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 MUCHO MACHO MAN losing a shoe at the start of last week's Louisiana Derby. Even when you're not delivering your best, you've got to keep on kicking.

1. In-between the bad beats, medication cheats and empty seats, if you still think horse racing doesn't have the power to uplift, you obviously missed last Saturday's Dubai World Cup. The 1-2 finish for the nation of Japan, on the heels of those horrific natural disasters, was poignant emotion that this sport never ceases to find.

2. People ask why I bother start researching for Countdown each year during Saratoga and Del Mar. The answer? September 4, 2010. Race 6. The mere Saratoga maiden race produced the winners of the G3 Iroquois (ASTROLOGY), G2 Remsen (TO HONOR AND SERVE) and G2 Lewis Memorial (ANTHONY'S CROSS). Meanwhile, the fourth-place finisher (DATA LINK) looks to be a serious player in the G1 Blue Grass in 2 weeks. How crazy would it be if that race produced winners of the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby and Blue Grass? It's not out of the realm of possibility.

3. That thud you heard was yet another hyped maiden winner losing on the 2011 trail, this time BIND (Al Stall, Jr.) on Saturday at Fair Grounds. This has been a terrible year for "rising stars" with so many failing to cut stakes mustard like MACHEN, CAL NATION, RUNFLATOUT, ALBERGATTI and DA RULER among many more. How good does that make THE FACTOR (Bob Baffert) look? He's been the one late bloomer to deliver on the promise he posed.

This week's fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes. The big one is Sunday in Gulfstream's G1 Florida Derby, while the season's final Kentucky Derby Wager Pool 3 will be offered this weekend beginning Friday. Playing the KDFW at this stage requires one thing: a decent grasp of what your horse may go off in actual odds on Kentucky Derby Day. In order to find value with 5 weeks remaining until Derby Day, you're looking to double the price you think you'll get on raceday. With nearly all contenders still having one prep race yet to run, think how silly you'll look playing a horse at 8-1 this weekend who loses his final prep and goes off 18-1 at Churchill.

The most appealing horses in KDFW Pool 3 to me based on morning line odds and where I feel they could be seriously overlaid in price by Derby Day include BRETHREN (50-1), whom if he were to rebound and win the Arkansas Derby could be a 10-1 shot in Louisville; JAYCITO (20-1), who conceivably could be Bob Baffert's only Derby starter if stablemate THE FACTOR were to implode in his final prep; and SILVER MEDALLION (30-1), who could be riding a 3-race winning streak into the Derby if he were to notch the Santa Anita Derby in a few weeks and be half that price in Louisville. This is not to say these are the horses I like to win the Derby, and certainly you'll have a little more time to assess the Florida Derby runners before the pool closes on Sunday, which is all-important. But they are 3 attractive overlays, and that's what you're looking for now.

G1 Florida Derby (Sunday/Gulfstream Park)

The absolute best thing that could have happened to SOLDAT (Kiaran McLaughlin) in the G1 Florida Derby already has happened. Sprint speedball FLASHPOINT (Rick Dutrow) has entered the race, which insures that SOLDAT will get every opportunity for a Kentucky Derby dress rehearsal. That sprinter speed and pace is a staple to the Kentucky Derby, and to ready for that test, SOLDAT needed to find a prep race where he was able to provide the pounce, not be the prey. Win or lose, this is exactly what SOLDAT needed, and this is what I talk about repeatedly when I harp about horses being battle-tested.

This $1 million field is much deeper than SOLDAT, who is Countdown's No. 1-ranked Triple Crown hopeful heading into the weekend. TO HONOR AND SERVE (Bill Mott) should be much stronger today than he was when a flat third to SOLDAT in the G2 Fountain of Youth, but still likely programmed to peak in the next start by the master horseman. DIALED IN (Nick Zito) carries 6 pounds more than he has all winter, but could be as good as any in his class. STAY THIRSTY (Todd Pletcher) finally gets the route distances his pedigree calls for, and it feels especially good to see his championship trainer share the same opinion we had here last month when suggesting STAY THIRSTY be equipped with blinkers.

It's a field of 8 in the Florida Derby, but I would be shocked to see ARCH TRAVELER (Jimmy Jerkens), BOWMAN'S CAUSEWAY (Patrick Biancone), SHACKLEFORD (Dale Romans), and for that matter FLASHPOINT, light the toteboard. The "big 4" in this race are awfully, awfully good horses. In fact, that quartet ranks No. 1, 5, 6 and 8 nationally this week in Countdown. Any of them are serious win threats in Louisville even with only a Top 4 finish Sunday.

SOLDAT owns a pair of 1-1/8 miles races this winter and that can't be understated. From a fitness standpoint, he should be ahead of the game when discussing the other favorites. TO HONOR AND SERVE has been leaned on in the morning by Mott and appears set to make a move forward from this eye. DIALED IN has been lightly worked all winter, whether by design or physical necessity, so it's hard to get an honest feel of that. I wouldn't be surprised if he ran through the TV screen or came up a little flat this weekend. STAY THIRSTY has not worked particularly well since his Gotham travel and score and reminds me of a horse who could take what appears to be a slight step backward this weekend, but actually get a lot out of the race and be more dangerous at Churchill Downs with 5 weeks of rest.

From a pace standpoint, I envision FLASHPOINT making the lead with ARCH TRAVELER sitting second with the heavyweights SOLDAT, TO HONOR AND SERVE and STAY THIRSTY in a cat-and-mouse game a few lengths behind the leading pair. DIALED IN probably will be looking at all the tails and try to come with one late run.

G1 Florida Derby selections: W) SOLDAT; P) TO HONOR AND SERVE; S) DIALED IN.

G2 Swale Stakes (Sunday/Gulfstream Park)

I won't fault the connections of FLASHPOINT for going after the $1 million G1 Florida Derby and skipping this G2 event worth $150,000. You don't get many chances to run in races like the Florida Derby, and as the field for the Swale shows, races like this, well, they're a dime a dozen. Four of the 6 entrants in this year's Swale barely finished within the GPS range of FLASHPOINT in the G2 Hutcheson on Feb. 25.

TRAVELIN MAN (Todd Pletcher) hard pressed that pace vs. FLASHPOINT and took the worst of the trip, yet still held second place, 3 lengths clear of LITTLE DRAMA (David Fawkes). Unless BLACK N BEAUTY (Dale Romans) can return to his front-running form, there's zero reason to think TRAVELIN MAN should not run away and hide from this bunch. RAZMATAZ (also Pletcher) was outrun in the Hutcheson and looks ordinary in comparison to his stablemate.

Of the "newbies" to the scene, INDIANO (Marty Wolfson) won 5 straight in Panama before a solid second in his US debut March 20 at 6 furlongs. MEGALITH won a restricted stakes over the synthetic Safetrack surface at the Ocala Training Center last time out and figures to be running on late if he opts to scratch out of a race Saturday at Gulfstream to help fill this field.

G2 Swale Stakes selections: W) TRAVELIN MAN; P) INDIANO; S) LITTLE DRAMA

Last week's selections: 3: 0-0-0. Three top choices all ran off the board in the Spiral, Louisiana Derby and Sunland Derby in what has to be the worst handicapping week of the season. Somebody get rid of this clown.

Season selections: 35: 12-5-5. (35 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. While there was a fat $4.3 million in graded stakes earnings up for grabs last Saturday and Sunday, no realist thinks we saw the elite of the division in the UAE Derby, Spiral, Louisiana Derby or Sunland Derby. Money makes the world go-'round, and it's the only thing that matters for Kentucky Derby qualifying, but that fact fell on deaf ears this past weekend. Let's be real: the $2.3 million in domestic graded stakes this past weekend were won by 3 horses all of which had never won even an allowance race.

The UAE Derby was almost completely irrelevant as SWEET DUCKY (Herman Brown) finished well up the track in his first start for his new connections, but then the Coolmore clan indicated that strong runner-up MASTER OF HOUNDS (Aidan O'Brien) could be headed for a return visit to Churchill Downs. The international intrigue never hurts the Derby, but no one will mistake this 'HOUND for the next Arazi or Johannesburg. Still, the Derby would be cooler with him than without.

Of the Sunland Derby, Spiral and Louisiana Derby, well, this optimistic guy thinks you have to almost be a fictional novelist to have come away with glowing praise. At the bare minimum, positive praise requires you being a wonderfully forgiving handicapper.

Let's start with the forgiveness part. MUCHO MACHO MAN (Kathy Ritvo) lost a shoe, a hunk of flesh and a bit of his mojo while running third in the G2 Louisiana Derby. He also was making his second road trip in succession, which seemed a logical excuse for regression until you consider he was beaten by PANTS ON FIRE (Kelly Breen), who was making an even more GPS-crazy circumnavigation of the country this year from New York to Louisiana to Florida back to Louisiana. Runner-up NEHRO (Steve Asmussen) was a recent Oaklawn maiden breaker who just 2 starts ago beat 1 horse in a field of 11 and was 22 lengths behind the winner. But the physical issue puts MUCHO MACHO MAN on a different excuse plane than the others and gives him the most reason for forgiveness. Then again, you're now dealing with a tender tootsie less than 6 weeks out from the Kentucky Derby. Is that a reason to forgive or further scrutinize?

Forgive my lack of forgiveness so far.

Further forgiveness loosely could be tossed around for G3 Sunland Derby beaten favorite ASTROLOGY (Steve Asmussen), who had a terrible post, an exactly 4-month layoff and a quick pace to chase when trying a tough 1-1/8 miles distance. Finishing second doesn't seem so bad. Then you see he was beaten by a horse with a sprinter's pedigree who took 7 starts to break his maiden in California and only had won a $30,000 claimer and starter allowance from 9 previous races, namely TWICE THE APPEAL (Jeff Bonde). Had this very same loss come in an allowance race, which essentially this race was on class but not by name or purse, you'd be scratching the runner-up off your wish list before you got to the T in ASTROLOGY.

Again, forgive my stingy praises.

ANIMAL KINGDOM (Graham Motion) parlayed a Gulfstream turf runner-up in allowance company into Saturday's G3 Spiral Stakes and $300,000 in graded stakes earnings. He became the fourth Spiral winner in 6 years to have wintered on the turf in Florida before coming up to take Turfway's signature race in the Polytrack era. Turf horses have done well enough in the Kentucky Derby in recent years to make you take a second look before your Sharpie smears that big red X over ANIMAL KINGDOM in the program. While Motion brought a similar turf-to-Spiral winner to the 2008 Derby in Adriano, let's not forget Adriano had 7 races before Louisville vs. just 4 for ANIMAL KINGDOM, and his predecessor had 3 previous graded stakes runs, while 'KINGDOM has just 1. And on pedigree, Adriano was MUCH more inclined to like the dirt, not to mention he came home in :12-2/5 the final furlong of the '08 Spiral. ANIMAL KINGDOM staggered home a shade under :14 on Saturday. I won't fully eliminate ANIMAL KINGDOM until I see how he moves over the dirt first-hand at Churchill Downs, but he'll have to wow me to win me over. I drank the Kool-Aid on Adriano, who wound up 19th of 20. I'm not about to do it again without serious change of heart and mind.

Back to the races in sequence, the G2 Louisiana Derby winner PANTS ON FIRE and runner-up MUCHO MACHO MAN both are expected to train up to the Kentucky Derby and win the country's toughest race on a 6-week layoff. That's a hard sell, but they have connections worth rooting for. Is there a better rising star jockey than Rosie Napravnik, who just a few years ago was working horses in the morning before going to high school classes? She's almost picking horses up and carrying them on her back, and her ride on PANTS OF FIRE was similar to what she did so many times at Fair Grounds this winter. She willed an inferior horse to victory. For those who think jockeys only win on the best horses, don't discount the fact that the very best in the profession do, indeed, make a difference. PANTS ON FIRE was supposed to be the rabbit for stablemate NACHO BUSINESS, but forgot to stop and luckily didn't have to do the heavy lifting when 111-1 shot LIONDRIVE assumed that pace-setting role. Instead, the 2-3-4 pace pressers the entire way around wound up finishing 1-2-3.

Louisiana Derby fourth-place finisher ELITE ALEX (Tim Ritchey) is starting to remind me a lot of Steppenwolfer, the deep-closing, plodding tease of the 2006 Triple Crown trail who placed in the Southwest, Rebel and Arkansas Derby with excuses each time. ALEX's too-little-too-late move Saturday could be construed as a horse who was up against a bad post and lack of a pace meltdown, or you could surmise that ELITE ALEX just isn't that brilliant. But before you scrub him from your Derby dream team, remember 2 things: Calvin Borel is aboard; and, Steppenwolfer did run third in the Kentucky Derby and crush me out of a trifecta that was topped by 6-1 Barbaro, 30-1 Bluegrass Cat and a bull-headed handicapper who was tired of waiting for a plodder to get there. The moral of the story is that I'm a dope sometimes, so this time I'm going to wait on making any declarative statements about ELITE ALEX. Both ELITE ALEX and Louisiana Derby runner-up NEHRO are likely for the Arkansas Derby next, and that will tell us most of what we need to know about both. As for the disappointing MACHEN (Neil Howard), he simply cannot get a distance right now. He made another solid move before hitting the wall and does not appear capable of sustaining a long rally. He could be a lights-out turf miler with that kind of action, but he's off my radar completely as a Triple Crown prospect.

Back to Kentucky, Spiral Stakes runner-up DECISIVE MOMENT (Juan Arias) gave ANIMAL KINGDOM all he wanted in the stretch. Considering how readily he had given way in the G2 Risen Star previously, you have to really make a leap of faith to assume DECISIVE MOMENT suddenly is a real distance threat. With that Dehere on the damside of the pedigree, I'll be shocked if 'MOMENT can be DECISIVE at all on Derby Day. Third-place TWINSPIRED (Mike Maker) is inconsistent as all get-out and will try again likely in the G1 Blue Grass or G3 Lexington at Keeneland, where he could meet KING CONGIE (Tom Albertrani), who scratched from the Spiral on the morning of the race. As for the others in the Spiral, it was baffling to see POSITIVE RESPONSE (Bill Morey) completely backpedal even with the hot fractions posted, which absolutely had to be incorrect. There's no way on earth they ran the second quarter-mile in :21.94 and the field did not separate. The half-mile split was posted in :45.51, but the time coding on my replays can't possibly see it being less than :48 or :49. In fact, the split appears on the screen long before the horses ever reach the 5-furlong pole, which would be the half-mile marker for a 1-1/8 miles race. Too much of this race makes little sense, other than the fact we'll have to see how ANIMAL KINGDOM trains in Louisville.

And then there was the G3 Sunland Derby on Sunday, where SINAI (Bob Baffert) did indeed go as fast as the televised fractions, running off in :45.03 for the 9-furlong journey and assuring that he'd need oxygen by the stretch run. For this race to wind up in 1:50.93 just leaves you with a meltdown race that saw :26.47 the fourth quarter and :13.55 the final furlong. It ground to a near halt. Third-place RULER ON ICE (Kelly Breen) made for a big weekend for the connections, who also won the G2 Louisiana Derby the day previous. When it turned out SINAI was a distance dud, and boy was he, ASTROLOGY should have picked up these pieces and ran away, layoff or not. ASTROLOGY made the lead in upper stretch and couldn't put away a claimer, racing with his head high the entire time and tired. If that's the Kentucky Derby winner, trainer Steve Asmussen should get the Eclipse Award on the first Sunday in May the next day. He certainly needs another prep race from this eye, though he's got the earnings to try and make a go of it just off of morning works. TWICE THE APPEAL (Jeff Bonde) will go straight to the Derby with cash in tow, where he figures to be a Mine That Bird-like price. Unless Calvin Borel comes free and takes the mount, I will find 'APPEAL strictly unappealing.

In lesser stakes action last weekend, Turfway's listed Rushaway Stakes produced a pair of starters for the G1 Blue Grass at Keeneland in winner SWIFT WARRIOR (John Terranova) and runner-up CRIMSON CHINA (Graham Motion), who reportedly bled in the race despite temperatures in the upper 20s. Also at Turfway on Saturday, the 6-furlong Hansel Stakes flattered the form of Oaklawn's G3 Southwest Stakes when GHOST IS CLEAR (Dallas Stewart) rallied strongly to win a visually impressive race and perhaps set himself up for a run in the G3 Derby Trial at Churchill.

Quick Hitters

UNCLE MO (Todd Pletcher) breezed a half-mile Sunday at Palm Meadows in a 3-horse team drill that included older stablemate Rule (:49-2/5 official clocking). After breaking 3 lengths behind, UNCLE MO finished up a half-length in front. "He was full of run throughout," Pletcher said. "We were just putting him behind a couple horses getting him used to a little dirt, which we did once with him as a 2-year-old." … BRETHREN (Todd Pletcher) breezed a slow half-mile in :51-4/5 Sunday at Palm Meadows, 15 days after losing the G2 Tampa Bay Derby at short odds. He's preparing for the G1 Arkansas Derby on April 16 at Oaklawn … Fellow Arkansas Derby contender ARCHARCHARCH (Jinks Fires) appears to have bounced out of the G2 Rebel in good fashion with a strong 5-furlong move Tuesday in 1:00-4/5 at Oaklawn, 10 days after the Rebel … TRUMAN'S COMMANDER (now Nick Zito, formerly Allen Milligan) was sold last week and made a late Triple Crown nominee by new majority owner Bob LaPenta, who is expected to send him to the G1 Arkansas Derby next … In yet more Arkansas Derby news, Cliff Berry will replace Ramon Dominguez aboard JP'S GUSTO (Joe Petalino), who worked a bullet 5 furlongs Thursday in :58-4/5 and is expected to show much more speed next time out. SWAY AWAY (Jeff Bonde) worked the same distance Thursday at Oaklawn in :59-2/5 … The purse of the G2 Illinois Derby has been bumped $50,000 to $300,000, thanks to a new sponsorship from TVG. Those additional graded stakes earnings could put an Illinois Derby alumnus into the Kentucky Derby starting gate.

High Fives

Jeremy Plonk's Top-5 rated performances by class so far this year (Dec. 26-present). Maiden and allowance races have been eliminated as we've reached April and deep stakes season.

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)

4. DIALED IN (Holy Bull, Gulfstream, 1/30)
5. MUCHO MACHO MAN (Risen Star, Fair Grounds 2/19)

Who's Headed Where?

Unofficial prospects for upcoming major Triple Crown prep races will follow, based on reported intent and some educated speculation.







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, 13 week of the 2011 season

This marks the first week that I'll include horses confirmed for the Kentucky Derby starting gate who appear to have more than enough in graded earnings. In other words, they're here, so we might as well rank them, Top 20 quality or not.

Reader-submitted top 20, 13th week of the 2011 season: Hector K. from Myrtle Beach, S.C.

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.