03/22/2013 2:06PM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 12 - March 22, 2013

Coady Photography
Sunland Derby runner Dry Summer has been dynamite in two local preps.

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

While some lament if anyone will run faster than VERRAZANO (Todd Pletcher) or ITSMYLUCKDAY (Eddie Plesa) in the final month of preps, keep one thing in mind. Only once in the past decade has the Kentucky Derby winner owned the field’s career-best Beyer Speed Figure heading into the race (Street Sense in 2007). That’s a far cry from the speed-crazy run from 1997-2002 that saw four of six Derby champs boast the field’s top lifetime fig.

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. It’s an extremely light weekend of undercard races of repute. But we do have the Kentucky Derby Future Wager’s third and final pool of the season offered this weekend.

Saturday’s race 5 maiden sprint at Santa Anita could give us a little line on Sunday’s Grade 3 Sunland Derby. PURE LOYALTY (Mark Glatt) exits a solid third to Sunland shipper Govenor Charlie (Bob Baffert) and could become the second winner to emerge from that Feb. 17 race following Footbridge (Eoin Harty) last Sunday. The competition in this one figures to come from fleet second-time starter ZEE BROS (Bob Baffert), who sizzled when second in his debut.

The most intriguing horse in Friday’s race 6 turf mile at Gulfstream is on the also-eligible list, Triple Crown nominee THE MAN HIMSELF (Bill Mott). The impeccably bred son of Distorted Humor-Words of War is out of an absolute blue hen mare who has produced E Dubai, millionaire Rainbow View and several other legitimate stakes players.

As for the season’s last Kentucky Derby Future Wager pari-mutuel pool, my advice is to look for horses you project to win or run second in their final prep. Then try to estimate what their odds should be in a full gate at the Kentucky Derby (looking at recent years’ Derby charts will give you a good idea what the favorite, second choice, third choice and longshots typically go off). If you can get twice that price today, it’s a good bet in the final KDFW. You still are assuming two major hurdles – your horse runs well enough in the final prep to be worthy in the Derby, and that he will stay healthy enough to run. Those two major assumptions on your part demand that you get a fair price. If the horse you love figures to be third or fourth choice at 8- or 10-1 on Derby Day, then demand 16- or 20-1 this weekend.

Rushaway Stakes (Saturday/Turfway Park) [Get PPs]

While a Rushaway Stakes winner never has made any dent whatsoever in a Triple Crown race since its 1986 inaugural, its modern calendar placement three weeks in front of the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes at nearby Keeneland has made it a potential “one-off” prep of significance. Four of the nine entrants in Saturday’s $75,000 event are Triple Crown nominees attempting the middle-distance trip of 1 1/16 miles.

The heavy favorite figures to be CROP REPORT (Graham Motion), owned and trained by the folks who’ve shipped to Turfway to win the last two editions of the Grade 3 Spiral with Animal Kingdom and Went the Day Well. So why is CROP REPORT here and not in the main event? Owner Team Valor sponsored the Rushaway this year to keep it from falling off a beleaguered stakes schedule at Turfway. And when the Spiral drew a capacity field of 12, CROP REPORT failed to make the cut with career earnings of a paltry $11,574.

Still, CROP REPORT comes into the Rushaway with some repute following a fast-finishing third in his US debut. The British import adds blinkers in the Rushaway, and how he performs Saturday could give us a barometer on his Feb. 23 conqueror Black Onyx (Kelly Breen) for the Grade 3 Spiral just two races later on the card.

The blinkers for CROP REPORT may help keep him closer to what figures to be a very easy early pace. Inside-drawn DIVINE AMBITION (Darrin Miller) stands a major shot at wiring this field as lone speed. He crushed maidens locally in his debut last September and added some solid sprint performances in Florida this winter. In his lone route try, he was a tired and troubled sixth in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs. Training all winter on the deep and tiring Payson Park surface, I expect he’ll come to Florence fit enough to handle 1 1/16 miles with a light amount of pace pressure. DIVINE AMBITION stands the best, and perhaps only, upset shot versus CROP REPORT.

RED WINGS (D. Wayne Lukas) comes north from Oaklawn for a barn that’s already won the Smarty Jones, Lecomte and Rebel Stakes this spring on the trail, including a one-two finish in the latter last week. RED WINGS exits a third-place allowance run in Hot Springs in which the top two finishers came back to run poorly in the Grade 2 Rebel, so perhaps that’s a knock on his chances. But do note the Oaklawn-to-Turfway surface moved worked pretty nicely here last month when For Greater Glory (Steve Hobby) ran a very good third in the Battaglia Memorial. The Oaklawn horses will be fit when they come north as that surface has been deeper and slower this year even by OP standards.

Trainer Mark Casse saddles a pair of wildcards in HONORABLE GUEST and STAR CONTENDER. The former never has raced around two turns but has trained sharply on the synthetic surface in Ocala. The latter finished a distant last on New Year’s Day in the Gulfstream Park Derby and hasn’t raced since. He was favored in each of his last five starts and actually was the solid choice over It’smyluckday (Eddie Plesa) before that one’s barn-storming win January 1.

Undefeated JJ GOT EVEN (Mike Maker) goes for a barn that dominates the Turfway scene and already is a two-time winner at the meeting. His slow time in his last allowance win came on a slow track variant, but certainly he will be tested for class in the Rushaway.

Rushaway Stakes selections: W) DIVINE AMBITION; P) CROP REPORT; S) JJ GOT EVEN

Grade 3 Spiral Stakes (Saturday/Turfway Park) [Get PPs]

The best turf horses in Florida this winter appear headed for the Grade 1 Blue Grass at Keeneland, which is both good news and bad news for the Grade 3 Spiral. The race that has been dominated by Florida grass raiders in the Polytrack era lured a deep and interesting field, but it’s not filled with the kind of horses we’ve grown to expect in this race.

The “interesting” aspects of the Spiral obviously come via the 3-year-old debuts of Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club winner UNCAPTURED (Mark Casse) and multiple graded stakes-winning turfer BALANCE THE BOOKS (Chad Brown). But neither has had a smooth winter-spring transition and both figure to be well short of their peak for a tough, 1 1/8 miles distance. BALANCE THE BOOKS missed a workout in February and his expected return in the Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream. UNCAPTURED has logged but five published workouts in four months since his Churchill fall meet sweep. These may be the two most talented horses in the Spiral, but also figure to be underlaid, considering where they are in their form cycle.

As for those Florida turf shippers? There are but two, longshots BLACK ONYX (Kelly Breen) and TAKEN BY THE STORM (Kenny McPeek). Neither is high on anyone’s radar just yet, but perhaps BLACK ONYX will draw some “class” in his company lines based on how ex-rival Crop Report (Graham Motion) fares in Saturday’s Rushaway Stakes two races prior. I’m not stoked about either horse on paper, but the Poly era history of the Spiral speaks loudly enough that we should listen to these longshots as possible upsetters. Of the two, I prefer BLACK ONYX and will be using him in the mix. I think he has more tactical speed in a race lacking a serious pace.

The Spiral pace figures to be soft, and local dynamo MAC THE MAN (Jeff Greenhill) will get every opportunity to prove he’s good enough based on that setup. He could be lone speed if the other riders don’t change their mounts’ styles to any degree. The one contender and rider that I think will take advantage of the soft pace is FOR GREATER GOOD (Steve Hobby) and his new jockey Robby Albarado. Countdown readers know that I’ve long considered Albarado to be one of the most aggressive two-turn jockeys in all of horse racing. If FOR GREATER GOOD breaks cleanly, Albarado is apt to put him in the early mix. Based on how he ran in the Battaglia Memorial with tons of trouble and very sharp internal splits, he’s going to have a big shot Saturday. FOR GREATER GOOD did climb a little early in his local unveiling and took a while to get his legs under him. The hope is that the more familiar footing this time won’t be as challenging early.

GENERAL ELECTION (Kellyn Gorder) rallied to win the Battaglia Memorial here three weeks ago, but did not gallop-out with much zest. His best trip might be as a closing sprinter or in a middle-distance race with a lot of pace. The Battaglia pace was strong and it set up for him. This pace scenario does not look as conducive. I prefer FOR GREATER GOOD and MAC THE MAN among the “locals” moreso than GENERAL ELECTION.

Late-running shippers CHANNEL ISLE (D. Wayne Lukas), MY NAME IS MICHAEL (Bill Mott), and FEAR THE KITTEN (Mike Maker) all come from respected barns and will handle the 9-furlong trip. They just aren’t likely to get a great pace set-up in front of them. MY NAME IS MICHAEL has worked only twice in seven weeks since the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis while dealing with some issues, and Davis alumni managed only thirds in the Fountain of Youth and Tampa Bay Derby. Since he’s picking up seven pounds and the aforementioned workout gaps, I’ll pass on MY NAME IS MICHAEL this time. FEAR THE KITTEN rates the best shot from this group, considering the Maker barn owns two wins in the Spiral during the Polytrack era (With A City and Dean’s Kitten). After facing Oxbow (D. Wayne Lukas) and Super Ninety Nine (Bob Baffert) in his last two stakes, FEAR THE KITTEN arguably owns the best company lines of any horse in the Spiral.

CAPO BASTONE (Todd Pletcher) will have to prove to me that he wants any part of 1 1/8 miles. I’ve long contended that he’s a false finisher who’s not closing with zest on the back end of his route races. His return try in allowance company at Gulfstream didn’t leave anyone overly impressed and post 12 does him no favors unless he drops out of the back end of the field early. I do recognize and appreciate John Velazquez making the trip north from Gulfstream to ride. But CAPO BASTONE won’t be on my tickets, right or wrong.


Grade 3 Sunland Derby (Sunday/Sunland Park) [Get PPs + Watch Live]

In the event a power-broker barn doesn’t make this year’s Kentucky Derby field based on points – and I predict that won’t be any issue whatsoever – they can look back to Sunday’s Grade 3 Sunland Derby and blame themselves. A 50-point victory and 85-point totals for Derby qualifying are in place for this race. Yet, only nine entered and four of those are coming off of basic maiden victories. Grade 2 winner SHAKIN IT UP (Bob Baffert) probably rates third or fourth on that barn’s pecking order and never has been around two turns. If he’s the headliner scaring away the masses at 1 1/8 miles, then you didn’t have a Kentucky Derby hopeful anyway. The rest of the field is a combined 7: 0-0-0 in graded stakes. Last I checked there were no fences around New Mexico if you wanted to find a good place to get ready for the Derby.

The connections of Overanalyze (Todd Pletcher) and Titletown Five (D. Wayne Lukas) passed the Sunland Derby after aiming here. To redirect to harder spots in a few weeks tells me both horses, who have had some issues to overcome, need more time and that’s not a good sign at this stage of the spring.

I’m particularly excited about this race, however, because of DRY SUMMER (Joel Marr), the former West Coast runner who has been dynamite in two local preps this winter. At age 2, he beat Grade 1 winner Power Broker (Bob Baffert) and Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up He’s Had Enough (Doug O’Neill) while on the turf at Del Mar. He’s visually a really sharp mover and I think clearly the horse to beat Sunday no matter who invades Sunland. The fact that he’s been in the high altitude for a few months now will only help his chances. The Sunland Derby rarely has had a local of this kind of strength, but Song of Navarone was a similar runner, proven locally and on the west coast, and he won this race in 2007.

Baffert also has GOVENOR CHARLIE to go with SHAKIN IT UP, and these two are essentially the same horse on pedigree. Both are sons of Midnight Lute and maternal grandsons of Silverbulletday. While SHAKIN IT UP has more miles on his tires and stakes experience, GOVENOR CHARLIE at least has the edge of a two-turn start and victory at Santa Anita on Feb. 17. In that race, he beat next-out winner Footbridge (Eoin Harty).

The other “big-barn” influences in the Sunland Derby come from ABRAHAM (Todd Pletcher) and MUDFLATS (Doug O’Neill). It’s worth noting that O’Neill won the Sunland Derby twice in its first three years, but has fired blanks in his recent attempts at this race. ABRAHAM appears the better-suited of this pair to handle the nine furlongs since his dam is half-sister to Arkansas Derby winner Sir Cherokee. MUDFLATS has trained much better in recent weeks since a decent try in the Grade 2 San Vicente. He’s not an easy horse to toss, but I prefer a few others more.

The under-the-radar horse could be SAINT PRADO (Jeff Bonde), who harkened some visions of I’ll Have Another to me when he returned from a long break to run a sharp race Feb. 16 at Santa Anita. He’s bred to run all day and should be even better at a trip like this than he has been sprinting. Jockey Rafael Bejarano makes the trip and this one deserves a serious look.

Locally based SHOW SOME MAGIC (Henry Dominguez) and STORMDRIVER (Kevin Eikleberry) have had a pair of chances to topple DRY SUMMER and have not been able to do it. Neither seems more equipped to do it now as the distance extends.

Sunland Park Derby selections: W) DRY SUMMER; P) SHAKIN IT UP; S) SAINT PRADO

Last week’s selections: 1: 0-1-0. Top choice OXBOW led until the final two jumps of the Grade 2 Rebel in a tough loss to swallow.

Season selections: 29: 8-6-3.

Everyone’s a critic

This section reviews the week that was in the 3-year-old ranks. Note that 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 my analysis of the Rebel Stakes here. In recent editions of Countdown, the links to key prep races were inaccurate. To catch up on my take from those missed races, please click on the race names for the San Felipe Stakes, Tampa Bay Derby, and Gotham Stakes.

Allowance and Maiden Races

WAR ACADEMY (Bob Baffert) stretched out in victory Friday in a Santa Anita race 2 allowance route that maybe was not as impressive as it first looked. Loose-leading stablemate MANANDO (Baffert) flew through a third quarter in 23.25 that really tightened the screws on his pursuers. But WAR ACADEMY patiently took his temperature and went by with ease as MANANDO’s leg action went up and down the final sixteenth of a mile. WAR ACADEMY didn’t gallop out with much vigor in his third lifetime start and first trip since a fourth in the Grade 2 San Vicente. He looked 1-9 to beat the rest of this field on paper and had one tired rival to reel in. Bred to run all day, this Giant’s Causeway colt would make a lot of sense in the Grade 1 Blue Grass to this eye, but reportedly is being considered for the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby as well. In either spot, I’m not sold yet. Jockey Mike Smith would be foolhardy to take this horse over OXBOW in a potential same-day Arkansas Derby riding conflict in my estimation, but it could be understandable given the amount of business he does with Baffert on the west coast and their trio of near-misses in last year’s Triple Crown.

While he appears too late for the party this spring, Friday’s Gulfstream Park race 7 debut dynamo ZAIKOV (Todd Pletcher) delivered as advertised. The son of Distorted Humor-Wait A While smoked what looked to be a promising cast of sprinters by more than 14 lengths in 1:09.78 for six furlongs. He ran fast without looking like he was trying very hard, a sign of a good one. I recognized a more piston-like action reminiscent of a turf horse, which would make sense as his mama was one of the best grass mares of the last few decades. Pletcher indicated that an allowance would be next before a stakes bid. He certainly has pedigree to be interesting in the Grade 3 Lexington at Keeneland on April 20, but that race would come up too quickly if an allowance is the plan. Keep an eye on this one as a late-bloomer for a summer race like the Haskell. ZAIKOV posted one of the sharper maiden wins of the entire Countdown season.

The much talked-about maiden FOOTBRIDGE (Eoin Harty) likely punched his Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby ticket with Sunday’s race 7 maiden mile win at Santa Anita. But my enthusiasm for him has waned as his fourth-start victory came only because of a heady ride from Garrett Gomez to suck back from a wicked speed duel. After chasing Bob Baffert trainees Belvin, Curly Top and Govenor Charlie, FOOTBRIDGE found easily the weakest field of his career and still was all-out to hold off CONSURGO (Mike Mitchell), who may have been more impressive in defeat. FOOTBRIDGE failed to offer any gallop-out of significance after a slow final time and continues to be a soft finisher.

INCOGNITO (Kiaran McLaughlin) earned what’s expected to be a Grade 3 Illinois Derby bid when the well-bred son of A.P. Indy-Octave graduated Saturday in his third start. He tallied a race 6 maiden mile at Aqueduct by pounding out the 24s around the track and drawing clear late. The takeaway here is the Aqueduct winter form chasing Elnaawi (McLaughlin) and Mr. Palmer (Bill Mott) easily held up against Florida raider TAPULOUS (Todd Pletcher), who was a tired fourth. But the time was only about a length better than $12,500 claimers ran a few races later.

LOOKING COOL (Carl Nafzger) earned his second Gulfstream Park victory of the meet at a mile or longer when he won Sunday’s race 9 two-turn allowance route. The son of Candy Ride outran his damside sprint pedigree, but did so in reeling in another sprint-type in RIVER ROCKS (Wayne Catalano). This race was weakened greatly from the scratches of SAINT VIGEUR (Chad Brown) and CROP REPORT (Graham Motion). Nafzger indicated that a major Derby prep was not in the immediate future for LOOKING COOL, who might fit well in Keeneland’s Grade 3 Lexington at a middle distance.

The Grade 1 Arkansas Derby may have picked up some longshot filler Saturday when BASHAAR (Danny Peitz) scored a two-turn maiden route win on the Rebel undercard. The time was about 10 lengths slower than the Rebel, however, and he was all-out to beat BETWEENHEREANDCOOL (Steve Asmussen), who was obliterated 34 lengths in two California attempts against Baffert heavyweights this winter.

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, FRAC DADDY, MERIT MAN, PICK OF THE LITTER (possible), GUNDERMAN (or Illinois Derby), CLEARLY NOW (possible).





Blue Grass (April 13): RYDILLUC, NOBLE TUNE, CHARMING KITTEN, DEWEY SQUARE, TAKEN BY THE STORM (or Transylvania), BAMBAZONKI (possible), DYNAMIC SKY (possible), WAR ACADEMY (or Arkansas Derby), TIZ A MINISTER (or Louisiana Derby or SA Derby).

Illinois Derby (April 20): INCOGNITO, FREEDOM CHILD, SIETE DE OROS (or Wood).

Later to come: Lexington (Keeneland, 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. ZAIKOV (Gulfstream Park, 3/15)
4. TIZ THE TRUTH (Santa Anita, 2/2)
5. TRANSPARENT (Aqueduct, 1/26)

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. WILL TAKE CHARGE (Rebel Stakes, Oaklawn Park, 3/16)

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!