Editor's Note: Countdown to the Crown has moved to ESPN.com after a successful, two-year run online 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 those pop quizzes you despised in your youth. Just when you think you know all the answers, someone comes along and changes the questions.
1. You can't keep hammering it home enough in this changing time of handicapping: it's infinitely easier to go from synthetic-surface racing back to dirt than it is from God's soil to the plastics. Still any doubters? Please check in with last week's diametrically different efforts from GAYEGO and PYRO.
2. ADRIANO appears headed to the big dance following a satisfactory dirt workout Sunday at Churchill Downs. When a trainer as equally humble as he is talented like Graham Motion makes a decision like that, you had better beware. If ADRIANO keeps his cool on Derby Day, he's a serious threat. Edgar Prado is the best big-race rider in America, bar none, so his decision to ride underscores that.
3. Short-sighted historians who gripe about the lack of certainty in the Blue Grass Stakes in the two-year Polytrack era might want to direct their "way-back" clocks a whole three years and try to explain how Sinister Minister went from 6th by 19 in the San Felipe to a dozen-length victory at Keeneland with a 117 Beyer Speed Figure, and then to "never heard from again" in a major race.
This Week's Featless Forecast
This section includes a preview of the coming week's 3-year-old races to watch. The final piece in the Kentucky Derby prep season puzzle takes place Saturday in the G2 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. Pimlico also opens its doors for 2008 with the local Preakness prep, the Federico Tesio.
Before we get into the stakes, if you're gambling this weekend (shhhhh, I won't tell), you might want to follow COUNTDOWN red alert horse STONES RIVER in Saturday's fifth at Keeneland. The 2-race maiden has shown mid-race ability with no gate talent. Now he stretches out in distance for Larry Jones and has a very sharp a.m. move over the Polytrack. Don't be surprised if he runs all day, runs late and sends you running to the pay line.
G2 Lexington (Saturday/Keeneland):
Need-based horses in the G2 Lexington are all about the Derby Dinero, and that means the likes of TOMCITO, ATONED, RACECAR RHAPSODY, RILEY TUCKER, SAMBA ROOSTER, SALUTE THE SARGE, BEHINDATTHEBAR and RED SANDY all should be considered at maximum crank for this race. All these horses' connections, either the owner and/or trainer, have exhibited the Derby "jones" in either this or a past spring. What's really interesting here is that conservative, grounded trainer Frankie Brothers brings late-running BIG GLEN to the party with no delusions of grandeur, selecting win-able races for this horse all spring. It's almost as if the others are coming to 'GLEN's party this time. In short, BIG GLEN fits here; nearly all the others are trying to see where they stand at Churchill Downs in two weeks.
TOMCITO can be expected to be asked for more speed than he showed in the Florida Derby, given his life-and-death blowout work earlier this week. While the time looked impressive, Horseplayerpro.com clocker Toby Turrell reported to me directly that this work was done with "boots, whip and hat" to get him to hustle that fast – in other words, everything was used. On the flipside, I do like the vibes I'm getting from trainer Dante Zanelli, who has gone from extremely guarded prior to the Florida Derby to effusive confidence heading into Saturday's showdown. TOMCITO could be live in the Lexington as long as he's not scrubbed on too hard early to keep up and taken out of his late-charging Peruvian form. At just 1-1/16 miles, that becomes a tough Catch 22.
ATONED is the slight morning line favorite, but he's lost ground in the stretch in all 4 career starts beyond a mile, which is not a good sign when tackling the stamina demands of Polytrack. SALUTE THE SARGE and SAMBA ROOSTER also will be tapping on every ounce of oxygen in the final furlong. The latter is Bob Baffert's recent acquisition and last hope for a Derby date. ST. JOE should keep all those runners company in what figures to be a competitive pace, no matter what the clock reads.
Those benefiting from the pace ought to be TOMCITO (if allowed to settle), and the even more dangerous trio of BEHINDATTHEBAR, RACECAR RHAPSODY and BIG GLEN. The former should get first run on the others, and wheels back on just 2 weeks' rest for Pletcher. RACECAR RHAPSODY has every license to win this heat, outkicked by a star in ADRIANO in the G2 Lane's End when seriously compromised by a 3-month layoff and rugged 9F Polytrack assignment with no prep. He ran two races that were brilliant in hindsight over this track last fall. Both came at sprint distances that obviously aren't his best lick, and came against top-class competition that came back to show some muscle at age 3.
Projected G2 Lexington Pace Scenario:
Federico Tesio (Saturday/Pimlico):
The Tesio annually projects a Preakness starter to the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, so we'll take a look-see into this opening weekend feature at venerable Pimlico. Half of the eight-horse field is Triple Crown nominated, and expect a New York flavor on Old Hilltop to emerge.
New York-bred ICABAD CRANE is based at northeast Maryland's Fair Hill Training Center with Graham Motion's stable. He'll make his first raceday appearance in-state, following a wide third in the Rushaway Stakes to the aforementioned BIG GLEN. Red-hot Jeremy Rose takes the reins, and he bats 37% aboard Motion runners. Class, connections and pedigree all point to this guy at 9 furlongs, which is a key distance. Note that most of the Laurel action over the winter was at the 1-turn mile distance. Now, 2 turns and 9 panels will seriously test the locals.
The other Big Apple connection here is MINT LANE, an all-or-nothing type during the inner-track season at Aqueduct for razor-sharp horseman Jimmy Jerkens. He's only had 1 work in the past 24 days, a concern, but came home in a blistering :24-2/5 in his mile score at Aqueduct. A repeat of that wins Saturday. But I'll count my stars with 'ICABAD.
Everyone's A Critic
This section includes a recap of the last week's movers and shakers in the sophomore class.
Remember our dialogue about trainer intent last week? Well, when Steve Asmussen doesn't show up to saddle the FAVORITE in a Grade 1 race, that was the red flag we all needed to run as far away from PYRO at the Blue Grass betting windows as possible. It's the same lesson, opposite approach, as we saw when Rick Dutrow bypassed a two-win day in Dubai to be alongside BIG BROWN in the Florida Derby.
Meanwhile, Todd Pletcher desperately needed the Blue Grass, as noted in last week's preview, and promptly had one-two finishers MONBA and COWBOY CAL answer the call. Neither of these horses were plugs, so don't get carried away with the alleged "chaos" that ensued in the Blue Grass. They were two of the top four betting choices in the race, and both had appeared on any serious handicapper's Top 10-20 lists at some point earlier this season. Between them, they had five wins and a second from their last eight starts and had been beaten by 2-1/4 lengths or less in all of those starts except one. They made plenty of sense Saturday against that particular field in those particular conditions (trainer intent, poor post draws for top contenders), even if it had been on dirt.
What didn't make sense in Blue Grass, however, was the complete no-show by PYRO. Granted, the trainer intent was not there, and the horse proved that a 75-percent PYRO was not good enough to still lie over the field – as I wrongly handicapped last week in COUNTDOWN. But, I'm not sure that was even the 75-percent PYRO. It couldn't have been. He should have run a VISIONAIRE-type race even if his crank meter was at half-mast; which was to take back, advance steadily and show some life while lacking a serious threat. VISIONAIRE got exactly what he needed (and what should have been expected given his horrendous draw). He moves onto Derby Day a legit contender. Trakus' fabulous technology shows he ran the last furlong in a race-best :12.17 -- serious stuff on Polytrack.
It's quite possible PYRO wasn't even fit in the Blue Grass. Think about it: his two races this year produced maybe six hard furlongs of running combined. Then, you toss him on the demanding Polytrack while not fully cranked for a race. For PYRO, it now becomes all about the final two works between now and Derby Day. He's going to need to get a lot out of them. But rest assured, he'll go out in darkness with the barn's first set, ala Curlin last year, and Asmussen rarely asks his horses for anything whatsoever on the clock – so PYRO is going to be an EXTREMELY difficult read. I'll be on the ground in Louisville beginning next week, and most likely drawing the Asmussen Stable beat as a member of the official Kentucky Derby Notes Team, so check back with COUNTDOWN for what figures to be as close to the inside as a reporter can get with PYRO. Also, my Horseplayerpro.com colleague Toby Turrell should be able to lend tremendous insight as one of America's best clockers and someone who wintered in New Orleans and has seen PYRO every single day in 2008. The blog of official Louisiana-Kentucky clocker Billy Pettingill, aka CLOCKER-1, also should be crucial analysis from the same website. Outside of the Asmussen barn, no one has watched PYRO closer than these two guys have all season long.
As for the Blue Grass race itself, the pace played out much more brilliant than the first-blush glance at the clock. Rhythmic splits of :24.96, :24.05, :24.16, :24.10 and :12.44 made the winning Pletcher duo machine-like, which is very encouraging as the distance progresses once again at Churchill. This was not as much of a plodder's pace as its :49.01 opening half-mile might suggest. The second quarter was run less than one-length slower than GAYEGO's Arkansas Derby (:23.90), which everyone is exclaiming to have been impressive because he ran so fast early and still lived to have his picture taken. It takes a classy horse to bang out :24s like that throughout 9 panels, especially on a track that holds endurance accountable. I don't think 'CAL wants a part of a Derby-like early pace, so MONBA projects the more serious threat under the Twin Spires.
COOL COAL MAN and BIG TRUCK could both move onto the Derby following their Blue Grass debacles, using the track as an excuse, but neither will interest me moving forward. The latter's progress was intriguing, but this non-effort snuffs out that excitement. I project the former to be a pace casualty against the division's heavyweights.
Because the G2 Arkansas Derby has produced four straight runners to land in the Kentucky Derby trifecta (Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Steppenwolfer and Curlin), the pressure will be on GAYEGO and Z FORTUNE to produce when they arrive in Louisville. Neither will attract favorite's fanfare, but what appeared to be a star-less G2 Arkansas Derby renewal this year did enough on the clock to deserve further scrutiny.
GAYEGO and fellow California synthetics transplant TRES BORRACHOS set strong fractions of :22.71 and :23.90 for the opening two quarters. The duo drug one another along through a mile in 1:36.95, which was five lengths faster than the FINAL TIMES of two legitimate, one-mile stakes races on the same card, the Northern Spur BC and the Instant Racing BC. With a final furlong in a strong :12.68, GAYEGO did not give and inch while holding off the late-charging Z FORTUNE. 'TRES retreated some 4-plus lengths in the final furlong as the top two proved superior to all in this field.
From post 11, it's natural to think that Z FORTUNE was best in the Arkansas Derby, running 4-wide on both turns and giving a ton of ground to the winner. The counter-argument is that 'Z came to the throat of GAYEGO with nearly a full furlong to run and couldn't get by the winner. Both are questionable as the distance progresses, so it's hard to say if Z FORTUNE could run down GAYEGO on even terms no matter the distance. But I'd lean ever-so-slightly to 'Z as a Derby threat. The one thing that makes the Arkansas Derby a head-scratcher for me is that five of the top six finish positions were filled out by horses running among the top six from the opening quarter-mile -- despite a wicked pace. Too many promising, upstart closers failed to fire for me to be totally convinced of this race's "look." That said, the two best horses in the race, no doubt, were the 1-2 finishers.
In south Florida, HEY BYRN handled his business vs. a marshmallow-soft rendition of the G3 Holy Bull last Saturday. While the graded-stakes earnings list likely won't smile on him for Derby Day, this should serve as a solid Preakness launching bad, as trainer Eddie Plesa has indicated that is Plan B. While the short field of 7 walked for 6 furlongs in 1:14.99, HEY BYRN picked it nicely when called upon with a razor-sharp fourth quarter in :23.99. He'll have to step up to another league at Pimlico, however, picking up 8 pounds, but this is the kind of horse who will not embarrass himself against anyone. His workmanlike win in the Holy Bull did not do much for the reputation of Florida Derby 1-2 finishers BIG BROWN and SMOOTH AIR. That reinforcement could come this weekend, however, from Florida Derby third TOMCITO in the Lexington.
Each week, we'll give you a race video worth a second look. With ADRIANO announcing his Derby candidacy and RACECAR RHAPSODY revving up in Saturday's Lexington, let's dial up the G2 Lane's End Stakes. Video, courtesy of the NTRA.com Video Library, here. My take? RACECAR RHAPSODY made the kind of menacing move on the far turn indicative of a top-class horse, but simply ran into runners with more seasoning who kicked clear in the lane. Watch the giant, galloping strides of ADRIANO and notice the lightning quick :12-2/5 final furlong.
COURT VISION fired a bullet half-mile in a white-hot :46-1/5 at Churchill on Thursday for Bill Mott, working in company and dusting his stablemate with ease. 'VISION has a real chance of picking up steam the next 2 weeks, and moves up several spots this week in my rankings because of his affinity for the track ... Owner Ahmed Zayat appears to be shopping for Derby hats, as his runners Z HUMOR and MASSIVE Drama likely are Derby bound despite dull efforts in recent months. They both qualify on earnings, but 'DRAMA exits a last-place finish and a round-trip to and from Dubai. Z HUMOR drilled a half-mile at Churchill on Thursday in :47-3/5, and agent Jim Ferrer said Rafael Bejarano has the Derby mount … Illinois Derby winner RECAPTURETHEGLORY got acquainted with CD on Thursday morning with a 5F move in 1:01 for Louie Roussel … ELYSIUM FIELDS is off the Triple Crown trail and being freshened for a summer run … With Edgar Prado going to ADRIANO, the mount on G1 Blue Grass winner MONBA now falls to Ramon Dominguez … Any doubt that COLONEL JOHN left his race on the track in the Santa Anita Derby was erased Wednesday when the Eoin Harty trainee smoked a half-mile in :47-2/5 at "The Great Race Place." … Derby favorite BIG BROWN will remain in the cozy confines of Palm Meadows training center in Florida and ship to Churchill Downs on April 28. He worked 5F in 1:00-3/5 this past Sunday.
Jeremy Plonk's Top 5-rated performances this year by class. (Dec. 26-present)
1. CROWN OF THORNS - Santa Anita 1/1 (injured)
2. ADMIRALTY - Gulfstream 2/21
3. UNDERSTATEMENT - Gulfstream 2/7
4. READY'S ECHO - Gulfstream 3/5
5. LE GRAND CHU - Gulfstream 3/29
1. WAR PASS - Gulfstream Park 2/24
2. TEXAS WILDCATTER - Philly Park 12/28
3. ADRIANO - Gulfstream 1/11 (turf)
4. HEY BYRN - Gulfstream 2/10
5. BIG BROWN - Gulfstream 3/5
1. BIG BROWN – Florida Derby 3/29
2. PYRO – Risen Star 2/9
3. COLONEL JOHN – Santa Anita Derby 4/5
4. ADRIANO – Lane's End 3/22
5. EL GATO MALO - San Rafael 1/12
Stakes Selections G2 Lexington Stakes Picks:
1- #5 RACECAR RHAPSODY
2- #9 BIG GLEN
3- #7 BEHINDATTHEBAR
Federico Tesio Stakes Picks:
1- #3 ICABAD CRANE
2- #4 MINT LANE
3- #7 REGAL SOLO
How'd we do last week?
Top pick HEY BYRN won Holy Bull; second choice MONBA won Blue Grass; whiffed on the Arkansas Derby.
How are we doing on the season?
28% on-top winners (12-for-43) and
56% winners from our top 2 picks (24-for-43).
Put 'Em In The Gate
Can't wait for May 3? This section ranks my Top 20 and puts horses in the gate if the race was this weekend. Remember, this isn't about how they'll be on Derby Day, but rather how they rate today with Derby ability at 1-1/4 miles a main factor. This will be a fluid list over the the spring.
Think I'm off my rocker? Send your Top 20 list to me, firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick one fan's list each week to appear in Countdown to the Crown right next to mine. Please put "TOP 20" in the subject line and include your state of residence!
Jeremy's Top 20: Fifteenth Week of 2008 Season:
The list reflects horses remaining on the Triple Crown trail at this point in the season. To be honest, I don't have much love for anyone outside of the top six at this point in what's becoming a very focused group that I'll be dissecting once on the grounds at Churchill Downs this coming Friday.
Reader-Submitted Top 20: From Leo in Kentucky
What Happens In Vegas ...
steamers in the Las Vegas future book odds.
Odds updated April 14, 2008
Wynn Las Vegas Derby Favorites
BIG BROWN 5-2 (down from 4-1)
COLONEL JOHN 6-1
WAR PASS 10-1
COURT VISION 12-1
COWBOY CAL 18-1
TALE OF EKATI 20-1
Z FORTUNE 22-1
SMOOTH AIR 30-1
COUNTDOWN TO THE CROWN is the ONLY major racing column where you can find the line of Johnny Avello, Vegas' premier oddsmaker!
Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributing columnist since 2000. You can E-mail Jeremy about any racing-related topic at email@example.com.