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 hunting for seashells. Sometimes you have to dig deep to find a good one, and other times they just come to the surface on their own.

1. I haven't seen as much discussion about how "It's gotta be the shoes!" since Mars Blackman lost his Nike commercial gig. MUCHO MACHO MAN has sole, brother, that's for sure.

2. Psst, DIALED IN, weren't you supposed to be the long-winded, run-all-day horse of this crop trained by New Yorker Nick Zito? Anyone care to tell me why he's not Belmont bound, and why now it's almost safe to say that all that talk about how lightly he worked out this spring was "by design," but in actuality just another case of "believe nothing you're told."

3. You know it's a crazy Triple Crown trail and season when Kegasus has more hardware on his left nipple than Todd Pletcher has in his trophy case.

This week's fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes. While the end of the Triple Crown trail is near, we still have a week until the Belmont Stakes, which is shaping up to be a dandy. We'll reflect this week in Countdown on the highs and lows of the 2011 season, citing my top pleasant surprises along with my biggest disappointments. Let's accentuate the positives first.

Countdown's Top Pleasant Surprises of 2011:

The Return of the Good Guys

Between trainers Graham Motion, Neil Howard, Jinks Fires and Donnie K. Von Hemel, you'd be lucky to find two people who could spout four bad words combined about those four trainers. That made watching the 2011 Triple Crown trail particularly rewarding for me this year as Motion won the Kentucky Derby and Spiral (ANIMAL KINGDOM), as well as the Wood Memorial (TOBY'S CORNER). Fires tallied the Southwest and Arkansas Derby (ARCHARCHARCH). Howard notched the Lecomte (WILKINSON) and Derby Trial (MACHEN), while Von Hemel scored the Smarty Jones (CALEB'S POSSE) and Peter Pan (ALTERNATION). Those are nine major stakes wins from four very worthy horsemen, and zero chance anyone thinks they took any shortcuts along the way.

Surfaces Smeared In a Different Way

The smear campaign by dirt-loving activists, handicappers and horsemen took a major hit during ANIMAL KINGDOM's two-minute race to history in the Kentucky Derby. No matter how many synthetic-to-dirt victories we've seen coast-to-coast over the past few years, the biased battle cry always had been that synthetic-surface and turf horses clouded the Derby discussion and were automatic toss-outs. That simpleton approach now has been obliterated even for drive-by historians.

As I've always maintained, truly great horses win on any surface. Give me Secretariat, John Henry or Cigar, and I'll show you horses who would have won on Polytrack or peanut butter and jelly. Congrats to ANIMAL KINGDOM for quieting the surface skeptics for at least a few weeks while smearing back all the misleading perceptions.

Wise Management from Surprising Places

Trainer Steve Asmussen balanced two major clients with two major horses this spring to absolute perfection, and it helped him land placings in the Kentucky Derby (NEHRO) and Preakness (ASTROLOGY). Countdown readers over the years know that I've been tough on some of the decisions made in previous seasons by Zayat Stables and Stonestreet Stables. But this spring, a fair-minded analyst has to give credit where it's due.

ASTROLOGY got behind the eight ball when sick in California to open the year and was not force-fed to make the Kentucky Derby when he had the earnings to be there. Instead, he took the easier path toward the Preakness via the Jerome Stakes, and it paid off with a third-place check and a tremendous effort. The passing of Stonestreet's Jess Jackson this spring leaves some doubt how the stable will operate in the long term, but the 2011 planning and training for ASTROLOGY deserves much admiration.

Meanwhile, following his second in the Louisiana Derby, late-blooming NEHRO wisely was run back in the Arkansas Derby in hopes of earning the right to race in Louisville. Not only did he reward his managers with a second-place finish, NEHRO's management rewarded him back by skipping the Preakness and not forcing a fourth race in eight weeks. That could pay dividends in the Belmont. Ahmed Zayat deserves credit here, even if you're snickering at the unintended pun.

Countdown's Top Biggest Disappointments of 2011:

Derby Injury to ARCHARCHARCH

After a springtime blossom leading up to the first Saturday in May, it was utterly gut-wrenching to see ARCHARCHARCH injured in the Kentucky Derby and subsequently retired. I can tell you first-hand how well he was showing himself to be Derby Week and how nearly every rival trainer I spoke to gushed effusively of how good ARCH looked. After waiting 50 years in the biz to make the Kentucky Derby, your heart breaks for Jinks Fires, the trainer. Life sure isn't fair, we know, but if it's got even a dash of forgiveness, maybe it might see fit to send an awfully promising 2-year-old Fires' way this year so he can make another Derby run in 2012.

Late Case of Derby Fever

COMMA TO THE TOP had a hard-raced juvenile campaign, and in every one of his races he ran all-out and laid his body on the line. That's how it is for horses with early speed who try to win races by going full throttle from start to finish. So when trainer Peter Miller and his owners said before the Santa Anita Derby that they'd bypass the Kentucky temptation and save some horse for later in the year, it got a round of applause from this office. But then COMMA TO THE TOP nearly won the Santa Anita Derby with a determined, and once again hard-fought, effort, and a full bout of Kentucky Derby Fever kicked in for the connections. COMMA TO THE TOP had the proverbial lemon squeezed one too many times and left Louisville injured with an ankle chip and out for the immediate future.

Uncle Mo's Family Issues

Anyone who loves horse racing came into 2011 hoping that UNCLE MO would not only repeat his juvenile form, but also build upon it into true superstardom. Why that never materialized certainly is up for debate, and fair-minded people could come to different conclusions based on health, natural development from age 2 to 3, or Martian rocketships firing talent-sucking lasers from the New Mexico hills. Like I said, choose your own debate parameters.

I'm not here to claim to know UNCLE MO's health and body weight fluctuations, whether or not he had that mysterious, rumored surgery after the Breeders' Cup, or anything requiring a DVM degree. I'm way more of a public relations and media specialist, and I can tell you that the way owner Mike Repole and trainer Todd Pletcher handled UNCLE MO this spring was simply perplexing.

While it's not the responsibility of horse owners and trainers to disclose all the truths about what's going on with each racehorse to the media and public, this was a different case. This was a horse, after all, for whom the owner created his own Unclemo.com website complete with first-person updates written as if they actually came from the horse himself, calling his handlers Uncle Todd and Uncle Mike. They held a fan contest to "Get to Know Mo" complete with breakfast at the barn. You can't do things like that and then, when the media calls your bluff on big talk of full disclosure about racehorse health records, you claim that you'll come clean when everyone else does. That doesn't float. You're either a refreshing breath of new air in the game or just like everyone else. Choose a side.

Honorable and Dishonorable Mentions

The injury to PREMIER PEGASUS before the Santa Anita Derby was deflating because this was one visually impressive horse who could have had this crop at his hooves … It's a shame that MACHEN and THE FACTOR both fell short with distance limitations because I'm not sure I saw two more brilliant horses this spring at shorter trips … SOLDAT failed to rate behind horses after impressive runs at Gulfstream on the lead, and likely now will head back to the turf. He obviously has talent to run on the dirt, and that's where the marquee races are. But if he won't settle on the main track, he'll have a better career on turf … It was fantastic to see the way jockey Rosie Napravnik not only was received, but the way she handled herself, leading up to her ride on PANTS ON FIRE in the Kentucky Derby … The return of a European influence in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes gave some extra bark to this year's crop with MASTER OF HOUNDS. I, for one, like the diversity of our big races. I don't need to see the top 4 finishers of the same mediocre prep re-matched … I absolutely loved the "team picture" that Churchill Downs' media staff put together just after the post position draw telecast went off the air. Never before have you seen so many power players mingling and mugging together and genuinely enjoying their moment in time. It was a priceless snapshot from an otherwise crowded ballroom … Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Kegasus and his ability to pump up the volume and attendance in the Preakness infield. Face it, good marketing works, even if you're too stuffy to "get it." My hat is off to Kegasus, and given his persona, my shirt as well. No chance of a Countdown nipple ring, however. We draw the line a few lengths short of body piercings.

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.