Countdown to the Crown

Editor's Note: Countdown to the Crown returns for a sixth season online as one of the most comprehensive handicapper's analyses of the 3-year-old scene. Posted each Friday from Jan. 7 through the Belmont Stakes, Countdown keeps you apprised of the rising stars of the 3-year-old class from the maiden ranks through the Grade 1 stakes. You can access daily updates and interactive features at the all-new www.Countdowntothecrown.com as well.

3 things you won't read anywhere else

Opinions are like running your offense through Brigham Young University gunner Jimmer Fredette. If you go cold, keeping jacking them up until something scores.

1. Before the masses talk you into the misnomer that prep-race speed horses can't win the Kentucky Derby, remind them of 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008. Victories in the past decade by War Emblem, Smarty Jones, Barbaro and Big Brown came from 4 horses who COMBINED to pass 17 horses in their 18 collective prior victories. Yes, you read that right. After a half-mile in those 18 pre-Derby wins, the largest margin of ground made up by any of these stars was a mere 2-1/2 lengths. Not only were these 4 speedy Derby winners, they combined for a trio of Preaknesses as well.

2. Horseplayers aren't the only ones who out-think themselves. When ELITE ALEX (Tim Ritchey) drew a bad position position in a huge, 13-horse field in last week's G2 Rebel, his connections opted to re-route plans to this Saturday's G2 Louisiana Derby, which was struggling to even find 6 entries at the time. While the Rebel only ended up with 9 starters, the La Derby has exploded to a field of 13 in its own right, and now 'ALEX is hung out in the 12-hole. Was that worth the nearly 500-mile van ride? We will find out.

3. Saturday marks the 42-day point until the Kentucky Derby. Horses who race this day can get another shot 21 days out on April 16 in the G1 Arkansas Derby or G1 Blue Grass, or try to train up to the big one off of a 6-week break. Ice Box was a good second in Louisville last year off the 42-day hiatus, a point horsemen are sure to make if/when they decide to take the layoff route. And then they'll tell you with a straight face that history means nothing and it's only about their horse.

This week's fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes. It's a busy stakes weekend worldwide and on an array of surfaces from dirt to Tapeta to Polytrack, from blueblooded places like Kentucky, to far-flung reaches like New Mexico and Dubai. With plenty on the marquee, also be sure to check out Saturday's Race 4 allowance from Fair Grounds on the G2 Louisiana Derby undercard. That's where BIND (Al Stall, Jr.) makes his reappearance after one of the year's best maiden debuts anywhere. It could be a springboard to the G3 Lexington at Keeneland or the G3 Derby Trial at Churchill and bigger things down the line this year.

Two stakes to touch on, but that likely won't have much say on the Triple Crown trail, are the G3 $2 million UAE Derby from Meydan Racecourse in Dubai, and Saturday's same-day listed Rushaway Stakes at Turfway on the Spiral undercard. The only Triple Crown nominees in the UAE Derby are SWEET DUCKY (now with South African trainer Herman Brown), who was sold last week and sent overseas, as well as the Aidan O'Brien-trained duo of Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf alumnus MASTER OF HOUNDS and Polytrack maiden winner ALEXANDER POPE. Neither would be a shock to resurface at Keeneland from O'Brien, but I'd be surprised to see SWEET DUCKY return back to the US after hearing Brown's comments earlier this week about his need for physical development.

The Rushaway nearly always produces a horse for the G1 Blue Grass at Keeneland, and that very well could be CRIMSON CHINA (Graham Motion) from this year's cast. The late-running Gulfstream turf allowance winner looked very good in his US unveiling and should be tough to beat in the Rushaway, where he's re-matched with DISFRAZ (Eddie Kenneally) out of that same GP allowance.

G2 Louisiana Derby (Saturday/Fair Grounds)

You'd be hard-pressed to find a 13-horse field that looks more clear-cut than the Louisiana Derby. MUCHO MACHO MAN (Kathy Ritvo) and MACHEN (Neil Howard) exit a 1-4 finish in the G2 Risen Star on Feb. 19 and WILKINSON (also Howard) captured the G3 Lecomte in January. After that, well, it's a curious bunch. The other 10 horses are 12-for-41 lifetime and 1-for-12 in stakes, that victory coming in a state-bred restricted sprint in December. Nine of the 13 horses in the Louisiana Derby would be eligible for an entry-level open allowance race.

Certainly ELITE ALEX (Tim Ritchey), third in the G3 Southwest, and LEFT (Al Stall, Jr.), unbeaten in 2 career starts, merit plenty of respect among the many newcomers to the Fair Grounds stakes scene. But if you can get outside these 5 aforementioned names in this field of 13, you're more creative than I am.

MUCHO MACHO MAN picks up 6 pounds off his Risen Star win and stretches out another 1/16 of a mile in the newly elongated Louisiana Derby. In fairness, MACHEN and WILKINSON also tote 6 more pounds than their most recent stakes attempts, while ELITE ALEX tacks on 5 additional lbs. More weight and more distance, those are legitimate questions as the waters deepen on the Derby trail. But where are the new challenges to come from?

The bullish, 17-hand-tall 'MACHO MAN attended a slow pace in the G3 Risen Star on Feb. 19 (half-mile in :49-1/5). I would expect inside-drawn PANTS ON FIRE (Kelly Breen) to revert to his front-running tactics that saw him nearly steal the Lecomte in January. Besides that, however, you're looking at a 9-furlong race that's pretty darned short on pace threats. MAJESTIC HARBOR (Paul McGee) wired a maiden cast under slow fractions and may mix it up some early in the going. The likely pace scenario certainly helps MUCHO MACHO MAN. He'll make his second trip from Florida to Louisiana of the spring after returning to Gulfstream following the Risen Star. Out of town Risen Star winners who made the return trip back for the Louisiana Derby have not had recent success, as Discreetly Mine was fourth in the return bid from Florida last year and Scipion was sixth trying the return mojo from California in 2005. It's a lot of shipping to keep top form, and it would be no surprise if MUCHO MACHO MAN regressed a bit in the Louisiana Derby for that reason alone.

That said, the slight edge may go to MACHEN, who was moving well before he hit the invisible wall in the Risen Star and obviously found the stakes waters deeper than what he was used to. But I love how trainer Neil Howard had MACHEN back on the workout tab 9 days after the last start and has been working him with serious intent. I think he'll improve greatly, but he'll have to show more professionalism from the gate in an overflow field size like this. The gate has been his weakness to be sure. I predict he'll put it all together because of the seriousness of his morning training in recent weeks, and have just enough seasoning to get the 1-1/8 miles in his fourth start at the meeting.

G2 Louisiana Derby selections: W) MACHEN; P) MUCHO MACHO MAN; S) ELITE ALEX.

G3 Spiral Stakes (Saturday/Turfway Park)

With $500,000 in graded stakes money, say what you want about the G3 Spiral, this 1-1/8 miles contest could produce a pair of Kentucky Derby starters on money alone. DECISIVE MOMENT (Juan Arias), POSITIVE RESPONSE (Bill Morey) and THIRTYFIRSTSTREET (Doug O'Neill) are the only of the 12 entrants to have nabbed a small check in graded company to date, so it's not a terribly accomplished field. This race could be had on the "class rise" for sure.

POSITIVE RESPONSE crushed his foes in the listed John Battaglia Memorial Stakes 3 weeks ago, and I don't see anyone from that event jumping up to reverse fortunes. He gets a great post No. 2 draw, a field lacking any real early gas burners and already is proven over the 9-furlong trip with a solid-finishing third in the G3 El Camino Real Derby. Battaglia runner-up TAPTOWNE (Wayne Mogge) long has been a horse that I've had my eye on and his short-burst, solid run might play well if this pace remains very slow and they bunch up at the top of the stretch. But if 'RESPONSE gets beat, it will be at the hooves of a new challenger who steps up his game a few notches.

KING CONGIE (Tom Albertrani) comes north from Florida off of a pair of good efforts in listed turf stakes, disqualified for drifting out in the Hallandale Beach, a recurring issue with him. Horses who raced on turf in Florida during the winter have come north to win the Spiral 3 times in its 5-year run on Polytrack (Dean's Kitten, Adriano and With A City). ANIMAL KINGDOM (Graham Motion) also makes the move north from the Florida turf for a barn that pulled it off successfully with Adriano in this race a few years back. But dirt horses like Hold Me Back and Hard Spun also have had success in the Poly-era Spiral editions.

Of the dirt horses, PREACHINTOTHEDEVIL (Gary Contessa) intrigues me as a horse who can make noise. The New York-bred has been dominant in 2 wins from 4 starts and visually struggled with the muddy sealed track in February at Aqueduct. Perhaps that instigated the foot bruise that forced him to miss the G3 Gotham. A series of endurance works have tried to make up for the lost time and we'll see how much the 'DEVIL has in the tank.

The other dirt invaders appear to have some flaws from this eye. THIRTYFIRSTSTREET got a fast pace set-up and did nothing with it in the G2 Bob Lewis. DECISIVE MOMENT appears at his distance limit at 1-1/16 miles and the extra half-furlong may be asking too much. GLINT (Kellyn Gorder) and RESCIND THE TRADE (Rick Violette) also appear on the short end of the distance stick.


G3 Sunland Derby (Sunday/Sunland Park)

Did you ever wait around so long for something that by the time it happened you nearly forgot about it? Welcome to my world and the Grade 3 $800,000 Sunland Derby. Since watching SINAI appear very one-paced, but talented, in his sprint debut win on December 18, I've been waiting for trainer Bob Baffert to give the son of Rockport Harbor a chance to stretch out around 2 turns. Subsequent losses in the San Pedro and G2 San Vicente against more brilliant sprinters may have soiled the resume, but I'm excited once again with his surprise entry into this 1-1/8 miles event. Earlier this year, I had SINAI ranked among the Top 15 prospects in Countdown. He's got a ways to go to earn that back now, but the opportunity has presented itself Sunday.

When the 0-for-4 maiden FUSA CODE (Steve Asmussen) won the Borderland Derby over this track Feb. 26, we were all but assured of a big field for the $800,000 main event. Few were scared away as a group of 11 has entered, and even FUSA CODE's trainer will bring in reinforcements with the race's likely favorite ASTROLOGY. One of the more ballyhooed 2-year-olds of the 2010 autumn, ASTROLOGY broke his maiden the final few days at Saratoga before winning the G3 Iroquois at Churchill in a 1-turn mile. He came up a half-length short in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club around 2 turns to SANTIVA (Eddie Kenneally) in a performance that honestly surprised me. The way he moved at 2, he didn't strike me as a route prospect, but more of a 1-turn horse, even with a purely route pedigree. I will be very curious to see how ASTROLOGY has developed as he faces a very tough 1-1/8 miles assignment off of a 4-month layoff from post No. 11.

If you don't like the name performers from Baffert or Asmussen, recall that last year's Sunland Derby was won by recent Oaklawn maiden winner Endorsement, a late developer, who caught Baffert's fleet 3-5 favorite Conveyance in mid-stretch. Also note Tom Amoss brought Liberty Bull west from Oaklawn to win this race in 2008. This year's Oaklawn raider is SUPREME RULER (Jinks Fires), stablemate of ARCHARCHARCH, one of the heavier hitters on the Arkansas 3-year-old trail. We may know a lot more about SUPREME RULER's chances after we watch Saturday's listed Rushaway Stakes at Turfway, where the horse who beat 'RULER last time out at Oaklawn, THE OLE GEN (Larry Jones), will be competing.

The eclectic Sunland Derby cast includes New York invader NACHO SAINT (Kelly Breen), fourth in the G3 Gotham most recently and with a bullet local workout in tow on Monday. It's the same path and local work strategy Breen tried last year with Sunland Derby fifth Nacho Friend, who disappointed at 3-1 odds. From Arizona comes BEER MEISTER (Manuel Ortiz), 40-1 upset winner of the Turf Paradise Derby over TWICE APPEAL (Jeff Bonde), who also returns after making a trip back home to his California home base.

G3 Sunland Park Derby selections: W) SINAI; P) SUPREME RULER; S) ASTROLOGY

Last week's selections: 2: 2-0-0. Top-choice wins by BANDBOX (Private Terms) and THE FACTOR (G2 Rebel) didn't pay richly, but they kept a red-hot tear going that now sees us 8-for-13 on top over the past 4 weeks.

Season selections: 32: 12-5-5. (32 races, top pick won 12 times, ran second 5 times and third 5 times).

Everyone's a critic

This section reviews the week that was in the 3-year-old ranks. We'll kick off with a detailed look at a compelling G2 Rebel Stakes, run last Saturday at Oaklawn. The week also included a couple of sparkling undercard performances and a Preakness tease.

Sir Mick Jagger once sang, "You can't always get what you want," and that theme echoed before, during and after Saturday's G2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn. The 13-horse mega-field dwindled to 9 runners after scratches, while the race lost its primary speed threat to THE FACTOR (namely stretch-out sprinter GLINT) as well as probably the 2 best closers on the grounds (ELITE ALEX and ALTERNATION). Meanwhile, SWAY AWAY busted up his grill in the starting gate and was a non-factor while trainer Jeff Bonde scrambled through his wallet to see if his insurance card covered dental.

What everyone wanted to see, whether you love or hate THE FACTOR, was for the California speedball to be pressed hard and tested to measure if he truly could get a route of ground up to 1-1/16 miles. Supporters wanted that affirmation; detractors were waiting to wave "I told you so banners" upon a potential pace implosion. Neither happened, and what transpired was a front-running cream job that left you impressed with THE FACTOR if you liked him before, and unimpressed by THE FACTOR if you harbored doubts. Polarizing opinions probably didn't change much. Those folks in the middle, well, to me they had to be swayed pro-FACTOR.

While the performance didn't answer the "can he take heat" question, it was nothing short of outstanding. THE FACTOR ran about a length off the time posted in the race previous by superstar older mare Havre de Grace. In doing so, he ran faster (1:42.19) than high-wattage Rebel winners of recent years like Curlin, Lookin at Lucky and Lawyer Ron. Perhaps you shined one of their Eclipse Awards. The last Rebel victor to go faster? Smarty Jones in '04. Rebel winners to be in this ballpark-time were named Temperence Hill, Demons Begone and Vanlandingham, basically the historic race's Hall of Fame roll call.

The splits lined up like this for THE FACTOR, who went in :23.33, :23.44, :24.21 and :25.01 quarters before re-breaking in the lane and sprinting home in :6.20 the final sixteenth and drawing away to win by 6-1/4 lengths. He galloped out much the best as well, getting more than the 1-1/16 miles in impressive fashion. You might expect THE FACTOR to return to Oaklawn for the 9-furlong G1 Arkansas Derby on April 16, but Baffert could also stay home for the G1 Santa Anita Derby a week earlier and reduce the amount of travel. A lot might depend on the prospective field at SA and its collection of early speed. A field like the G2 San Felipe overstuffed with maiden sprint winners would not be appealing. He's dangerous no matter where he shows up, and until it's proven otherwise, I contend that THE FACTOR is dangerous in the Kentucky Derby as well.

As for those behind THE FACTOR, runner-up CALEB'S POSSE (Donnie K. Von Hemel) ran an outstanding race, the best of his career. He solidified his score in the Smarty Jones Stakes while validating that he was recipient of the worst trip in a G3 Southwest Stakes that overflowed with bad trips. He continues to outrun a sprint-based pedigree on the sire side, but as someone who worked many years in Oklahoma, I can tell you that Slewacide influence on the dam side has been a winning route recipe for the DVH barn for decades. Slewacide was sire of Clever Trevor, maybe the greatest OK-bred this side of Lady's Secret, not to mention the sire of millionaire Mr. Ross. Who trained them both? Donnie K. Von Hemel. And if that's not blue-blooded enough for you, let me remind you that as a damsire, like he is with CALEB'S POSSE, Slewacide was responsible for 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion Funny Cide.

Rebel third ARCHARCHARCH (Jinks Fires) continues to grow on me as I like him more and more each time. He's proof positive that I'll keep an open mind, because I didn't think much of him coming into the year. He's the kind of workhorse you could see blowing up a superfecta ticket on the first Saturday in May running third or fourth. Further along the Rebel run-down, sixth-place SWAY AWAY was fractious in the gate, reportedly busted a tooth, and then steadied a tiny bit coming out of the clubhouse turn. But he a dream run inside after that and closed exactly a length on the runner-up from the sixteenth-pole home, so he wasn't exactly doing big things. He'll need to run 1-2-3 in the Arkansas Derby for earnings and to vindicate himself; he's staying at Oaklawn to train in the interim, unlike THE FACTOR who has returned home to Santa Anita. As for ALTERNATION, we noted in our Countdowntothecrown.com live chat that he looked irritated and gave off bad vibes in the infield saddling area before the post parade, and he then carried that angst over to the starting gate, where he reared and flipped and was thankfully scratched. Keep a close eye on the workout tab to see if he's back working in the next week to 10 days. For his Triple Crown sake, he's already had 2 route races at the meet, so foundation isn't lacking if he's okay to dance the next dance.

The week's only other stakes saw BANDBOX (Rodney Jenkins) score a very solid 1-turn mile win in the Private Terms at Laurel Park. The son of Tapit stalked a ludicrous pace set by RUSH NOW (Tony Dutrow) and reeled that rival in with a final quarter-mile in a :25.51, which isn't bad in that crazy-long stretch used for Laurel miles, considering the :22.90 second quarter chaos on display earlier. BANDBOX will not be aimed at the Derby, his trainer said, but could have a Preakness date in mind. The local prep next is the May 7 Federico Tesio around 2 turns at Pimlico, held on Kentucky Derby Day and 2 weeks out from the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.

One maiden and one allowance race demand some mention before we move on from last week. Saturday's Race 3 Gulfstream mile allowance continued what has been a tough season on ballyhooed maiden breakers. CAL NATION (Todd Pletcher) went off mere dimes to the dollar on the toteboard, but was outgamed late by stablemate DANCE CITY on the wire. These two came home in a slowish :25.81 final quarter, and CAL NATION looked gassed in the gallop-out. CAL NATION does not give the impression that he will be a route factor in the immediate stakes future, but this still was one of the better allowance races in a thin class category we've seen this year. DANCE CITY had a 9-furlong win under his belt and experience, and next up could challenge the G2 Illinois Derby on April 9, a race very kind to speed horses. CAL NATION could be Preakness-bound if he delivers in the April 23 G2 Jerome at Aqueduct, Bloodhorse.com reports.

And speaking of ballyhooed maiden breakers, you don't get any more bally than MACLEAN'S MUSIC (Steve Asmussen). The sprint-bred flash by Distorted Humor-Forest Music turned more heads than Angelina Jolie when he debuted a winner by 7-1/4 lengths and copped a 114 Beyer Speed Figure. Now, I'm not a figure guy, but that's the highest number ever given to a debut artist since the Beyer numbers debuted publicly in 1991. The final margin and time of 1:07.44 indicate legitimacy. The pedigree screams sprint, so circle the G1 King's Bishop on the calendar for Saratoga and start working backwards on how to get there.

Quick Hitters

Countdown No. 1-ranked contender SOLDAT (Kiaran McLaughlin) worked a bullet 5 furlongs Sunday at Palm Meadows in :59.80 while working in behind stablemates in a test to see if he'd accept kickback in his face … DIALED IN (Nick Zito) had his first workout Thursday since tasting defeat in allowance company 18 days previously, smoking a bullet half-mile in :47-2/5 breezing at Palm Meadows as he readies for the G1 Florida Derby on April 3 … JAYCITO (Bob Baffert) could be headed to the G1 Wood Memorial on April 9 at Aqueduct, and not the same-day G1 Santa Anita Derby in his backyard … Probable for the Santa Anita Derby: PREMIER PEGASUS, ANTHONY'S CROSS, COMMA TO THE TOP, SILVER MEDALLION, INDIAN WINTER and MR. COMMONS, with BRETHREN a possibility coming west … ROGUE ROMANCE (Kenny McPeek) will be out a few months or more with a fracture in his left-front foot that is not considered career-threatening at this time. That's a tough loss to the trail for the best son of Smarty Jones we've seen so far.

High Fives

Jeremy Plonk's Top-5 rated performances by class so far this year (Dec. 26-present).

Maiden Race
1. THE FACTOR (Santa Anita, 12/26)
2. MACLEANS MUSIC (Santa Anita, 3/19) * NEW *
3. CAL NATION (Gulfstream, 2/5)
4. BIND (Fair Grounds, 2/19)

5. MACHEN (Fair Grounds, 1/2)

Allowance Race
1. SOLDAT (Gulfstream, 1/21)
2. MACHEN (Fair Grounds, 1/30)
3. ALTERNATION (Oaklawn, 2/19)

4. ALTERNATION (Oaklawn, 1/15)

5. DANCE CITY (Gulfstream, 3/19) * NEW *

Stakes Race
1. SOLDAT (Fountain of Youth, Gulfstream, 2/26)
2. PREMIER PEGASUS (San Felipe, Santa Anita, 3/12)
3. THE FACTOR (Rebel, Oaklawn, 3/19) * NEW *
4. DIALED IN (Holy Bull, Gulfstream, 1/30)
5. MUCHO MACHO MAN (Risen Star, Fair Grounds 2/19)

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.

Jeremy Plonk's top 20, 12th week of the 2011 season

Reader-submitted top 20, 11th week of the 2011 season: Kerry from Ocala, FL

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.