trainer Kreiser indicates the Illinois Derby could be next if 'PEPPI knows best Saturday.

WOW WOW WOW ran remarkably fast early from post 10 in his Feb. 13 allowance win at Oaklawn and should relish going from a tiring, slow track to the salt mines of Aqueduct, where speed has dominated lately. Once again saddled with post 10 (his third straight race from the far outside draw), jockey Corey Nakatani will be forced to use the pace of WOW WOW WOW early and often. He's bounced out of that allowance win to train very fast for Lukas down south, and to me 'WOW looks like an absolute standout in the Gotham.

Surface or not, the big question with any European I have coming to America is how they handle American pace. AWESOME ACT was able to track mid-pack in the BC Juvenile Turf because they ran a half-mile in :48-and change and six furlongs in nearly 1:12-2/5. What finish can he produce when forced to either go much faster earlier, or fall much farther behind from the outset? While it looks big that Julien Leparoux is up from Florida to ride, make no mistake that the Frenchman is in New York to pilot sprint sensation Custom For Carlos for Eddie Kenneally earlier in the card and this is a pick-up mount. AWESOME ACT was a late arrival in New York after weather delays.

I'VE GOT THE FEVER lives up to his name, quickly wheeled back on 14 days' rest after a route maiden win behind a slow pace but big speed figure for John Terranova. To his credit, the recent maiden breaker did face AIKENITE, SUPER SAVER and RULE among others last year. YAWANNA TWIST (Rick Dutrow) makes his two-turn and stakes debut after dusting New York-breds in two straight local sprints. He doesn't appear to be a win candidate unless the speed backs off completely, which does not seem likely. TURF MELODY (Graham Motion) scratched at Laurel last week to keep around two turns, and lures Ramon Dominguez to ride. His back class and connections make him worth a look underneath.

Gotham Stakes selections: W) WOW WOW WOW; P) PEPPI KNOWS; S) TURF MELODY.

G3 Sham Stakes (Saturday/Santa Anita Park)

Cancelled a week ago when rains once again failed to drain at Santa Anita, the re-drawn Sham Stakes looks an awful lot like last week's on paper. A field of 10 is back, and promising contender NEXTDOORNEIGHBOR remains poorly drawn, this time from post 9 vs. 10 a week ago. The only change is that long shot STRAIGHTOMIDNIGHT is out, while BOULDER CREEK (Craig Dollase) has improved enough, health-wise, to make the 1-1/8 miles test.

From a handicapping standpoint, nothing really changes from last week's analysis. Read more in the archive.

A top performance by NEXTDOORNEIGHOR likely puts him on the dirt next time in the G3 Sunland Park Derby or the G2 Louisiana Derby. For many of the others in the Sham, it's a chance to announce Santa Anita Derby candidacy. Interestingly, with a forecast of rain for Saturday, Santa Anita also included the Sham as Race 10 on its Sunday card as a back-up plan in case of cancellation. Shrewd move, worthy of a shout-out.


Last week's selections: 0-0-0-0; Sham Stakes postponed until this weekend.

Season selections: 14-3-3-2.

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 www.HorseplayerNOW.com.

Everyone's a critic

This section recaps the week that was for the sophomore set. Before we take a look at last week's movers and shakers, here's a personal invitation to join me this Sunday night on HRTV during that racing network's "Grandstand" program. I'm honored to be the guest of Laffit Pincay, Jr., Gary Stevens and Jeff Siegel during the Derby/Oaks Watch segment. We'll analyze this weekend and beyond during the 7 p.m. ET hour.

"No soup for you!" was the theme of the past week, borrowing the phrase from Seinfeld fame. There was no Sham Stakes, due to further drainage problems at Santa Anita, and no victories for two prep winners who crossed the line first, only to be disqualified in the Battaglia Memorial and Borderland Derby. And, no dice for Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner VALE OF YORK (Saeed bin Suroor) in his Dubai return Thursday. But the stakes performance of the weekend came Friday night when G3 Bashford Manor and G2 Sanford winner BACKTALK (Tom Amoss) returned to win at Delta Downs.

BACKTALK appeared helplessly beaten in upper stretch as sprint specialist and Black Gold Stakes winner ROYAL EXPRESS (Spanky Broussard) looked long gone. But despite the sloppy track, short field size (just 4), harassing trip and edge in recent fitness to 'EXPRESS, BACKTALK found another gear late to surge to the win. While he didn't gallop out any differently than the runner-up, you have to think this was a great spot and prep for BACKTALK as Amoss indicated a big-time, traditional dirt prep would be next, likely the Louisiana Derby or Arkansas Derby if more time is needed. The fans in Hot Springs would love a shot to see this son of Smarty Jones.

VALE OF YORK wanted nothing to do with cooperating with jockey Ahmed Ajtebi early in the Al Basikiya Stakes on Thursday at Dubai's Meydan Racecourse. He lurched his head wildly several times while not wanting to settle. Midway down the backside, the duo still had its own wrestling match going on as VALE whipped his head side to side in the 1-3/16 miles test. After looming behind stablemate MENDIP at the head of the lane, VALE OF YORK was mediocre at best through the lane and ran on evenly for fifth. He never looked comfortable, while MENDIP strode away easily to win by more than six after tracking a pedestrian pace. By Harlan's Holiday, MENDIP has now won all three starts from 7 furlongs to 1-3/16 miles. He's from the female line of sprint stars like You and I and Chaposa Springs, so distance will be a question with a real pace for MENDIP. As for VALE OF YORK, you can have him; he's off my radar.

Saturday's Borderland Derby posed as the West Texas Rodeo as trainer Henry Dominguez's 1-2 punch of STORMING SAINT and RAISE THE BRIDLE exchanged haymakers. Though maiden RAISE THE BRIDLE got to the wire first in just his second lifetime start, STORMING SAINT got the victory via disqualification after repeated bumps in the stretch. RAISE THE BRIDLE, owned by Mark Allen and Leonard Blach of Mine That Bird fame, is considered far more talented than the multiple stakes placed STORMING SAINT, according to the trainer of both colts. Both are expected back for the G3 $800,000 Sunland Park Derby, a race that takes on a much stronger cast than in the past given its new status as a graded-stakes race. 'BRIDLE could have a tough time making the Sunland Park Derby, however. That race gives entry preference to graded stakes earnings and then total earnings. With the DQ, he has earned just over $25,000 lifetime.

TANGO TANGO (Jerry Hollendorfer) ran terribly in the Borderland Derby on a two-week turn-around after finishing last of five in the G2 Bob Lewis Memorial at Santa Anita, while fellow shipper GUILTBYASSOCIATION (Todd Fincher, formerly Mike Machowsky) was taken completely out of the race on the first turn when floated to the chalupa stand.

In the Battaglia Memorial last Saturday at Turfway, classy CODOY (Mark Hubley) made a successful return from a post-Breeders' Cup layoff, only to be disqualified amid some real controversy. The Battaglia resulted in one of the longest stewards' deliberations I can ever remember seeing, while reading the official chart footnotes for this fellow rodeo requires a good cup of coffee and your favorite pipe. It was a complete and utter mess, folks, from first turn through the wire. VOW TO WAGER (Dale Romans), first spotlighted here in Countdown after his Jan. 31 maiden win, was put up on the disqualification, but will have much to prove in the G2 Lane's End on March 27. CODOY figures to move forward off this race, while IN THE PAINT (Kellyn Gorder) proved that he was better than his WEBN Stakes debacle, but also will be up against it when the heavyweights come to town.

At Oaklawn on Saturday, Arkansas-bred sprinter COMEDERO (Mike Stidham) lambasted the field in the six-furlong Mountain Valley Stakes in a fantastic time of 1:10.22 for six furlongs. No other sprint on the card went within 6 lengths of that clocking over a track that has been slow all season. The son of Posse is a pure sprinter, however, and likely won't be added to the route stakes mix. ACTIVITY REPORT (D. Wayne Lukas), fourth in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club last fall, was nosed out of the place photo. Note that DWL went the route-sprint-route path last spring with Flying Private, who would go on to be a veteran of the Triple Crown rigors.

TURF MELODY (Graham Motion) scratched from Saturday's Miracle Wood at Laurel, leaving the 7-furlong Preakness prep without a Triple Crown nominee. Heavily-favored DONT BLAME THE CAT (Rick Dutrow) delivered a length win over hard-luck REGAL WARRIOR (Mike Trombetta), who was wiped out at the start and should be the better of the two around two turns as a son of Preakness champ Louis Quatorze.

The undercard race of the week had a stakes feel to it as RADIOHEAD and HOMEBOYKRIS ran 1-2 for Rick Dutrow in a salty Saturday mile allowance at Gulfstream. With Edgar Prado hopping off the G1 Champagne winner 'KRIS to ride RADIOHEAD, the writing was on the wall as to which the barn had pegged. RADIOHEAD turned my head last year when studying Breeders' Cup contenders. He had one of the most electrifying displays of acceleration I had observed on video when winning the Norfolk at Ascot. On dirt, even in victory, he did not show that same electricity on Saturday. RADIOHEAD displayed a more turfy action with a piston-like stride and won this race on extreme talent.

HOMEBOYKRIS broke much more subdued under patient Julien Leparoux, saved all the ground, and had no excuse when running second. He's looking more and more like a win-early juvenile, ala his sire Roman Ruler, and may not translate into much future stakes stardom. He'd be logical to run back in the 7-furlong Swale on March 20. Third-place finisher CALL SHOT (Wayne Catalano), also third in the grassy Dania Beach Stakes previously, might be interesting in the G2 Lexington on Polytrack later this spring with a middle-distance pedigree and style, and a known affinity for the all-weather track. That race also would make a ton of sense for RADIOHEAD, as would the Swale in the interim.

Also at Gulfstream on Saturday, MINER'S RESERVE (Nick Zito), a Countdown bet-back special, crushed a good group of maiden milers in his second lifetime start, running more than 4 lengths faster than a split division of the race run earlier on the card. He also stopped the clock a shade faster than RADIOHEAD in the previous race. Though the timer malfunctioned for splits, the mile in 1:35.87 proved strong as the Mineshaft colt spread-eagled a field that included highly-respected BUSHWHACKED (Jonathan Sheppard). If the latter can get through a maiden win soon, don't be surprised if he's not a major force in the 1-1/16 miles Lexington at Keeneland, run over a Polytrack BUSHWHACKED is bred to relish. MINER'S RESERVE adds to an ever-growing Zito arsenal of rising runners in late winter, but one caution is that he appears to run awfully hard on his front end and would be a horse that could be hard to keep sound while thoroughly talented. He's a very exciting prospect.

The split division of Saturday's Gulfstream maiden mile went to GAME ON DUDE (Michael Mareina), a second-timer by Awesome Again who had been burning up the work tab. His time of 1:36.72 paled to that of MINER'S RESERVE. Keep an eye on third-place finisher TRINITY RUN (Todd Pletcher), who ran on extremely well past the wire and had to have gotten a ton out of this tough debut effort. He's a half-brother to elite sprinter Greg's Gold, but certainly looks like he can route. OUR DARK KNIGHT (Nick Zito) ran gamely for second after being away since a debut second to BULLDOGGER (Bob Baffert) at Saratoga last summer.

The Louisiana Derby picked up a likely starter Monday when FAST ALEX (Greg Geier) won his second straight, taking a two-turn allowance over the talented recent winner ISLAND SOUL (Steve Asmussen). The field also included the much-respected DOWN WITH DIXIE (Paul McGee), who manged only fourth. FAST ALEX closed despite slow fractions, wearing the colors of 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, ala owner James Tafel. The winning time for 1 mile and 40 yards was nearly a full second faster than solid maiden winner BERBERIS (Steve Asmussen) posted a few races later on the program. This was one of the strongest allowance races run this season anywhere, especially given the sloppy track.

Finally, Wednesday's Santa Anita allowance feature flattered recent El Camino Real Derby winner CONNEMARA (Todd Pletcher), when THOMAS BAINES (Doug O'Neill) rebounded from a sixth-place effort to win over a pretty classy cast. Bob Baffert speedballs INDIAN FIREWATER and BULLDOGGER held on to run 2-3.

Quick Hitters

Next week's schedule is a huge one with the G2 San Felipe at Santa Anita, G2 Rebel at Oaklawn and G3 Tampa Bay Derby ... TIZ CHROME (Bob Baffert), who has battled a foot bruise and lung infection, is pointed to run in the March 13 prep that stablemate LOOKIN AT LUCKY does not (Rebel or San Felipe), and it's looking more and more as if LUCKY will try his hand at Oaklawn ... Jockey Calvin Borel will be at Fair Grounds next Saturday to ride Rachel Alexandra, thus forced to give up the mount on SUPER SAVER (Todd Pletcher) in the Rebel or Tampa Bay Derby, where Ramon Dominguez has been named to ride. I'd put money on SUPER SAVER heading to Tampa of those two tangos ... NOBLE'S PROMISE (Ken McPeek), gearing up for his return in next week's Rebel, worked a strong 5F in :59.80 Saturday at Gulfstream Park ... Todd Pletcher had RULE and SUPER SAVER both on the track Monday at Palm Meadows, working 4F in :48.95 and 5F in 1:00.70, respectively ... ODDYSSEUS (Tom Albertrani) continued his Tampa Bay Derby preparations Monday with a 5F move in 1:01 at Palm Meadows ... BUDDY'S SAINT (Bruce Levine) took 11 days to return to the racetrack following his bumper cars performance in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and will be aimed at the Wood Memorial with very little 3YO foundation before Derby Day .... Trainer Michael Matz told Daily Racing Form that LENTENOR, younger brother of Barbaro, could be bound for a race on dirt next or possibly a Blue Grass-Belmont Stakes path ... NYRA has slashed its stakes schedule for Belmont Park, included in the cuts was the Peter Pan, the important local prep for the final jewel of the Triple Crown. But the Dwyer was moved up in the schedule to take its place.

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)
5. MINER'S RESERVE (Gulfstream, 2/27) * new *

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

Stakes Race
1. ESKENDEREYA (Fountain of Youth, Gulfstream, 2/20)
2. CARACORTADO (Bob Lewis Memorial, Santa Anita, 2/13)
3. SIDNEY'S CANDY (San Vicente, Santa Anita, 2/15)
4. RULE (Sam F. Davis, Tampa Bay Downs, 2/13)
5. CARACORTADO (Cal Breeders Champion, Santa Anita, 12/26)

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 9 of the 2010 season

Dropped out: none.

Countdown reader Stella S. of Las Vegas, Nevada

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.