Countdown to the Crown: Feb. 13, 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 an economic stimulus plan. After all the rhetoric, people only want to know one thing: what's in it for me?

1. I'm leaning "Dubai-off" after watching the UAE 2000 Guineas. Saeed bin Suroor admits MIDSHIPMAN is behind VINEYARD HAVEN in terms of progression -- yikes. Something will have to drastically change in the Godolphin camp to sway me back. Keep in mind Big Blue moved these horses from Bob Baffert and Bobby Frankel; when's the last time you saw someone move a horse up from that pair?

2. ESPN television analyst Randy Moss had the top pick in our annual Triple Crown fantasy league on Wednesday night and drafted OLD FASHIONED. Yours truly had the No. 14 pick in a 15-team league (nice pill pull, fellas!), but managed to land MR. FANTASY, a horse I have tabbed No. 3 overall. When you get MR. FANTASY in your fantasy league, what more can you ask for?

3. "Jockeys" debuted on Animal Planet last week and managed to show 26 incidents of horses going down, running loose in the stable area or flailing in the starting gate amongst its first 60 minutes. For the record, the entire Oak Tree meeting (at which the series was filmed) had a grand total of just two horses go down on the track from 1,865 starters. Thanks, TV peeps, for fictionally fanning a negative overtone for a sport that doesn't need your help.

This week's fearless forecast

This section includes a preview of the coming week's 3-year-old races to watch. All eyes will be on the OLD FASHIONED-SILVER CITY showdown in the G3 Southwest on President's Day Monday. But note that because entries for Monday's G3 Southwest at Oaklawn and G3 San Vicente at Santa Anita won't be taken until after "Countdown" is posted on Friday, no full previews will be available. We'll recap those key Monday races in-depth in next week's "Everyone's A Critic" section.

But I do want to give OLD FASHIONED his due. Watching all three of his previous races, he's twice had some trouble getting into the mix, once sprinting and once routing, and he did try to lug in a bit in the Remsen while well clear. If that sounds familiar, it should: he's so EIGHT BELLES-like, it's crazy. But OLD FASHIONED has been even more brilliant early in his career than 'BELLES, who took time to find her mojo in the spring. It will be interesting to see if jockey Ramon Dominguez takes the race to the others early in the Southwest, which will start and finish at the sixteenth pole, thus leaving a short stretch run. SILVER CITY (Equibase past performances here) has plenty of gas, and if Miguel Mena sets his mind to taking the lead, will OLD FASHIONED then be able to relax and pounce? I predict whoever leads when they turn on to the backstretch will win this one, and I'm leaning SILVER CITY for this first dance.

Now let's get into this weekend's undercard races of repute.

Midnight Lute's brother CAPTAIN CHEROKEE meets winners for the first time Saturday in a Race 8 route allowance at Fair Grounds, fresh off a powerful maiden win for Steve Asmussen where he showed great guts up the fence. But this won't be a walkover; thoroughly dominant sprint maiden breaker MONTECORE will be pure gas from an inside draw and make them come and get him. This is as intriguing of an allowance matchup as we've seen anywhere in America this year. FG also presents a Race 5 turf maiden route on Saturday.

Bet-back special COZY LION roars Friday in Gulfstream's Race 9, a maiden turf route. Under-prepped for a debut that was too short in distance, Barclay Tagg's bred-for-grass colt has been training like a monster. Go to the bank! Also on Friday, Santa Anita's action includes a Race 2 maiden sprint where Bob Baffert's pair of TURK and MYTHICAL POWER figure prominently. They both exit tough races and should give us a better line on impressive recent maiden winners MR. HOT STUFF and WALL STREET WONDER.

At Gulfstream on Saturday, most of the back half of the card features the sophomore set. The top five finishers from the grassy Dania Beach Stakes are entered in the featured Hallandale Beach on turf, but the interesting twist is that Dania winner JACK SPRATT is listed main-track only in the Hallandale Beach. Trainer Mike Maker, as shifty as they come when it comes to discerning the condition book, is trying to get a dirt race out of his Derby hopeful somewhere, and find the easiest spot to do it. He'll be doing a rain dance Saturday. The wonderfully bred and ever-dangerous INTO MY SOUL (Pleasantly Perfect-Stop Traffic) makes his seasonal return for IEAH Stable and Rick Dutrow. DUKE OF HOMBERG should be sitting on a massive race from the rail after a troubled trip in the Dania Beach, and he'll like the extra distance for Tom Albertrani.

I can't wait to see the return of IMPERIAL COUNCIL in Saturday's Race 8 allowance sprint at Gulfstream. Shug McGaughey's impressive Belmont fall maiden breaker is by Empire Maker and out of Jaramar Rain, so he'll run all day. He might get outsprinted here, and that's just fine. Look for Shug to use this allowance sprint as a springboard to a route stakes, and any late interest at all is a positive sign. The quick JOIN IN THE DANCE makes his '09 return for Todd Pletcher in this solid heat.

Saturday's most intriguing rookie will be Gulfstream Race 6 maiden sprint entrant CHEF, a $400,000 son of Smarty Jones out of graded winner Take the Cake. Allen Goldberg's colt has a steady-spaced work tab that is low on sizzle, but Goldberg often brings his horses to the track from his training center in ready-made fashion ($2.53 ROI with debut runners). He'll have to be sharp to beat a field that includes fast-working Jimmy Jerkens' rookie CONVOCATION, a Pulpit colt out of a half-sister to champion Tempera. The GP Saturday card wraps with a Race 10 maiden route at nine furlongs, led by BEAR'S PROSPECTOR, runner-up earlier in the meet to eventual G3 Holy Bull winner SARATOGA SINNER; highly regarded debut turf third-place finisher CHAPIN BEACH; and the awfully drawn El Prado-Dream Supreme colt EVOLUTIONIST, who has been knocking on the door for the Bill Mott-George Steinbrenner tandem.

While the Oaklawn focus will be on Monday's G3 Southwest, a solid mile allowance goes as Saturday's Race 8, led by D. Wayne Lukas' FLYING PRIVATE. It will be make-or-break time for him to announce his candidacy after being outrun by POLTERGEIST and DR LARGE at the meeting.

Sunday's action will be topped by sprinters in the Capossela Stakes at Aqueduct. The only Triple Crown noms in the cast are stakes debuters NOT FOR SILVER (Mike Trombetta) and WILDCAT BRIEF (Ben Perkins). It will be interesting to see how Jimmy Winkfield Stakes 2-3 finishers THE PRINCE and FELLOW CRASHER perform here, given the utmost respect I have for that race's thoroughly dominant winner, TAQARUB, who runs next in the Fountain of Youth. Also on Sunday, Santa Anita offers a maiden route in Race 2, where Bob Baffert's LIFE GOES ON exits a strong second behind rising star MR. HOT STUFF. He meets Mark Casse's AIR STRIKE, third to PATENA last fall in his debut and a strong sprint second in his local unveiling last month.

G3 Sam F. Davis (Saturday/Tampa Bay Downs):

We don't have a race like 2007 when it was Any Given Saturday vs. Street Sense, but the Sam F. Davis is a newly minted graded stakes this year, and it's $225,000 purse will impact the Derby field selection for the first time.

Don't let the margin of victory fool you. Sam F. Davis likely favorites FREE COUNTRY and ATOMIC RAIN might have been separated by only a neck in their Jan. 8 allowance race at Gulfstream, but FREE COUNTRY was many lengths the best and galloped out a half-dozen in front before the clubhouse turn. Ken McPeek's unbeaten son of Big Country was sawed off by that rival on the first turn, stuck in a pickle the bulk of the race, and then seized a spot up the rail when it opened for only a few seconds like a good horse must. These two could race 10 times at Gulfstream going 1 1/8 miles and I'd take FREE COUNTY nine times. However ...

The Davis' 1 1/16 miles distance ought to be more in ATOMIC RAIN's wheel-house and he received a work over the Tampa Bay Downs track in anticipation of this race. The shorter distance and completely new surface to FREE COUNTRY helps even their spread for this specific race. As for Kentucky Derby prospects, it's not close in my mind; FREE COUNTRY wins that debate.

Experience at Tampa can be an overrated measure at the high-class levels like this. Traditionally a quirky track in reputation, this oval has hosted four straight winners shipping in from the more dominant end of the state (two for Zito, two for Pletcher). Meanwhile, seven straight Tampa Bay Derby winners also have come from Atlantic side of the Sunshine State. One note about the surface is that most horsemen say it plays much like Churchill Downs, and it's long been a good handicapping chore to highly rate the Tampa runners in the Churchill spring meeting at nice prices. In reverse, we might surmise that a successful Churchill horse might take to the ground at Tampa, namely FREE COUNTRY.

If you must side with the locals, you have plenty of options. However, the post draw was brutal to Pasco winner MUSKET MAN (9), sharp allowance victor SUMO (10) and Inaugural Stakes winner TOP SEED (11). All three have excellent early speed and could be hung very wide on the first turn or overused early to gain position. The only local to draw well with a big shot would be GENERAL QUARTERS (2), but he appears to be a closing sprinter from this handicapping eye.

The intriguing wildcard to the entire mix is CLIFFY'S FUTURE, whose company lines are easily the deepest in this race, having faced WEST SIDE BERNIE, BEETHOVEN, PROFESSOR Z and PITCHED PERFECTLY, all solid sophomores, despite not trying a stakes to date. His worst race, however, was on the Churchill dirt, so it will be interesting to see if he can transfer better form to the similar Tampa soil.

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

G3 El Camino Real Derby (Saturday/Golden Gate):

Take the top three finishers from the California Derby, sprinkle in three ex-claimers and a SoCal maiden winner, and you have a historically weak renewal of the G3 El Camino Real Derby. CHOCOLATE CANDY (Equibase past performances here) was a handy, odds-on winner in the local prep and figures to be hammered every bit that low Saturday at a 1-1/8 miles distance he certainly can handle.

But "Countdown" readers know I was not enamored with the Cal Derby, citing a :26.01 fourth quarter that was pedestrian and flattered the visual move of 'CANDY. So while the favorite still might be good enough to continue his winning ways, by no means can I recommend strong support at what figures to be a $3 or $4 mutuel. To his credit, CHOCOLATE CANDY has been training up a storm since the Cal Derby and should be sitting on an effort that's much stronger than the Cal Derby.

MASSONE will get first run on the tiring pacesetter, AQUICKSTING, in his NoCal unveiling for Hall of Famer Ron McAnally. He was beaten five lengths by CHOCOLATE CANDY in the maiden ranks, but had trouble in that match-up and has run very well behind quality sophs I WANT REVENGE and SHAFTED since then. Expect MASSONE to have the lead in upper stretch and challenge the closers to be at their best. But he's not the most decisive finisher, and a victory Saturday looks most likely only if the closers fail to fire.

MERUS MIAMI was beaten a little more than four lengths in the Cal Derby to CHOCOLATE CANDY, but had a terrible trip that day and gets a big-time rider switch to Corey Nakatani. He was giving away a massive amount of experience last month and stands a fighter's chance to turn the tables if he can move forward. Cal Derby second AXEL FOLEY adds blinkers for trainer Doug O'Neill and owns a bullet drill in the shades. Expect a bit more speed this time, which could put him in third or fourth going down the backside.

Finally, there's RENDEZVOUS. While he plugged along in the tougher-than-you think Calder juvenile ranks, he's become a new animal since coming to Jerry Hollendorfer's barn. He twice closed into slow places to win one-mile heats over this track in recent weeks, running the fourth quarters in the low :24s both times. That's decidedly quicker on the turn than the Cal Derby cast showed, and Saturday he'll get a quick front-end target in AQUICKSTING. This Victory Gallop colt is not in the race to help it fill for CHOCOLATE CANDY; he has a similar running style from the back of the back as well. I think he's quite intriguing and worth a win-place price play.

As we like to do in the two-turn races, here's a look at the projected G3 El Camino Real Derby pace scenario:

Everyone's a critic

This section recaps the week that was. We had a wide spectrum of performances, from very good to downright ugly, folks. We'll accentuate the positive first before a trip to Dubai.

Saturday's G3 Risen Star at Fair Grounds was so Kentucky Derby-like it was eerie. A huge field featured tons of traffic issues, cheap longshots setting the table for the real runners, and the 1-2-3-4 players at the final chart call holding their positions in tact despite a marathon-length stretch.

The only thing different this time was that Larry Jones got the trophy with FRIESAN FIRE after Derby bridesmaids Hard Spun and Eight Belles the past two years. Perhaps foreshadowing? This race was so eventful that it takes a minimum of a half-dozen replays to fully digest the winners and losers. Do not, I repeat do not, rely on the race chart or race call to get the full picture. Let's sort the race out by the positive vibes and negative vibes.

Positive Risen Star vibes go out to winner FRIESAN FIRE, runner-up FLYING PEGASUS, late-runners GIANT OAK and SOUL WARRIOR. Negative vibes go out to Lecomte Stakes returnees AU MOON and INDYGO MOUNTAIN as well as IT HAPPENED AGAIN. As for UNO MAS and NOWHERE TO HIDE, who finished third and fourth, they ran as well as they could ever be expected with no major excuses, a rarity in this field.

FRIESAN FIRE scored despite a rank trip around the clubhouse turn, the second time in his last three starts that he's been a handful to ride. Still, he negotiated the kind of trip that wins big races, having enough speed to get in and out of holes and being able to track 17-1 and 243-1 shots that set the table for the real running. He ran 1 1/16 miles Saturday in 1:45.11, about a half-length faster than the fillies in the same-day G3 Silverbulletday and about five lengths slower than older stablemate Honest Man in the G3 Mineshaft Handicap. He came home in the mid-:24s for the fourth quarter and :6.53 the final half-furlong, which are solid splits and consistent with his Lecomte win at one mile. The scary thing is this colt has had just two published workouts since mid-December, and there's no telling what might happen when the screws are fully tightened for one, focused goal. He's had no break in his campaign whatsoever since last summer, so you can see why Jones is not squeezing the lemon early in the year. He would be a perfect candidate to take a long rest after the Louisiana Derby and train up to the roses with a series of strong drills, firing fresh as he's proven he's worthy of the chance.

For all the accolades you can toss into the 'FIRE, you have to be equally or more impressed with Risen Star runner-up FLYING PEGASUS (Equibase past performances here), who was hung five-wide into the clubhouse turn after leaving from post No. 12. Former Bill Mott right-hand-man Ralph Nicks has a gem on his hands, considering 'PEGASUS was clearly second-best in the Risen Star despite being away since September and never racing beyond seven furlongs, much less around two turns. While the son of Derby champ Fusaichi Pegasus shined bright at 1 1/16 miles, his dam Lilly Capote was a stakes performer with some distance questions. But this is a serious racehorse.

Deep closers GIANT OAK and SOUL WARRIOR suffered similar stop-and-go trips that warrant much consideration wherever they reappear. While the chartcaller and track announcer caught the laments of 'OAK, the favorite, it's typical that a longshot with a similar trip does not carry the same excuse-card mentality. My high opinion of SOUL WARRIOR is only tempered mildly after this sixth-place finish, feeling he would have been a factor if not stonewalled up the fence going into the far turn. He was too inexperienced to make two or three runs. GIANT OAK, meanwhile, will be everyone's poster-child for trouble, but I'm just not sold he has the same late brilliance on dirt as some others believe he has. But 'OAK had a ton of trouble here, including more mid-stretch than SOUL WARRIOR, so my dirt opinion of him still is open for debate. Trainer Chris Block cautioned that a road trip might be in order: "I love the surface here," he said of Fair Grounds, "but it's a narrow track, and with another large field we might run into the same kinds of problems. If there's a smaller field likely for the Louisiana Derby, it would help us make a decision to come back." Meanwhile, INDYGO MOUNTAIN will be freshened up and is off the Derby trail as the Scharbauer/Calhoun team is left to focus on SILVER CITY at Oaklawn.

Pardon the depth of the Risen Star analysis, but it was such a good Derby dress rehearsal it merited the extra verbage.

The week's other major race of repute was the G2 Bob Lewis Memorial, held Saturday at Santa Anita and wrestled away late by favorite PIONEEROF THE NILE. The son of Belmont winner Empire Maker powered home to score over a very talented cast, scoring high marks both visually and on the clock. He flew the fourth quarter in a scintillating split of about :23 flat, and finished up in the mid :5s for the final sixteenth. The pace did not come back to him; he came and got them. The front-runners held 2-3-4 and 'NILE was the only closer to make a legitimate dent.

This was a big-time individual Derby prep effort by PIONEEROF THE NILE, the best seen in America this year around two turns. Vegas took notice, too, dropping 'NILE to 8-1 favorite in the Wynn Las Vegas Derby Futures. Bob Baffert says he'll remain west for the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby next, choosing to put off a dirt debut until Derby Day. For those of you fearful of that scenario, take solace in the fact that 'NILE's dam, Star of Goshen, ran one of the most freakishly good races I've ever seen in person when she won the La Troienne at Churchill Downs.

Lewis Memorial runner-up PAPA CLEM showed why he was one of our top-rated maiden winners of the season at Santa Anita, running his eyeballs out for second in his stakes debut and first try beyond a mile. He's expected to travel to the Louisiana Derby next with Rafael Bejarano agreeing to accompany. I WANT REVENGE proved to be a sturdy player, but was unable to produce when the chips were down. Though he has some pedigree, I question him going longer. BITTEL ROAD, meanwhile, had a one-paced look and that will serve well as distances elongate. He's a big threat to follow stablemate Cowboy Cal in a Blue Grass Stakes win at Keeneland if they so choose.

Disappointments included MARK S THE COOLER, whose maiden win on turf was certainly legitimized by rival HERR MOZART returning to dominate Saturday's opener. But 'MARK did not advance to the big leagues as I had hoped as a longshot selection. He did not reproduce the same late life on the main track as he did on turf and probably would be best-suited to remain on grass. But with stablemate SQUARE EDDIE sidelined, you might see him get another chance to dance. Finally, SHAFTED ran too poor to believe after impressing in his allowance win over the track. Something might be amiss; check the worktab to see how he bounces back.

Now for the brutally ugly: VINEYARD HAVEN looked completely out of sorts in the UAE 2000 Guineas Thursday at Dubai's Nad al Sheba Racecourse. The G1 Hopeful and Champagne winner had been training poorly on the Tapeta surface at the Godolphin training center, Saeed bin Suroor candidly admitted pre-race. Well, the natural dirt at Nad al Sheba was no elixir. VINEYARD HAVEN had some of the worst leg action I have ever seen by a stakes runner; so bad you have to wonder about his health issues. It sent me back scurrying to the video of his US races, and, he even looked gawky and inefficient in those victories in hindsight. But this was triple-exaggerated Thursday. He would have to do a 180-degree turn to even remotely interest me at this point. No, one loss does not break a Triple Crown contender. But you can't visually look this poor and cast off any good tidings.

Meanwhile, Godolphin stablemate and fellow ex-patriot DESERT PARTY was convincing in victory in the UAE 2000 Guineas, sitting a nice trip along the fence, tilting out in the straight and tackling the pacesetters despite a mild late drift from Frankie Dettori's left-handed stick. Dettori's presence on this guy vs. 'VINEYARD spoke volumes, and pre-race Suroor dead-panned, "Tonight, there is no excuse for him. Frankie likes him." The home team questions how much farther this son of Street Cry will run. After all, DESERT PARTY's rather obscure female family (considering his $2.1 million pricetag) is topped only by sprinter GOOD AND TOUGH, out of Barbara Fritchie sprint heroine AMY BE GOOD. But he is moving the right direction, and looking good doing it. DESERT PARY is the only Dubai runner I'll tab moving forward with much zest. As for MIDSHIPMAN, expected to return March 5 in the desert, I'm tossing him to the guilt-by-association pile with VINEYARD HAVEN until proven otherwise, given Suroor's comments.

Champion filly STARDOM BOUND returned in winning style on Saturday's Lewis Memorial card at Santa Anita, registering a G1 Las Virgenes score that measured only eight lengths from first to last at the wire. But she came home quickly in the bunched-up lot, running about :23-4/5 the final quarter-mile and about :12 flat for the last furlong. That's strong stuff first off the bench. Don't get too tied up in what she beat or the fact that the speed melted down and wound up fifth, sixth and eighth. STARDOM BOUND's biggest test moving forward will be to see if she can get this improved kind of trip against the boys, vs. the way she gave up lengths with wide trips and still out-muscled the fillies last year. Longtime "Countdown" readers know I don't rate fillies along the trail until their destinations are made clear. While it's uncertain if she'll go next in the Santa Anita Derby or Oaks, it's at least time to start thinking Derby-picture with 'BOUND.

Steve Asmussen went 0-for-3 in the Risen Star, but got the money in the Whirlaway last Saturday at Aqueduct behind HAYNESFIELD. The son of champion sprinter Speightstown took this 1 1/16 miles race to the competition from the opening bell and was never threatened. This was a $60,000 workout where the last sixteenth went in :07.07 and no one budged; he was totally geared down late. HAYNESFIELD (Equibase past performances here) will have to keep improving to win the Gotham if outside challengers make an expected raid, but you can't fault him for not showing his cards in this one.

Front-running MUSIC CITY won Saturday's one-mile WEBN Stakes at Turfway with an abysmal :27.59 final quarter, which tells me to look elsewhere in the Battaglia Memorial and G2 Lane's End later in the meeting.

Now for a few key allowance and maiden recaps.

Dale Romans' firster HULL looked much better on paper than the eye in Saturday's Fair Grounds finale, dominating a maiden sprint win in 1:10.41. Keep in mind that the Pan Zareta Stakes went almost four lengths slower, and this time also topped a pair of older allowance heats on the same card. But visually he was all over the place and completely inefficient. By Holy Bull, HULL has a solid sprint influence on the dam side. My bet-back special HILLSWICK remains awfully live, having to steady on the turn and rallying last-to-third in a race where speed horses held 1-2-4. He's begging for a route.

The well-bred CONSERVATIVE (Unbridled's Song-Oh What a Windfall) graduated on turf at Gulfstream on Sunday and has run well enough on dirt to make him a multi-surface threat. He has a real Lane's End Stakes or Blue Grass feel to him. CONSERVATIVE's Feb. 4 workout was so un-Shug-like that he could be a serious breakout candidate. Also on the GP grass, speedy REGARDLESOFOUTCOME validated SILVER CITY's Dixieland win with more gusto, romping to a sprint grass win Friday by daylight, though he didn't beat much.

Another multi-surface threat emerged out west Saturday when HERR MOZART won an off-the-turf maiden heat at Santa Anita by daylight. But this 9-furlong route was contested in a very turf-like pace. Against top-class main trackers, HERR MOZART may not be comfortable chasing six panels in 1:11. MILLENNIUM LAKES ran a strong third here with no pace help at all and racing four-wide. He's now exited three straight solid maiden races and should bust out next.

Saturday's SA card saw Doug O'Neill debut maiden sprint winner SUPREME SUMMIT, bred to dash. Bet back from this heat TEMERITY, a Ron Ellis-trained Lion Heart colt who will want much more distance out of Slewacide mare. He was the best of the closers and needed a race.

Wednesday's Gulfstream card saw well-bred sprinter B Z WARRIOR debut a fast and hard-fought winner for Todd Pletcher. The half-brother to graded stakes-winning sprinter E Z WARRIOR earned a three-way photo over sharp rookie CUSTOM FOR CARLOS and come-backing ALL THE BASES, who had a tough trip from the rail with traffic issues. The bridesmaids should fire quickly through their maiden conditions at next asking.

In New York, Congaree's half-brother CARY AWAY had a nightmare trip in his dirt unveiling Saturday at Aqueduct. But this mile heat, won by odds-on HAITIAN SENSATION, was a full-second slower than HAYNESFIELD's one-mile split in the 1 1/16 miles Whirlaway.

The week's most dominant undercard win came Saturday at Oaklawn, where rookie HAMAZING DESTINY (Equibase past performances here) crushed a sprint cast by 10 1/2 lengths (six furlongs in 1:10.44), coming home in a decent :24.61 after a four-wide trip. Mac Robertson's son of Salt Lake has an all-sprint pedigree, however.


Each week, we'll give you a race video worth a second look. With the top three California Derby runners returning for the G3 El Camino Real Derby, we'd better start our handicapping with that key replay.
Quick hitters

G2 Fountain of Youth hopeful NOTONTHESAMEPAGE logged his second bullet drill in three morning moves since winning the Spectacular Bid, lighting up the Gulfstream work tab last Saturday in 1:00 flat for five panels ... Potential Fountain of Youth rival TAQARUB had a solid breeze at Palm Meadows last Saturday (4F in :49 flat). Meanwhile, Kiaran McLaughlin stablemate CHARITABLE MAN, winner of the G2 Futurity at Belmont last fall, was expected to have his first work of 2009 on Friday ... G3 Holy Bull third BEETHOVEN bounced out of his race in such good order he was back on the worktab on only seven days turn-around for John Ward, drilling five panels last Saturday. His freshness has Ward looking now at the Fountain of Youth ... The FoY cast should include Sunshine Millions Dash burner THIS ONES FOR PHIL, who sizzled a half-mile in :47-4/5 last Saturday at Gulfstream, which trainer Rick Dutrow called the best breeze since he's had the horse. Stablemate ALMA D'ORO notched his first work since his Jan. 15 maiden romp when getting a bullet 6F Sunday at Gulfstream in 1:16-4/5 ... Colonel John's full-brother MR. HOT STUFF returned to the worktab Wednesday at Santa Anita for the first time since his impressive maiden score, and remained on edge with a :48-2/5 half-mile move at "The Great Race Place" ... Jimmy Jerkens' touted QUALITY ROAD smoked a bullet five furlongs in 1:00 2/5 at Palm Meadows last Saturday, his third work since a disappointing odds-on allowance loss, showing he's doing perfectly fine ... The horse who upended QUALITY ROAD, THEREGOESJOJO, had to skip last week's G3 Risen Star due to a minor illness, but did make the same day's Gulfstream worktab with a slow five-eighths breeze in 1:02-4/5 for Ken McPeek ... Multiple G1-placed juvenile MUNNINGS has now posted four slow, but well-spaced drills at Palm Meadows as he nears a return ... CRIBNOTE had his first work of 2009 last Friday, breezing three furlongs at Palm Meadows in :36 3/5 ... Bob Baffert's recent maiden winner MAYOR MARV is working exceptionally well at Santa Anita, and figures to get a stakes date soon ... A light schedule next week sees only the Turf Paradise Derby on the stakes horizon.

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)
2. SOUL WARRIOR -- Fair Grounds 12/29
3. MR. HOT STUFF -- Santa Anita 2/1
4. CHECKLIST -- Gulfstream 1/3
5. PERFECT SONG -- Philadelphia Park 1/20

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

Stakes Race
1. NOTONTHESAMEPAGE -- Spectacular Bid 1/3
2. PIONEEROF THE NILE -- Lewis Memorial 2/7 * NEW *
2. TAQARUB -- Jimmy Winkfield 1/19
4. FRIESAN FIRE -- Risen Star 2/7 * NEW *
5. DESERT PARTY -- UAE 2000 Guineas 2/12 * NEW *

Stakes selections

G3 Sam F. Davis Stakes Picks:

G3 El Camino Real Derby Picks:

How did we do last week?

Top choice HAYNESFIELD won Whirlaway; second choices PIONEEROF THE NILE and FRIESAN FIRE won the Bob Lewis Memorial and Risen Star Stakes, respectively; third choice PARADE CLOWN won the WEBN Stakes.

How are we doing on the season?

5-for-16 (31 percent) with top pick; 9-for-16 (56 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: Seventh week of the 2009 season

Reader-submitted top 20: From Dan in Laurel, Md.

What happens in Vegas

This section highlights the steamers in the Las Vegas future book odds. Odds updated Feb. 8, 2008, here.

Wynn Las Vegas Derby Favorites
PIONEEROF THE NILE 8-1 * new favorite this week *

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.