03/16/2012 9:09AM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 11, March 16, 2012


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 take-a-penny cup at most cash registers. Two cents should be everyone’s limit.

1. The folks with GEMOLOGIST (Todd Pletcher) are getting the Uncle Mo treatment from Gulfstream with an $80,000 no conditions allowance race today popping up that Pletcher helps fill with ANGEL’S TUNE. Let’s just hope that GEMOLOGIST gets something out of his two preps to harden him for the Derby.

2. It is fun to debate and project this as the best crop of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile alumni ever, but there’s still a little ways to go. The 1986 class remains the standard-bearer with Triple Crown sweepers Alysheba and Bet Twice, not to mention eventual Breeders’ Cup Sprint champ Gulch and the great Oaklawn terror Demons Begone. But HANSEN, UNION RAGS, ALPHA, CREATIVE CAUSE, DRILL, and PROSPECTIVE are making more Triple Crown trail noise than any class to date. And we certainly could still hear more from DULLAHAN, SPEIGHTSCITY, and TAKE CHARGE INDY.

3. Of the top 11 finishers in last year’s Kentucky Derby, only Brilliant Speed has not started so far in 2012. Do note that he is working seriously at Palm Meadows, however. The industry-demise scapegoat that the stars don’t hang around beyond the Triple Crown will be tested if this mighty fact doesn’t save racing on its own, right? After all, with “Luck” now gone, it’s all on the shoulders of star horses to stick around if such chatter is supposedly correct.

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. Since we’ve hit mid-March, it’s time to hone in on the stakes players and we’ll only touch on the undercard races of known significance. Later today (Friday, March 16), we certainly have one of those at Gulfstream Park among three key Friday afternoon allowances nationally.

GEMOLOGIST (Todd Pletcher) and CURRENCY SWAP (Terri Pompay) make their long-awaited returns on Friday at Gulfstream in a race 3 mile allowance on the dirt. One would expect a veritable match race with just five entered to meet the G1 Hopeful and G2 Kentucky Jockey Club champions. GEMOLOGIST has fired bullet drills at Palm Meadows in his last few moves and can control this race that really lacks any other pace challenges. Don’t expect John Velazquez on ANGEL’S TUNE to prompt his stablemate; if anything, he may send and provide a target, but he won’t be locking up with GEMOLOGIST. A big effort should put GEMOLOGIST in line for the G1 Arkansas Derby, but his debut win on Polytrack gives him an option to head to the G1 Blue Grass if the connections so choose. CURRENCY SWAP would be a logical G1 Wood Memorial contender with a promising run, though he’s yet to try two turns to date and this allowance won’t answer that question.

Also later today, race 4 at Santa Anita is a stout 7-furlong allowance that could produce a horse for the G1 Santa Anita Derby or an out-of-town stakes like the G3 Derby Trial at Churchill. The lineup includes the brilliant CONSULADO (Mike Puype) vs. impressive 2-year-old maiden winner HIERRO (Steve Asmussen), looking to rebound off a poor showing in the G3 Sham in January. Seven of the eight entrants raced in stakes company in their last start.

And at Oaklawn later today, a race 8 allowance provides an alternative to the G2 Rebel on Saturday, and could put someone on track for the G1 Arkansas Derby. The 1-1/16 miles allowance field includes Z ROCKSTAR (Donnie K. Von Hemel), COACH (Steve Hobby) and KID SIDNEY (Jinks Fires).

Saturday’s allowance to watch is race 4 at Gulfstream where G2 Saratoga Special runner-up STAT (Todd Pletcher) stretches out to a one-turn mile when meeting romping debut eye-catcher SCATTER JOY (Eddie Plesa).

G2 Rebel Stakes (Saturday/Oaklawn)

The big difference between the Rebel and the Southwest/Smarty Jones run earlier in the meet is that horses will get the full stretch run to work with at 1 1/16 miles, an extra 110 yards of real estate at race’s end.

[MORE: Full coverage of the Rebel Stakes]

Surprisingly, there are no new pace players from the Southwest divisions to the Rebel. Scatman and Secret Circle dominated early in the faster Southwest division and figure to set the tone again. Expect to see a bit more early interest from Cyber Secret and Unbridled’s Note, but not leading-type speed.

Baffert shipped in The Factor and Lookin At Lucky to win this race the past two years while making their first local starts, but with West Coast graded stakes experience. Win Willy rose up from a local allowance score to take the Rebel 3 years ago. The great Curlin scored the '07 Rebel with only a debut maiden win under his belt. The Rebel has been about the best horse in recent years, not what their resume may entail.

Here is a horse-by-horse rundown of the Rebel Stakes field:

1 – Ring It Up: Post 10 will not help this horse who has lost ground late in his races in all five starts since winning his maiden. Comes into Rebel with a bullet just as he did in Southwest, but appears unable to lead or pass top horses.

1A – Pee H Dee: Stablemate draws worse in post 11, especially given his midpack/stalking running style. Best chance might be to send hard and try to contest the pace, but doesn’t seem to have those kinds of jets.

2 – Unbridled’s Note: Blew the start in the Southwest and ran very hard after the break to play catch-up, only to quickly lose steam before making a dent. He’s better than that and fitter than that now and can improve if he gets away from the gate. The rail may not be a good place to be if he hasn’t cleaned up his gate habit. Don’t like Leparoux staying in Florida.

3 – Scatman: Loved this horse going into the Southwest and ran to our great expectations, laying it all on the line and running too good to lose. But he did, and the winner galloped out much better and you wonder if the extra sixteenth of a mile and longer stretch will make his task even tougher. Mixed vibes on a very talented horse who may have ran his best last time and could regress a smidge.

4 – Cyber Secret: This is the Southwest alum with the biggest chance to rebound and pull an upset. Ran super-fast internal fractions while losing ground last time, likely bounced off a huge win (Whiting trainees historically do) and has worked lights-out since then. His best can win this.

5 – Optimizer: Fair to say at this point that he’s better on turf or synthetic as pedigree and past performances indicate.

6 – Jake Mo: Showed some pace versatility last time that will help him in long run. Pedigree says he’ll run on longer and his work coming out of the Southwest was a sign he’s continuing to hold form.

7 – Sabercat: Likely second choice in the betting, he’s won three in a row but not without some questions. Delta Jackpot alumni have not done much this year to date and he got a great pace setup that day. Now you have the layoff to deal with. I’ll stand against him at what figures to be 7-2, 4-1 odds.

8 – Secret Circle: Deserves favorite’s role for Baffert barn that simply doesn’t misfire when it ships to OP for 3-year-old stakes. Finished up strongly in Southwest and galloped out much the best. Given his style, I think this is his "Derby Day" and Baffert knows he’s not going past 1 1/16 miles, thus sending his other stablemates to longer-distanced races. Gives 3-7 pounds, but lays all the cards on the table in effort to score.

9 – Atigun: Foot problems have slowed his progress some this winter, but his allowance win Jan. 15 was very highly rated by me. May be one race away from his best and won’t get a pace that falls apart for him in this spot. Any late progress is a good sign.

10 – Reckless Jerry: Another tough post draw for a horse who likely is an in-betweener in terms of distance. Loved his Smarty Jones try, but was disappointed he didn’t move forward last time.

11 – Najjaar: Big-time closer reminds me of Steppenwolfer, a Peitz trainee who kept coming in 2006 and got pieces of everything he ran in. May not win, but you’ll hear his name late, and could progress into a good one.

12 – Adirondack King: Liked his Southwest and feel he’ll be best at nine furlongs in the Arkansas Derby. Post here is brutal, so running fourth or fifth is a good step toward the next date.

G2 Rebel Stakes selections: W) SECRET CIRCLE; P) CYBER SECRET; S) NAJJAAR.

Private Terms Stakes (Saturday/Laurel Park)

Maryland’s local path toward the Preakness continues Saturday in this 1-turn mile worth $100,000. Four Triple Crown nominees are entered, though STREET LIFE (Chad Brown) is expected to remain in New York for the Broad Brush overnight stakes. From New York, however, comes RACONTEUR (Todd Pletcher), most recently seventh in the G3 Gotham after a rough trip. The well-bred son of A.P. Indy-Miss Kate does not have a brilliant turn of foot, so he may appreciate the marathon stretch run you get at Laurel in mile races, which use the second finish line that’s well beyond the normal wire. RACONTEUR will face solid challenges for a listed stakes, including unbeaten COP A TUDE (Graham Motion), a winner in both career sprints at the meet and stretching out in distance Saturday. He’s a solid finisher going shorter and his pedigree would appear to tap out right around this one-turn mile.

HAKAMA (Mike Trombetta) is a need-the-lead type who tired badly in the G3 Withers in his class test last time around two turns, so he’ll appreciate the return to one-turn racing. However, he may not appreciate speedball YO KOFFY (William Anderson) just to his outside breathing down his neck. The race should set up for a late runner.

If that’s the pace case, beware ROMP CITY (Cathal Lynch), who last time out was visually as good-looking a winner in the northeast as I’ve seen all winter. This is a horse who ran HOWE GREAT (Graham Motion) to a narrow decision last fall and has some hidden class in that running line. By Holy Bull, ROMP CITY is out of a Housebuster mare, which means he should remain a closing sprinter and this race’s pace and configuration could suit well.

Private Terms Stakes selections: W) ROMP CITY; P) RACONTEUR; S) COP A TUDE.

Broad Brush Stakes (Saturday/Aqueduct)

This overnight stakes isn’t part of the regular NYRA stakes calendar, but is a well-positioned 1-1/16 miles race worth $75,000 that could spring-board a starter or two for the G1 Wood Memorial. Two of its seven contenders, ROMP (Cathal Lynch) and STREET LIFE (Chad Brown) are cross-entered in the Private Terms at Laurel, but expect STREET LIFE to stay in the Big Apple and be a big factor.

SWAG DADDY (Rick Dutrow) has grown into one of the leading New York-bred sophomores of his class and the two-time stakes winner this winter on the inner-dirt track certainly should not feel slighted by his recent second to PRETENSION (Chris Grove). That rival came back and just missed third money in a three-way photo in the G3 Gotham vs. open company and this spot obviously is much easier than that. With Dutrow winning 40 percent of his races at the meet, you have to consider SWAG DADDY dangerous, even if jockey Junior Alvarado jumps to ride STREET LIFE.

STREET LIFE visually impressed in his Feb. 11 maiden breaker and did so despite a pace set-up that should not have flattered his late run at all. The son of Street Sense looks like a rising player who simply was too slow to compete in his Gulfstream debut sprint that has turned out to be one of the more key maiden races of that meet. STREET LIFE should be legged up even more since he trains over the deep Belmont training track.

COPY MY SWAGGER runs back on 7 days rest after finishing fourth in the Capossela last Saturday. He’s only sprinted so far in his career and figures to push the pace. FESTIVE SPIRIT (Charlton Baker) steps up in class logically after being claimed away from the Pletcher barn.

Broad Brush Stakes selections: W) STREET LIFE; P) SWAG DADDY; S) FESTIVE SPIRIT.

Last week’s selections: 5: 3-0-0. We swept all three graded stakes routes on the weekend with top-choice winners CREATIVE CAUSE (San Felipe), PROSPECTIVE (Tampa Bay Derby) and HOWE GREAT (Palm Beach). No such luck in the Swale as Seve ran up the track at a price and Rock Harder settled for fifth in the Black Gold.

Season selections: 26: 9-3-3.

Everyone’s a critic

This section reviews the week that was in the 3-year-old ranks.

G2 San Felipe Stakes (3/10, SA-9)

The skeptics that came out of the woodwork following a third in the G2 San Vicente by CREATIVE CAUSE (Mike Harrington) had to be silenced to some degree by his vindicating victory Saturday in the 1-1/16 miles G2 San Felipe. Stretching back out around two turns and making his second start off of a layoff, the son of Giant’s Causeway stamped himself as the west’s best Triple Crown prospect with a wide, yet winning move to nab a determined BODEMEISTER (Bob Baffert). Note that CREATIVE CAUSE spotted the field five pounds but for LIAISON (Bob Baffert) and he galloped out at least 10 lengths in front of the entire cast hinting there was more. Meanwhile, MIDNIGHT TRANSFER (Carla Gaines) loomed a major danger in the upper stretch but could not finish with the top pair and bested the others in a solid performance for third. Behind this trio was a deep cast that had plenty of proven credentials.

CREATIVE CAUSE left room for improvement as he still was a bit green in the upper stretch yet still good enough to win. He’ll want to polish his performance in the G1 Santa Anita Derby, but it’s not like we haven’t seen him run a professional race in the past. His Norfolk win was tactically flawless and he looked silky smooth through the lane that day at Santa Anita last fall, so we know it’s there. My trust is that Mike Harrington gets CAUSE back to that performance when the time counts. He’s closed the gap between the nation’s top two Derby hopefuls and his No. 3 ranking in my eyes, trailing only EL PADRINO (Todd Pletcher) and UNION RAGS (Michael Matz). I like him marginally more than ALPHA (Kiaran McLaughlin) and HANSEN (Mike Maker) at this stage.

BODEMEISTER really surprised me in the G2 San Felipe, not that he was talented enough to nearly win the race, but that he didn’t run an extreme race. Light on experience and showing only one true running style, horses like this either win by five or run eighth folding up the tent most times when given a big class test. The fact that BODEMEISTER was super-game in defeat may be the best result you could possibly get at this stage of his career. That shows you there’s more to him than just speed. After an opening quarter-mile in a reasonable 22.95, BODEMEISTER was able to press a rhythmic set of 24s around the track. Don’t let the visual “drift” late in the race fool you. Jockey Rafael Bejarano was going to the left-hand stick to try and get BODEMEISTER farther out on the track to find the late-running CREATIVE CAUSE and let his mount see that charge to try and dig in. Baffert said BODEMEISTER was tired after the race and deservedly so, he ran very hard.

MIDNIGHT TRANSFER ran to my expectations as a super-talented 3-year-old and looked like a serious win threat with about three-sixteenths of a mile to go. He didn’t finish quite with the same fervor as the top two, but they weren’t giving in, running the final sixteenth in a solid 6.34. Carla Gaines has a tough decision for this horse who’s pedigree would seem to max out about this distance. I think you’re almost forced to move on to the next step at 1-1/8 miles given this horse’s efficient way of moving and fact that the San Felipe was his first route attempt. But I could also see the argument for abandoning Triple Crown distances, too. This is one of the toughest calls of the spring to make. If it were me, I’d try the G2 Illinois Derby, where California speed has been a dominant force historically and you can get 1-1/8 miles with a shade of class relief.

As for the others in the San Felipe, late-running hopes LIAISON, ROUSING SERMON (Jerry Hollendorfer) and BLINGO (John Shirreffs) passed some tired horses to be fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively, in modest efforts. The pace did not set up well for their styles, but they were about 2-3 lengths behind CREATIVE CAUSE early and finished 5-7 lengths behind him in the end, so you can’t blame the entire margin on the race shape. LIAISON certainly ran a much better race than he did in the G2 Bob Lewis with the removal of blinkers. I could see him moving forward again next time. He’s got a little Giacomo about him, capable on his best day if all goes right. ROUSING SERMON might have peaked at age 2, while BLINGO certainly has some more room to advance in what was only his third lifetime start. EMPIRE WAY (Mike Harrington) had not been training well according to clockers and ran a total dud.  He will hit the road next if he comes out of the race well, according to Harrington. By Empire Maker, I’d like to see him in the G1 Blue Grass on Polytrack if he trains better out of the race.

The San Felipe had a large field size of 10 and was a cleanly run race that serves as a great steppingstone for its horses moving out of this race. Now comes the question out west: Just where does I’LL HAVE ANOTHER (Doug O’Neill) stack up with the San Felipe alumni? The G2 Lewis Memorial champ was absolutely brilliant in his lone race of the year and will get to answer that question in the G1 Santa Anita Derby. He’s had exactly one race in the past six months and that time frame will grow to seven months by the time he reappears on April 7. Those who believe in talent and brilliance will be in his corner; those who believe in foundation and development will be against him. That makes for great debate and theater.

AMERICAN ACT (Jack Carava) and GROOVIN SOLO (Myung Kwon Cho) both failed to stay the trip and would only be filler in the Santa Anita Derby moving forward.

G2 Tampa Bay Derby (3/10, Tam-11)

One has to be very careful when watching races from Tampa Bay Downs and making broad-brushed visual comments. Simply put: over the surface, horses most often look laborious and unspectacular. Then you peek at the clock and think, “Hmm, that wasn’t that bad.” Such was the case in Saturday’s G2 Tampa Bay Derby at 1-1/16 miles, where winner PROSPECTIVE (Mark Casse) continued on as one of the most consistent horses of the 2012 crop.

True, PROSPECTIVE was all-out in a slugfest with recent sixth-start maiden breaker GOLDEN TICKET (Ken McPeek) for the victory, but a final time of 1:43.35 ranks second-fastest in the history of this race and only .24 slower than the then-track-record performance by Street Sense and Any Given Saturday in 2007. The track Saturday at Tampa was on the quicker-side. A good overnight handicap field did set a 6-1/2 furlong track record earlier in the day, and when our pal Caton Bredar was doing a pre-race report on HRTV the morning of the Tampa Bay Derby, you could see a rolled, packed track actually being watered by the trucks while sealed. Tampa put on a fast surface, in other words.

So what do we make of the Tampa Bay Derby then? Visually uninspiring, but mathematically pleasing with a hint of human help. The proof will be in the next prep, unfortunately. I remember thinking when Musket Man took this race in 2009 we had not seen too much. Then he goes on to win the G2 Illinois Derby and also-ran General Quarters rebounded to win the G1 Blue Grass. Musket Man wound up third in the Mine That Bird’s G1 Kentucky Derby.

Remember that horses who like Tampa Bay Downs’ surface very often replicate that affinity for the Churchill Downs surface during the spring/summer; that goes for everyday handicapping as well, not just Triple Crown talk. So before dismissing PROSPECTIVE or others from this race from Derby consideration, I’d wait another race to draw some class parallels. PROSPECTIVE could go next in the G1 Blue Grass or G1 Wood Memorial, and given his strong showings on Polytrack in Canada last year, the Keeneland race would seem a logical spot. Owner John Oxley won the Kentucky Derby via the Wood Memorial path with Monarchos, however, and if that race was coming up short on depth it wouldn’t be a bad spot either. PROSPECTIVE appears to me to be a legitimate Top 10-15 kind of contender who is much better than his last-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile might suggest.

Runner-up GOLDEN TICKET showed some decent class even in his maiden attempts, closely pursuing stakes-placed horses like SEVEN LIVELY SINS (Al Stall Jr.), EVER SO LUCKY (Jonathan Sheppard) and FINNEGANS WAKE (Dale Romans). This is why it’s tough to call out a 3-year-old on “class” at this time of year. Ken McPeek appears to have this one moving the right direction, though his pedigree suggests he won’t go much farther than the 1-1/16 miles of the Tampa Bay Derby. He could go to the G1 Florida Derby next, but I’d venture to say you’ll see him in the G1 Blue Grass at McPeek’s hometown meet at Keeneland.

Yet another Todd Pletcher-trained favorite came up short in the G2 Tampa Bay Derby; this time SPRING HILL FARM, who finished fourth as the 2-1 post time chalk. He joins stablemates-past like Brethren, Super Saver, Any Given Saturday and Blue Grass Cat all since 2006. SPRING HILL FARM never looked like a winning threat in his two-turn and stakes debut, and unfortunately exited the race with a trail-ending fractured knee. We wish him the best.

As for the others, COZETTI (Dale Romans) was much-improved in third as that barn appears to be picking up steam in mid-spring and he probably deserves one more prep shot somewhere. BATTLE HARDENED (Eddie Kenneally) ran a flat sixth in his first start since breaking his maiden in the G3 Sam F. Davis. The waters were a bit deeper in the G2 Tampa Bay Derby, but given that the winner PROSPECTIVE was a horse he had beaten last time out, BATTLE HARDENED just did not move forward Saturday. He should get another shot in the G1 Blue Grass with a Giant’s Causeway sire line to appreciate the Polytrack.

G2 Swale Stakes (3/10, GP-10)

The first time I even considered TRINNIBERG (Bisnath Parbooth) in Saturday’s Swale Stakes was about the eighth-pole of the race, so pardon my late invite to his coming-out party. In a race that was begging for something “else” to happen outside of the come-backing runners who appeared to be short on trainer intent (EVER SO LUCKY, MOTOR CITY), this sprinter just speed-popped the field and ran away. Many times handicapping a Triple Crown prep race comes down to this “Who’s Derby Day is it today?” For a horse like TRINNINBERG, it doesn’t get any bigger than the G2 Swale until at least the G1 King’s Bishop in August. When others are looking past a race toward others, the one who’s been trained for today’s spot often wins, even if they look suspect on paper. Hat’s off to TRINNIBERG for running a corker, but he’s not Triple Crown nominated and shouldn’t be heading that way as a pure sprinter. The G2 Illinois Derby has been mentioned as a possibility, however.

As for EVER SO LUCKY (Jonathan Sheppard) and MOTOR CITY (Ian Wilkes), the race’s two most likely Triple Crown aspirants leave the Swale with mixed reviews. EVER SO LUCKY was third, beaten 7 lengths, but didn’t do a whole lot late in the race after rolling within 3 lengths of the lead with 3 furlongs to run. Minor issues like a foot bruise kept him in and out of training during the winter, so he had an excuse to be short and ran decent enough. His patient trainer will put him where he belongs next, and if Sheppard opts for a big-time distance prep, then you can assume he’s moving forward the right way.

MOTOR CITY had not worked well over the winter and trainer Wilkes actually gave him an old-school blowout drill of three furlongs the day before the Swale. The wake-up call didn’t do anything as the son of Street Sense never got into the flow and passed only two horses in the running to be eighth. He’s a better horse than that, but the G3 Iroquois winner appears way too far behind schedule to make any serious impact on the Derby. Maybe by Belmont he can be back in the discussion. Note his maternal granddaddy is 1986 Belmont Stakes champ Danzig Connection. Then again, maybe he’s just not that good. Time will tell.

If nothing else, the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint is turning out productive, spring-boarding the winners of the G3 Southwest (SECRET CIRCLE) and now the G2 Swale (TRINNIBERG).

G3 Palm Beach Stakes (3/11, GP-7)

What’s been refreshing to see this spring is a series of front-running speed horses display an ability to be patient and rate. We saw it in the Gotham with HANSEN (Mike Maker) and again in the San Felipe with BODEMEISTER (Bob Baffert). Add HOWE GREAT (Graham Motion) to that list following Sunday’s press-and-pounce victory in the G3 $150,000 Palm Beach at 9 furlongs on turf.

The same Team Valor-Graham Motion-John Velazquez team that brought you turfy Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom last year is back at it again. Now a winner in four straight races, HOWE GREAT is a paternal grandson of the great Sunday Silence, winner of the 1989 Derby and Preakness. In true Team Valor style, he’s filled with international bloodlines on both sides of the pedigree.

HOWE GREAT and runner-up DULLAHAN (Dale Romans) were spectacular late in the Palm Beach. They ran the fourth quarter in a sizzling 23.29 and came home the final furlong of 1-1/8 miles in 11.74. That’s remarkable after opening splits that weren’t pedestrian. DULLAHAN was making his first start of the season and had missed some training time earlier in the winter. It was a beautiful return for him, one that makes you think Romans has this horse on an upward developmental curve from ages 2 to 3. The little brother to Mine That Bird may be more than just a cool pedigree footnote by Derby Day.

Granted, there wasn’t much behind HOWE GREAT and DULLAHAN in the Palm Beach, the race’s two key players had legitimate measuring sticks in one another, and both sized up very well in review of this race. The G3 Palm Beach sits barely outside my Top 5 prep races seen this season so far, only because a lack of depth, not because of the top pair. Expect to see them both next in the G1 Blue Grass at Keeneland in a race that is shaping up to be a huge field of serious contenders for the Triple Crown, despite the synthetic surface. Can you say Animal Kingdom effect?

Listed Stakes

Sprint-pedigreed ICON IKE (Larry Jones) stretched out off of two straight turf sprint wins to capture Saturday’s $75,000 Black Gold Stakes at Fair Grounds at 7-1/2 furlongs on turf. The son of Yes It’s True managed to negotiate the two-turn trip, thanks in part to a terribly slow pace that made this a quarter-mile mad dash through the stretch. A roughly run race with an unrealistic pace set-up, it’s hard to make any definitive statements about those in pursuit and you could forgive some if they reappear in Keeneland stakes.

Trainer Chad Brown ran one-two in the $100,000 Capossela Stakes on Saturday at Aqueduct when HARDENED WILDCAT ran down stablemate BEGGARTHYNEIGHBOR. The winner made up three lengths over the final sixteenth of a mile to win going away. By Hard Spun out of Wild Snitch, HARDENED WILDCAT has been high on our Countdown sprint radar since winning his maiden on Jan. 14. He should be a factor in the G3 Bay Shore on the Wood Memorial undercard.


NONIOS (Jerry Hollendorfer) crushed a mile allowance cast on Golden Gate Fields’ Tapeta surface Saturday, winning by 6 lengths in last-to-first fashion. He’s now 2-for-2 after debuting a sprint victor in February. The son of Breeders’ Cup Classic champ Pleasantly Perfect is out of a predominantly sprint immediate female family, however.

APPREHENDER (Ingrid Mason) found the return to the sprint ranks a positive reinforcement Friday at Oaklawn, drawing off to a 4-3/4 length win as the odds-on favorite. The result was expected, but certainly did not hurt the reputation of the Southwest Stakes’ second division, won by SECRET CIRCLE (Bob Baffert).

MONASTIC (Tom Proctor) was shocked at 2-5 odds in his 2012 return at Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday, finishing third in a turf allowance race few expected him to lose. The son of Rock Hard Ten was rank and fought Julien Leparoux in the back of the pack before closing too late. We may see him perhaps in the G3 Transylvania on grass at Keeneland. EL ROMANO (Manny Azpurua) pulled the upset and gave us a 24-hour foreshadowing to the strength of HOWE GREAT’s win in the Kitten’s Joy Stakes, an event in which EL ROMANO was overmatched.


One of the more impressive maiden wins of the entire season came in relative anonymity Saturday at Fair Grounds when CIGAR STREET (Steve Margolis) ran roughshod over a very good group of dirt routers. When the smoke cleared, CIGAR STREET won by by 13-3/4 lengths in wire-to-wire fashion, pounding out solid :24s all the way around the oval. We’ve been telling you about CIGAR STREET as one to watch in Countdown given a pedigree to revere. By Street Sense, he’s out of an unraced half-sister to the legendary Cigar. His final time Saturday in 1:43.75 was about 4-5 lengths off of the stakes-record time EL PADRINO (Todd Pletcher) and MARK VALESKI (Larry Jones) set in their G2 Risen Star showdown. Keep an eye on CIGAR STREET no matter where he shows up next. This win was a big-time flatter-job for BOURBON COURAGE (Kellyn Gorder), who impressively handled CIGAR STREET and others in his debut.

BROTHER FRANCIS (Jim Cassidy) failed to deliver to expectations Saturday in his race 2 turf mile maiden return at Santa Anita, but still will be pointed next to the G1 Santa Anita Derby, the conditioner indicated afterward. Stakes-placed in the G1 CashCall Futurity, his maiden status continued after losing a three-way dash to the wire Saturday behind impressive debut artist ACHILLES (Neil Drysdale), who is by Smart Strike out of Solvig. The top trio flew home in 11.55 over the final furlong. It wasn’t a big step back for BROTHER FRANCIS by any means, but also wasn’t the kind of step forward from 2 to 3 that makes you think he wins the G1 Santa Anita Derby next.

WHINSTON (Steve Asmussen) toyed with an Oaklawn maiden sprint cast Saturday in 1:10.93 for six furlongs, fastest time of the day for the distance in geared-down fashion. With his pedigree, this $625,000 sales buy should remain sprinting, but maybe could be a one-turn miler type for the G3 Derby Trial at Churchill.

Countdown bet-back special OLD TIME HOCKEY (Tom Proctor) got the turf footing he needed and delivered a professional route score Saturday at Gulfstream. Expect him next at Keeneland. He went a solid 2 lengths faster than Saturday’s split division of the turf mile maiden that was won by MALIBU WAY (Christophe Clement), a first-time starter by First Samurai.

SHIPSHAPE (Bill Mott), half-brother to turf ace Etoile Montante, improved mightily in his second career start to beat a solid main track maiden route cast on Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby undercard. The son of Empire Maker would appear to have surface options, though he didn’t pick up a hoof in the turf debut at Gulfstream. Some class relief may have helped as much as the surface change, given the pedigree.

The G1 Wood Memorial might have picked up a fringe player / filler Wednesday at Aqueduct when FIVE SIXTEEN (Dominick Schettino) outlasted heavily favored SUNS OUT GUNS OUT (Dale Romans) in a slowly run 1-1/8 miles maiden route. The win flattered the form of FIVE SIXTEEN’s conqueror Feb. 11, STREET LIFE (Chad Brown), who returns this Saturday in stakes company. Third in this Wednesday tilt was the Street Cry-Ashado colt STEELE ROAD (Kiaran McLaughlin), now 0-for-4 lifetime.

Where Are They Headed?

This section returns to Countdown this week for the first time in 2012 as we look to fill the fields for the late-season major preps. These projections are based on news accounts, stated goals, track stakes coordinators and a little handicapping conjecture of best fits.



G1 Florida Derby (Gulfstream, 3/31): UNION RAGS, TAKE CHARGE INDY, EL PADRINO, ALPHA (or Wood/La Derby), NEWS PENDING, GOLDEN TICKET (or Blue Grass)


G1 Wood Memorial (Aqueduct, 4/7): HANSEN, PROSPECTIVE (or Blue Grass), MY ADONIS (or Sunland Derby), ALPHA (or Fla Derby/La Derby), TIGER WALK, DONE TALKING, OUR ENTOURAGE


G2 Illinois Derby (Hawthorne, 4/7): tbd

G1 Arkansas Derby (Oaklawn, 4/14): tbd after Rebel this weekend. GEMOLOGIST. ON FIRE BABY (or Fantasy vs. fillies).

G1 Blue Grass (Keeneland, 4/14): HOWE GREAT, DULLAHAN, GOLDEN TICKET (or Fla Derby), BATTLE HARDENED, EMPIRE WAY (or other road trip), SUMMER FRONT, PROSPECTIVE (or Wood)

Quick Hitters

EL PADRINO (Todd Pletcher) now appears destined for the G1 Florida Derby rather than a return trip to Fair Grounds for the G2 Louisiana Derby. That sets up a showdown with UNION RAGS (Michael Matz) sooner than most expected. If EL PADRINO goes at Gulfstream, my hunch is that ALPHA (Kiaran McLaughlin) hits the road for the G1 Wood or G2 Louisiana Derby and reverses course … FED BIZ (Bob Baffert) has been taken off the Triple Crown trail by his connections due to hind-end issues … Look for CASTAWAY (Bob Baffert) next in the G3 Sunland Derby after bypassing the G2 Rebel this weekend … ON FIRE BABY (Gary Hartlage) could be headed next for the G1 Arkansas Derby following the filly’s outstanding win in the G3 Honeybee Saturday at Oaklawn, where she reeled in a very good front-runner named AMIE’S DINI (Ron Moquett). Third in the listed Smarty Jones vs. the boys already this meet, ON FIRE BABY appears at this stage the only filly being contemplated for the Triple Crown ... Next week’s races to circle on the calendar include Saturday’s Turfway Park duo of the G3 Spiral and listed Rushaway Stakes, as well as Sunday’s G3 Sunland Derby.

High Fives

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

Maiden Race

1. BODEMEISTER (Santa Anita, 2/11)

2. CIGAR STREET (Fair Grounds, 3/10) * NEW *

3. MIDNIGHT TRANSFER (Santa Anita, 12/26)

4. FED BIZ (Santa Anita, 12/30)

5. BOURBON COURAGE (Fair Grounds, 2/3)  

Allowance Race

1. EL PADRINO (Gulfstream, 1/29)  

2. NAJJAAR (Oaklawn, 3/2)

3. DISCREET DANCER (Gulfstream, 1/7)

4. FED BIZ (Santa Anita, 2/9)  

5. OUR ENTOURAGE (Gulfstream, 2/25)  

Stakes Race

1. EL PADRINO (Risen Star, FG, 2/25)  

2. UNION RAGS (Fountain of Youth, GP, 2/26)  

3. CREATIVE CAUSE (San Felipe, SA, 3/10) * NEW *

4. HANSEN (Gotham, Aqu, 3/3)

5. I’LL HAVE ANOTHER (Lewis Memorial, SA, 2/4)  

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!