Countdown to the Crown: Feb. 20, 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 Larry Jones' cowboy hats. If you keep them well-shaped and clean, they'll keep your head on straight.

1. We're seeing a sensational group of milers developing in this 2009 crop, and the opinion here is that we could see a brilliant performance at Churchill capable of catapulting one of these to the roses. Since the 2005 Derby melted down after a 1:09-2/5 opening six furlongs, Derby jocks have reined things in with 1:10-4/5, 1:11 and 1:11 paces the past three years, much more manageable to navigate if you have a talented enough horse, ala Hard Spun two years ago.

2. OLD FASHIONED closed last weekend's Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool as a clear 7-1 choice amongst the individual wagering interests. But even after his Southwest win on Monday, the key Las Vegas race book of record, Wynn Las Vegas, only tabbed OLD FASHIONED as the 8-1 co-favorite along with PIONEEROF THE NILE. Perhaps that 13-1 price on 'NILE in the KDFW should have been much more in line with OLD FASHIONED, or vice versa.

3. Admit when you're wrong and don't look for excuses. I seriously undervalued DUNKIRK's maiden win because it was so inferior on the clock to the performance by THIS ONE'S FOR PHIL the same day. But DUNKIRK earned every inch of respect due to him with his Thursday return allowance win at Gulfstream. Never forget that the most detrimental thing to a handicapper's wallet is stubbornness. And, if DUNKIRK is this good, what planet does that make old 'PHIL from?

This week's fearless forecast

This section includes a preview of the coming week's 3-year-old races to watch. The stakes menu is thin with only the listed Turf Paradise Derby, so the undercards bear extra attention this weekend.

I'm busting at the seams to see PERFECT SONG return in Saturday's third at Turfway, a 6 1/2-furlong allowance. He was so sparkling in his debut win at Philadelphia Park that trainer Mike Trombetta is thinking of him as a potential Derby threat. The son of Pleasantly Perfect gets a potential G2 Lane's End Stakes prep against a field he should handle if he's the goods. Remember, he trains on the all-weather track at Fair Hill Training Center.

Gulfstream cards sophomore heats in Saturday's first, sixth and tenth races, all maiden races around one turn. But, oh, what pedigrees and bet-back opportunities! In race one, STORM'N WARRIOR returns after doing all the dirty work in a sensational turf sprint loss to future star ECHO IN ETERNITY (don't let the low Beyer fool you). He tries the dirt against Todd Pletcher's $2.6 million rookie EUROPE, a half-brother to G2-winning sprinter Half Ours. Outside-drawn PRESTO CHANGE O (Jimmy Jerkens) also figures prominently after being well-bet in his debut and clipping heels. He's from the female family of Unbridled's Song.

Maiden milers meet in Race 6 Saturday at GP, where bet-back special SINGLE MALT looks to improve off a debut third for Phil Serpe in which he looked awesome on the track and galloped out best of all. The blueblooded competition includes STRATEGIC DECISION (Distorted Humor-Beautiful Pleasure), NO DETOUR (full-brother to Belmont third Nolan's Cat), DENVER (half-brother to El Roblar) and FLYING WARRIOR (By FuPeg out of $6.9 million-earning Japanese legend Hishi Amazon). Speaking of intriguing pedigrees, it gets no better than Gulfstream Race 10 entrant EAGLE POISE, a Juddmonte homebred by Empire Maker out of G1 English Oaks winner Reams of Verse. He debuts against the two-three-four finishers behind DUNKIRK's runaway Jan. 24 maiden win.

A very interesting maiden sprint will be presented at Santa Anita in Saturday's Race 8. Bob Baffert unveils Zayat Stables pick-up ZENSATIONAL, a $700K son of Unbridled's Song, out of the Claiborne mare Joke, who is half-sister to Trip and Laity. Other impressive dam-side pedigrees in this race include Todd Pletcher's rookie IRON FORTITUDE, a $450K colt by Medaglia d'Oro out of a half-sister to champion filly Phone Chatter; the fast-working Bruce Headley charge OFF THE WALL, by Candy Ride and out of unbeaten Woodbine stakes winner Diablo's Peace and a real win-early family; and BRIAN THE BRAVE, a Grand Slam colt out of Kona Gold's half-sister.

Santa Anita offers a pair of maiden turf heats on Friday's card later today. Race 3 matches milers, including Triple Crown nominee METEORE, coming out of a brutally tough main-track route for Richard Mandella. Keep an eye on turf-bred FREE BEER as he exits a super-strong heat and gets on grass for the first time. Turf dashers square off in Race 6, and Mandella once again could be front and center. He saddles the only two Triple Crown noms in the field, firsters EL RAPIDO and DERIVE. The latter is a $575K Cozzene colt out of G3 Landaluce and G3 Beaumont winner Fluttery Danseur. EL RAPIDO is a Seeking the Gold homebred from the same female family as Thirty Six Red.

Also on the SA lawn, Sunday's Race 6 allowance mile includes G2 Lewis Memorial sixth-place finisher OIL MAN for John Sadler. The field also includes Real Quiet stakes runner-up JP JAMMER, disqualified G2 Best Pal winner KELLY LEAK and the return of G1 Norfolk pacesetter and fourth-place finisher DEL CONTE for Bob Baffert.

Turf Paradise Derby (Saturday/Turf Paradise):

With $100,000 of ungraded stakes money on the line, the Turf Paradise Derby attracted only two Triple Crown nominees, Bob Baffert's seriously talented MAYOR MARV and the Vladimir Cerin-trained maiden PAUPER'S PRIZE, who has been begging for a route. He'll get that chance at 1 1/16 miles, but he'll have no pace help whatsoever against the likely loose-leading MAYOR MARV.

By Distorted Humor out of juvenile stakes-winning filly Miss Wineshine, the Mike Pegram color-bearing MAYOR MARV has been well-meant since his Saratoga debut last August. He's finally putting it all together and exits three consecutive monster maiden races against the likes of THE PAMPLEMOUSSE, PAPA CLEM and MR. HOT STUFF. We've touted him as a major breakout stakes performer, and he could not have found an easier spot. Take the 1-5 price and move on, as he proved he could run on the dirt just fine last year. This is a horse who could be a real factor in the G2 Lexington at Keeneland later this spring (also at 1 1/16 miles) if they want to take a Derby run at some graded earnings. They could also raid the Sunland Derby's riches if they choose to pick off cash and not obsess on the big dance.

Of the locals, HIDDEN BOUNTY has dominated this winter with two prep stakes victories. But his :26-3/5 final quarter-mile in the Rattlesnake dampens any enthusiasm for his daylight win margins. The Californians simply appear to be a lead-pipe exacta, especially given the pace set-up.

As we like to do in the two-turn races, here's a look at the projected Turf Paradise Derby pace scenario:

Everyone's a critic

This section recaps the week that was, and we received a holiday gift Monday with the top-rated sophomore in the land competing, OLD FASHIONED, as well as a battle of the sexes on the West Coast. But it's all about OLD FASHIONED to open things in the G3 Southwest.

Larry Jones' star son of Unbridled's Song returned with a one-mile victory that was both functional and impressive. Many times functional can be deemed unimpressive, but that's not the case here. OLD FASHIONED showed that he could relax nicely off a fast leader and come get a very talented horse without anyone else doing his dirty work. He stalked SILVER CITY through :22.47 and :23.51 opening quarter-miles that would cook many runners, especially given a 2 1/2-month layoff. While they did slow through the lane (:25.06 and :26.37 final quarters), keep in mind there's little straightaway running in the final quarter-mile at Oaklawn, where one-mile races use the sixteenth-pole finish line. So the fast early fractions made for tired horses, and racetrack configuration had something to do with those numbers. This should set OLD FASHIONED up nicely, and it is especially important that Jones did not have to mess with OLD FASHIONED's mind by turning him back to a one-turn race for his '09 debut (after running two-turners at Delaware and Aqueduct last fall). This was mission accomplished, exactly how you would draw it up.

Runner-up SILVER CITY did not embarrass himself one bit, aggressively taking the race to the heralded early Derby favorite. He was hand-urged down the backstretch by jockey Miguel Mena, so his fast early splits look more a product of tactics than "need." Had he not had OLD FASHIONED breathing down his back, I don't think the others would have chased near him through the stretch. He was simply not good enough to dethrone the favorite, and definitely was tired in the final sixteenth. But it's not 100-percent time to throw in the route towel, even though he is built in more of a sprint-mode physically. SILVER CITY just did not match up well with OLD FASHIONED; but few horses do. If OLD FASHIONED does not return for the Rebel, by all means SILVER CITY should dance. If OLD FASHIONED enters the Rebel as trainer Larry Jones has indicated he will, the SILVER CITY camp might want to take things to the G2 Louisiana Derby, where the match-up would be much better.

There's an interesting fuss on the Internet about how OLD FASHIONED did not stack up with Sunday's Martha Washington winner RACHEL ALEXANDRA, who ran off by eight lengths in 1:36.40, about a full second faster than 'FASHIONED. Folks, comparing times on two different days is dangerous business. Eight Belles won that race last year in 1:39.17.

Had 'RACHEL been chasing SILVER CITY in :45.98 and not a 36-1 Arkansas-bred maiden breaker named Affirmed Truth through :47.02, there's no telling where the final teletimer would fall. Give plenty of credit to RACHEL ALEXANDRA for a big effort, but don't denigrate the Southwest in comparison. Remember, 'RACHEL ran the Golden Rod in 1:43 last year at Churchill on the same card BEETHOVEN needed 1:44 to complete the Kentucky Jockey Club. Maybe she's just that good, and you should take nothing away from OLD FASHIONED.

Other fallout from the Southwest includes the peculiar third-place finish by D. Wayne Lukas' BUZZIN AND DREAMIN. Peculiar because he sat third the entire trip, a scenario that should have melted him behind the two fast stars. Were the closers simply no good? BUZZIN AND DREAMIN has a pure-sprint pedigree, but his route races have said differently. Lukas will give him every chance to advance on the trail. Fourth-place finisher FLAT OUT was the only closer to give any account, galloping out well after the wire and hinting at his Rebel prospects. He totally missed the start, hopping and spotting the field five lengths. He continues to run with a high leg action, hinting he could be a serious all-weather track or turf threat. I would be all over this guy if he shows up in the Lane's End at Turfway going nine panels. POLTERGEIST proved to be overrated by many with a lackluster Southwest effort, rewarding our suspicions posted here after a blowout allowance win that failed to overwhelm "Countdown."

Monday's G3 San Vicente might have done more to validate the Derby credentials of super filly STARDOM BOUND than anything. While she was back in the barn, old rival EVITA ARGENTINA rocketed past the boys to win this seven-furlong heat going away in the end. 'EVITA has not been able to warm up STARDOM BOUND, so what does this San Vicente smoking say about the filly champ? EVITA ARGENTINA is not a Derby contender going long, so we'll tip our cap to her and avoid any discussion in that regard. The only horse you want to tab from the San Vicente moving forward in a route is GALLANT SON. He was a short horse, training-wise, in the California Derby and came back making a tremendous pre-race appearance in the San Vicente. He made a strong middle-move despite losing a ton of ground, eventually flattening out late in a seven-furlong sprint that was herky-jerky to what he's learned to do. Look for him to be a big-time exotics price threat next out wherever he shows up going around two turns. Meanwhile, San Vicente runner-up LEEDSTHEWAY was strangled the entire backstretch run by Tyler Baze and deserved a much better ride given how well he continued on down the lane. He looks like a SERIOUS sprinter for Jeff Mullins if let loose.

G3 El Camino Real Derby winner CHOCOLATE CANDY won't drop your jaw, but he just keeps on pounding out the hits. Bet to 1-2 favoritism, he notched his third stakes win and advanced to 6: 4-1-1 around two turns. He has the pedigree and running style to be a true, 10-furlong horse and it's hard to imagine a scenario where he'd embarrass himself. His 1 1/8 miles time of 1:50.54 was quite good over the Tapeta surface, and 'CANDY had solid come-home splits of :24.99 and :12.90 for the track. But he beat the 1-for-8 MASSONE by only a half-length, and he's a runner who has lost ground in the stretch in all four previous tries around two turns. Remember, those two were only three-quarters of a length apart in a previous match-up, so is 'CANDY moving forward or merely handling his business in soft spots? Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer has CHOCOLATE CANDY aiming for the Santa Anita Derby, but said he might try the San Felipe before that.

The feel-good horse of the 2009 trail emerged Saturday in Tampa Bay Downs' G3 Sam F. Davis Stakes, but we had better not underestimate his accomplishments on the track. GENERAL QUARTERS (Equibase past performances here.), owned and groomed by retired high school principal and ex-trainer Tom McCarthy of Louisville, provided his current trainer Mark Miller with his first career stakes win. I wrongly labeled the 'GENERAL as a pigeon-holed, closing sprinter coming into the Davis. But he finished with wonderful strides, getting the 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.54, just .43 off the track record set in this race by Street Sense and Any Given Saturday two springs ago. While there were no comparable races at the distance on the card Saturday, note that the one-mile split of this race was about nine lengths faster than the same-day 1 mile and 40-yard Endeavor Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.

GENERAL QUARTERS visually leveled off the way you want to see a good horse reach for the wire, and in doing so came home in :24.96 and :6.33 closing splits that back up the visuals. I expect the phone to be ringing off the hook for the connections and some big-dollar suitors to come calling. McCarthy probably won't be selling, but expect some green to be offered. Runner-up SUMO, first hinted in "Countdown" as a Florida stakes prospect after his Maryland maiden win, was clearly second-best, giving up a four-wide trip on the first turn and three-wide on the far turn. He continues to improve and will love any distance or surface thrown at him for Graham Motion. FREE COUNTRY, bet to 9-5 favoritism off an impressive Gulfstream route allowance win, had no excuse and simply was even, outrun by the top pair, who put 6 1/2 lengths on all of their rivals. Well-backed ATOMIC RAIN's troubled break was completely missed in the charts, and he loomed a danger at the top of the lane before tossing in the towel. He's better than this; though I still don't think much of him on a national Derby scale.

At Gulfstream on Saturday, DUKE OF HOMBERG was always in control of the grassy Hallandale Beach Stakes, showing stop-and-go prowess like a good horse. The Dynaformer colt can run all day and really grind out the fractions once placed in the crosshairs. While he might try dirt down the road, trainer Tom Albertrani said he'll likely get time off now and prepare for a long campaign on grass. I'd love to see more of him, but understand and respect that gameplan. Runner-up LIME RICKEY has been unfortunate in two straight turf stakes at the meet, but I don't think he would have gotten to the 'DUKE in any scenario Saturday.

Another stakes winner from last week who probably won't be heard from on the trail is NOT FOR SILVER, who pounced on his Capossela Stakes sprint rivals Sunday at Aqueduct. The likely sprinter is trained by Mike Trombetta, who also has impressive Philly Park winner PERFECT SONG in his care. NOT FOR SILVER came home in a sharp :24.07 (final eighth :12.19), completing six furlongs in 1:10.38.

The maiden and allowance races were topped by a pair of big-time Gulfstream winners, IMPERIAL COUNCIL on Saturday and DUNKIRK on Thursday. Let's start with DUNKIRK, who beat a stakes-class allowance field like a drum, despite going seven-wide on the first turn. Todd Pletcher is back on the beam with this $3.7 million Unbridled's Song-Secret Status colt, who rolled by 4 3/4-widening lengths while finishing up his nine panels in :25.36 and :13.09 splits. While WARRIOR'S REWARD and MORE THAN WILLING loomed boldly at the quarter-pole, DUNKIRK was in another league down the lane despite racing with his head up and getting out a tiny bit mid-stretch. But he galloped out strongly, suggesting he was more immature than gassed, and this is a well put-together colt who travels low and efficient when his mind's on running. Garrett Gomez flying cross-country on a weekday tells you all you need to know, and the Florida Derby is next, according to trainer Pletcher. WARRIOR'S REWARD was second-best here while adding Lasix and making a nice two-turn debut, while third-place finisher SINCERO is a real bet-back player after besting all the pace players, and he also had a six-wide trip on the first turn. Impressive Rick Dutrow pick-up ALMA D'ORO blew the first turn going five-wide into space and tired badly to be fifth after pushing the pace issue. MORE THAN WILLING simply flattened out, and you have to wonder what's left in the tank of these Ken McPeek early season sizzlers.

Saturday's action at Gulfstream featured the return of IMPERIAL COUNCIL (Equibase past performances here), who blasted by sharp sprinter Z DAY in a Race 8 allowance at 6 1/2 furlongs. Bred to go long and trained by the route master Shug McGaughey, this one had prep written all over it. But the physical specimen IMPERIAL COUNCIL was simply too good, drawing off to win by two lengths in 1:16.60. He sat only a length off of a :44.66 opening half-mile, which might be a record in the McGaughey barn. Quality juvenile JOIN IN THE DANCE was a no-match third and a big spread followed the top trio, which is what you expect to see if they're as good as advertised. This was one of the best allowance performances in the nation this year. By Empire Maker out of route star Jaramar Rain, expect IMPERIAL COUNCIL to be a loud voice in upcoming races, and perhaps a serious Wood Memorial factor.

Fair Grounds had a pair of important main-track routes Saturday, a Race 5 maiden washed off the turf and a must-see Race 8 allowance slated for the main all along. Steve Asmussen won both, no shock at all, but how he swept the pair raises interesting questions. On the clock, FIERCE THUNDER's maiden win (1:46.85) overshadowed the allowance score by Midnight Lute's little bro CAPTAIN CHEROKEE (1:47.57). But the eyeball test told a vastly different story. First, note that the sloppy track labeled for Race 5 had much more standing water and was a packed down wet track, whereas Race 8 visually appeared to be a more dried-out surface, which usually is slower and deeper. You could tell in three strides that FIERCE THUNDER loved the slop. His ears bounced down the backstretch and he looked very much at ease. But 'THUNDER did not corner very strongly, got out some down the lane from the left-hand stick, swished his tail when struck, and didn't gallop out real strong. He did not finish as impressively as the chart would indicate. On the other hand, CAPTAIN CHEROKEE (Equibase past performances here) raced four wide on both turns, which was different from his maiden victory when he cut the corner and showed rail guts. But even while four-wide on Saturday, he cornered phenomenally, not losing any ground and almost gaining momentum in a slingshot move. The only visual knock is that he was a bit rough with his leads late, but he reeled in a very promising sprinter in MONTECORE, who simply could not get the distance, but has a huge future. CAPTAIN CHEROKEE will have to step up in the stakes ranks next time, but this was an excellent building block.

Let's hope "Countdown" readers cashed on Saturday's Race 6 Gulfstream maiden debut winner CHEF, the son of Smarty Jones out of classy mare Take The Cake. Trainer Allen Goldberg did it again, bringing a ready-made firster off the farm and delivering a $22.60 mutuel. You're welcome. CHEF (Equibase past performances here) thoroughly dominated this six-furlong affair, wiring the field behind a half-mile of :45.50 and then coming home in :25.13 and :13.11. Seven furlongs is the toughest distance in the game, so you expect a rookie to be rubber-legged late, but he looked better late and in the gallop-out than the come-home times indicated. He hustled back to the winner's circle and pranced like he was coming out of the barn. Fellow firster CONVOCATION was clearly second-best and is 1-9 to break his maiden next time out, making a huge middle-move and losing tons of ground. He has a stretch-out look for Jimmy Jerkens.

DUNKIRK's reputation received some positive vibes later on the Saturday GP card when the wonderfully bred ZIEGFELD rebounded to win a 1 1/8 miles maiden route in Race 10. Wiped out at the top of the stretch when against DUNKIRK in his unveiling, the Dale Romans trainee got a perfect trip in the route stretch-out, as a slow pace led a carousel 1-2-3 finish all the way around the track with inside-drawn runners (heard that refrain before at GP?). Despite walking early, it still took :13.68 the final furlong, telling me to avoid this bunch next time.

In another reputation booster, we saw MR. HOT STUFF's maiden score validated nicely Sunday at Santa Anita when two of his pursuers from Feb. 1 came back to run 1-2 in a maiden special weight route. LIFELINE added blinkers and finished nicely in :24.24 and :6.24 race splits to record the 1 1/16 miles win over Bob Baffert's LIFE GOES ON, who set a slow pace and had no excuse. LIFELINE may have been dipped in for a $32,000 tag earlier in the meeting, but make no mistake: he's held as good of company lines as any horse in SoCal, previously facing CHOCOLATE CANDY, MASSONE, THE PAMPLEMOUSSE, MAYOR MARV and MR. HOT STUFF. He's coming to hand nicely for owner/trainer Myung Kwon Cho, the trainer of last year's G1 Norfolk winner STREET HERO, who had to be retired at season's end and miss the Triple Crown trail.

Under a heady ride, Michael Matz's MIKOSHI scored a front-end turf mile maiden victory Friday at Gulfstream over a strong field that included my bet-back special COZY LION, who ran a troubled fourth. Don't lose confidence in that Barclay Tagg trainee as he looks much improved on the grass. This will be a key race moving forward, considering Jose Lezcano was able to get away with a :48.67 opening half-mile and then absolutely dash home in remarkable :23.14 and :23.54 splits that shunned any thoughts of a closing victory. Firsters SLEEPLESS KNIGHT (Kelly Breen) and FORGOTTEN DYNASTY (Kiaran McLaughlin) are must-adds to your stable alert services as they closed stoutly with no help whatsoever for second and third.

Oaklawn's Race 8 allowance mile Saturday provided another lesson in respecting solid all-weather track performers on the dirt. HIS GREATNESS (Equibase past performances here), who had raced on Polytrack in all three starts last year, returned a winner for Marco Salazar in very impressive style. The son of Honour and Glory showed two superb moves and a ratability for beyond his experience, breaking like a shot, taking a hold back, looping four wide and finishing determinedly to hold off multiple stakes-placed runner MARQUEE EVENT. He never let that rival by in the gallop-out, so don't feel like this was a diminishing margin-kind-of-victory. This could be a vastly underrated colt in the upcoming Oaklawn stakes, and we know he'll handle the Polytrack at Turfway or Keeneland if asked. He was beaten less than two lengths by PIONEEROF THE NILE going 1 1/16 miles last fall, after all.

Friday's Santa Anita card saw Doug O'Neill-trained rookie CAPE TRUTH score a half-length win over heavily favored MYTHICAL POWER. Also at Santa Anita, Monday's Race 3 allowance sprint was taken by Richard Mandella's NEW BAY, who sat a perfect trip in a pace meltdown, but did not finish with any gusto to make you think he's a two-turn threat by Cuvee. Perhaps best in that heat was FU PEG HE RAT, who ran erratically when third in his comeback effort. The 'RAT will appreciate more distance for Cliff Sise.

Monday's holiday card at Oaklawn saw ANAAN capture the maiden special weight finale in a so-so 1:11.06 for six furlongs. The Shadwell colorbearer is by Medaglia d'Oro, but has a very sprint-oriented damside pedigree. Runner-up HOLLYWOOD HIT won't be a maiden long for underrated horseman C.R. Trout. This Oklahoma-bred ran extremely rank on the lead and galloped out like a beast after being passed by ANAAN. This was a big return for the first start since September.

Tuesday's action from Ocala saw Chapel Royal's son CAPE ROYALE win the $150,000 OBS Championship for that sale's graduates. He wired the 1 1/16 miles field despite breaking from post 11, but the Triple Crown nominee for trainer Bill White clocked about four lengths slower than the OBS Championship fillies went in the previous race. Disappointments included the unplaced duo of SKIPADATE and SOUTHERN EXCHANGE, who were legitimate stakes players at age 2.

Finally, Thursday's ninth from Fair Grounds was a maiden sprint void of any Triple Crown nominees, but you had to be impressed with debut winner CASH REFUND, who broke like a shot and forgot to stop, getting six panels in a rapid 1:09.43 despite lugging out some in the upper stretch and being shut down late by jockey Brian Hernandez. Steve Margolis has a good one by Petionville out of Swept Away. His mama earned more than a half-million and was a G3 winner sprinting, but Petionville offspring tend to be saltier around two turns. This cat ran the final quarter-mile in :23.95 even after being shot from a cannon at the start.


Each week, we'll give you a race video worth a second look. The rising star of the 3-year-old crop in my eyes is MR. FANTASY, who is preparing for the Gotham. Here's some great insight into his two victories to date and the inside dope from West Point Thoroughbreds' point man Terry Finley.

Quick hitters

San Rafael winner THE PAMPLEMOUSSE, gearing up for the 9-furlong Sham, drilled six panels in a sharp 1:12-2/5 Wednesday at Santa Anita for Julio Canani ... Belmont's G2 Futurity winner CHARITABLE MAN made his 2009 return to the worktab a week ago Friday as the son of Lemon Drop Kid breezed three panels in :37.65 at Palm Meadow for Kiaran McLaughlin ... Impressive turf sprint debut winner ECHO IN ETERNITY worked five-eighths in 1:01.90 Sunday at Palm Meadows for Ken McPeek ... D. Wayne Lukas is the new trainer of romping Oaklawn debut winner HAMAZING DESTINY, taking over last week for Mac Robertson after the colt was privately sold ... Word from West Virginia is that Charles Town terror RUSSELL ROAD is being pointed to the G3 Gotham at Aqueduct for veteran conditioner James Casey ... Next week's trail gets rocking again with the G2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream and the G3 Sham at Santa Anita. There's also the Battaglia Memorial at Turfway, the Miracle Wood at Laurel, the Mountain Valley at Oaklawn, the Baldwin on Santa Anita's turf, and the Borderland Derby at Sunland.

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. DUNKIRK -- Gulfstream 2/19 * new *
3. IMPERIAL COUNCIL -- Gulfstream 2/14 * new *
4. CAPTAIN CHEROKEE -- Fair Grounds 2/14 * new *
5. THEREGOESJOJO -- Gulfstream 1/10

Stakes Race
1. NOTONTHESAMEPAGE -- Spectacular Bid 1/3
2. PIONEEROF THE NILE -- Lewis Memorial 2/7
3. OLD FASHIONED -- Southwest 2/16 * new *
4. GENERAL QUARTERS -- Sam F. Davis 2/14 * new *
5. TAQARUB -- Jimmy Winkfield 1/19

Stakes selections

Turf Paradise Derby Picks:

How did we do last week?
Top choice FREE COUNTRY failed to fire as the favorite in the Sam F. Davis, running fourth; second choice CHOCOLATE CANDY took the El Camino Real Derby at a $3 price too short to take.

How are we doing on the season?
5-for-18 (28 percent) with top pick; 10-for-18 (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: Eighth week of the 2009 season

Reader-submitted top 20: Mike from Ransomville, N.Y.

What happens in Vegas

This section highlights the steamers in the Las Vegas future book odds. Odds updated Feb. 16, 2008, here.

Wynn Las Vegas Derby Favorites

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.