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 Todd Pletcher's record in the Kentucky Derby. Sometimes a whole lot adds up to a whole lot of nothing.

Yes, you're going to get a whole lot of Pletcher talk this week. Why? He's owned the 2010 trail and he's got enough starters to fill out a varsity basketball squad and a few extra role players. The following points are not Pletcher-bashing, so please refrain from the hate mail. They're simply reasons why the engravers already haven't been spotted the first "T" and the first "O" to get a head-start on that trophy just yet. I have not a single knock on ESKENDEREYA at this point, and doubt I'll find one, other than the likely short price.

1. You're going to hear a LOT about 0-for-24 in the next week, but the telling number you won't hear about is 13 percent. That's the percentage of ALL Derby starters in the entire decade of the 2000s trained by one man, Todd Pletcher. When you put it that way, you can sugar-coat it all you want, the record speaks undeniably awful.

2. I would rank ESKENDEREYA as Pletcher's best Derby hopeful ever, a few lengths above 2005 Blue Grass dominator Bandini, who beat only one horse in Louisville when 19th. ESKENDEREYA ended Pletcher's 0-8 lifetime in the Wood Memorial, so perhaps he's the trailblazer needed. But while this is his first Wood winner, his Louisville losses have come with the likes of two Blue Grass winners, two Arkansas Derby winners, two Lane's End winners, two Illinois Derby winners, two Lexington winners, as well as winners of the Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, Fountain of Youth, Tampa Bay Derby, Lexington and Gotham. His best finishes, both seconds, came with two horses who failed to tally a graded prep race at age 3, Bluegrass Cat and Invisible Ink.

3. It's been said Pletcher hasn't brought the right 1 1/4-miles horses to the Derby yet, and this one is different. With a son of super-sire Giant's Causeway, Pletcher will be in a different air, it's been said. How quickly we forget Cowboy Cal. Remember him, allllll the way back in 2008? Finished ninth, sired by Giant's Causeway. But he was deemed nothing more than a turf and synthetics bum who didn't belong after failing at Churchill (even though his dam was half-sister to millionaire dirt superstar Behrens). Truth is, among Pletcher's Derby runners to date, he's had seven of them who were either sired directly by a Kentucky Derby winner, or were by sires who had already produced a Kentucky Derby winner. Names like Thunder Gulch, Fusaichi Pegasus, Distorted Humor and Maria's Mon dot the history.

This week's fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. Dozens down, one to go. Let's do it. Last call, y'all! Because there may be one Derby starter emerge from a tradition-restored G3 Derby Trial, it instantly becomes relevant on the fringes of the Kentucky Derby starting gate.

Next week we'll break down all 20 horses with my pointed, final analysis in Countdown's biggest edition of the season to date.

G3 Derby Trial (Saturday/Churchill Downs)

I guess you can say there's a lot to see in the Derby Trial from my perspective. No CARACORTADO entered, which I'm happy to see. He should be Preakness bound. No DROSSELMEYER either, which I'm surprised to see. But, then again, maybe they're letting Bill Mott train and it's not Mott-like to ram a horse into a race. So hat's off to WinStar in that respect, and he's another dangerous player at Pimlico for the middle jewel.

There is, however, EIGHTFIVEINAFIFTY, and I can't wait to see how he'll react to the surroundings. And then there are the likes of AIKENITE and PLEASANT PRINCE, who I'd rather not see this weekend. What's AIKENITE doing here? Despite what you read and hear, it has to be Derby fever trying for earnings, otherwise, why??? And PLEASANT PRINCE, c'mon, Ken Ramsey. You already have one starter (DEAN'S KITTEN) securely in the Derby. Run this horse three times in three weeks, and see the furor if something happens. It's not worth it to be 50-1 in the Derby.

So what will we see in the Derby Trial? GAME ON DUDE makes his first start since being transferred to trainer Bob Baffert, and he figures to have a pretty bright future. HURRICANE IKE continues his world tour after the Californian ran a solid second-best in the Bay Shore to EIGHTYFIVEINAFIFTY on April 3. We see a bizarre jockey-trainer combo of beach-sandals John Sadler and everybody's Cajun favorite Calvin Borel. Throw in a little Lukas (WOW WOW WOW) and Zito (MINER'S RESERVE), and there's a truckload of intrigue in this $200,000 Grade 3 mile around one turn.

MINER'S RESERVE is working big for this spot, and his owner, Robert LaPenta, is putting up half the purse as the sponsor of The Cliff's Edge Derby Trial. He looms the horse to beat if he's as good as his Feb. 27 score at Gulfstream looked. The horse he dispatched, BUSHWACKED, has since returned to win a Keeneland maiden and run second in the G2 Lexington Stakes last week.

EIGHTYFIVEINAFIFTY is fast, no doubt, but will the mile be at his limits? I was not impressed visually by the way he finished the G3 Bay Shore, and this is a much tougher spot today. He could be a superstar and prove me wrong, but at what figures to be about 8-5 or 9-5, I'll make him do it.


Last week's selections: 1-0-0-1; top pick UPTOWNCHARLYBROWN ran third in the Lexington.

Season selections: 29: 8-4-4.

A footnote to handicapping: Pletcher at a price? EXHI, wow what a steal in the Lexington, paying $40 to win! It was proof-positive that you must watch a track all day, its conditions, and pounce on the opportunities of live horses strutting their stuff before a race. With a strong headwind, speed dominated for three straight days at Keeneland last week, and EXHI and BUSHWACKED were two of four absolute post-parade standouts visually on the track. They made for a very happy handicapper at collection time. Day-before handicapping analysis is wonderful and necessary to be a good horseplayer, but don't ever lose sight of the fact that both the weather conditions and horses are alive, and you have a need for continuous analysis.

Everyone's a critic

This section recaps the week that was for the sophomore set. But with the G2 Lexington Stakes having no bearing, it's time to break out the critic's hat on the Derby 136 players and the major question marks I need answered when arriving at Churchill Downs this weekend, a week out from the big dance.

AWESOME ACT: For months now, I've wondered aloud in this space if this guy really was a true classics-distance horse. Turns out, I have company. Good company. Read this: "The other question-mark -- and it will only be answered on May 1 -- is if he is capable of staying a mile and a quarter. He could just be an ideal American one-turn dirt miler." That's from the "other" Jeremy, trainer Jeremy Noseda, and published directly on his own Web site, not a flippant comment to a reporter. When have you ever heard a trainer in the U.S. say something so specifically and potentially limiting about their Derby hopeful? Noseda didn't just say "maybe a sprinter," "maybe a turf horse," he said a "ONE-TURN DIRT MILER." You don't throw that specific of a statement out there willy-nilly, off the top of your head, without it being somewhere in the back of your mind as to what you really think the horse is. If it's OK for Jeremy Noseda to think it a real possibility, it's more than OK for this Jeremy to keep his wallet closed on the first Saturday in May for AWESOME ACT.

DEVIL MAY CARE: Let's hope they keep the filly on a Kentucky Oaks path. I've rarely (ever?) heard an American trainer say that the 1 1/4-miles distance of the Derby was the biggest lure to running. This is a Malibu Moon filly with two races since November and none in the past six weeks, and who took :13.47 to run the last furlong of the Bonnie Miss. Foundation is all but forgotten in modern campaigns. 'DEVIL could be my Oaks top pick, though I can't wait to see BLIND LUCK in the flesh next week. In the Derby, however, this reeks of a bad, bad decision. The fact that Pletcher says DEVIL MAY CARE worked on par with, or better than, nearly all of his Florida horses all year speaks more to the short-coming of those colts, from this eye.

SIDNEY'S CANDY: This guy seems to have the respect of more and more racing insiders the more I talk to people leading up to the Derby, regardless of their region of interest. 'SIDNEY has been high on our Countdown list since the 7-furlong San Vicente, and you can't sneeze at the fact that no horse has ever swept the San Vicente, San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby in the same year. My No. 1 concern with him is a history of bobbling at the break, which can be disastrous in the 20-horse Louisville rodeo. There's no way to handicap that, other than to hope he gets away cleanly. But I will be paying extreme attention to how SIDNEY'S CANDY handles all the surroundings, how relaxed he can be, does he spook easily from noises, etc., when he walks to and from the track? The more relaxed he shows me he can be with the hoopla the more relaxed I'll be in supporting him at the windows.

THE FU-PEG WORK: Which horse in this crop can work a dawdling 1:02-and-change for 5 furlongs and actually look good doing it? Back in 2000, Fusaichi Pegasus cantered 6 furlongs in 1:14-3/5 in his lone local workout before winning the roses, but was able to be contained throughout and explode with a razor-sharp final furlong, which was all that master horseman Neil Drysdale wanted to see. With all the speed in this year's Derby, the horse who can settle early in the a.m. will have a major edge in the p.m. Far too many of these early Derby 136 workouts have been fast early and unimpressive late. Don't accept the flat :59 morning blazers as the horses who are best-prepared. The horses who show their stuff the other way around will be the ones HIGH on my radar next week. Last week, LOOKIN AT LUCKY put up a five-furlong drill in 1:01-2/5 which was the kind you want to see. Splits were :25-1/5 the first quarter-mile, :24-2/5 the second quarter-mile and and :11-3/5 the final furlong. 'LUCKY has moved back up to No. 1 in my Countdown rankings, at no fault to any other horse, but rather an acknowledgment of where he's headed.

High Fives

Jeremy Plonk's Top-5 rated performances by class so far this year (Dec. 26-present). Maiden and allowance races have now been dropped as we're in serious stakes-prep mode.

Stakes Race
1. ESKENDEREYA (Wood, Aqueduct, April 3)
2. SIDNEY'S CANDY (Santa Anita Derby, April 3)
3. ESKENDEREYA (Fountain of Youth, Gulfstream, 2/20)
4. LOOKIN AT LUCKY (Rebel, Oaklawn, 3/13)
5. SIDNEY'S CANDY (San Felipe, Santa Anita, 3/13)

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.

For now, I'm still going to rate the 20-best active 3-year-olds in the game, because anything can happen with injuries to the graded stakes earnings list between now and May 1. When we get to next week's Derby Week edition of the Countdown rankings, we'll put the 20 finalists in order. Remember, Countdown to the Crown also is tracking Preakness and Belmont contenders who need to remain respected even if they don't compete in Louisville.

Jeremy Plonk's top 20: Week 16 of the 2010 season

Countdown reader Tony in Garland, Texas

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.