03/15/2013 1:06PM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 11 - March 15, 2013

Alexander Barkoff/Hodges Photography
The pedigree and stronger foundation of Oxbow (front, winning the Lecomte) could prevail in Saturday's Rebel Stakes.

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

Fifteen of the 20 horses in the 2012 Kentucky Derby starting gate finished first or second in prep races that were deemed 50- or 100-point qualifiers for the 2013 event. So this talk of desperation “win and you’re in” falls on deaf ears to me, unless you want to defend the honor of Liaison, Rousing Sermon, Sabercat, Trinniberg, and Done Talking. They’re a combined 0-for-12 in route races since last year’s Derby.

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.

Races in two regions of the country Friday could give us a better line on Saturday’s Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn.

Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby implications are on the line in Friday’s race 2 allowance route at Santa Anita. With the favorites upset in last week’s Grade 2 San Felipe, connections with an upstart won’t be dissuaded from trying the big one in April if they’re successful Friday. The sharp field includes WAR ACADEMY and MANANDO for Bob Baffert. How well WAR ACADEMY runs out of the Grade 2 San Vicente could give us a line on that race’s top two finishers, Shakin It Up (Bob Baffert) and Treasury Bill (Ron Ellis), moving forward. In fact, Treasury Bill returns Saturday in the Grade 2 Rebel at Oaklawn. Turf Paradise Derby runner-up BROKERED (Craig Dollase) and grinding Feb. 17 maiden winner KID DREAMS (Neil Drysdale) would appear to be auditioning for an SA Derby spot as well.

Pedigree players can’t wait for Friday’s race 7 maiden sprint at Gulfstream Park. While it’s too late for these types to make the big dance, it’s worth noting we get to see a half-brother to Horse of the Year Havre de Grace in BRABBHAM (Kiaran McLaughlin), a blue-blooded son of Distorted Humor-Wait A While  in Triple Crown nominee ZAIKOV (Todd Pletcher) and the Lawyer Ron-Jostle rookie CONTEMPT OF COURT (Dale Romans).

Two races before Saturday’s Rebel at Oaklawn, a late candidate for the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby could arise. ONLY IN AMERICA (Eoin Harty) will be wheeled back on two weeks’ rest in hopes of graduation day in a race 8 maiden route, and the younger brother to Dubai World Cup winner Well Armed could be have enough time to run in the Arkansas Derby if good enough. He’s highly thought of and has run well in both starts, but it’s absolutely “go” time for him Saturday if he’s going to be any factor on the trail. He’ll meet Paynter’s little bro FIRE FLIGHT (D. Wayne Lukas), who has been blitzed in two starts at Retama Park.

We get one of our first real Florida-to-New York gauges of the season in Saturday’s Aqueduct race 6 maiden route. TAPULOUS (Todd Pletcher) pulls the reverse snowbird after a pair of disappointing runs at Gulfstream Park. We’ll see how he matches up with INCOGNITO (Kiaran McLaughlin), whose second to Mr Palmer (Bill Mott) and third to stablemate Elnaawi have looked much better since those two came back to win and place in recent stakes.

Sunday’s Gulfstream race 9 route allowance gives impressive Florida-bred allowance sprinter RIVER ROCKS (Wayne Catalano) his first two-turn test. He’ll meet Team Valor’s import CROP REPORT (Graham Motion), a troubled third in his U.S. debut and now getting a taste of the dirt. The strong field also boasts SAINT VIGEUR (Chad Brown), whose form has been flattered in recent weeks by his past rivals, and DUKE OF THE CITY (Kelly Breen), who disappointed on a wet track after showing so much middle-distance promise behind Orb (Shug McGaughey). This could be the best allowance race of the meet, top to bottom.

In Sunday’s race 7 maiden route at Santa Anita, it could be last call for FOOTBRIDGE (Eoin Harty) to throw his name into the Santa Anita Derby mix. The Street Cry colt has been right there in all three starts and needs a breakout performance to live up to his barn’s high expectations. He looks to have hooked easily the softest field he’s seen.

Finally, Countdown offers the series’ first-ever “Papal Pick of the Week.” Saturday’s Aqueduct race 8 New York-bred allowance should be all READTHESMOKESIGNAL (Bruce Levine) in light of the events at the Vatican earlier this week.

Grade 2 Rebel Stakes (Saturday/Oaklawn Park) [GET PPs]

A $600,000 purse, perfect calendar placement for a follow-up prep and Grade 2 status of Saturday’s Rebel Stakes all conspired to produce the deepest field of 3-year-olds I’ve seen so far this year. The lineup of 11 includes horses that have been graded stakes placed at no fewer than five different tracks: Aqueduct, Santa Anita, Hollywood, Fair Grounds, and Oaklawn. And while there’s no Florida influence, per se, Palm Meadows-based DELHOMME (Todd Pletcher) certainly could be construed as such without having raced at Gulfstream this season. His 2013 return is just one of several intriguing twists as SUPER NINETY NINE (Bob Baffert) looks to continue his barn’s dominance of the Oaklawn 3-year-old stakes program.

The 11 1/4-length shellacking SUPER NINETY NINE put on his Grade 3 Southwest Stakes rivals on Feb. 18 chased away all but two of his nine rivals from that race. Only WILL TAKE CHARGE (D. Wayne Lukas) and TEXAS BLING (Danele Durham), the one-two finishers in January’s Smarty Jones Stakes, will take another crack at the fleet Californian. But a funny thing happened on the way to a walkover. Several new and accomplished faces appeared for the Rebel as Baffert contemplated awaiting the Arkansas Derby with SUPER NINETY NINE, only to change his mind.

Enter the likes of TREASURY BILL (Ron Ellis), a dynamite closing sprinter bred to do so much more and runner-up in the Grade 2 San Vicente; OXBOW (D. Wayne Lukas), clearly the barn’s big horse for the Triple Crown trail and blowout winner of the Grade 3 Lecomte; and DELHOMME, third in last year’s Remsen and highly regarded from the Pletcher posse. Baffert himself sent in reinforcements with DEN’S LEGACY, a Grade 3 winner on turf but runner-up out West in the Grade 3 Sham and Grade 2 Bob Lewis Memorial. Suddenly, the Rebel looks infinitely stronger than the Southwest did a month ago.

Oaklawn’s local program also produced sharp Feb. 17 allowance one-two finishers CARVE (Steve Asmussen) and TITLE CONTENDER (now running for Wayne Catalano, formerly Bob Baffert). I’d be remiss not to mention the sneaky-dangerous STORMY HOLIDAY (Mac Robertson), from the same barn that pulled a $115 shocker in this same race four years ago with stakes-debuting Win Willy. The pace appears plenty warm enough to make the late run of STORMY HOLIDAY an intriguing exotics inclusion, and he’ll be on my tickets to fill out tris and supers.

The pace discussion makes for legitimate debate. Five runners in this field have made the early lead in major route stakes races, and the three fastest of them appear to be in the outside posts, 9-10-11 - TITLE CONTENDER, OXBOW and SUPER NINETY NINE. Those wide draws could force the throttle earlier than their riders may like in order to garner position on the first turn. I do appreciate that OXBOW and SUPER NINETY NINE don’t have that need-the-lead resume and could sit a length or two off of it and still bring their game. To me, the pace would mean that TITLE CONTENDER would be cooked, as well as any horse who wants to chase about 3 to 5 lengths off the lead. The pursuers should be gassed. The Rebel would appear to be a stamina test of the fleet OXBOW and SUPER NINETY NINE against the closing influences of horses like TREASURY BILL and perhaps even the aforementioned longshot bomber STORMY HOLIDAY. Those horses in the middle early are in no man’s land from a race-shape standpoint.

If the Rebel develops the way I see it then it’s the pedigree and stronger foundation of OXBOW that could prevail among the front-end bangers. SUPER NINETY NINE was to skip this dance, but was put back into the fire by Baffert when he was training so fresh and sharp in the morning. I’m never a big fan of changing plans, and the horse’s morning sharpness could be seen as a plus or a minus. If you really thought he was a Kentucky Derby horse, you’d be worried about too many fastballs in March mornings. Seems to me “99” might be too fresh for the big dance and is being directed back here because it’s a huge payday at a middle distance. I respect him greatly off his last two wins, but give me OXBOW in that head-to-head Saturday.

One Rebel note, missing in action is Big Lute (Steve Hobby), who will bypass the Rebel in search of another spot. That’s a solid move by a respected horseman who won’t press to make the Derby with this late blooming but talented colt. He could develop into a Preakness new shooter with two starts between now and mid-May from this eye.


Last week’s selections: 4: 1-0-0. Top choice MR PALMER tallied the Private Terms at Laurel. Second choice VERRAZANO was the right favorite to lean on in the Tampa Bay Derby in hindsight, but I tabbed the wrong closing upsetter in the San Felipe, and just whiffed completely on the Capossela at Aqueduct.

Season selections: 28: 8-5-3.

Everyone’s a critic

This section reviews the week that was in the 3-year-old ranks. Note that our 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 San Felipe Stakes and Tampa Bay Derby. Neither of those two races made my list of the top five stakes performances of the season, but both appear awfully important to the big picture of things.

Maybe the most improved 3-year-old of the 2013 crop put on a display Saturday in the $150,000 Private Terms Stakes at Laurel Park. MR PALMER (Bill Mott) notched his second straight win after six losses, rolling seven wide in a last-to-first romp that put him squarely on the map for one of the spring’s last-season big preps. He covered 1 1/8 miles in a 1:51.35 time that’s awfully good on a deep and slow Laurel surface. The Private Terms has been contested at a mile for the last several years, but the last two times it was at this nine-furlong distance, and it produced Preakness starters Magic Weisner in 2002 and Bay Eagle in 2001. I appreciate the impact Mott has had on all the major dirt distance races in recent years. The fact that the Triple Crown trips are longer than most horses want to go cannot be stressed enough. MR PALMER is moving the right way at the right time, a la Charismatic in 1999. Be warned when he shows up in a big-name prep in April, the most logical spot being the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.

You can’t help but think Saturday’s $100,000 Capossela Stakes winner MALEEH (Kiaran McLaughlin) will be no more than a sprinter. But, oh what a sprinter he appears to be, after a second straight victory at six furlongs. The son of Indian Charlie and the elite sprint stakes mare Gold Mover reeled in Winfield Stakes winner CLAWBACK (Rick Violette) and was widening on the end.  A speed duel between favorites WHISKEY ROMEO (Tony Dutrow) and CLAWBACK softened the favorites, to the point where West Coast maiden-claiming winner TENANGO (now David Jacobson) picked up the pieces for second money. Be skeptical of MALEEH around two turns, but respect him greatly in something like the Grade 3 Bay Shore on the Wood Memorial undercard.

HERO FORCE (Bret Calhoun) continues to look like a Grade 3 Derby Trial-type player following Saturday night’s victory in the $75,000 Pelican Stakes at Delta Downs. A four-time winner of sprints from 5 1/2 to 7 furlongs, his pedigree and two-turn experience on the bullring may make him a candidate for the 1 1/16-mile Grade 3 Lexington at Keeneland as well.

Monday’s $100,000 Ocala Breeders Sales Championship Stakes lost some luster when JACK MILTON (Todd Pletcher) scratched from the lineup. The race proved lackluster as prior four-race maiden MICHAEL WITH US (Steve Dimauro) tallied the victory in a time a tick slower than the fillies went in their same-day OBS Championship tilt. BROWN ALMIGHTY (Tim Ice) flattened out late in his first try on a synthetic track, but his third-place effort did not bolster the form of the Oaklawn stakes set after poor showings in the Smarty Jones and Grade 3 Southwest.

Allowance and maiden races

The return of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf runner-up NOBLE TUNE (Chad Brown) stole the headlines on Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby undercard. The well-bred grandson of Serena’s Song won for the third time in four starts with a scintillating stretch run of this race 5 turf mile allowance. NOBLE TUNE flew home in right around 22 seconds flat the final quarter-mile to win by a nose over ARE YOU KIDDING ME (Roger Attfield), last year’s Grade 2 Summer Stakes runner-up. Grade 3 Arlington-Washington Futurity winner PATAKY KID (Tom Proctor) was a close third in this dynamite field. NOBLE TUNE appears a very stout challenger for anyone considering the Grade 1 Blue Grass at Keeneland. This was one of the very best allowance performances of the season and ranks only behind Verrzano’s allowance win on dirt to this eye.

LET EM SHINE (Adam Kitchingman) flashed the fastest feet in the West again Sunday, winning a Santa Anita race 2 allowance sprint by 4 1/4 lengths after opening up more than 7 lengths in the first half-mile. The Songandaprayer colt is just plain fast and would hurt the chances of any speed horses if he were to enter a route stakes next. His only loss in three starts came to none other than Hear the Ghost (Jerry Hollendorfer), winner of Saturday’s Grade 2 San Felipe. If the San Felipe pace players didn’t like how it turned out on the front end, rest assured they are begging Kitchingman not to get bold and try this one in the Santa Anita Derby.

Sunday’s Gulfstream Park race 4 maiden route did not boost the reputation of Abraham (Todd Pletcher), as the two-three-four finishers from his Feb. 16 maiden win were smoked by FREEDOM CHILD (Tom Albertrani). A Triple Crown nominee by Malibu Moon, FREEDOM CHILD wired the field by five lengths in a modest 1:50.96 in his second start since splitting graded stakes winners Orb (Shug McGaughey) and Revolutionary (Todd Pletcher). Owner West Point Thoroughbreds has indicated the Illinois Derby on April 20 could be next.

The Grade 1 Blue Grass may have picked up a longshot entrant or two from the Ken McPeek stable. WAR DANCER broke his maiden Saturday in a Gulfstream race 5 route at nine furlongs. The War Front colt finished up sharply in 11.80 the final furlong while racing on Lasix for the first time. He exited the same race as the aforementioned Freedom Child, which means that Feb. 9 maiden winner Saint Vigeur (Chad Brown) had an awfully good weekend without ever leaving the barn.

McPeek also struck Saturday at Gulfstream with race 7 turf allowance winner TAKEN BY THE STORM, a Triple Crown nominee who bounced back from a dirt disaster. McPeek indicates TAKEN BY THE STORM will run at Keeneland next in either the Transylvania on turf or the Grade 1 Blue Grass on Polytrack.

For even more McPeek last week, Triple Crown nominee FEVERNTHEFUNKHOUSE scored second off the layoff with a dominant Sunday Oaklawn race 8 allowance sprint victory. Sprint-bred, he wired the field and could have earned a return date to Keeneland for a stretch-out in the 1 1/16 miles Grade 3 Lexington next month. He may also fit well in the one-mile listed Northern Spur Stakes on the Arkansas Derby undercard, a race that could also be a good fit for Saturday’s race 2 Oaklawn route allowance upsetter STRATOCRUISER (Kenny Smith).

EXAMEN (Tom Proctor), mentioned in the Week 10 Countdown allowance reviews, had his form franked Saturday at the Great Race Place when horses who chased him Feb. 9 came back to run one-two in a race 6 turf maiden mile. DEMOCRAT DUCK (Jerry Hollendorfer) got the win in a precursor to stablemate Hear the Ghost capturing the Grade 2 San Felipe in the very next race.

And while he may not be a Triple Crown nominee at this point, perhaps we got a big summer 3-year-old to watch Wednesday at Fair Grounds when ABSTRACTION (David Carroll) decimated a maiden route crew by nearly 10 lengths. The well-bred son of Pulpit-Andujar beat what looked to be a solid cast in style in his second lifetime start and rates among the very best maiden winners of the FG stand. The big disappointment was West Coast transplant COASTAL BREEZE (Wayne Catalano, formerly Bob Baffert), who faded to last after a rough early go. This was a horse who had been chasing former stablemates Flashback and Curly Top before being sent east by owners Gary and Mary West.

Finally, yet another Midnight Lute first-time starter of note appeared Thursday in Oaklawn’s race 9 maiden sprint finale when BLACK BEAR (Chris Hartman) blitzed his rivals in eye-catching style. His win-early pedigree shined through as he zipped six furlongs in 1:10.97 and may be was the second-most impressive maiden winner of the meet only behind Big Lute (Steve Hobby).

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 30): ITSMYLUCKYDAY, SHANGHAI BOBBY, ORB, GUNDERMAN (possible), CLEARLY NOW (possible)




Arkansas Derby (Oaklawn Park, April 13): FALLING SKY. More of this field to take shape after Rebel Stakes.


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. NOBLE TUNE (Tampa Bay Downs, 3/9 * turf *)
3. MAJESTIC HUSSAR (Gulfstream Park, 1/19)
4. SUPER NINETY NINE (Santa Anita, 1/31)
5. FIRE GUARD (Gulfstream Park, 2/9 *turf*)

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!