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 the 2011 Preakness infield concert lineup of Grammy Award-winners Bruno Mars and Train. It's always better when you're current and hot.

1. As crazy as it might sound (figuratively and literally), MADMAN DIARIES might cost UNCLE MO the Kentucky Derby. When the talented front-runner scratched from last Saturday's Timely Writer Stakes, it turned what could have been a galvanizing prep for 'MO into a mere promenade from which he got very little. I've long contended, if you're only going to get 2 prep races, you better get down and dirty doing so.

2. Oaklawn Park isn't an oasis for those fleeing the synthetic tracks of California anymore, yet arguably the west's best horses are headed to Hot Springs, Ark. this weekend in THE FACTOR (Bob Baffert) and SWAY AWAY (Jeff Bonde). Dirt by any other name must taste as sweet, said one Shakespearean horseplayer.

3. PREMIER PEGASUS (Myung Kwon Cho) debuted 2011 at No. 3 in the Countdown rankings back on Jan. 7, so you're more than welcome to hop on the bandwagon after Saturday's record-setting win margin in the G2 San Felipe. While it's fun to call first dibs on a Derby horse, it's even more fun to keep an open mind and cash a ticket.

This week's fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes. It's mid-March, so the undercard offerings are light on importance as the calendar winds toward the first Saturday in May. We'll continue to track the undercard races in review each week, but leave the preview section to the marquee races.

But there's definitely one horse on the undercards you want to watch Saturday, and that's CAL NATION (Todd Pletcher) in a Gulfstream Park allowance mile in Race 3. The younger brother of Bluegrass Cat was thoroughly smashing in his debut, and given his pedigree by Distorted Humor and natural progression, I could see him using this race as a springboard to the 1-1/16 miles G2 Lexington on April 23 at Keeneland.

G2 Rebel Stakes (Saturday/Oaklawn Park)

Be sure to join me live Saturday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. eastern at Countdowntothecrown.com for a special 2-hour live chat and analysis for the G2 Rebel Stakes. With a field of 13 and a path to the Triple Crown that's been second-to-none over the past several years, there will be plenty to talk about leading into this $300,000 showcase.

The Californians touched down Wednesday afternoon and the presence of THE FACTOR and SWAY AWAY really add to an already deep event. Consider that you have the 1-2-4 finishers of the Smarty Jones Stakes and the 1-2-3-4-6 finishers of the G3 Southwest Stakes from earlier in the meet, headed by race winners CALEB'S POSSE (Donnie K. Von Hemel) and ARCHARCHARCH (Jinks Fires). All the local stars are back, including maybe the 2 best allowance winners at the meet in JW BLUE (Tony Dutrow) and ALTERNATION (Donnie K. Von Hemel).

A quick note about the weights, ARCHARCHARCH and CALEB'S POSSE carry 122 pounds and each spots nearly every horse in the field 5-7 pounds, a significant amount over 1-1/16 miles. The conditions of the race give allowances for horses who have not won races at a mile or longer in stakes company. In a massive field size like this with such talent across the board, that's a pretty significant handicap when you're splitting hairs among so many playable contenders.

A couple of training notes, ELITE ALEX (Tim Ritchey) may have only worked once since a troubled third in the Southwest, but he's been employing some of his trainer's once-famous "two-a-days" on occasion, going to the track twice in a morning, ala sire Afleet Alex before his Preakness and Belmont-winning run in 2005. Jockey Calvin Borel has been comparing this 'ALEX to Street Sense in recent weeks, which is fine company to keep even in speculation. Meanwhile, Smarty Jones Stakes runner-up DREAMINOFTHEWIN (C.R. Trout) has been training and racing in a bar shoe as he battles a quarter-crack issue this winter. Again, in a very tough field, that's probably enough to make me look elsewhere, even if it turns out to be a non-factor.

Speaking of factors, THE FACTOR could be lone speed in this field of 13, which is almost unfathomable to imagine. Given a lack of real gas burners in the gate, look for front-end specialist Martin Garcia to put THE FACTOR on the engine and let him rip. He worked 6 furlongs last weekend from the clubhouse turn through the far turn and got a very crafty 2-turn workout from it. Kudos to Bob Baffert for that. Watching the drill on HRTV, I noticed THE FACTOR to be a bit headstrong the first few yards, but he settled nicely on the backstretch of the workout, and that's what we want to see from him in the Rebel. Of course, it's easier to settle when solo; so the early pressure from others will tell this tale. Stretch-out sprinter GLINT (Kellyn Gorder) might try to apply pressure from a terrible post 11 draw. My guess is that classy west coasters past and present JP'S GUSTO (Joe Petalino) and SWAY AWAY are much closer-up than recent races suggest and could be among the first 4 heading down the backstretch.

I'm a huge fan of ALTERNATION and think he's the best of the local horses stabled at Oaklawn, but ELITE ALEX is in that same breath. They are very close in rank to me. Both appear to need someone to soften up THE FACTOR in order to be able to run him down. If they get some early help, they'll have a chance at the win photo. Both appear dangerous closing for a share regardless of the pace.

This is the kind of race where legitimately 5 or 6 Triple Crown contenders could still be looking good after the race on Saturday. But pace makes the race, and I don't see anyone who can make THE FACTOR run hard enough early to really give him a gut and distance-check late.

G2 Rebel Stakes selections: W) THE FACTOR; P) ALTERNATION; S) SWAY AWAY.

Private Terms Stakes (Saturday/Laurel Park)

Three Triple Crown nominees are among the 8 entrants in Laurel's final local tune-up to the Preakness Stakes, before the Maryland scene shifts to Pimlico the first Friday in April. Surprise, surprise, Todd Pletcher's got a big player here, too, in JOE VANN, unbeaten in 2 local starts since coming north from Gulfstream, winning twice by nearly 10 lengths combined. But the lineup includes proven stakes winners BANDBOX (Rodney Jenkins), RUSH NOW (Tony Dutrow) and CONCEALED IDENTY (Eddie Gaudet).

At a 1-turn mile distance, BANDBOX should be at his absolute best. He ran a dynamite second in his local return in the Feb. 26 Miracle Wood Stakes, edged by New York raider JJ'S LUCKY TRAIN, who sits out this dance. BANDBOX worked 6 furlongs on Sunday in 1:11-4/5, which is almost race-time at Laurel, indicating that he won't bounce out of that big effort last time out.

RUSH NOW must give 6 pounds to the entire cast, carrying 122, and that's not quite as big of a deal around 1 turn as it is around 2 turns, but it's still a significant amount of weight. He got a confidence booster last time out with a drop in class, and last year's Dover Stakes winner at Delaware Park may have his ship righted with that sneaky-shrewd drop to the upper claiming ranks on Feb. 9.

It's great to see family man John Servis back on at least the fringes of the Triple Crown trail with TAP STAR, a winner in 2 of his last 3 starts. Servis didn't give into the lure of the big-time after Smarty Jones' success and stayed true to his local family roots. I respect that, but make no mistake he hasn't lost his touch just because you haven't heard from him in a few years. TAP STAR has done his damage sprinting and he could be the pace thorn in the side of RUSH NOW and JOE VANN if pushed along by jockey Kendrick Carmouche.

The wildcard is NO EASY ANSWER, who is bred to run all day long by Petionville out of an Unbridled mare. The fact he's won twice in 3 tries at 6 furlongs and a 1-turn mile only bodes brighter for his future. I'll be surprised if he's brilliant enough to beat these horses in a 1-turn mile on the class rise, but I would consider taking him on top if the race was around 2 turns and longer in distance. There's upside here.

Private Terms Stakes selections: W) BANDBOX; P) RUSH NOW; S) JOE VANN.

Last week's selections: 4: 2-1-1. Top-choice wins by PREMIER PEGASUS (San Felipe) and UNCLE MO (Timely Writer) make us 6-for-11 on top over the past 3 weeks. Top choices QUEEN'SPLATEKITTEN (Hallandale Beach) and BRETHREN (Tampa Bay Derby) ran second and third, respectively, in a solid handicapping showing, especially the cold San Felipe exacta.

Season selections: 30: 10-5-5. (30 races, top pick won 10 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. The high-profile return of UNCLE MO in the listed Timely Writer Stakes at Gulfstream took all the starch out of the G2 Tampa Bay Derby, but a west coast splash from PREMIER PEGASUS helped spice up things in the G2 San Felipe.

Before any nasty mail pours in, I'm not hating on UNCLE MO in the least bit. He's unequivocally the horse they all have to rise above by the first Saturday in May. But it's fairly apparent I'm not doing cartwheels for his 3-year-old prep campaign that still includes only the G1 Wood Memorial to be decided April 9. Saturday's return in the listed Timely Writer Stakes did nothing to diminish the obvious talents of UNCLE MO as he won in hand with a sparkling final quarter-mile run and gallop-out that indicates there will be so much more from him. But when will that be called upon, and if it doesn't come until the cavalry charge at Churchill Downs, will it be too late to harden him for the rigors?

You could not have drawn the Timely Writer on an Etch A Sketch any simpler than it played out. UNCLE MO was brushed out of the gate, but easily assumed a pedestrian lead in a 1-turn mile that most trainers agree is the easiest trip in all of horse racing. And while early splits in mile races at Gulfstream are totally out of whack because of the run-up distances to the teletimer, 1:13.69 for 6 furlongs would not even be an impressive workout time for a horse of UNCLE MO's caliber. When he finally was let out a half-notch by John Velazquez, 'MO sailed home in :22.87 in a fabulous fourth quarter. The only decent closer in the race was taken out of his game when GALLANT DREAMS (Tom Albertrani) wound up pressing the slow pace, and had nothing left in his first start of the year. Sprinter RATTLESNAKE BRIDGE (Kiaran McLaughlin) gave token pressure before retreating when the real running began. The time was more than 6 lengths slower than the same-day G2 Gulfstream Park Handicap for older horses, but nobody of sane mind thinks UNCLE MO couldn't have gone much faster than he did. Again, the only knock whatsoever on UNCLE MO is that the real running was terribly brief in this contest, if existent at all.

I realize in 2011 that you don't go looking for hard races for horses worth tens of millions of dollars. But I also realize that's part of the reason why the list of horses painted on the walls of Churchill Downs the past decade or so aren't exactly first-ballot Hall of Famers either. If I owned and trained UNCLE MO, I'd probably do the same thing. Let's get to Louisville and take our chances. History isn't made in March, it's made in May. But as a discerning handicapper, I'd be fooling myself if I didn't think that championship performances are built, not merely circled on the calendar. I'm just glad it's not my tens of millions of dollars on the line to decide what is the right thing to do. This is why Todd Pletcher gets paid the big bucks.

Conversely, Saturday's G2 San Felipe won't leave anyone with the impression that the race was too easy. The incinerator pace we predicted last week in Countdown not only developed, it melted the San Felipe cast to the core. ALBERGATTI (Steve Asmussen) and RUNFLATOUT (John Sadler) went after each other like a couple of pit bulls on a porterhouse, ripping off splits of :21.75 and :22.83 before both checked out of the Hotel Arcadia. That left a sweeping move on the far turn by PREMIER PEGASUS to grab the race before the stretch run even began. PRE-PEG powered home easily by 7-3/4 lengths and proved that his pedigree was more inclined for 2 turns than the sprints he had encountered to this point. I've called him the most impressive 2-year-old I saw in California all last year, and that speculation appears validated.

JAYCITO (Bob Baffert) did as well as you'd expect following a long layoff, finishing well enough for second behind the winner in his first unveiling since transferring barns from Mike Mitchell. This was a good first race for JAYCITO, who galloped out better than the winner and should move forward in his next attempt. COMMA TO THE TOP (Peter Miller) pressed the wicked pace hard from third and held to run fourth in what is a pretty solid effort on his part. There will be no doubts about the toughness of 'COMMA if he's still throwing punches come May. ALBERGATTI and RUNFLATOUT were exposed as terrible underlays in a world of horseplayers yearning to anoint stars off of maiden wins. They finished last and next-to-last.

If you had never seen PREMIER PEGASUS prior to the San Felipe, I have no doubt it's easy to discern he's a horse who got an unbelievable pace set-up and was in the right place at the right time. But as someone who has watched him since his Del Mar debut, I caution against underestimating this guy. If his trainer was Todd Pletcher or Bob Baffert, you already would have had him on your radar and he would have paid $6.60 not $16.60 in the San Felipe. Trainer Cho also has RIVETING REASON as a potential G1 Santa Anita Derby candidate, but with $5.5 million in potential Preakness 5.5 bonus monies on the line for 'PEGASUS, the choice which horse to run there and which horse to hit the road is pretty simple.

Back to Florida, Saturday's G2 Tampa Bay Derby once again served as the Little Shop of Horrors for Todd Pletcher. As we noted last week in Countdown, the series of hard-luck losses and short-priced defeats for the stable in this race since 2004 has been as uncanny as it's been unfair. BRETHREN's loss at 1-2 odds Saturday follows big brother Super Saver, along with horses like Bluegrass Cat and Any Given Saturday, who suffered excruciating losses in the Tampa Bay Derby.

Things went wrong for BRETHREN early and often in this third-place run behind WATCH ME GO (Kathleen O'Connell), a rival he beat with complete ease last month in the G3 Sam F. Davis Stakes. Just as he was cornering into the clubhouse turn, BRETHREN took a bit of a weird move when his head jerked in at the same time his hind end went out. He seemed to re-gather himself fine when sent alongside longshot MOONHANGER. The favorite then took control after splits of :23.73 and :24.47 which were solid, but not excruciating. When $16,000 claimer CRIMSON KNIGHT forced BRETHREN to go the third quarter in :24.40, you'd expect a championship-level horse to slough off the pesky rival. But CRIMSON KNIGHT was glued to his blue-blooded opponent and actually went on to out-finish BRETHREN for second while WATCH ME GO picked up the pieces from the 3-path.

WATCH ME GO had been 0-for-5 in stakes and never closer than 5 lengths in those losses. CRIMSON KINGHT was 2-for-5 lifetime with never having even raced in allowance or stakes company. So for BRETHREN to wind up third against those two rivals, you have to start wondering what went wrong. Don't be surprised if BRETHREN isn't right physically. He made a peculiar move trying to corner on first turn as we mentioned, and then was tail swishing and lead changing through the lane like he wasn't happy. The G1 Arkansas Derby on April 16 is supposed to be next, so let's hope BRETHREN is back on the workout tab in 10-14 days and signals that all is well.

In other action last week, GREAT MILLS (Steve Asmussen) continued the fabulous winter for young sire War Front as he stretched out around 2 turns to win the grassy Grindstone Stakes on Saturday at Fair Grounds. War Front also is represented by graded stakes-winning sophomores THE FACTOR and SOLDAT among this current crop. GREAT MILLS rocked them to sleep on the front end and held off the charge of classy WILLCOX INN (Mike Stidham), who should be well set for his next appearance, most likely at Keeneland.

Also on the turf, the same slow-paced, front-running scenario played out Saturday in Gulfstream's G3 Palm Beach Stakes, a race stolen up front by claimer JOESBLAZING AARON (Allan Hunter). You would have expected, pace or no pace, that runner-up QUEEN'SPLATEKITTEN (Todd Pletcher) would have reeled in a 2-for-8 horse who 5 times had been offered for a claiming tag. But :23.07 and :11.30 final splits at 1-1/8 miles weren't quite enough.

On the undercards over the past week, business was light, but D. Wayne Lukas is thinking about wheeling DUCA back on 2 weeks' rest in the G2 Louisiana Derby following Saturday's Oaklawn maiden win. The fashionably bred son of Empire Maker-Tempus Fugit had been away since the Churchill fall meeting, but wired a route cast from the rail after setting legitimate splits and taking heat. He went about 3 lengths slower than 3-year-old filly Joyful Victory did in the G3 Honeybee Stakes in the race just prior. Heavily favored UNCLE BRENT (Lynn Whiting) may have had his G1 Arkansas Derby hopes dashed Sunday when he fell a half-length short in allowance company as the 4-5 chalk while meeting older horses. UNCLE BRENT rallied well, but hung late, despite getting very strong fractions for his late run.
EMINENT TALE (Rick Dutrow) dominated Sunday's Sweet Envoy overnight stakes for New York-breds around 2 turns. He's got a very sharp miler-type pedigree that could be well-suited for the Polytrack at Keeneland in the 1-1/16 miles G2 Lexington on April 23 if pointed that way. The Dutrow barn also had a sharp Saturday maiden winner at Gulfstream when REEEMED made his first start since October a winning one in 1:09.73 over NINJA BLADE, who also has been second this meet to ARCH TRAVELER and TRAVELIN MAN, heady company. The son of Include should go farther.

Quick Hitters

SWEET DUCKY (formerly Kelly Breen) has been sold to the president of Chechnya and was sent to Dubai this week to run in the March 26 G3 UAE Derby, with maybe an eye on the Russian Derby in an international twist … SOLDAT (Kiaran McLaughlin) had his first workout post-Fountain of Youth on Sunday when he breezed a half-mile in :48.91, eighth-fastest of 51 at the distance, coming 15 days after his signature score. "The only thing we probably have to do now is for him to face the kickback, so we'll handle that in the morning next Sunday," McLaughlin said. "We'll put a couple horses in front of him and make sure he handles the kickback. He'll rate fine. We want him to handle the kickback." … MACHEN (Neil Howard) fired a bullet 5 furlongs Tuesday at Fair Grounds in :59.60 as he prepares to meet an apparently dwindling cast in the G2 Louisiana Derby a week from Saturday. He's really rising back up my love meter … G2 Risen Star runner-up SANTIVA (Eddie Kenneally) will sit out the Louisiana Derby and await the G1 Blue Grass at Keeneland on April 16 … G2 Lewis Memorial upsetter ANTHONY'S CROSS (Eoin Harty) continues his April 9 G1 Santa Anita Derby preparations under the radar at Hollywood Park, working 6 furlongs Monday in 1:14.60 … Gulfstream key maiden race winner HERON LAKE (Nick Zito), who had 3 weeks between drills Feb. 5-26 just last month, once again has gone AWOL on the workout tab, having not worked since then … GOURMET DINNER also has been mysteriously quiet in the work department, and Daily Racing Form's Jay Privman reported the horse was taken off the grounds at Gulfstream and sent to the farm. I've taken 'DINNER off my Top 20 menu until further update.

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. CAL NATION (Gulfstream, 2/5)
3. BIND (Fair Grounds, 2/19)
4. MACHEN (Fair Grounds, 1/2)
5. HERON LAKE (Gulfstream, 1/15)

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

4. ALTERNATION (Oaklawn, 1/15)
5. JAKESAM (Golden Gate, 12/30 * starter allowance *)

Stakes Race
1. SOLDAT (Fountain of Youth, Gulfstream, 2/26)
2. PREMIER PEGASUS (San Felipe, Santa Anita, 3/12) * NEW *
3. DIALED IN (Holy Bull, Gulfstream, 1/30)
4. MUCHO MACHO MAN (Risen Star, Fair Grounds 2/19)
5. BRETHREN (Sam F. Davis, Tampa Bay Downs, 1/12)

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, 11th week of the 2011 season

Reader-submitted top 20, 11th week of the 2011 season: Cassandra from Rancho Santa Fe, CA

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.