03/08/2013 1:47PM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 10 - March 8, 2013

John Duca/Tom Cooley Photography
Dynamic Sky could have a home-field edge in Saturday's Tampa Bay Derby.

The eighth season of Countdown to the Crown returns 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

VERRAZANO (Todd Pletcher) may be No. 1 on many Kentucky Derby contenders lists, but history shows that Saturday’s Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby is a race that puts the “yips” in trainer Pletcher’s putter. Unbeaten Spring Hill Farm brought his 2-for-2 mark into Tampa last year as the 2-1 favorite and became the TAP barn’s fifth beaten favorite in this race since 2006. Also missing the cup were Brethren at 1-2 odds, Super Saver at 3-2, Any Given Saturday at 3-5, and Blue Grass Cat at 2-5. Dare I say, this will be no tap-in putt for the Kentucky Derby Future Wager’s individual betting favorite.

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. As is custom, I’ll outline some undercard races of note before diving into the stakes analysis and selections. Do note: Countdown annually follows only the most significant maiden and allowance developments once the calendar flips to March.

The Grade 1 Arkansas Derby could pick up a late bloomer in Friday’s race 2 allowance route at Oaklawn. The 1 1/16-mile race includes romping maiden breaker TRANSYLVANIA FLASH (Donnie K. Von Hemel), and could give us some barometer on Grade 2 Rebel Stakes hopeful Carve (Steve Asmussen). Two pursuers from Carve’s Feb. 17 allowance win are back, namely MIDAS DANCER (Kenny McPeek) and STRATOCRUISER (Kenny Smith).

Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf runner-up NOBLE TUNE (Chad Brown) makes his long-awaited sophomore return Saturday in a race 5 allowance at Tampa Bay Downs. The one-mile grass contest could put the Unbridled’s Song colt en route to the Grade 1 Blue Grass at Keeneland over a Polytrack surface he’s bred to relish. Saturday’s competition includes Grade 3 Arlington-Washington Futurity winner PATAKY KID (Tom Proctor), another logical Blue Grass possibility.

Saturday’s Gulfstream Park card lacks any huge headliners this week, but a race 3 allowance features two head-scratching players from past Countdown reviews, SAYLER’S CREEK (Kenny McPeek) and ACCLAIM (Terri Pompey). The former was eased in his local return Jan. 26 after having some glaring gaps in his workout tab, but has been spot-on in the a.m. since. He could bounce back after winning an extremely key race at Churchill last fall. As for ACCLAIM, he won last time but looked nearly distressed in doing so, drifted badly and shook his head wildly while being pulled up just past the wire. It took him 27 days to get back on the workout tab after that, so I’m not sure where he’s at physically or mentally. It could be an even bigger “bounce-back Saturday” for the McPeek barn as he also sends out race 5 turf maiden router WAR DANCER, who was mediocre on dirt after a razor-sharp career bow on turf.  And in race 7, BOLD DANCE (Bill Mott) auditions for a stakes spot in a one mile turf allowance after a long duel and tough loss Jan. 26 in which he inherited a lead that probably didn’t help his style. In a race 8 maiden sprint, note the debut of SUSPICIOUS (Shug McGaughey), a maternal grandson of Inside Information who is a full brother to Gone Astray.

In Dubai, the $250,000 Al Bastakiya serves as a local prep for the Grade 2 UAE Derby on March 30, but the scratch of FORTIFY (Mahmoud Al Zarooni) leaves the race with no Triple Crown nominees among its entrants.

While he won’t be a Triple Crown presence, one of the fastest sprinters of this 3-year-old crop returns Sunday in a race 2 allowance at Santa Anita in LET EM SHINE (Adam Kitchingman). He’ll meet comebacking Grade 3 Sapling and Grade 3 Bashford Manor-placed dasher SPECIAL JO (Steve Asmussen).

Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby (Saturday/Tampa Bay Downs) [Get PPs + Watch Live]

Five of the nine horses in the Grade 2, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby field never have raced around two turns, including heavily favored VERRAZANO (Todd Pletcher), who also makes his stakes debut. Who handles the trip, both in terms of turns and travel, will be critical to Tampa Bay Derby success. It’s a field that boasts five existing stakes winners, including the one-two finishers from the all-important Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes.

Even so, the discussion must start with VERRAZANO, the top-rated maiden and top-rated allowance winner of the 2013 Countdown season. The son of More Than Ready, and half-brother to 2012 Grade 2 Risen Star hero El Padrino, has been both fast and furious in his two starts, winning by 21 combined lengths in strong times. And to be fair, the horses who’ve run behind him have come back to acquit themselves admirably for their relative classes.

It’s easy to say the race runs through the speedy VERRAZANO, but as noted at the top of the column this week, recent Tampa Bay Derby renewals could wallpaper the Taj Mahal with losing tickets on Pletcher-trained big favorites. Part of the big hurdle is the track itself, labeled “quirky” by most for lack of a concrete reason. But adjectives aside, it’s relevant that five straight winners of this race prepped locally and four of those five came out of the Sam F. Davis Stakes. The last horse to stop that run was Street Sense in 2007, who went on to win the Kentucky Derby and was a reigning juvenile champion. Unless you concede that kind of laurel to VERRAZANO already, then the door has to at least be open to talk upset.

The pace figures to be red-hot in the Tampa Bay Derby. Inside-drawn PURPLE EGG (Jane Cibelli) has elite sprinter’s speed when on his game, but a series of illnesses and ailments has made him a multiple scratch in recent months since winning the Dec. 1 Inaugural Stakes over this Tampa track. It’s also noteworthy that the Cibelli barn has done a statistical 180-degree turn since a veterinarian reportedly linked to the outfit was evicted from the grounds in early February. My loose count reads something like 10 for 25 at Tampa just before, and 3 for 25 since that date in question, heading into this week’s racing. Any way you assess the health and wellness of PURPLE EGG, at bare minimum you’ll recognize his presence to the pace.

Also among that fleet early flight will be OFFLEE FAST (Ron Pellegrini), VERRAZANO, and Davis Stakes winner FALLING SKY (John Terranova), the latter hung wide in the far outside No. 9 post and picking up six pounds of weight off his recent score on the engine.

The horse who falls into the sweet spot in the Tampa Bay Derby should be DYNAMIC SKY (Mark Casse), highly talented and capable of overcoming tough trips. The Sky Mesa colt has proven himself over this course, gets a positive four-pound weight shift in his rematch with FALLING SKY from the Davis, and is drawn nicely in post No. 5. Jockey Luis Contreras was removed after a few questionable decisions, and elite pilot Joel Rosario would appear a fantastic next move.

Two Gulfstream sprinters of repute in the field include HONORABLE DILLON (Eddie Kenneally), winner of the Grade 2 Hutcheson Stakes at 7 furlongs, and PARK CITY (Pletcher), unbeaten in a pair of sprint races to date. HONORABLE DILLON has difficulty changing leads in his sprint races, and I’m curious to see how he’ll handle a pair of lead changes in this two-turn unveiling. The last sprinter to stretch out and win the Tampa Bay Derby was fellow Hutcheson winner Limehouse in 2004.  HONORABLE DILLON adds a significant six-pound handicap from the Hutch. PARK CITY was solid but unspectacular in victory Feb. 9 and figures to improve in his second start off a layoff while getting a very tough assignment.

The home-field edge, pace setup, and historical signposts point toward a minor upset here, and I’m playing it that way, but by no means consider VERRAZANO fraudulent.

Tampa Bay Derby selections: W) DYNAMIC SKY; P) VERRAZANO; S) FALLING SKY.

Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes (Saturday/Santa Anita) [Get PPs]

Most consider Saturday’s Grade 2, $300,000 San Felipe the ultimate early season showdown on the West Coast between Grade 2 Lewis Memorial winner FLASHBACK (Bob Baffert) and Grade 3 Sham and Delta Jackpot hero GOLDENCENTS (Doug O’Neill). That would be reason enough to take heed, but I admit no less than three other contenders in this eight-horse lineup could win and not surprise this eye in the least. It’s a much deeper prep for the Santa Anita Derby than envisioned by many.

Between FLASHBACK and GOLDENCENTS are five wins and a runner-up finish from six starts, three graded stakes wins and a grand total of four horses they’ve ever been behind in the running of a race. They are fleet, consistently fast and both firing bullets in the morning for this encounter. Each has shown some rate-ability while obviously having a fast cruising speed. What’s not to like? Nothing really. GOLDENCENTS did get weary late in the Sham after a strong pace, coming home in the mid-26's, but I loved everything he did up until the final push. FLASHBACK will spot the field three to five pounds apiece and picks up five pounds off his Lewis victory. But I’m not finding huge reasons to think these two won’t be strong Saturday.

Beyond the two-deep depth chart lie a trio of horses whose ceilings appear high. Each has his own questions, but will be of legitimate tote value in the San Felipe for a handicapper to bid on those answers. First, there’s California-bred OMEGA STAR (John Shirreffs). This Candy Ride colt doesn’t have a Cal-bred pedigree, and visually looked as good as a horse could in breaking his maiden Dec. 31 over this track. When he reappeared four weeks later in the two-turn California Breeders’ Champion Stakes, he found a deep, drying-out and tiring racetrack impacted by earlier rains. After cruising to the front with a solid close, he faltered late and was collared by a rallying TIZ A MINISTER (Paul Aguirre), who returns Saturday as well.

Normally reserved trainer Shirreffs has talked highly of OMEGA STAR since then and felt the sting of the loss he didn’t expect in the Cal Breeders. My intuition tells me this is a big spot for him Saturday, and I can’t get the visuals of his maiden win out of my head as I was so impressed. You know he’ll get a hot pace to chase down if he’s good enough and the price will be right.

HEAR THE GHOST (Jerry Hollendorfer) and KOCHEES (Michael Pender) also have license to be among that trio of upstarts to challenge the favorites. HEAR THE GHOST beat a really good field for fun at Hollywood Park in his debut and then finished strong in the San Pedro Stakes over this track in January. His pedigree says routes will be within reach, and the Hollendorfer barn is hitting a crazy 38 percent at Santa Anita over the past month.  As for KOCHEES, he adds blinkers off of a fourth-place finish in an allowance race that’s turned out bonkers. That race has produced the Grade 3 Southwest winner, the Turf Paradise Derby winner and the Grade 2 Risen Star runner-up. KOCHEES, like most in this race, also has been working up a storm.

Any race where you don’t like the Baffert-Bejarano charge, in this case Real Quiet Stakes winner CARVING, must be tough. And this San Felipe sure is. The field is rounded out by SALUTOS AMIGOS, a fast sprinter who could turn the screws on the pace if sent on a mission. I will be very curious to see how Martin Garcia rides this speedy horse, and if he’ll engage FLASHBACK heavily (given that Garcia rides so many Baffert runners). He’s in a tough business position, if you will.

When you have several horses you really like, the only thing to do as a horseplayer is to lean on one of them that offers the best value for his chances at winning. The San Felipe may turn out to be all about the favorites, but the player in me will take the leap.

San Felipe Stakes selections: W) OMEGA STAR; P) FLASHBACK; S) GOLDENCENTS.

Capossela Stakes (Saturday/Aqueduct) [Get PPs]

My original intent was to mention the Capossela and move on, given its six-furlong distance. But when the entries included five Triple Crown nominees among the seven contenders, perhaps we’re looking at a few folks thinking about the Wood Memorial here if things break just right. Either way, it’s a dynamite field of sprinters at the very least.

CLAWBACK (Rick Violette) has been New York’s top winter dasher after two blowout wins on the inner-dirt track. Violette toyed with the Grade 3 Gotham last week before deciding to hold off on routing for just now. After taking rival Vyjack (Rudy Rodriguez) to the brink in November, CLAWBACK has done nothing wrong since and has seen that form trumped by the eventual Gotham and Jerome champ. This son of Put It Back will be awfully tough to beat in the Capossela.

Two Big A newcomers deserve looks, WHISKEY ROMEO (Tony Dutrow) and SILVER MORGAN (Lupe Preciado). I was surprised to see WHISKEY ROMEO in this spot after he trained all winter in Florida and with the Hutcheson and Swale down there to choose from for Dutrow. But make no mistake, his 2-year-old form was outstanding and he handled Amerigo Vespucci (Tim Tullock) with ease, and that runner more than validated the form this winter in NYRA stakes company. The recent workout tab for WHISKEY ROMEO is spaced as such that it appears Dutrow really means business in the first race back from a Dec. 1 layoff.

SILVER MORGAN has been beaten by only one horse to date, and that runner, Forty Tales (Todd Pletcher), went on to be graded stakes-placed in Florida. The gelded son of the very fast stallion J Be K fired a quick work at his Parx home base since his last win at Laurel and could fit well with these.

Regally bred MALEEH (Kiaran McLaughlin) must show some speed from the rail, and I liked how this Indian Charlie-Gold Mover colt came and got Bellamy Storm (Bill Mott) in his debut. Jockey Irad Ortiz, who has won many races with McLaughlin, jumps seat to CLAWBACK, however. Former claimer RUBYSANDPEARLS (David Jacobson) was no match for CLAWBACK in the Winkfield, but provides plenty of early pace.

Capossela Stakes selections: W) WHISKEY ROMEO; P) CLAWBACK; S) SILVER MORGAN.

Private Terms Stakes (Saturday/Laurel Park) [Get PPs]

Maryland’s road to the Triple Crown stretches out to 1 1/8 miles Saturday in the $150,000 Private Terms. The race’s two Triple Crown nominees vie for favoritism in Miracle Wood Stakes winner DYNAMIC STRIKE (Dickie Small) and recent Aqueduct maiden winner MR PALMER (Bill Mott). The big field of 10 will challenge runners into the first turn over this nine-furlong oval, so post position and trip will be important.

DYNAMIC STRIKE owns three straight wins at the one-turn mile distance, but the Private Terms will be his first foray around two turns. Toting 122 pounds, he will surrender four to six pounds to each of his rivals, including a six-pound spread to MR PALMER. On pedigree, both favorites figure to be capable at the distance, but two-turn experience and a slight pedigree lean may go to MR PALMER. On paper, MR PALMER’s Feb. 17 Aqueduct maiden field appeared to be one of the stronger in New York so far in 2013.

The Miracle Wood Stakes remains a tough read for me. The entire lot of six spread across the track inside the final furlong, and DYNAMIC STRIKE emerged from the smoke with the score. He’s trained very well since then with three works, including a 47.60 half-mile bullet that’s faster than usual for a Small stable worker.

If there’s a Miracle Wood alumnus who can turn the tables on DYNAMIC STRIKE, it could be LUNAR ROCK (Dale Capuano). I like the Cryptoclearance on the damside of his pedigree for this distance and he overcame a bad start to run most of his race Feb. 9 trying to compensate. Jockey Sheldon Russell is an excellent finishing rider on this style of horse. WHERE’S DOMINIC (Mike Trombetta) could get enough stamina from the bottom of his pedigree to handle this trip and would be the only other horse I’d consider in the exacta. SEVENTEENOHSIX (John Servis) appears to need a wet track to show his best.

Private Terms Stakes selections: W) MR PALMER; P) DYNAMIC STRIKE; S) LUNAR ROCK.

Last week’s selections: 5: 1-1-0. Top choice RYDILLUC (Gary Contessa) led a cold exacta in the Grade 3 Palm Beach, while TITLETOWN FIVE (D. Wayne Lukas) settled for second as the favorite in the Gazebo at Oaklawn in a top-two Countdown exacta box with KING HENNY (Steve Asmussen). Second pick CLEARLY NOW (Brian Lynch) upset the G3 Swale at big odds, but I whiffed badly on the Battaglia Memorial at Turfway as well as the Grade 3 Gotham at Aqueduct. We’ve had better and worse weeks.

Season selections: 24: 7-5-3.

Everyone’s a critic

This section reviews the week that was in the 3-year-old ranks. Note that my allowance and maiden coverage only includes highly impressive or significant movers from this point forward on the trail.

Stakes races

This season, Countdown will review the key Kentucky Derby “points preps” in further detail in the Countdown Rewind. Get more of Jeremy’s analysis on the Gotham Stakes and other points races in DRF's Kentucky Derby wagering guide. We had no less than seven other 3-year-old stakes around the country this past week that deserve our review.

RYDILLUC (Gary Contessa) is earning a cut-and-paste reputation with me, and that’s a darned good thing in this instance. Cut-and-paste his past performances every race and you see the same trip, and same results. In Sunday’s Grade 3 $150,000 Palm Beach Stakes on the Gulfstream Park turf, the son of Medaglia d’Oro won his third straight race employing a first-over, pressing trip and dominating stretch run. RYDILLUC drew away to win by 3 ½ lengths while running the final furlong of this 1 1/8 miles route in a ridiculous 11.40 while looking masterful on the visuals. Yes, this was a dream trip sitting just behind a 45-1 shot, however he’s made this exact same trip three straight times, so it’s “making” your trip, not “getting” your dream trip. Among those in his wake was Kitten’s Joy Stakes winner CHARMING KITTEN (Todd Pletcher) as well as top-four finishers in the Grade 2 Remsen and Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. RYDILLUC gives the impression he’s a sensational racehorse, one that must be taken very seriously in not only the Grade 1 Blue Grass in what figures to be his next start, but also the Kentucky Derby. He’s now in my Top 10. That T-P-D move has been very effective in recent Derbies as horses going from turf to Polytrack to dirt like Animal Kingdom and Paddy O’Prado come to mind immediately. As for the others in the Palm Beach, expect to see several of them back at Keeneland on April 13. The Palm Beach close third by REPORTING STAR (Kathleen O’Connell) flattered the form of two horses I’m looking at for the Blue Grass as well, Feb. 9 allowance one-two finishers Fire Guard (Bill Mott) and Jack Milton (Todd Pletcher).

The postscript to Saturday’s $60,000 Gazebo Stakes at Oaklawn reads a mixed bag as TITLETOWN FIVE (D. Wayne Lukas) had every reason to be a short horse, and probably was, in a still-disappointing second-place effort. With the lead and ready to widen in upper stretch, the Tiznow colt began to drift out under left-handed urging from Robby Albarado. By the time he righted course, stakes winner KING HENNY (Steve Asmussen) forged past for the score. It’s significant that TITLETOWN FIVE had returned from knee-chip surgery to the workout tab just one month prior. He had a right to get tired. But what’s interesting and perplexing is that he galloped out much better than the winner and seemed to get more out of the race than the result. Don’t be surprised if you see TITLETOWN FIVE in a one-shot deal in the Grade 3 Sunland Park Derby with his chance to make it to Louisville for co-owners Paul Hornung and Willie Davis of Green Bay Packers lore. I was hoping to see more from TITLETOWN FIVE, who lost a bit of luster in my eyes off this loss, but it also comes with legitimate reasoning behind it. The jury is deadlocked here until he returns to session. 

Not nominated to the Triple Crown, DEPARTING (Al Stall Jr.) sure has the look of a talented 3-year-old rising in class. After he scratched the colt from the Grade 2 Risen Star due to a bad post position, Stall sent DEPARTING to Sam Houston last Saturday night for the $50,000 Texas Heritage Stakes at one mile. His War Front colt turned in an absolutely professional performance, easily sweeping by an overmatched field while running his final quarter-mile in just over 24 seconds. The Texas Heritage result was exactly what you want to see when you send a horse to a race like this, and he got the progressing education needed to take on the big boys in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby next time. This was a sharp performance and strong gallop out that suggests he’ll handle a bit more in the immediate future. Don’t be surprised if he’s brought along slowly, a la Blame, for these same connections, and be more of a summer 3-year-old.

Turfway Park’s major Grade 3 Spiral Stakes prep, Saturday’s $75,000 John Battaglia Memorial Stakes, turned out to be a positive recount for GENERAL ELECTION (Kellyn Gorder). The Fair Grounds shipper transitioned to Polytrack with success in a come-from-behind victory that was aided by a solid pace that fell apart. Three of the top four finishers rallied from at least eight lengths behind after favorite WEST SIDE BERNIE (Kelly Breen) chased a hot pace set by a 48-1 shot that wound up ninth. Ship-in horses swept the top three Battaglia placings, which is not a good endorsement of the local stakes program that had been paced by Mac The Man (Jeff Greenhill) all winter. GENERAL ELECTION overcame a wide trip, runner-up GIANT FINISH (Tony Dutrow) ran well despite a terrible post draw and third-place finisher FOR GREATER GLORY (Steve Hobby) may have been best of all with a clean trip. All this adds up to a horseplayer thinking that the Spiral Stakes runs through a bigger-named Florida or California shipper in all likelihood.

Saturday’s Grade 3 Swale at Gulfstream appeared to be a two-horse sprint on paper to this eye. FORTY TALES (Todd Pletcher) impressed mightily in his prior two starts and a duplication of his Grade 2 Hutcheson figured to be enough to win. But he didn’t come close to that performance in a dull fifth, beaten just over three lengths. The logical next step was CLEARLY NOW (Brian Lynch), cutting back in distance off of a third-place effort in the Grade 3 Holy Bull to leading sophomores Itsmyluckyday (Eddie Plesa) and Shanghai Bobby (Todd Pletcher). CLEARLY NOW obliged with a wide rally to collar the speedy SINGANOTHERSONG (Ron Pellegrini), who carried his speed much farther than he had in the Hutcheson last month. The final furlong in 12.79 does not excite for this trip and CLEARLY NOW clearly has indicated he’s a better one-turn horse how with a 3-for-3 lifetime mark around a single bend. Look for him as a Grade 3 Derby Trial possibility at Churchill Downs. As for FORTY TALES, he obviously bounced as two horses he beat in the Hutch turned the tables on him narrowly in the Swale. He should be rerouted to the Grade 3 Lexington at 1 1/16 miles on Polytrack at Keeneland as his next major date, where he’d fit wonderfully on pedigree, distance and time to recover from this race.

Two 3-year-old turf stakes tilts last weekend don’t appear to have much impact on the trail. ROSENGOLD (Juliio Canani) wired the $75,000 Baffle Stakes sprinting down the hillside turf course at Santa Anita on Saturday. Canadian Queen’s Plate hopeful UP WITH THE BIRDS (Malcolm Pierce) won this third straight race Saturday in Fair Grounds’ $75,000 Black Gold with a late surge past ANIMAL STYLE (Mike Maker). Neither is Triple Crown-nominated, though both could show up at Keeneland in a stakes on turf or Polytrack next.

Allowance and maiden races

Even though he didn’t race last week, VERRAZANO (Todd Pletcher) had his resume bolstered by two different former rivals on Saturday’s Swale Stakes undercard at Gulfstream Park.

Gulfstream’s race 4 allowance route at 1 1/8 miles sat exactly four weeks out on the calendar from the Florida Derby and may produce some depth for that big Grade 1 on March 30. The field cantered for most of the trip and five of the six runners were bunched on the far turn, but it was GUNDERMAN (Mark Casse) widest of all who proved narrowly best. The final furlong in 12.30 was awfully good on the clock as well-bred INDY’S ILLUSION (Barclay Tagg) didn’t give an inch inside and remained game. But after cruising in the high 24s all the way around the first mile, it’s difficult to project such a pace scenario versus a bigger field of classy horses to come. What we do know from this field is that GUNDERMAN finished 16 1/2 lengths behind Verrazano when those two met Feb. 2, and this return win certainly flatters his ballyhooed ex-rival.

HONDURAN (Mark Frostad), meanwhile, finished more than 17 lengths behind Verrazano when those two met in a Jan. 1 maiden race. But two starts later, HONDURAN found the winner’s circle in Saturday’s race 8 maiden mile at Gulfstream after a five-length romp over what appeared a pretty weak field on paper. With two final quarters in 25.80 and 25.92, this mile won’t be in the season scrapbook, but the result is at least what you want to see if you’re a fan of Verrazano. Runner-up SAINT X (Dale Romans) continues to improve and should graduate soon.

Despite getting a soft pace up front, Well Armed’s little brother ONLY IN AMERICA (Eoin Harty) failed to deliver Saturday in an Oaklawn race 9 maiden route at 1 1/16 miles. Seventh-time maiden starter ROYAL ART (D. Wayne Lukas) took his measure late after fighting Jon Court much of the trip and got the nose victory in a tight photo. ONLY IN AMERICA didn’t tire or back down, and actually he galloped out exceptionally well, but he remains a maiden in what was a solid two-turn try.

Finally, the Blue Grass or Santa Anita Derby may have picked up a starter Thursday when EXAMEN (Tom Proctor) bounded home with an easy win in a route allowance at Santa Anita. The off-the-turf event was conducted on a wet track, and EXAMEN’s stride looked turfy in victory, but the Giant’s Causeway gelding has won two straight and likely will have to test the stakes waters next.

Where are they headed?

This section predicts the possible fields in upcoming major stakes. The information is a cross-section of interviews, news and track reports, and some good, old-fashioned projection of good fits. The list is by no means official or representative of the racing offices of the individual tracks.




Florida Derby (Gulfstream Park, March 31): ITSMYLUCKYDAY, SHANGHAI BOBBY, ORB (or Wood), BERN IDENTITY (or Wood), SPEAK LOGISITCS (or Wood), GUNDERMAN (possible), CLEARLY NOW


Wood Memorial (Aqueduct, April 6): VYJACK, NORMANDY INVASION, ORB (or Florida Derby), ELNAAWI, WEST HILLS GIANT, SIETE DE OROS (or Illinois Derby), OVERANALYZE, TRANSPARENT, CODE WEST (or Louisiana Derby), TIZ THE TRUTH (possible), POWER BROKER (possible), BERN IDENTITY (or Florida Derby), THE TRUTH AND K G (possible), GO GET THE BASIL (possible)

Santa Anita Derby (Santa Anita, April 6): Field to take shape after this weekend.

Arkansas Derby (Oaklawn Park, April 13): Field to take shape after Rebel Stakes.

Blue Grass (April 13): RYDILLUC (or Spiral), CHARMING KITTEN, DEWEY SQUARE

Later to come: Lexington (Keeneland, April 20), Illinois Derby (Hawthorne, April 20) and Derby Trial (Churchill Downs, April 27).

High fives

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

Maiden race
1. VERRAZANO (Gulfstream Park, 1/1)
2. REVOLUTIONARY (Aqueduct, 12/28)
3. TIZ THE TRUTH (Santa Anita, 2/2)
4. TRANSPARENT (Aqueduct, 1/26)
5. BIG LUTE (Oaklawn, 2/1)

Allowance race
1. VERRAZANO (Gulfstream Park, 2/2)
2. MAJESTIC HUSSAR (Gulfstream Park, 1/19)
3. SUPER NINETY NINE (Santa Anita, 1/31)
4. FIRE GUARD (Gulfstream Park, 2/9 *turf*)
5. MYLUTE (Fair Grounds, 12/26)

Stakes race
1. ITSMYLUCKYDAY (Holy Bull, Gulfstream, 1/26)
2. VYJACK (Gotham, Aqueduct, 3/2)
3. REVOLUTIONARY (Withers, Aqueduct, 2/2)
4. ORB (Fountain of Youth, Gulfstream, 2/23)
5. OXBOW (Lecomte Stakes, Fair Grounds, 1/19)

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!