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 Beyer Speed Figures for synthetic surfaces. Be careful what you believe.
1. Say what you want about the mainstream media's coverage of horse racing, but undeniably the most telling question-and-answer to come post-Preakness was Tony Kornheiser's May 19 exchange with Calvin Borel on Pardon the Interruption. While there were some non-descript exchanges and uneducated questions during "Five Good Minutes," the segment included a major highlight when Tony observed Borel's body language and asked, "When you won the Preakness, you were so subdued in comparison (to the Derby). What was the difference?" Borel started with the standard answers, then hesitated and admitted, "She was trying to catch a little heat stroke, I think, after the race; because it was so hot ... I was really concerned about her." The same info came out on industry sites several days later.
2. For all the great decisions he's made this spring, I'd really like to have seen Calvin Borel get some experience navigating Belmont's 12-furlong oval this week. He's ridden only seven mounts there in his career, all losses, and will be trying to time a late-running move on MINE THAT BIRD over a track configuration that's unlike anything he rides on a daily basis. Experience never hurts, and he's taking off a few days at Churchill Downs anyway. Six of the last seven Belmont Stakes were won by locally based jockeys, with Jeremy Rose the lone out-of-towner. Rose won the '05 edition on the far-superior Afleet Alex.
3. Belmont will be hard-pressed to get the 46,870 crowd Saturday that it had two years ago when Curlin met Rags to Riches. Of course, you can never fully believe announced crowd totals, so we'll see where the turnstiles stop.
This week's fearless forecast
This section typically takes a look at the major 3-year-old races of the coming weekend. We've got a pair of dandies on Big Sandy, Belmont Stakes 141 and an exciting renewal of the Grade 2 Woody Stephens for sprinters. We'll take a quick peek at the Stephens before dissecting the field for the final jewel of the Triple Crown, horse-by-horse.
I'm not sure the Woody Stephens, once known as the Riva Ridge, ever has come up so enticing. Unbeatens HULL and EVERYDAY HEROES come off big wins at Churchill and Pimlico, while heavyweight middle-distance types THIS ONES FOR PHIL and HELLO BROADWAY shorten back to seven furlongs. Plus, you get Kentucky Derby alum REGAL RANSOM turning back in distance. 'PHIL should be in the catbird's seat with a ground-saving trip behind all that pace; plus he's got finisher extraordinaire Garrett Gomez up top.
Now, here's our customary look at the possible Belmont Stakes pace scenario.
Countdown's win contenders:
MINE THAT BIRD: Unless he's gassed from the trail AND someone else steps up to run a career-best race, the one-time one-hit wonder should lay over the Belmont 141 field. It's intriguing to see what the betting public does with him, namely how much they jump on the Calvin Borel Triple Crown angle in the win pool. With far, far fewer casual racing fans interested in this Belmont due to a lack of a Triple Crown bid, you should see much more "smart" money in the pools. But the wiseguys seem to be coming out of the woodwork of New York for CHARITABLE MAN, which could make the 'BIRD an overlay. I could see him anywhere from 8-5 to 5-2, which is quite a spread.
DUNKIRK: It's speculating, for sure, when evaluating DUNKIRK. I thought the Derby was too much, too soon for his lighter frame, but the five weeks between races now and a field size about half as large as Kentucky should make this a far easier trip even with the extended distance. His Gulfstream allowance win hints that he could be this good, and trainer Todd Pletcher has been masterful in the Belmont in recent years with horses who did not have the same license to drive as this guy. If he runs out of his skin, which is a big question mark still to me, and MINE THAT BIRD flattens out from the rigors of the Triple Crown, this is the horse to make Belmont 141 at least a two-horse race.
Countdown's exotics contenders:
CHOCOLATE CANDY: The presence of Garrett Gomez means so much that it can't be undervalued. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer had done EVERYTHING right since the Derby, getting this horse to Belmont early and keeping him on that conditioner's time-honored, every-week-workout schedule like clockwork. He never runs a bad race around two turns, has the pedigree to get this trip and figures here as the most trusted superfecta finisher in the gate. If no one fires a brilliant performance, he can win it. But I think his steady style will fall just short of someone who pops a big one. Here's a great horse to put second in the exactas/trifectas.
MR. HOT STUFF: Okay, I know he's a shot in the dark, understandably, but he's the only horse in the race who's A-game puts him on a plateau to compete with a top effort from 'BIRD or DUNKIRK. We know he'll get the distance, he's freshened and Mr. Belmont Stakes, Edgar Prado, simply fits in the saddle. History tells me not to give up on my Derby pick too soon. Still, I'll tread lightly on him Saturday, using him more underneath MINE THAT BIRD.
FLYING PRIVATE: He could be much closer than he showed in the Derby and Preakness, and if the pace slows and he can carve out a trip like he did in the Lane's End, he won't back out of it completely. What toughness this horse has, making his ninth start of the year, none of which came with more than three weeks' rest between. He probably thinks he's freshened with the 21 days since Baltimore. At some point all that racing will catch up with him, but if this race turns out to be easy from a pace standpoint, he could be one of the bigger beneficiaries. Won't argue if you want to toss him; but I'll be dabbling with him underneath some.
SUMMER BIRD: No doubt he has a Belmont Stakes pedigree and a running style that should keep him chugging along the entire 1-1/2 miles. Extremely wide trip at Churchill makes him a horse who probably deserved better in the Derby. On the flipside, I'm not wild about him being sent back home to Louisiana Downs and hopping all over the country. Since arriving in New York, his works were a bit flat, especially late, not picking it up like you'd expect a closer of his stature. Very mixed vibes, and I'd only use third or fourth in tris and supers.
CHARITABLE MAN: Surely you haven't read this column for five-plus months now and not learned that I view handicapping as an exercise in taking a stand. There's no bigger pace-makes-the-race proponent than me, but my gut tells me that the Nick Zito and D. Wayne Lukas trainees are going to make this guy run hard at some point and earn it. What worries me about CHARITABLE MAN is a total lack of foundation. Recent Belmont upsetters Jazil and Da' Tara had far more foundation, as did Rags to Riches. Jazil had made 3 starts at 1 1/8 miles plus the Kentucky Derby during the spring; Da'Tara had five starts under his belt for the season; Rags to Riches had been in heavy training since breaking her maiden in mid-January at Santa Anita. CHARITABLE MAN has spent an entire spring playing catch-up, and at some point, that always seems to catch up with a horse. Given a huge underlay price pending, I'll take my stand here.
LUV GOV: While he did not embarrass himself in the Preakness, he did not do enough to make me feel like he was definitively moving forward to contend with these type of horses. I think he can move forward again, but that best-case result appears more like a fifth or sixth-place run than a place in the trifecta.
MINER'S ESCAPE: Owns as good of a route pedigree as any horse in the Belmont field, but his best running style appears to be attending the pace. That means he should be the target or presser for CHARITABLE MAN, and his class will highly come into question when the closers come calling. Picking up 10 pounds off the Tesio Stakes can't be underestimated when you look at three-eighths of a mile more in real estate to boot.
BRAVE VICTORY: A very weird horse to get a read on since he's clearly a sprinter in my book, but one who rallied for third in the Peter Pan. Of course, the Peter Pan was a one-turn race and had a run-off speedball in Hello Broadway, two dynamics that won't be at play Saturday. This race is just too far for him from this eye.
Put 'em, in the gate
This section throughout the spring has ranked my Top 20 contenders. When horses were injured or off the trail, they were dropped from consideration. Now that we're at the trail's end, it's time to reflect on all the great performers we've seen and where they fall amongst one another.
This is not based on accomplishment, per se, but a blend of what they did and what they hinted they could do. We'll side-step the turfers and the sprinters/milers for argument's sake.
These are my best of the best, though we may never see them compete on the racetrack, which always is the saddest part of the process.
Jeremys' top 20: 23rd and final week of the 2009 season
Given she was back on the work tab at Churchill Downs this Monday, despite being declared from the Belmont Stakes, don't expect RACHEL ALEXANDRA to be silent for long. The June 27 Mother Goose at Belmont sits just around the corner ... You're invited to talk Belmont with my Horseplayerpro.com cohorts Friday night with a live chat from 8-9 p.m. eastern. Handicapper/oddsmaker Joe Kristufek and ABC Sports lead Belmont Stakes researcher Rowland Hoyt will field all your questions.
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.