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.
We'll close up shop on the 2011 Countdown season with my final look at the season's 20-best sophomores seen so far. Some horses have been injured and are sidelined, but I want to give them their proper perspective. The off-track Belmont Stakes muddied the picture to some degree and we should not anoint or assassinate anyone's resume based on his performance last Saturday.
Among the noteworthy omissions to my list are Santa Anita Derby winner MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE, Louisiana Derby winner PANTS ON FIRE, Jerome champ ADIOS CHARLIE and top 2-year-olds of 2010 who didn't quite blossom at 3 like SANTIVA and COMMA TO THE TOP. This top 20 isn't about surface and distance anymore, as these horses all will find their niches in horse racing from here out and not be beholden to a 1-1/4 miles standard on just dirt.
20. TO HONOR AND SERVE: He never lived up to the hope after the Remsen victory at age 2, but third-place runs in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby are worthy of respect for a horse who was sent to the sidelines with a strained suspensory ligament in his left front. Hopefully he will return to the races this year.
19. SOLDAT: Proved the skeptics right in that he simply was not the same horse on the main track when he didn't get the lead, but still won the Fountain of Youth and split the field in the Kentucky Derby when 11th. He'll head back to the turf and was much more effective stalking the pace on grass. You should see him at Colonial Downs or Arlington this summer in the big 3-year-old grass stakes, with Belmont's fall Jamaica a logical target.
18. MASTER OF HOUNDS: Probably more sizzle than substance, the Irish import has failed to win any of his 3 starts this year, but came within a whisker of the UAE Derby in March. His Kentucky Derby fifth was quite solid, and then a no-show on the sloppy track at Belmont last week when 10th left a sour final impression of an otherwise respectable set of showings.
17. STAY THIRSTY: A Gotham Stakes win and a Belmont Stakes runner-up effort dot the resume of an enigmatic horse who also was beaten 28 lengths in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby combined. He's 5: 2-3-0 in New York and 3: 0-0-0 everywhere else, with an average losing margin of about 14 lengths on the road. That said, you'll see him in the Jim Dandy and Travers at Saratoga if all's well.
16. RULER ON ICE: Yes, I do think his sloppy track win in the Belmont Stakes was fluke-ish. He benefitted from past off-track experience, the always-dangerous forward racing position on a wet track, and also an inside of the Belmont course that appeared to carry horses all day over their wide-rallying opponents. How else do you explain a son of Roman Ruler out of a Saratoga Six mare winning a classic at 1-1/2 miles? Nonetheless, let's be fair to the body of work that includes placings in all 5 starts this year over 5 different tracks at 4 different distances. His Sunland Derby third looked much better after runner-up ASTROLOGY came back to run a crackerjack third in the Preakness. He'll get this summer's Haskell on his home track at Monmouth, which doesn't hurt a bit.
15. UNCLE MO: Last year's spectacular 2-year-old champ has made just two starts so far on the season, with a made-for-him victory in the Timely Writer overnight stakes and a third in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial. With his internal illnesses hopefully in his past, he's been given some time off at WinStar Farm in Kentucky and you have to hope he can put weight back on, keep it on and re-blossom into a major stakes player. Or, he never sees the track again and heads to stud duty next spring.
14. DIALED IN: While he didn't become the superstar some thought, a solid spring record of 5: 2-1-0 included victories in the Florida Derby and Holy Bull. Eighth in the Kentucky Derby as the 5-1 post time favorite and fourth in the Preakness with more pace to close into, you can't help but conclude that things weren't all there physically this spring with this horse when his connections bypassed walking over from their Belmont barn to run last Saturday. If they get him right, there's still time to be a Breeders' Cup Classic player back at Churchill this fall, but that's a longshot.
13. MUCHO MACHO MAN: Big horses like him often are no good for themselves and succumb to constant trouble in races. Read his past performance rap sheet and it's littered with wide trips, bumping and the like. For what Mucho Macho Man possesses in talent, he sets himself back as much or more because he's not brilliant. A lack of acceleration because of his cumbersome size makes it difficult for him to shine, hence a 2-for-11 career record and 1-for-6 mark this year. Still, he won the Risen Star and ran third in the Louisiana Derby and Kentucky Derby and dealt with a myriad of foot and shoe issues. He probably won't blossom until age 4, so don't give up hope in him yet, but don't continue to drink the Kool-Aid over the summer for a horse who has been bet to 9-1 or less every time this year.
12. MACHEN: There's no denying this horse was incapable of getting a Triple Crown-type distance after watching him run this spring in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby. But there's also no doubt in my mind he's one of the most brilliant horses in the class and his consistent middle moves in those aforementioned races bore that out. A winner in 3 of 5 starts this year, including the Grade 3 Derby Trial around 1 turn, he's a prime candidate for the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile later this year at Churchill and one to watch for races like the Grade 1, 7-furlong King's Bishop at Saratoga. Others in this group are better route horses, but he may have as good of a career as anyone going shorter.
11. BRILLIANT SPEED: As versatile as he is handy, here's a horse who may be 1-for-5 this year, but has placed in legitimate stakes races on turf, dirt and Polytrack. There's no doubt in my mind he wins the Belmont Stakes had he been on the inside as he was making a "can't lose" move turning into the stretch and simply sunk in the quicksand in the middle of the track. He ran well enough on fast dirt in the Kentucky Derby to make you think he's another Dynaformer colt who can do it on most any footing. I would be inclined to keep him on the Jim Dandy/Travers path until proven otherwise, but you can always go back to the turf/synthetics with him and make a good buck. That's a bright future.
10. TOBY'S CORNER: A winner in 3 of 4 starts this year, his Grade 1 Wood Memorial score over UNCLE MO et al in April was one of the year's best performances by a sophomore. You realize just how good he was getting when you notice how sickened trainer Graham Motion was to find out he was injured just prior to coming to the Kentucky Derby. Motion still had ANIMAL KINGDOM at his fingertips, but this was his perceived ace. He was discovered lame in his left hind leg, but nothing major was detected and TOBY'S CORNER will be a serious player upon what we hope is a racing reappearance.
9. ALTERNATION: Purposely directed away from the Triple Crown by his connections (Pin Oak Farm and trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel), this is a pure route prospect for the second half of the year. Winner of the Peter Pan Stakes and a late-running fifth in the Arkansas Derby, his pre-race antics in the Rebel Stakes may have been the reason for his connections to be stage shy when it came to the Belmont Stakes. Now geared toward a summer goal of the Travers, there's a lot to like about this horse who is 3-for-4 on the year.
8. BANNED: The best 3-year-old turf horse I've seen this year, he wasn't a discussion in the Triple Crown picture. But if you're looking at the sophomore class of 2011 and projecting who could do some damage later on, he's in that banter for sure. With a fascinating turn of foot to watch, Tom Proctor has a future grass megastar on his hands.
7. ASTROLOGY: What a game performance he turned in on Preakness Day, finishing third when stuck down on the inside and forcing the issue the entire way. Even by super route sire A.P. Indy, I'm not sure his best game is anything longer than 1-1/8 miles, but that's no real character flaw when you see races like the Grade 1 Haskell at that distance this summer. Most top handicap races at age 4 will be that trip as well. Despite being 0-for-3 this year, he battled toughly when placing in the Sunland Derby and Jerome before his Baltimore trip. A sickness this winter got him off to a slow start, but he'll benefit from here on out as not being run through the grinder. He's the horse to beat in the Haskell if aimed that way, and don't be shocked if he makes a big second-half run toward the 3-year-old championship given all the injuries we've seen among name players in recent days/weeks.
6. THE FACTOR: The premier sprinter in the 2011 class, we know he can also be effective around 2 turns up to 1-1/16 miles as he whistled home in Oaklawn's Rebel. His season also includes a fast win in the San Vicente sprinting. A hairline fracture in his left hind ankle has put THE FACTOR on the sidelines for now, but the barn hopes to still get him back in time to make August's big sprint at Saratoga, the King's Bishop. Like Machen, here's a horse who could have a brilliant, middle-distance and sprint career if healthy and would be awfully intriguing in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile or Sprint, if not the 7-furlong Grade 1 Malibu at year's end.
5. SHACKLEFORD: The Preakness winner also turned in top 5 finishes this year in the Kentucky Derby, Florida Derby and Belmont Stakes. You may not lump him among the great front-runners of all-time at this stage of his career, but you have to appreciate his concrete accomplishments when stacked up against this current crop. SHACKLEFORD was tough as nails in the Preakness and has that high cruising speed that makes him always dangerous in 2-turn routes of any class level. Expect him this summer to run in the Haskell and Travers and to be equally effective at both 1-1/8 miles and 1-1/4 miles. Given a very appealing pedigree to breeders, my hunch is that you won't see him on the track as a 4-year-old, so enjoy him now in a run up to the Breeders' Cup Classic if all remains well.
4. NEHRO: Sometimes we horse racing folk forget that in many other forms of individual sports, guys and gals win season points races and bonuses and trophies without winning many events week-to-week. Luke Donald leads the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup race right now with 1 victory from 9 tournaments. Eight Top 10 finishes in the pro golf season's first 9 events are a testament to consistency and that's rewarded in most sports. In horse racing, horses like NEHRO are considered hangers, bridesmaids and bums by some cynics. So while he's only 1-for-6 this year, name another horse who could run second in the Louisiana Derby, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby, while adding a fourth in the Belmont Stakes? He joins ANIMAL KINGDOM and SHACKLEFORD as the only horses with a pair of Top 4 finishes in Triple Crown races this year. Even though SHACKLEFORD won the Preakness, note that NEHRO edged him head-to-head in both showdowns, the Derby and Belmont. Unfortunately, he left the Belmont Stakes with an ankle chip that required surgery this week. There's an outside shot NEHRO can make the Breeders' Cup this fall if he could resume training by September. But expect a very good 4-year-old next year.
3. ARCHARCHARCH: Winner of the Arkansas Derby, the most important prep race in today's Triple Crown landscape, he also won the Grade 3 Southwest at Oaklawn in a spring that saw him go 2-for-5. But hold nothing against him for his Kentucky Derby, when drawing the rail and suffering a condylar fracture in his left foreleg at what appears to be a very early stage in the race. Subsequently retired, we'll never know to what heights he could have soared as a racehorse, but ARCHARCHARCH left behind a fantastic impression on this analyst. In his Arkansas Derby victory, he dispatched the eventual Kentucky Derby runner-up (NEHRO) as well as the winners of the Peter Pan (ALTERNATION) and Ohio Derby (CALEB'S POSSE).
2. PREMIER PEGASUS: With only 2 starts this year, faith in PREMIER PEGASUS lies in the eyes, not on paper. No horse was any more visually brilliant this year than his victory in the Grade 2 San Felipe, when he drew away to a record win margin nearing 8 lengths. Sure, the margin was flattered by a ridiculous early pace setting up his rally, but to have watched this horse excel at age 2 in races too short for his best lick, you have to marvel at what he might have done in the Santa Anita Derby and beyond. Unfortunately, he developed a hairline fracture in the cannon bone of his left front leg and is expected to miss the summer. At best case, PRE-PEG could be back training around August and re-tooled at a fall/winter campaign. Other horses certainly accomplished much more, no doubt, but this admittedly is a list merging visions of what we saw, what we almost saw and what we think we saw.
1. ANIMAL KINGDOM: A win in the Derby and second in the Preakness are more than enough to carry this banner, especially when you consider the upside of ANIMAL KINGDOM. A winner on turf, dirt and Polytrack, the world could be his oyster with races like the Dubai World Cup on synthetic and the Breeders' Cup Classic on dirt. What comes next is interesting banter as champion 3-year-old honors are on the line and the Haskell and Travers are the usual paths. But the Arlington Million would be a fascinating change-up and fare more important to his legacy than either of the 3-year-old dirt races. It could be a fun summer and fall if the Derby winner regains his health; that much we know.
Thursday's announcement that a tiny fracture, or fissure, was found on his left-hind leg puts ANIMAL KINGDOM in what seems to be an enveloping discussion of sidelined stars. The prognosis is for two weeks of inactivity and a reevaluation of his status at that point. One hopes that this is not the last we've seen of ANIMAL KINGDOM, but once-considered minor bone problems for horses like Afleet Alex and Smarty Jones also ended their racing careers. We'll wait with fingers crossed. After all, five of the top six sophomores in this ranking are currently on the sidelines or already retired.
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.