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.
3 things you won't read anywhere else
Opinions are like a fresh coat of yellow paint at Pimlico. Most often when you get below the surface, you find out you're drudging up the same old things.
1. Reviewing the replays from Derby Day visually and from the results charts no doubt shows the inside was indeed the place to be for much of the card. But Churchill Downs track superintendent Butch Lehr told me on the track just before the Derby that his crew tried to open up the sealed track a bit after Race 8 (which was going on the turf) in hopes it might dry some for the Derby. It did not dry out given the cool and breeze-less conditions, but if you go back and review the replays closely, you'll notice a discernible difference in the appearance of the track from Race 7 to Race 9. Not coincidentally, that's when middle-of-the-track closers ran the best they did all day in the Humana Distaff. The horses on the rail in the Derby were throwing up much more mud than earlier on the card, which tells me that opening up the track leveled the playing field more than most critics have surmised. My take is the rail-skimming run by MIND THAT BIRD helped immensely in total ground traveled, but it was not the golden rail bias in Race 11 as it was prior to the surface being opened up slightly.
2. Speed at Old Hilltop? Not so fast, Mr. 1970s. The Preakness pace-setter after a half-mile the past 12 years has finished off the board all 12 times and only twice held on for fourth.
3. For those using the "everywhere else in the world, the fillies race against the boys" argument, keep in mind that everywhere else in the world they gallop for a mile-and-a-quarter on turf before letting out the throttle for a quarter-mile dash. It's akin to why American Quarter Horse mares have just as much success as the boys going head-to-head here in the shortline ranks. Now, that's not to say a filly can't win a one-shot deal, but you don't want to be sending them against the boys 10 times a year here in the States, where they flat-out run every step of every race over hard-pounding dirt.
This week's fearless forecast
This section typically includes a preview of the coming week's 3-year-old races to watch. It's all about the middle jewel and the battle of the sexes! First things first, we'll take our customary look at the possible pace scenario.
Countdown's win contenders:
MINE THAT BIRD: We're going to give the Derby winner closer inspection here than the others for a myriad of reasons, but chiefly because we all want to know if he's freak or fiction. Granted, Calvin Borel had tons to do with his success at Churchill, and no doubt the slightly-built gelding was advantaged by his light frame gliding over the sloppy going while heavier horses sunk in deeper. So are we to discredit him completely now with Mike Smith aboard and if the track is fast (showers are forecasted, by the way)? Some will emphatically say "Yes!" But closer inspection is needed.
This week I reviewed every start for Mine That Bird, and his Derby visuals were leaps-and-bounds better than he looked over both the Woodbine Polytrack and the Sunland traditional dirt. Prior, he ran with his head high, often fighting his rider, and almost climbed with his front two legs on both the all-weather and dirt. It wasn't a footing preference; visually he was a carbon copy on both surfaces. The visual exception came when digging further back to his one-turn sprint races at Woodbine last year, where visually he was so much smoother and relaxed. That whole "let him make one run" discussion from trainer Chip Woolley really holds water when you look at his early career races, especially his sprints, where you're not asking for stop-and-go performances.
Most recently Mine That Bird really lunged and almost climbed on the dirt in both starts at Sunland. He fought Casey Lambert in both starts, and his Borderland Derby was a very strenuous effort that might have seen him regress in the Sunland Derby. Plus, his second start at Sunland saw him chase about a length off of a :45-1/5 opening half-mile while racing 4-5 wide. He can't do that and kick on with superstars; he's not that type of horse.
So can Smith get the same take-back-and-fire trip that Borel mastered in the Derby? Lest we forget it's Smitty who rode both Zenyatta and Stardom Bound to Rolex-timed closes in last fall's Breeders' Cup. I have no doubt the rider can pull it off; it's the horse in question. Mine That Bird was forced back at the start of the Derby when shuffled back at the jump. With a clean break, will he allow Smith to put him back where he needs? Smith ought to get good advice not only from Woolley, but from the rider's girlfriend, fellow jockey Chantal Sutherland, who rode the Bird to three stakes wins last year in Canada. The Derby winner remains the horse to beat from this camp, and he benefits from every other rider in the race keeping Rachel Alexandra in their crosshairs and not Mine That Bird.
PIONEEROF THE NILE: Bob Baffert's eight Triple Crown race wins have come in bunches, winning two-thirds of the Triple Crown four times. But only Point Given has won a Preakness or Belmont for Baffert after losing the Kentucky Derby. In fact, Point Given is the only Baffert trainee ever to improve his Derby placing in the Preakness, while Derby losers Congaree, Captain Steve, Excellent Meeting and Cavonnier all ran to their Derby placing or worse in Baltimore. In other words, don't expect Pioneer to move far forward off the Derby. But I would fully expect this super-consistent horse to once again run his race, and, just like we noted before the Derby, if no one else jumps up and runs a monster race, he can get the trophy. Jockey Garrett Gomez is just too good right now, and with all things being equal in horseflesh and horses having to come back on two weeks' rest, siding with Gomez rates as one of the smarter things a horseplayer could do. It will be ever-so-intriguing to see if Gomez tries to go after Rachel Alexandra to his outside on the clubhouse turn and force her wider, or if he'll take back and revert to this horse's former style.
RACHEL ALEXANDRA: She wears the target and will have to either out-sprint everyone to victory or out-slug them as rival jockeys do everything in their power to keep her bottled up. She has little experience against big fields, which means a good break and position will be imperative. From post 13 it won't be easy, and expect Garrett Gomez and Edgar Prado to be very tactical against her, if they can be, from posts 9 and 11.
Rachel Alexandra has not faced even the best of the rest of the 3-year-old fillies this spring (Justwhistledixie, Stardom Bound), so how she stacks up here is a crapshoot with a likely short price tag. Rachel also been beaten twice when running back on short rest, like she will be Saturday. So all that means I'm down on the filly? Hardly. She's phenomenal and likely better than most all or all of these horses in a head-to-head evaluation in ideal conditions. I have deep respect for her, and as a fan would love to see her win, but would have to bet against her as a gambler given the risk-reward imbalance.
Countdown's exotics contenders:
PAPA CLEM: His lackluster workout at Pimlico does not instill any confidence, but the way he trained at Churchill until a 3-furlong blowout two days before the race had me thinking he was completely over the top already and heading south. So put stock in that workout at your own peril. Still, it's part of the handicapping process and something to consider. This guy had easily the worst trip of any of the Kentucky Derby's top four finishers, yet kept throwing haymakers when it looked like he was finished. His best race is not as good as some of the others' best, for sure, but if several regress, as often happens in the Preakness, he could prevail. His company lines this spring look better after the Derby result, given that he, Pioneerof The Nile and Summer Bird owned half of the top six placings in the Kentucky Derby. Papa Clem needs some good fortune, but given his style and toughness, also give him credit that he makes his own fortune, too.
MUSKET MAN: He got one of the Derby's all-time best trips for all but the last 50 yards in Louisville two weeks ago, so give credit to Eibar Coa. With a strong half-mile work back home at Monmouth this week in :46.60, I fully expect him to be forwardly placed and be mixing it up by the time they hit the far turn. He's had four route races in his career; twice he's finished well, twice he's been flat late. It's hard to envision him outfinishing everyone, but equally hard to think he'll be totally out of the exotics discussion late.
GENERAL QUARTERS: The connections loved the way he went over the mud all Derby week until he ran poorly on it in the big dance, so how much can we attribute his poor showing to just the surface? Hard to say. But what we do know in print is that he's now followed up his two best performances of his career (wins in the Davis and Blue Grass) with off-the-board finishes (Tampa Bay Derby and Kentucky Derby). His Derby trip was nightmarish, that's indisputable, which gives some hope that he can bounce back here. But bad-trip Derby horses have been sucker bets in the Preakness historically. The last one to make a serious improvement at Pimlico was 2001 runner-up A.P. Valentine after his scary journey at Churchill. But the General's "high end" ability is higher than most involved Saturday, and if he fires his A-plus race, it puts him into the discussion. I'm not wildly confident he can reproduce it, but not willing to forget about him just yet.
TERRAIN: Legged up after the Blue Grass with a pair of drills on the Keeneland Polytrack before heading to Churchill for a final dirt work, I like what trainer Al Stall Jr. has done with this colt. Terrain was one of my horses to consider on the bottom of the Derby gimmicks had he shown up two weeks ago. While the Lone Star Derby-to-Belmont Stakes route seemed most fitting, given his take back and make one run skill set, the connections shifted gears to the Preakness because of the 50-1 result on Derby Day. Look for him to run decently, but things might have to totally collapse in front of him to get more than the bottom of the superfecta.
BIG DRAMA: Reviewing his race replays with close scrutiny, this is a horse who does not corner very well at all, going one turn or two, which won't help him in his bid to extend his game a furlong farther than he's ever tried. He did not show push-button speed in either of his route stakes wins, which left him getting the worst of the trip at times. With just one start this year being a complete and total gut-wrencher going 7 furlongs in track-record time at Gulfstream, it's legitimate to worry how he'll bounce back into this race. Wisely, trainer David Fawkes since has given him a series of drills that have either been slower than usual or longer than usual, and I love that Fawkes brought Big Drama to Pimlico early from the Florida heat. Interestingly, he did not corner well in his Pimlico workout either, jumping a spot on the track that jockey John Velazquez said was un-harrowed. For me, the bottom line is there's too much sprint in his pedigree and not enough visual evidence in his route races to make me think he wants this trip. The rail won't help him get a breather either.
TAKE THE POINTS: Even-steven type never embarrasses himself, but it's noteworthy he's yet to win around two turns and he's actually lost ground to the winner from the half-mile point to the wire in each of his two stakes routes. Proven on dirt and reunited with Edgar Prado, whose 0-11 failures in the Preakness mystify any of us who watched him dominate Maryland on a daily basis in the 1990s. This certainly is not a candidate for the bottom, but a mid-pack finish seems most likely.
FRIESAN FIRE: What a wildcard! I loathed the way he was training going into the Derby and was willing to take a big stand against him, feeling he was not going well after his workout and not leaned on hard in his gallops. Had the Derby post-script read that he simply "didn't fire," then I would be much more confident in my assessment that he's a horse who needs time off. But the whole cuts and scrapes report from the Larry Jones barn raises some peripheral concerns as to the reason why he ran so poorly in Louisville. While I have not seen him train since Louisville, the fractions of his half-mile workout at Pimlico further some concern. He went off crazy-fast in :34.70 the opening three-eighths, and galloped out past the wire an extra furlong in just :13.66. I wish I had the visuals to back it up, but on the clock that sounds a lot like what I didn't like in Louisville. Expect him to be very active in the early part of the race based on those workout splits, and hustled from the gate by Gabby Saez after a rough early go at Churchill.
FLYING PRIVATE: He has one even gear when routing and needs things to work perfectly, meaning the speed has to back up and the closers fail to fire. That's too much to ask in a Triple Crown-quality race. He could have a lucrative, but less-quality, stakes race work in his favor sometime this summer, because there is some talent here; but his Derby post and trip, resulting in a last-place finish, showed the kind of steep hill he has to climb in races of this caliber.
LUV GOV: After 10 tries to get the maiden score, it's awfully ambitious to wheel this guy back in two weeks' time on this kind of class hike. But he did turn in some very sharp performances this spring in the Oaklawn maiden ranks in what were excellent races in hindsight. Jockey Jamie Theriot is highly underrated nationally, and some day could be a household name. But this won't be the horse who puts him on the map yet.
TONE IT DOWN: Though raced only in the Mid-Atlantic, Maryland's lone hope in the '09 Preakness actually has some pretty solid company lines. Horses like Sumo, Perfect Song, Naos and Seal Team have been heard from to a degree on bigger circuits this spring. But the advantage Tesio Stakes alumni once had with being fresher for the Preakness has gone away on the calendar as the race was moved to Derby Day this year. Jockey Kent Desormeaux's instructions are to take him back and make one run, which likely will keep him out of the cellar, passing some tired runners, but it's hard to envision him passing many.
Among those sitting in the weeds and awaiting a potential Belmont Stakes date in three weeks are dominant Peter Pan Stakes winner CHARITABLE MAN and his closest pursuer IMPERIAL COUNCIL, as well as Kentucky Derby alumni CHOCOLATE CANDY and SUMMER BIRD, and possibly the likes of DUNKIRK and MR. HOT STUFF ... On Wednesday of Preakness week, it was fitting to see the legacy of Barbaro remembered brightly as his little brother NICANOR romped by 15-1/4 lengths at Delaware Park in his turf debut ... Join us at Horseplayerpro.com Friday night at 8 p.m. ET for a live Preakness chat, hosted by fellow ESPN.com weekend handicapping contributor Joe Kristufek and Daily Racing Form writer Marcus Hersh.
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.