01/04/2013 3:20PM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 1 - Jan. 4, 2013

Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club
Amerigo Vespucci heads up to New York from Laurel Park and could make an impact in Saturday's Jerome.

Countdown to the Crown returns for its eighth season as one of the most comprehensive handicapper’s scouting reports of the 3-year-old scene. Posted each Friday at DRF.com from Jan. 4 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, opinions, and interactive features at Countdowntothecrown.com as well.

Straight from the gate

Everyone’s fixation will be to find the next big thing between now and the first Saturday in May. But resist the temptation to be overly cute. In our seven previous Countdown seasons, all seven Derby winners had won their maidens on or before Oct. 23 the previous fall (Animal Kingdom was the latest), and five of the seven already were proven stakes horses by the turn of the year.

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. As is custom, we’ll outline some undercard races of note before diving into the stakes analysis and selections.

Friday’s Race 9 allowance sprint at Gulfstream Park features multiple graded-stakes-placed colt REALLY SHARP (Ian Black), who has cashed on turf, dirt, and Polytrack and was runner-up to VIOLENCE (Todd Pletcher) in the G2 Nashua in November. Black trainees often really look the part pre-race, so keep an eye on this one in the paddock and post parade for clues. HONORABLE DILLON (Eddie Kenneally) returns for the first time since a solid maiden score at Saratoga in August, but can be a head case around the starting gate, so monitor his mental development.

Friday’s Race 3 maiden turf sprint at Santa Anita boasts the well-bred grandson of Flawlessly LEMON DROP DREAM (Steve Asmussen), who also has been away since Saratoga. Pedigree players beware BUCKLEBERRY GREY (Ben Cecil), whose mama, Elusive Diva, was a multiple stakes winner down the hill on this unique Santa Anita course.

On the minor stakes front, Saturday’s Race 9 at Delta Downs, the $100,000 Big Drama Stakes, could put a horse in the Louisiana Derby discussion. The two-turn, seven-furlong race features a rematch between KING HENNY (Steve Asmussen) and HERO FORCE (Bret Calhoun) from their September debut at Hoosier Park. Both have gone on to minor stakes wins since. HEAVEN’S RUNAWAY (Benard Chatters) drops out of the G3 Iroquois and G3 Delta Jackpot and could earn a trip to Oaklawn with an improved effort based on the barn’s past shipping patterns.

Also in Saturday listed stakes action, the $50,000 Turfway Park Prevue goes as Race 9, and the 6 1/2-furlong event is the first step toward the G3 Spiral in March. BYE BYE BERNIE (Kelly Breen) has been a part of some exceptionally key races in his four-race career and exits a thorough maiden score at Keeneland over the Polytrack. Mike Maker saddles MILE RANGE and SMOKININDABOYSROOM, both daylight winners over this surface. Up-and-down LEW AND MIKE (Tom Drury Jr.) wired Keeneland allowance runners on Polytrack in the fall before fading badly to 12th in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill. This one should run through BYE BYE BERNIE.

Saturday’s Gulfstream Park program features a trio of 3-year-old events that include a Race 6 turf allowance and split divisions of a one-mile maiden special weight on dirt in Races 7 and 9. CHAIRMAN GAREY (Tim Hamm), a maternal grandson of Personal Ensign, aims for a second turf win at the meet in Race 6, a field that lacks any apparent world-beaters. REI (Mark Casse) tries turf for the first time, and may give us more of a gauge on a past rival, the ballyhooed GULFPORT (Dale Romans). IRSAAL (Kiaran McLaughlin) drops out of the G2 Nashua and G2 Remsen. As for the split division maiden races on the main track, Race 7 looks to be the much weaker division on paper. THE CANDIDATE (Nick Zito) was an even debuter in a very key race at Churchill Downs in the fall, and this $410,000 son of Bernardini has landed in a pretty winnable spot. LOOKING COOL (Carl Nafzger) was second to the respected OXBOW (D. Wayne Lukas) last out at Churchill, while MO JO (Jimmy Baker) played second fiddle to the talented FRAC DADDY (Kenny McPeek) during the CD fall meet as well. DOHERTY (Todd Pletcher) debuts from the rail off a steady but unspectacular workout tab. Race 9 would appear the real prospect-producing event of the day, featuring the regal Giant’s Causeway-Bird Town baby ETON BLUE (Nick Zito) and Pulpit’s baby brother PONTIFF (Dale Romans). ETON BLUE’s debut third looked better in recent days as ACCLAIM (Terri Pompay) came back to run a decent second here Tuesday in a race you’ll read much more about below in our review section.

Santa Anita’s Sham Stakes undercard Saturday includes a Race 2 maiden dash at 5 1/2 furlongs that is loaded with Bob Baffert flavor. He’ll send out three starters, including SPIRITED TOUCH, a son of Elusive Quality whose dam is half-sister to the Baffert-trained superstars Roman Ruler and El Corredor. For more Baffert history, his champion sprinter Midnight Lute is represented by rookie SECRETSATMIDNIGHT, a fast-training colt whose dam is full sister to $1.1 million-earning mare Leah’s Secret. And if that’s not enough, there’s CHASINTHEACES, another Indian Charlie legacy for Baffert. This one hails from a remarkable female family that includes the likes of Atelier, Althea, et al. But here’s a DRF Formulator nugget of note: Bob Baffert is just 5-for-26 (19%) with first-time starters dashing 5 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita the past five years for a $1.01 ROI (granted, Paynter was one of those five winners last winter). If they beat the Bafferts, it’s most likely with CABALLO DEL CIELO (Steve Asmussen), runner-up over this track in October to next-out G3 Hollywood Prevue third-place finisher SHAKIN IT UP (Baffert).

A Race 7 allowance sprint Saturday at Parx has big-barn influence with FORTY TALES (Todd  Pletcher) exiting a nice debut win at Aqueduct. Challengers include Laurel dominator ORE PASS (Mike Trombetta) and G2 Saratoga Special alum SOUTHERN HONOR (Tony Dutrow).

A trio of worth-watching 3-year-olds debut Sunday in Aqueduct Race 4, including two Kiaran McLaughlin trainees that are sons of two high-quality, New York-based sprint stakes mares. MALEEH, a son of Indian Charlie-Gold Mover, and GHAREEB, a son of Tapit-Rite Moment, both figure to be sprint prospects. BOLT ACTION (Eddie Kenneally) lures Ramon Dominguez, has been working well and hails from a real win-early female family. He’s probably the one to beat in this heat.

Sunday’s Race 8 maiden turf sprint at Fair Grounds catches the eye. HIP FOUR SIXTYNINE (Bobby Barnett) has chased next-out winners BRADESTER (Eddie Kenneally) and GULFPORT (Dale Romans) in his last two on the dirt. MAJESTIC BAY (Al Stall Jr.) exits a runner-up debut to SMOKININDABOYSROOM (Mike Maker) in Kentucky, and we’ll know just how strong that performance looks after we get to see SMOKIN' compete in Saturday’s Turfway Prevue. Fast-working EARLY SUCCESS (Larry Jones) just might live up to his name based on the workout tab.

G3 Jerome Stakes (Saturday/Aqueduct) [GET PPs]

When NYRA opted to move the G3 Jerome to the fore of its stakes calendar, there was one problem: Churchill Downs already had set its 2013 Kentucky Derby points system and respective races in place. So Saturday’s Race 8, the G2 Jerome Stakes, will carry a $200,000 purse, but no direct impact on the road to the Kentucky Derby in terms of points. Given that, the race quality looks eerily similar to its predecessors on the stakes calendar, the listed Whirlaway or Count Fleet.

The fast sprinter VYJACK (Rudy Rodriguez) has not been touched in two starts to date, but has logged only one workout in the 27 days since his overnight stakes win over three rivals in the slop at Aqueduct. He’s got a turf sprint pedigree on the damside, and I’m inclined to play against him around two turns against a tougher cast.

LONG RIVER (Kiaran McLaughlin) and MUDFLATS (formerly Eddie Kenneally, now Doug O’Neill) both have won since facing one another at Belmont in October.  LONG RIVER is a regally bred A.P. Indy-Round Pond colt going for connections that had a lot of success this time of year in New York a season ago with Alpha. Meanwhile, MUDFLATS was sold to Team O’Neill in December and remained at Belmont Park in the shed row of trainer Nick Canani, who served as the deputy for the gelding’s new West Coast connections.

I’ve had my eye on AMERIGO VESPUCCI (Tim Tullock) for several months now in Maryland, and he’s a quality sprinter who never stops coming. By Henrythenavigator, he’s out of a mare who was a listed stakes winner at 1 1/16 miles on turf, so he might stretch out. But New York fans may remember his younger brother, Bay Shore runner-up Gattapardo, who was strictly a sprinter. This is a very talented horse who has been chasing a sharpie named WHISKEY ROMEO (Tony Dutrow) in recent Laurel attempts. Don’t be surprised if he’s this good.

The New York-based wild cards here are VEGAS NO SHOW (Kelly Breen) and NOTACATBUTALLAMA (Todd Pletcher). Both already are two-turn stakes winners, but VEGAS NO SHOW has been very up-and-down in his six-race career. A repeat of his G2 Nashua runner-up to VIOLENCE (Todd Pletcher) wins this. But that’s not confident to predict. NOTACATBUTALLAMA has not run over a fast dirt track yet, but has handled turf and sloppy conditions just fine. You may be looking at Pletcher and Ramon Dominguez and a third or fourth choice in the wagering, something that merits a second look-see.


G3 Sham Stakes (Saturday/Santa Anita) [GET PPs]

A top-heavy edition of the G3, $100,000 Sham Stakes figures to be a soft landing spot for GOLDENCENTS (Doug O’Neill), winner of the G3 Delta Jackpot most recently. After all, his five challengers include three horses who all were beaten 12 or more lengths the last time they ran on the dirt at Santa Anita in the G1 FrontRunner Stakes. Dirt question marks jump off the page for DRY SUMMER (Jeff Mullins), DEN’S LEGACY (Bob Baffert), and DIRTY SWAG (Myung Kwon Cho).

From a pace standpoint, GOLDENCENTS could set the tempo from the inside or allow recent maiden winner MANANDO (Bob Baffert) the early honors. No other runners in the field appear capable of pushing those two if there’s any intent whatsoever by their riders to be forwardly placed. When you give the field’s best horse a pace advantage, that’s a tap-in putt by handicapping standards. GOLDENCENTS has no reason whatsoever to lose this race unless he takes giant steps backward, and the workouts say he’s not heading that direction.

DEN’S LEGACY has some proven class about him, winning the G3 Generous on turf. But he’s wheeling back three weeks after a third in the G1 CashCall Futurity, and you wonder about a horse making his ninth start since July. Reasonable minds have to think the connections don’t see this as their Derby horse, for the lemon can’t have much juice by May.

I’d like to be creative to start the season, but it’s not in the cards. The jokers have been removed from this particular deck. In the Kentucky Derby’s new points system, 10 points are on the line for a win, which will be the equivalent of running fourth in a major prep by late March or early April.

Sham Stakes selections: W) GOLDENCENTS; P) MANANDO; S) DEN’S LEGACY.

Last week’s selections: 0: 0-0-0.

Season selections: 0: 0-0-0.

Everyone’s a critic

This section reviews the week that was in the 3-year-old ranks. I annually start the Countdown “season” on Dec. 26, opening day at Santa Anita, so this week’s reviews will date back a few extra days.

Stakes Races

Just six 3-year-olds answered the call for the first derby of the year when Tuesday’s Gulfstream Park Derby rang in the New Year at a one-turn mile distance. The public leaned to Woodbine invader STAR CONTENDER (Mark Casse) in his first attempt on dirt, but he was a complete no-show and never made any impact whatsoever. And as often happens when you have a short field size, things can get downright dominant at the end when a few horses don’t show up for work and a few others succumb to the early pace. ITSMYLUCKYDAY (Eddie Plesa) benefited from all of the above in a nearly seven-length victory that’s going to look better to some than it does to me. I’m a fan of the horse, having picked him to win the Delta Jackpot, Dania Beach, and Gulfstream Park Derby, and I was glad to see him avenge those two subpar tries of late. But ITSMYLUCKYDAY didn’t corner particularly well in the only bend of this race, and the gallop-out was modest and didn’t even match that of runner-up SR. QUISQUEYANO (Luis Olivares). The top pair look like very functional listed stakes horses in Florida’s future, and names we could hear about for some time, but neither drags me to the windows looking to play them when the waters get deeper in the Holy Bull, Fountain of Youth, and/or Florida Derby. My hope is that the public overrates this score and overbets ITSMYLUCKYDAY upon his return. Note: Highly talented PURPLE EGG (Jane Cibelli) scratched from the Gulfstream Park Derby with a fever, but continues to be one to watch.

MERIT MAN (Bob Hess Jr.) outran four rivals in the Spectacular Bid Stakes [REPLAY] on Tuesday at Gulfstream Park, but did so in a paltry 1:11.39 for 6 furlongs that leaves you feeling as empty as his tank was late. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint runner-up will continue short with a trip next to the Hutcheson Stakes most likely, but this was an uninspiring effort in which ballyhooed debut winner LITTLE DISTORTED (from Michael Mareina now to Darrin Miller) walked out of the gate and never got uncorked with a third-place finish. I like the pedigree and potential for LITTLE DISTORTED, and he should be given a shot around two turns at some point. Don’t give up on him just yet. Meanwhile, G3 Sapling champ BRAVE DAVE (Eddie Plesa) tossed the first clunker of his career when last, perhaps softened up in Tampa’s Inaugural Stakes last month when losing a donnybrook to the talented PURPLE EGG.

It’s hard to take much out of the Dec. 29 Eddie Logan Stakes [REPLAY] at Santa Anita as Mother Nature washed it off the turf and onto the main track. A field of just five remained over a wet-fast sealed track, and AVARE (Doug O’Neill) rolled to a wire-to-wire win by daylight. There are no two bigger misleading factors in a race than a small field size and a wet track, so judge this one with extreme caution. AVARE’s pedigree doesn’t suggest routes to this eye, and there’s still a fast dirt question on his pedigree. Runner-up GABRIEL CHARLES (Jeff Mullins) hadn’t trained sufficiently to make the G1 CashCall Futurity, and the barn used this as the alternative. So he was vulnerable from the get-go, and never threatened the winner at any point. His one fast dirt try was a disaster in the G1 FrontRunner in the Fall, so the jury remains out.

Hard-campaigned ALPHA MIKE FOXTROT (Dickie Small) won the Maryland Juvenile Championship around one turn at 7 1/2 furlongs on Dec. 29 at Laurel Park. But watching jockey Forrest Boyce wrestle with the son of Two Punch most of the first half-mile, you’d never have predicted the outcome. But the rider eventually got out into the best part of a very sloppy racetrack and rolled down the middle of the stretch. I doubt we’re looking at anything for the Preakness, but the score did flatter the form of very good regional runner WHISKEY ROMEO (Tony Dutrow).

Well-traveled GLENCO KID (Sandi Gann), he of the Arlington-Washington Futurity and Real Quiet, took advantage of a pace meltdown in the Lost In The Fog Juvenile [REPLAY] at Turf Paradise on Dec. 29. Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint alumnus HAZARDOUS (Carl O’Callaghan) also shipped to the desert to dance, but broke slowly, raced wide, and settled for second from off the pace in a change of styles.

Allowance Races

Most eyes were on SUPER NINETY NINE (Bob Baffert) on Dec. 28 at Santa Anita when allowance sprinters lined up in the feature. The Hollywood Prevue runner-up and late scratch as favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint leaned in on the gate coming away and was left in the dust by fast-breaking DISTINCTIV PASSION (Jeff Bonde). SUPER NINETY NINE never looked good or comfortable while fourth, and makes you think whatever bothered him at the BC may have flared up again. Steer clear until he proves otherwise. DISTINCTIV PASSION now has won two straight since a three-month break. By a sprint sire, there’s nothing in the damside pedigree to make me place any future wagers on DP going long in the KD.

BRADESTER (Eddie Kenneally) topped a New Year’s Day route allowance at Gulfstream Park as speed once again held very strongly at the 1 1/16-mile configuration with a short run to the clubhouse turn and short run coming out of the far turn. Pacesetter and Display Stakes also-ran GUNDERMAN (Mark Casse) held a clear second. There’s not a ton of pedigree on either side to push BRADESTER much farther than the confidence-boosting GP 1 1/16-mile trip. But his two straight wins since a distant debut second to TITLETOWN FIVE (D. Wayne Lukas) certainly have been making that ex-rival look stronger.

MYLUTE (Tom Amoss) decimated routers Dec. 26 at Fair Grounds with style and excellent visuals, albeit after walking early in fractions of :25, :50, and 1:15. The Delta Jackpot third-place finisher has improved in each route try despite a Midnight Lute-Valid Expectations pedigree that suggest distance may be an issue, moreso regarding the damsire. Second-best was GENERAL ELECTION (Kellyn Gorder), a highly respected maiden winner from Churchill in November who was making his first route attempt. Keep an eye on both, especially the runner-up, who would seem to have more upside still uncovered.

It was textbook Calvin Borel on Dec. 28 at Fair Grounds when rail-skimming, late-running MALIBU HIGH (Cecil Borel) splashed home past a loose-leading AGAVE CAT (John Good) to advance to 2-for-2. Away since a June rallying debut at Churchill Downs, the question now becomes: Is this a late-running sprinter? MALIBU HIGH is by Malibu Moon, who can go either sprint or route with his offspring, but damsire Snow Ridge suggests one-turn races. This was a weak allowance on paper with a few maiden claiming victors in the gate.

Maiden Races

A year ago around this time I declared that El Padrino was Todd Pletcher’s best and most complete Kentucky Derby prospect of his career. And while he would go on to win the Risen Star, he was going the wrong way by May, trained poorly, and was sidelined after being forced into the Derby. Fast forward to New Year’s Day 2013 and "The Godfather"'s little brother VERRAZANO (Todd Pletcher) has harkened back the hype. The son of More Than Ready was push-button electricity Tuesday at Gulfstream Park when he torched a good-looking race on paper by nearly eight lengths. His six-furlong split for the 6 1/2-furlong race would have won the same-day Spectacular Bid Stakes by almost the exact same margin VERRAZANO dispatched this maiden cast. And he did it visually the way you want to see it. Pletcher said afterward that this horse has more talent than El Padrino, but he’s behind big brother in terms of development. El Padrino placed in the nine-furlong Remsen at age 2, and note the elder colt maybe gets more stamina from the sire Pulpit than the younger gets from miler More Than Ready. Still, that’s heady praise. Runner-up ACCLAIM (Terri Pompay) held second after setting the tone and should graduate soon. Keep a longshot eye out for UTMOST INTENSITY (Dale Romans) exiting this race as he was between horses dueling with this talented top pair and probably took the worst of the trip.

While the West Coast buzz has been about Dec. 8 Hollywood Park debut winner FLASHBACK (Bob Baffert), we got a decent line on that pre-Countdown victor when three of his closest pursuers returned to Santa Anita for a one-mile maiden route Dec. 29. The consensus blared that MENTOR CANE (John Shirreffs) was the bee’s knees, but the son of Mizzen Mast became unhinged pre-race, lathered up, acted up in the gate, and then ran off with jockey Mike Smith once the gate opened. Benefiting from the mental meltdown were fellow FLASHBACK pursuers APPEALING TALE (Peter Miller) and COASTAL BREEZE (Bob Baffert). Given his pedigree, APPEALING TALE would be custom-built for Keeneland’s Polytrack and a serious G1 Blue Grass Stakes threat. Miller likes to ship there as we’ve seen, too. With the 1-2-3 finish from those Dec. 8 alumni, FLASHBACK got a big endorsement from this field, but those in the lineup here didn’t come home very well (:14 last furlong). Note: Scratched from this race was the Empire Maker-Escena debut blue-blood PYTHON (Steve Asmussen). He was back on the workout tab New Year’s Day and probably redirected for an easier spot.

REVOLUTIONARY (Todd Pletcher) pounded out solid :24's in a very sharp Dec. 28 Aqueduct maiden route domination, his first win after three previous placings as a heavy betting favorite. This looked like a solid group for Aqueduct late in the year on paper, and the son of G1 Alabama winner Runup The Colors romped. The victory also flattered the form of ORB (Shug McGaughey), who handled REVOLUTIONARY going a mile in November.

BELVIN (Bob Baffert), half-brother to sharp sprinter Apriority, was a gutty, fast maiden winner Dec. 26 sprinting at Santa Anita in his second start. The score looked even better when his prior maiden conqueror DISTINCTIV PASSION (Jeff Bonde) returned to win an allowance sprint two days later. While I liked BELVIN’s win, the takeaway horse from this 6 1/2-furlong race was FOOTBRIDGE (Eoin Harty), a horse the barn has been very high on and who finished up very nicely late for third while aching for more distance. The Street Cry colt has French turf pedigree on the damside, a factor I love in a Triple Crown distance hopeful. MASARU (Steve Asmussen) chased hard and was flat late in a debut that should lead to improvement.

West Coast transplant OMEGA STAR (John Shirreffs) scored from the rail sprinting Dec. 31 at Santa Anita following a debut second at Aqueduct just 18 days prior. While the race was restricted to Cal-breds, the pedigree is anything but limited. He’s by Candy Ride and a maternal grandson of G1 Yellow Ribbon and Beverly Hills heroine Alpride. Jockey Corey Nakatani really had to work to get this horse out of several pickles. I absolutely loved this race visually as OMEGA STAR appears to have some real star potential. That bodes very well for CLAWBACK (Rick Violette), an impressive young sprinter who beat OMEGA STAR at the Big A and could have a stakes at a dash distance in his future.

GOLDEN SOUL (Dallas Stewart) blitzed just four rivals Dec. 30 at Fair Grounds in winning a 1 1/16-mile maiden special weight by more than seven lengths. His maternal granddam was Lady in Silver, runner-up in the G1 Arlington Million vs. the boys in 1989. Because of the slow pace and short field size, the safest takeaway here may be the form-flattery of former rival SAYLER’S CREEK (Kenny McPeek), who held off GOLDEN SOUL going a mile at Churchill in November. But GOLDEN SOUL did get a nice education here after some trouble at the break and traffic inside on the clubhouse turn, and finished up with good energy late (:24.48 fourth quarter) in a race that makes you want to see him again.

Impeccably bred Unbridled’s Song-Island Sand colt MIDNITE POPPA (Nick Zito) shipped west to Tampa Bay Downs Dec. 26 to find easier going and won a two-turn route in a solid time that clocked 8-9 lengths faster than split divisions of an older $25,000 claimer on the same card. The win over a sealed track came at the expense of Palm Meadows raider XAVI (Brian Lynch), who was second last time out at Woodbine to eventual Display Stakes winner AVIE’S QUALITY (Josie Carroll), so this was a classy top-end maiden route for Tampa.

Another well-bred, big-barn horse who shipped out of town for an easier spot recently was VALID (Kiaran McLaughlin), a $500,000 Medaglia d’Oro colt who is half-brother to G1 Ruffian winner Malibu Prayer. Outrun in a key race to VYJACK (Rudy Rodriguez) in his Aqueduct debut, VALID rebounded Dec. 31 at Laurel Park with an easy, 3-3/4 length win, but came home the last quarter in just :26.09 with a very long stretch run to do so. He’ll have to do better to join the barn’s A-team.

Gulfstream offered an intriguing turf sprint maiden winner Dec. 27 when HAPPY FELLA (Ian Wilkes) crushed by seven-plus lengths. He’s by Northern Afleet, which suggests shorter distances, but the dam is a full-sister to Wood Memorial winner Nobiz Like Shobiz. Runner-up KITTEN GOES PRO (Mike Maker) won’t be a maiden long and should win with a clear trip next out at a short price.

Also on the Gulfstream turf, debut artist PLAY IT LOUD (Michelle Nihei) scored a two-turn mile victory Tuesday by 4 widening lengths. This well-bred son of Unbridled’s Song and multiple G2-winning mare Bsharpsonata would appear a natural for the Polytrack at Keeneland, given the sire, and the fact his mama was second over the surface in the 2008 G1 Ashland. Runner-up NEW LINE (Bill Mott) further flattered the form of the above-mentioned SAYLER’S CREEK (Kenny McPeek), who got a double-boost in the resume in recent days with both GOLDEN SOUL and NEW LINE running strong.

Finally, Thursday’s Gulfstream Park maiden sprint for Florida-breds went to DO YOU SMELL SMOKE (Kathy Ritvo) in wire-to-wire fashion as the top three runners ran in place throughout. The problem is, all four of the day’s six-furlong sprints were won wire-to-wire. DO YOU SMELL SMOKE was third to SHANGHAI BOBBY (Todd Pletcher) last April at Aqueduct, so it was time for this sprint-pedigreed gelding to graduate.

High Fives

Jeremy Plonk’s Top 5 performances by class so far this season (Dec. 26-present).

Maiden Race
1. VERRAZANO (Gulfstream Park, 1/1)
2. REVOLUTIONARY (Aqueduct, 12/28)
3. OMEGA STAR (Santa Anita, 12/31)
4. BELVIN (Santa Anita, 12/26)
5. APPEALING TALE (Santa Anita, 12/29)

Allowance Race
1. MYLUTE (Fair Grounds, 12/26)
2. DISTINCTIV PASSION (Santa Anita, 12/28)
3. BRADESTER (Gulfstream Park, 1/1)
4. MALIBU HIGH (Fair Grounds, 12/28)
5. TBD

Stakes Race
1. ITSMYLUCKYDAY (Gulfstream Park Derby, Gulfstream, 1/1)
2. AVARE (Eddie Logan, Santa Anita, 12/29)
3. MERIT MAN (Spectacular Bid, Gulfstream Park, 1/1)
4. ALPHA MIKE FOXTROT (MD Juvenile Championship, Laurel, 12/29)
5. GLENCO KID (Lost In The Fog, Turf Paradise, 12/29)

Jeremy Plonk is owner of the handicapping-based website HorseplayerNOW.com and Countdowntothecrown.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. Your Top 20 may be published in Countdown to the Crown!