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.
The time has come to break the mold in Countdown. After months of structure, format and dissection in this space, we've unearthed the gems, waded through the disappointments and have landed smack dab on the brink of Kentucky Derby 137.
I'm a firm believer that conventional handicapping does not apply to the Kentucky Derby. The premise is that the Derby is not like any other race. Name one other contest that challenges its runners to go farther than they've ever run, carry more weight than they've ever carried, face what amounts to two fields at one time, and do so in front of a raucous crowd 10 to 20 times larger than they're used to seeing and feeling. Factor in that the horses are coming in from all corners of the country, and there's no wonder why things like speed, pace, class and form are rendered trivial.
Does that mean it's time to pick a dart, your favorite-colored one at that, and aim for something between 1 and 20? Not so fast.
While it's true that the Derby, indeed, is not like any other race on the calendar, annually it is exactly like one other race on another calendar – last year's Derby. The best way to factor what matters in this year's Derby is to compare past Derbies, because if you want apples to apples, folks, the Derby looks like a county fair watermelon next to nearly another other race over the past 364 days.
You can't possibly explain Mine That Bird with speed, pace, class and form. But you can explain his 50-1 shocker in 2009 by connecting the dots back just two years, when Calvin Borel and a rail-skimming close aboard Street Sense were the only common denominators between two horses who looked worlds apart on paper. I can't lay claim to have been smart enough to do so at the time, but I'm willing learn from my mistakes rather than repeat them. Some will make the immediate leap that Twice the Appeal is the next coming of Mine That Bird in this year's field. I guess you could say crazier things have happened. Once.
Let's take a look at some major players in this year's Derby, and not how they stack up with each other, but rather with whom they stack up historically.
Uncle Mo: Few 2-year-olds have been as brilliant as Uncle Mo, but one who exceeded his accomplishments was 1997 Horse of the Year Favorite Trick. He dominated races all over the country at 2, but just like Uncle Mo, Favorite Trick had distance questions about him. 'Trick suffered a short-priced defeat for the first time in his final Derby prep, the Arkansas Derby at 1-1/8 miles. He went from Derby favorite to second choice after that defeat, and wound up eighth behind Real Quiet in the '98 Derby. Favorite Trick didn't embarrass himself, and neither should Uncle Mo. But don't be shocked if 'Mo also has a similar rest of his career to Favorite Trick, solid at middle distances, but one that never matches up to the juvenile magic. Or, maybe he's Street Sense, the dominant Juvenile winner at Churchill who had one bad day at Keeneland in the Blue Grass and got back to Churchill to roll to the roses. Uncle Mo, he could go either way.
Dialed In: Many compare Dialed in to last year's Derby second Ice Box, mainly because they are late-running Florida Derby winners trained by Nick Zito. I'm not sure I agree. Ice Box did not own the same acceleration Dialed In possesses, specifically in one-turn races. Dialed In reminds me more of Pyro, an exceptional young closer in the 2008 crop who didn't have the same kick the longer they went as he did at middle distances. Pyro closed from 18th to 8th behind Big Brown in Louisville and subsequently returned to middle distances later in his career.
Archarcharch: There's a lot of 1992 Kentucky Derby champ Lil E Tee in Archarcharch. A couple of Kentucky good-old boys are at the helm in Lynn Whiting and Jinks Fires, and these are horses who were Kentucky and Arkansas through-and-through. They didn't win all the dances, but they didn't misfire ever, danced them all, and peaked at the right time. Lil E. Tee ran third in the Southwest and won the Jim Beam, then was second in the Arkansas Derby. Archarcharch took four shots at Oaklawn, winning twice and never laying an egg. If 50-year-old Jon Court can channel his inner-Pat Day, who knows?
Soldat: He's a classic Thunder Gulch comparison, winner of the 1995 Derby. Here are two horses who outran their sprint sires (War Front and Gulch), and both were a final prep race away from legitimate Derby favoritism. Thunder Gulch won the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, but flopped in the Blue Grass, and suddenly ballooned to 24-1 on Derby Day. Soldat won the Fountain of Youth and flopped in the Florida Derby, his only career serious blemish. And oh by the way, Thunder Gulch had serious turf breeding as well, out of a Storm Bird mare. Gulch was trained by D. Wayne Lukas, Soldat by former Lukas aide Kiaran McLaughlin. If he's 24-1, I'm buying.
Animal Kingdom: He reminds me so much of a poor man's Adriano, Graham Motion's visually impressive Gulfstream turf riser in 2008 who went on to win the Spiral Stakes by daylight on the Polytrack. Same trainer, same resume, similar experiences. Unfortunately, Adriano was much more impressive on the clock finishing his win at Turfway, and even more unfortunately for Animal Kingdom, Adriano beat only 1 horse in the '08 Derby while visually struggling with the track all week given his turfy stride. I'll be very curious to see how Animal Kingdom moves on the dirt with that memory of Adriano burned in my mind since I was such a fan of that runner a few years back and came to realize he had no shot in the Derby after watching him train.
Midnight Interlude: In 2003, Bob Baffert saw his Derby hand dwindle with an injury to Kafwain, leaving him with a one-time afterthought as his Louisville hope, namely Indian Express. He was a horse who, like Midnight Interlude, also went from (as Baffert puts it) "zero to hero" in his fourth career start in the Santa Anita Derby. Though Midnight Interlude delivered victory in the Santa Anita Derby and Indian Express missed the win by a head, both became Kentucky Derby considerations literally overnight, and chiefly because other more fancied stablemates couldn't kick the injury bug. Both were sired by classy miler/middle-distance California horses in War Chant and Indian Charlie. Indian Express beat only two horses in the Derby while 14th.
Mucho Macho Man: Funny Cide had a lot to root for off the track, just like this horse, and they own a very similar on-track run as 2-year-old and 3-year-olds. While the Macho Man is neither a gelding nor a New York-bred, he did race in NY at 2 and New Orleans at 3, despite wintering in Florida and hitting the road to run (just like Funny CIde). And while Funny Cide ran a determined third in the Louisiana Derby while contesting the lead, Mucho Macho Man also was a close-up third in New Orleans. Both are sired by horses who had their crowning victories at Churchill Downs (track record holder Distorted Humor and Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Macho Uno). Throw in the fact that regular-guy syndicates make up the ownership of both. Okay, there's no comparing the warm-and-fuzzies of the Kathy Ritvo story to the hardened edges of Barclay Tagg, so I won't even try to go there!
Toby's Corner: In 2006-'07, solid regional trainer Larry Jones brought a horse out of Delaware Park named Hard Spun. He ran well in posting a couple of blowout wins against Mid-Atlantic rivals before hitting the B-level stakes scene and adding the Lecomte at Fair Grounds. His bubble burst when stepping up in class to the Risen Star, finishing fourth, and Hard Spun looked like a regional bust. But Jones righted the ship with a road trip to Turfway for the Spiral, where Hard Spun ran a cracker of a race and set himself up for a serious Kentucky Derby threat. Enter Toby's Corner, who also made a Delaware fall debut, then blew away some weaker competition in the Mid-Atlantic. Like Hard Spun's Lecomte, the minor stakes rise was easy, but Toby's Corner failed to improve of his listed Whirlaway win when he met graded horses in the Gotham. Instead of calling it a day on the Derby trail, 'Toby got one more shot from Motion and delivered his own cracker of a race in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial. While their running styles are quite different, Toby's Corner and Hard Spun have an awful lot in common, and for Toby's sake, that's good news considering the sharp second Hard Spun ran vs. Street Sense on Derby Day.
Nehro: Summer Bird made 3 starts during the 2009 Spring at Oaklawn, finishing off the board once in the maiden ranks, dominating in a maiden victory and then closing strongly for third in the Arkansas Derby as a 26-1 shot who appeared to be a late bloomer to the party. Fast forward two years, and Nehro went from unplaced in a maiden, to having the lightbulb switch on in a maiden romp, to a late-charging second in the Arkansas Derby. One caveat -- Nehro also snuck a late-running second in the Louisiana Derby into his resume. Summer Bird arrived in Louisville with only three lifetime starts and wasn't quite seasoned enough, closing from 16th to 6th. But he continued his improvement with a thorough Belmont Stakes victory the next time out, despite a record that read just 1-for-4 lifetime at that time. Nehro now has five pre-Derby starts vs. three for the 'Bird, which means he might have just enough seasoning to spice things up in his first foray at the Triple Crown, 1-for-5 career record or not.
Coming Up Next
Next week's Countdown will be published Thursday, not Friday as usual, to give you a head start on Kentucky Derby 137. I'll provide you my 1-20 Derby contenders will full comments on each at that time. I'll be live in Louisville beginning this weekend and developing that all-important, up-close feel for how the horses are training. Be sure to join me at Countdowntothecrown.com this week for live Twitter updates of breaking news/views, as well as a live chat with me and my Horse Player NOW partner Joe Kristufek during Wednesday's Derby post position draw, beginning at 4:45 p.m. eastern.
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.