01/06/2012 9:02AM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 1 - Jan. 6, 2012

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Editor’s Note: Countdown to the Crown returns for a seventh season online as one of the most comprehensive handicapper’s scouting reports of the 3-year-old scene. Posted each Friday at DRF.com from Jan. 6 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 Countdowntothecrown.com as well.

3 things you won’t read anywhere else

Opinions are like the Iowa Caucuses. They don’t mean a whole lot other than getting a good conversation started.

1. Prepare for an influx of turf and synthetic performers to march all the way toward the 2012 Derby following Animal Kingdom’s 2011 success. Only NFL coaches rival Thoroughbred trainers when it comes to a copycat industry. Consider putting races like Gulfstream Park’s March 11 Grade 3 Palm Beach Stakes on your radar.

2. Five of the last six Kentucky Derby winners wintered in Florida, and the other came straight from Mars (Mine That Bird). But note that three of those five Floridians hit the road late for a connecting flight, if you will -- Animal Kingdom to Turfway; Super Saver to Oaklawn; and Street Sense to Keeneland.

3. The past three Kentucky Derby winners went on to lose all 14 of their subsequent starts before retirement: Animal Kingdom went 0 for 2; Super Saver 0 for 3; and Mine That Bird 0 for 9. Granted, two of those did run second in the Preakness.

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. A trio of diverse stakes kicks off the Countdown season from coast to coast, headlined by Saturday’s Grade 3 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. On the listed stakes docket is Saturday’s duo of the $150,000 Count Fleet at Aqueduct and the $50,000 Turfway Park Prevue in Kentucky.

As is tradition, we begin by checking in on the undercard races of note for the weekend before our more in-depth stakes analysis. All eyes will be on DISCREET DANCER (Todd Pletcher) in a mile allowance Saturday at Gulfstream Park (race 7). All he did in his debut was set a local 5 ½-furlong track record on Dec. 3. The field includes A BOY NAMED EM (Eddie Kenneally), a promising debut winner at Churchill by Point Given out of a half-sister to Pleasant Tap.

The other much-anticipated return at Gulfstream comes Sunday when Barbaro’s kid brother MARGANO (Barclay Tagg) takes center stage in a race 8 turf route allowance. He’ll meet a cast that includes ARGENTINE TANGO (Stanley Gold), who wheels back quickly. You’ll read more about him later on in our race review section. This Sunday field also includes AFRICANIST (Kenneally), who kept top-class company at age 2 on dirt and will be making his turf debut.

Today (Friday, Jan. 6), maiden route races will be offered at Aqueduct (race 3), Fair Grounds (race 7) and Turfway Park (race 9). Todd Pletcher’s pair of RACONTEUR and RED BENDEL highlightthe Aqueduct test at nine furlongs. Raconteur, by A.P. Indy, has been knocking on the door. Red Bendel is a second-time starter by Street Cry out of the multiple juvenile stakes winner Magicalmysterycat. Young sire Street Sense will be well represented at Fair Grounds when his son SIR BOND (Neil Howard), half-brother to W.Va. Derby winner Wiseman’s Ferry, looks for his first win after a pair of solid seconds. He could give us a good line on Saturday’s Sham contender HIERRO (Steve Asmussen), whom SIR BOND chased at Churchill in November. The Turfway mile tilt includes DANCE IDOL (Mike Maker), third in his debut. He is by Good Reward out of Turfway stakes-winning mare Affirmed Dancer.

At Fair Grounds on Saturday, race 8 is a maiden sprint at six furlongs, where high-dollar juvenile sales buys CASTLEPOST (Al Stall Jr.) and RAZZO SUCCO (Danny Peitz) make their debuts. Come-backing SMOKE IT OVER (Neil Howard) makes his first start since placing twice last spring at Keeneland and Churchill. Another maiden race to watch is Saturday’s race 6 at Gulfstream at one mile on dirt. TIZ YANKEE (Nick Zito) returns after a debut second to KING KID at Churchill, and that result looked even better after that rival came back to run a decent third in the Gulfstream Park Derby on Sunday. DIXIE DICE (Todd Pletcher) and UNBRIDLED MINISTER (Ken McPeek) appear to be rookies with upsides in this event. CHARLIE IN CHARGE (Dale Romans) and THESSALONIAN (George Weaver) add quality experience.

Saturday’s undercard at Santa Anita includes a race 6 maiden dirt sprint, led by the debut of $1 million yearling buy WELTER WEIGHT (Steve Asmussen), a son of Smart Strike and graded winner Ask Me No Secrets. A trio of runners exiting the same Dec. 17 Hollywood race could give us a great line on that winner, TENACIOUS THOMAS (Melody Conlon). The rematched runners include BOBBY FLAY (Bob Baffert), CONSULADO (Mike Puype) and CONGRATS SKI (Kathy Walsh). Also, the Santa Anita race 9 finale for Cal-bred maidens includes the return of Graduation Stakes debut runner-up THREE VASES (Robertino Diodoro), away since Del Mar.

Grade 3 Sham (Saturday/Santa Anita)

Shortened in distance from 1 1/8 miles to one mile, the Sham takes a more natural place on the calendar in terms of providing a developmental tool toward the Santa Anita Derby in three months. One horse who immediately will benefit from that is reigning Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint winner SECRET CIRCLE (Baffert), who makes his two-turn debut. Pedigree-wise, there’s no reason this son of Eddington can’t get the trip. It’s about his ability to relax in races, and that’s why Baffert removes the blinkers Saturday. I didn’t like the way he moved late in the Breeders’ Cup event and Baffert was wishy-washy about him for either the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity or this spot for much less money.

SECRET CIRCLE figures to be favored, but expect HIERRO (Asmussen) to get plenty of attention. A third-start maiden winner in dominant style at Churchill Downs, he also will be making his two-turn debut with plenty of pedigree to handle it by Hard Spun and being a half-brother to route stakes winner Cherokoee Triangle. Based strictly on pedigree, you have to like OUT OF BONDS (Eoin Harty), a December maiden breaker at Hollywood who is by Discreet Cat and out of Breeders’ Cup Distaff champion Unbridled Elaine. She’s already produced Grade 2 Meadowlands Cup winner Etched.

LONGVIEW DRIVE (Jerry Hollendorfer) closed well on the bullring in the Grade 3 Delta Jackpot and adds blinkers for the first time. The full brother to Pyro should be perfectly equipped for a mile distance around two turns and looms a major danger to the more “name” players.

The pace should be fairly competitive, though SECRET CIRCLE is clearly fastest if Rafael Bejarano wants to make that statement. How much pressure HANDSOME MIKE (Doug O’Neill) and SENOR RAIN (Peter Miller) are able to apply will tell the tale on how tough the trip will be for the favorite. From a betting standpoint, I’ll try to beat the obvious chalk.

Sham Stakes selections: W) LONGVIEW DRIVE; P) SECRET CIRCLE; S) HIERRO.

Count Fleet Stakes (Saturday/Aqueduct)

Pletcher, McLaughlin, Motion, and McPeek. Must be Saratoga in the summer, right? What in the name of your granddaddy’s Aqueduct is going on? The $150,000 Count Fleet, once a proving ground for Mid-Atlantic horses to test the icy waters in New York, now has a big-time feel, thanks to an infusion of slots purses and unseasonably mild early winter conditions in the northeast. Those factors have conspired to pit G1 Champagne runner-up ALPHA (Kiaran McLaughlin), G3 Pilgrim winner SHKSPEARE SHALIYAH (Doodnauth Shivmangal), and Shackleford’s little brother STEPHANOATSEE (Graham Motion), fresh off a try in the G2 Remsen. Also, SPEIGHTSCITY (Gary Contessa) is a G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and G2 Remsen alumnus looking to get back on an easier path, though this might not be it.

Pace won’t be lacking in the Count Fleet as long as the inside pair of runners do not scratch. IL VILLANO (Susan Crowell) brings sprint speed north from Parx, and HOW DO I WIN (Todd Pletcher) has won two straight virtually wire-to-wire vs. cheaper.  The horse who can get the first-run trip against that pending duel looks to be advantaged. WHISTLEBLOWER (Ken McPeek) could fall into that discussion following a closing victory sprinting, though SPEIGHTSCITY looks to have the most natural chasing speed and benefit most. On paper, he has no excuses on the pace setup and has the local, recent edge with a route allowance win at the Big A on Dec. 15.

ALPHA clearly will be the horse to beat based on class and reputation. He worked a bullet Monday at Belmont after having already traveled south to Palm Meadows in Florida and back this winter. We’ll see if the travel gets to him. STEPHANOATSEE, meanwhile, has been training at home in Maryland at Fair Hill and ran on evenly in the Remsen in his stakes unveiling. Trainer Motion has been high on him since he came to the barn early last summer and I’d expect he’ll bring a good run. Motion pointed Toby’s Corner nicely through the 3-year-old series of Aqueduct races last year.

Count Fleet Stakes selections: W) SPEIGHTSCITY; P) STEPHANOATSEE; S) ALPHA.

Turfway Prevue Stakes (Saturday/Turfway Park)

The first of three local preps in route to the G2 Spiral Stakes in March, the Prevue is just 6 1/2 furlongs in distance. Handicappers and scouts may have two different takes on this race to be sure. From a pure prospect standpoint for the 1 1/8-mile Spiral and beyond, the only horses I can see here are FRANKIE IS ROCK (Rafael Flores), a route-tested son of Rock Hard Ten with plenty of Paulson route history in the bloodlines, and SALVATORE G (Dale Romans), a relative newcomer to the barn by Macho Uno out of Lemon Drop Kid mare. SALVATORE G would appear the more equipped sprinter of the two at this stage of the game and could hold the advantage in that match-up on Saturday night.

JONMIL JOHNNY (Desmond Fogarty) recently left the Mike Maker barn and will take on a pair of horses from that shed row in MAGICAL SEASON and MR PRANKSTER. All told, I like the ex-Maker runner most of this trio, even if he’s been away since the Keeneland meet. Being an early season 2YO last year, some extra time might help him fire fresh. Maiden CIRCUS CLOWN (Walter Bindner) has been finishing up nicely in his races to date and hails from a barn that is best known for producing long-winded routers. He may improve with time and distance.

Turfway Prevue Stakes selections: W) SALVATORE G; P) JONMIL JOHNNY; S) FRANKIE IS ROCK.

Last week’s selections: none.

Season selections: 0: 0-0-0

Everyone’s a critic

This section reviews the week that was in the 3-year-old ranks. The season debut edition will be a bit longer than usual since we’re dialing back the reviews to Dec. 26, which is our annual, albeit unofficial, start to the Countdown season.

Gulfstream Park Derby (1/1, GP-10)

This strange race saw its field spread more than 25 lengths from front to back, and 15 lengths just from first place through sixth. Could all of these 3-year-olds been that over-placed at the distance? Time will tell. REVERON (Agustin Bezara) won his third straight race with a perfect, pressing trip from the two-path, overhauling a tired 29-1 shot NACHAS AND JOY (Jimmy Divito), who was in from Chicago. Impressive Churchill fall winner CASUAL TRICK (Nick Zito) had no excuse moving just three-wide on the far turn and having dead aim on the winner throughout the lane. He may have been a workout short looking at the spacing on his tab (12-day gap between drills in early December). KING KID (Dale Romans) appeared in a bit of a tough spot while stuck on the inside heading into the far turn, but he got out nicely at the quarter pole and had every shot to impact and instead was pulled away from. SILVER MENACE (Kathy Ritvo), an even and well-beaten sixth, may have the most upside to rebound after racing rank much of the early going and struggling to find his place down the backstretch. Lukewarm favorite ANCIENT ROME (Tony Dutrow) didn’t pick up a hoof after a visually impressive sprint win in the Spectacular Bid, and wound up beating only one horse. Despite pulling away from the rest of the pack, REVERON and CASUAL TRICK didn’t exactly fly home, running the fourth quarter in 25.71 and the final sixteenth in the short stretch in 7.05 seconds. REVERON’s grand dam is Del Mar Oaks and multiple turf route stakes winner Stylish Star, so there’s a lot to like on the damside of this pedigree, even if he’s sired by Songandaprayer. Without a doubt, though, if it’s a route pedigree you want then CASUAL TRICK figures to play on throughout the spring as a son of Preakness/Travers winner Bernardini out of English Oaks heroine Casual Look.

Eddie Logan Stakes (12/31, SA-7)

We mentioned at the top that turf/synthetic horses are going to be more of a premium following Animal Kingdom’s success last year, so this one-mile listed turf event may wind up with more say than you think come May. After all, Julien Leparoux bypassed an entire day at Gulfstream to head west to ride grassy favorite DADDY NOSE BEST (Steve Asmussen), a horse the barn thinks can be a serious player at long distances down the road. Instead, the headliner turned out to be CHIPS ALL IN (Jeff Mullins), a winner now in 4 of 5 starts. The grassy-bred $4,500 yearling buy had never routed or raced on turf, though bred to do both, prior to receiving this perfect, first-over, pressing trip. CHIPS ALL IN finished with good energy and galloped out well in defeating SHEER TALENT (Dan Hendricks) and STONEY FLEECE (John Sadler), the G3 Generous winner who was wheeling back on just five days’ rest after a troubled try in the Cal Breeders Champions Stakes on Dec. 26. DADDY NOSE BEST never impacted, never looked comfortable and turned in the kind of performance that appears a major setback. If the barn finds nothing wrong physically, you just hope he settles into the new surroundings out west for the winter and shows marked improvement next out. Meanwhile, CHIPS ALL IN’s final time of 1:34.86 on firm turf was about three or four lengths slower than a very good group of older $32,000 claimers ran earlier on the card. Don’t let that class level fool you, it was a stakes-quality group of older veterans in that claimer. By Epsom Derby winner North Light, there’s reason to appreciate CHIPS ALL IN moving along the trail, especially given he’s already a minor stakes winner on dirt and a winner over two different synthetic surface brands as well.

Other stakes

In other minor stakes over the past week or so, SWAG DADDY (Rick Dutrow) notched his second straight New York-bred stakes score Saturday when handily wiring the mile-and-70-yard Restrainor Stakes at Aqueduct. It was a change of tactics from his rallying win in the Damon Runyon Stakes vs. a very similar field. The son of Scat Daddy is half-brother to What A Tale, runner-up in the G3 Iroquois at Churchill as a 2-year-old and who eventually settled in as a sprinter. Out west, GOT EVEN (Peter Miller) romped to a seven-furlong wire job in the Cal Breeders Champions Stakes at Santa Anita on Dec. 26. The time was about a length quicker than talented gal Ismene ran earlier in the day in the fillies division. The son of Stephen Got Even has a sprint-based pedigree on the dam side. At Fair Grounds, BEANWAH’SMACHINE (Al Stall Jr.) won the six-furlong Louisiana Futurity on Dec. 31 vs. statebreds about four lengths quicker than the same-day fillies’ division as a prompt 3-10 favorite. Pedigree suggests he’ll remain sprinting. Meanwhile, THAT’S WHO (Joel Marr) threw his hat into the Sunland Park Derby picture with a popular win in the Dec. 31 Red Hedeman Mile in a solid 1:37.11 for his second New Mexico-bred stakes win.

Allowance races

CAPETOWN DEVIL (David Carroll) got a real stakes dress rehearsal Saturday at Fair Grounds, beating a full field of 12 allowance runners over one mile and 70 yards in a hard-fought manner. He overcame a wide trip and dogged rival in GOWHEREYOUGAZE (Michell Nihei, recent claim off Steve Asmussen), who just wouldn’t go away the final sixteenth. ROCK HARDER (Neil Howard), highly impressive in his maiden romp at FG in his dirt debut, was a good third despite a pace setup that didn’t help him and wide trip. ROCK HARDER galloped out best of all and should move forward. The final time for CAPETOWN DEVIL was about a length and a half slower than Oaks-contending filly Summer Applause ran to open the card at the same distance, but you have to love the Nureyev on the bottom of his pedigree. TIZ MOE (Bret Calhoun) came up empty and did not flatter the Delta Downs form from the Jean Lafitte or Delta Jackpot with this fifth-place run. TIZ TEE TIME (Phil Sims) had a rough trip from start to finish and is one to not lose all faith in just yet following a sharp Keeneland debut fall win.

At Gulfstream on Dec. 26, LIQUIDITY TRAP (Chad Brown) disappointed at even money after a solid run of grass tries in New York when third (placed second by disqualification) in an entry-level turf route allowance. The roughly run race also saw SATURDAY LAUNCH (Ken McPeek) finish fourth (placed third) in his first southern start since running second to DADDY NOSE BEST on the Churchill lawn. Florida Stallion Series battle-tested alum ARGENTINE TANGO (Stanley Gold) had his number taken down ridiculously after rocketing by all in the stretch, and was replaced on the tote by $139.40 upsetter EL ROMANO (Manny Azpurua), formerly 1-for-9 at Calder and a winner sprinting on dirt. ARGENTINE TANGO was miles the best and visually very impressive. He galloped out like he never ran. His half-sister Evil Queen is Grade 3 stakes-placed on dirt at Gulfstream and ARGENTINE TANGO already has plenty of solid dirt efforts at Calder in his own right. He’s worth watching moving ahead (and that comes Sunday at Gulfstream on short rest).

Around the horn in other recent allowances, HAKAMA (Mike Trombetta) likely earned a stakes trip to New York by besting a 1 1/16-mile Laurel allowance on Wednesday. He’s half-brother to last year’s Fair Grounds hotshot Bind. At Fair Grounds on Wednesday, ICON IKE (Larry Jones) won a turf sprint allowance despite a world of trouble, but pedigree suggests you won’t see him tried longer. Third-place finisher PACIFIC HEIGHTS (Bret Calhoun) is the route prospect to watch from this one. FASTESTWHOGETSPAID (Brian Williamson) wired a fairly decent field in a two-turn Hawthorne dirt route Dec. 28 that was slow early and came home pretty sharply in :24.97 and :06.60. Since he is by Henny Hughes, distances are a real question with legitimate early pace, however. At Tampa Bay Downs, IT TAKES HEART (Chad Stewart) upset graded stakes alumnus BURN THE MORTGAGE (Wayne Catalano) with a wire-to-wire turf mile allowance theft Dec. 30 despite a dirt sprint pedigree. And at Parx on New Year’s Day, PHIL DANCER (Butch Reid) rallied to score a first-level dirt allowance sprint to improve to 2-for-3 lifetime over romping debut winner YO KOFFY (William Anderson). The winner is a full brother to superb Pa.-bred and multiple sprint stakes winner Ann’s Smart Dancer.

Maiden races

MIDNIGHT TRANSFER (Carla Gaines) smoked a six-furlong Santa Anita maiden sprint Dec. 26 in 1:08.02 by nearly five lengths. His mama won the G3 Florida Oaks at 1 1/16 miles on dirt, and this one is by hot young sire Hard Spun, himself a Kentucky Derby runner-up.  MIDNIGHT TRANSFER defeated the highly touted debut runner-up BERNSTER (Bob Baffert), a regally bred son of Storm Cat-Halo America who won’t be a maiden long and should relish more distance. This was a very, very good race and one to look at for key returnees.

UNUSUAL HEATWAVE (Alexis Barba) looked a lot like big brother Alphie’s Bet in winning Saturday at Santa Anita in a downhill turf sprint maiden. Remember that Alphie’s Bet stretched out to win the 1 1/8-mile G3 Sham on dirt two years ago on the Triple Crown trail and ran strongly in stakes on turf, dirt and synthetics. Expect UNUSUAL HEATWAVE to get a chance on dirt at some point for a Barba barn that’s been fairly prominent on the trail in recent springs. This May 16 foal may just now be getting it.

Also on the West Coast, a Dec. 30 split division of a one-mile maiden dirt route gives some direct comparables just two races apart on the program. FED BIZ (Bob Baffert) won the faster division by nearly three full lengths quicker, dueling the other speed into the ground and finishing up well enough visually to win clear. By Giant’s Causeway, he’s out of a Wild Again mare who won 4 of 5 starts in an injury-shortened career that included wins sprinting and routing on dirt. Third-place finisher CALLED TO SERVE (David Hofmans) made a decent debut for a barn that doesn’t ask much early and galloped out very well. He’s by Afleet Alex out of a Kris S. mare and one to keep tabs on in a maiden route soon. The second division of that Dec. 30 maiden route saw the younger half-brother to Premier Pegasus, GROOVIN SOLO (Myung Kwon Cho), come home in similar splits to FED BIZ, but with the benefit of a much slower early pace. It was rewarding to see him validate my faith after having the reins break in the G1 CashCall Futurity, where I thought the then-maiden had a real chance to pull a shocking upset. The big disappointment was SATURDAY CHARM (Steve Asmussen), who totally caved in after pressing the pace in his first West Coast try since debuting third in the much-ballyhooed EVER SO LUCKY (Jonathan Sheppard) autumn maiden race at Churchill Downs.

As for the Gulfstream Park maiden races in recent days, first-time starter EXOTHERMIC (Rusty Arnold) pulled a 58-1 debut shocker Dec. 29 in a turf maiden route at GP. Trakus indicates he flew home the final two furlongs in :11.94 and an even quicker :11.77 to the wire. The winner is by Empire Maker out of millionaire mare Irridescence, the South African world traveler who ran second in the G1 Beverly D. in her career finale. Runner-up BIG BLUE SPIRIT (Darrin Miller) ran well in from Ireland in a troubled trip and could be one to watch in the Polytrack preps later this season. Colonel John’s little brother BILL OF RIGHTS (Eoin Harty) ran an improved race back on grass and would be another who could eventually find his way to those Turfway and Keeneland preps.

The Gulfstream turf was the backdrop for another big-bomb price when FINNEGANS WAKE (Dale Romans) rocked a $63 mutuel on New Year’s Day in a maiden route. The son of Powerscourt won despite giving up at least 5 to 6 lengths according to Trakus to the runner-up and third-place finishers. Modestly bred FINNEGANS WAKE didn’t pick up a hoof in his debut on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs in a race rained off the turf. Runner-up GOLDEN TICKET (Ken McPeek) stretched out nicely around two turns for the first time, having sprinted second behind sharpie EVER SO LUCKY (Jonathan Sheppard) on the Churchill dirt last fall.

A 1 1/8-mile dirt trip provided a stamina test to Gulfstream maidens on Dec. 31, a race won by Speightstown colt BIG SCREEN (Frank Alexander), who had the benefit of a prior solid start at the meeting. The one to watch from this race is SUNS OUT GUNS OUT (Dale Romans), who was finishing best of all and lost nearly two lengths in ground, according to Trakus. He’s by Empire Maker out of a full sister to Tenpins. On Thursday this week, GENTLEMEN’S BET (Wayne Catalano) whistled six furlongs at Gulfstream in 1:10.23, winning by more than seven lengths, but boasting strictly a sprinter’s pedigree. Runner-up NONNO’S BOY (David Fawkes) also was second last fall to the talented ALGORITHMS (Todd Pletcher), but he, too, has a sprinter’s pedigree.

In other recent maiden races of note around the country, BEGGARTHYNEIGHBOR (Chad Brown) and STEELE ROAD (Kiaran McLaughlin) ran 1-2 on New Year’s Day at Aqueduct in a very lively six-furlong maiden that went only about three lengths slower than top older sprint filly Nicole H ran later in the card. The runner-up is by Street Cry and out of champion mare Ashado, and he showed vast improvement in his second start. The winner is by sprint sire Half Ours.

Watch out on the Sunland Derby trail for LEVEL UP (Henry Dominguez), who crushed a six-furlong maiden sprint in 1:09.10 by 10-plus lengths on New Year’s Day for a highly respected local horseman. It was his second local try after failing in the SoCal maiden claiming ranks, but the son of nine-furlong graded winner Momentum obviously is on the improve. At Tampa Bay Downs, ROJO VERDE (David Hinsley) cruised to a nearly seven-length maiden dirt sprint score Dec. 30 over a field that included the disappointing debut for 9-5 favorite ROUND MIDNIGHT (Nick Zito), the latter a son of millionaires A.P. Indy and Miss Shop.

At Parx on Dec. 27, QUALITY HARBOR (Kathleen Demasi) debuted a dominant, six-length sprint winner in a modest time. The son of Rockport Harbor is out of a half-sister to long-winded turf ace Slew The Red, so he could be a distance player over the winter at Aqueduct. Speaking of the Big A, QUORUM (Sandino Hernandez) mustered only a third-place finish in a Dec. 31 maiden route behind 41-1 upsetter ROMANCING THE GOLD (Jeremiah Englehardt). Why is that noteworthy? QUORUM had previously finished third at Calder behind the eventual Gulfstream Park Derby victor REVERON, so this result doesn’t flatter the GP stakes to any extent.

Finally, Turfway’s road to the Spiral Stakes may have picked up a player when Devil His Due colt PHANTOM FURY (Mike Lauer) blew away maiden sprinters Dec. 30 by eight lengths in his second lifetime start, posting a time very comparable to older allowance sprinters in the very next race.

Quick hitters

Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner HANSEN (Mike Maker) got back on the workout tab at Gulfstream Park on Christmas Eve and returned a week later for a more focused half-mile breeze … UNION RAGS (Michael Matz), who will battle Hansen for champion 2-year-old honors, spent the early winter taking it easy on a polo farm in Florida before being  pointed toward a likely Fountain of Youth-Florida Derby campaign at Gulfstream Park … California’s top 2-year-old of 2011, CREATIVE CAUSE (Mike Harrington), notched his first workout since a third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile when he breezed three furlongs Dec. 30 at Hollywood Park … LIAISON (Bob Baffert) was back to work just 13 days after winning Hollywood’s G1 CashCall Futurity, breezing five furlongs on Dec. 30 … EX FACTOR (Bernie Flint) was back on the workout tab in two weeks, breezing a half-mile at Fair Grounds following his return victory in the Dec. 17 Sugar Bowl Stakes. Away since July by design, the Bashford Manor Stakes winner provided a good sign with a fairly quick return to his workout regimen ... Among the notables awaiting a return to the workout tab include G2 Kentucky Jockey Club headliners GEMOLOGIST (Todd Pletcher) and EVER SO LUCKY (Jonathan Sheppard), as well as G3 Iroquois champ MOTOR CITY (Ian Wilkes) and G2 Remsen hero O’PRADO AGAIN (Dale Romans), all four of whom are expected to make Gulfstream Park appearances at the meet … G3 Delta Jackpot winner SABERCAT (Steve Asmussen) worked twice after that November victory, but then went AWOL from the Fair Grounds workout tab after Dec. 5 … Perhaps the Asmussen barn's best under-the-radar horse to watch is UNBRIDLED’S NOTE, who has been sent west and is on the Santa Anita workout tab looking for a two-turn race … Next weekend’s stakes to circle include the Jan. 14 Pasco at Tampa Bay Downs and California Derby at Golden Gate, as well as the Jan. 16 Smarty Jones on a holiday Monday card at Oaklawn and the same-day Jimmy Winkfield sprint at Aqueduct.

High fives

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

Maiden race

1. MIDNIGHT TRANSFER (Santa Anita, 12/26)
2. FED BIZ (Santa Anita, 12/30)
3. EXOTHERMIC (Gulfstream Park, 12/29 *TURF*)
4. UNUSUAL HEATWAVE (Santa Anita, 12/31 *TURF*)
5. GROOVIN SOLO (Santa Anita, 12/30)

Allowance race

1. CAPETOWN DEVIL (Fair Grounds, 12/30)
2. ARGENTINE TANGO [DQ’d] (Gulfstream Park, 12/26, *TURF*)
3. FASTESTWHOGETSPAID (Hawthorne, 12/28)
4. HAKAMA (Laurel, 1/4)
5. PHIL DANCER (Parx, 1/1)

Stakes race

1. REVERON (Gulfstream Park Derby, GP, 1/1)
2. CHIPS ALL IN (Eddie Logan, SA, 12/31 *TURF*)
3. GOT EVEN (Cal Breeders Champions, SA, 12/26)
4. SWAG DADDY (Restrainor, AQU, 12/31)
5. BEANWAH’SMACHINE (La Futurity, FG, 12/31)

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!