03/23/2012 9:15AM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 12 - March 23, 2012

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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 Tim Tebow’s football career in Denver. Soon enough, everything disappears into the thin air.

1. After seeing the laborious stretch run in Saturday’s G2 Rebel Stakes, I would put my 3-year-old on a Greyhound bus to Oaklawn for the G1 Arkansas Derby’s $1 million purse if I had to. Better yet, start walking now. We’ve got until April 14 to get there. It’s no coincidence that Bob Baffert began tweeting about horses other than his Rebel winner within 24 hours of the score as possible Arkansas Derby candidates.

2. I’m a big fan of ALPHA (Kiaran McLaughlin), but even I’m growing tired of the cupcake shopping that’s going on. The connections keep looking for the sweetest spot to run, avoiding the division’s heavy hitters. Makes you wonder if they think they really have the goods? Come the first Saturday in May, the bake shop will be closed; that much we know.

3. The slowest Spiral Stakes ever run on the dirt came in 1992, while its slowest running since going to Polytrack came in 2011. So before you bemoan this weekend how the Spiral winner didn’t impress your senses, keep in mind those two years listed above were won by Lil E. Tee and Animal Kingdom, the only two Spiral winners to go on and capture the Kentucky Derby.

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. Final exams are here as we’re six weeks out from the Kentucky Derby. It’s now time to bypass the maidens and allowances and focus on the stakes. Turfway Park’s big Saturday of racing includes the six-furlong Hansel for 3-year-old sprinters as well as the 1 1/16-mile Rushaway for late-blooming sophomore routers. The Rushaway often is used as a stepping-stone to the G1 Blue Grass at Keeneland in three weeks, and this year’s field includes big-time Gulfstream debut sprint winner FLASHY DRESSER (Fred Seitz), who is not Triple Crown nominated. Note the deadline for late nominees is Saturday night, so a big run could force a check to be written. DYNAMICAL (Mark Casse), third in the John Battaglia Memorial last time out, could give us a good line on G3 Spiral hopeful ILL CONCEIVED (John Servis). Horses like GUNG HO (Mike Maker), GOLD MEGILLAH (Graham Motion) and BLUEDACIOUS (Mark Casse) all would appear Blue Grass candidates with promising efforts.

G3 Spiral Stakes (Saturday/Turfway Park)

Anyone who has watched Keeneland with any scrutiny in recent years knows that when you get a Polytrack route race, you had better take heed to what trainers Graham Motion, Mike Maker and Todd Pletcher have on the table. So when Turfway’s 1 1/8-mile Spiral Stakes is renewed Saturday a little to the north of Keeneland, it should come as no surprise that the road show once again features these three powerful route barns.

[TURFWAY PARK: Get PPs and watch the Saturday card live]

Motion won the Spiral a year ago with Animal Kingdom and he and Team Valor look for an encore from WENT THE DAY WELL, a son of Proud Citizen who was a last-out maiden winner on the dirt at Gulfstream. The barn also tallied the 2008 Spiral with Adriano, accounting for two of the trophies in this race’s six-year run on Polytrack. The same can be said for Maker, winner of the 2006 Spiral (With A City) and 2010 version (Dean’s Kitten). Maker counters Saturday with MR. PRANKSTER, a local two-time stakes winner, and TIZANEXPENSE, looking to rebound off a wide trip in the G2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds. MR. PRANKSTER caught a slow pace in a very small field in the John Battaglia Memorial last time out and it really took him out of his one-run closing game. He’ll benefit if this pace picks up some today, and it should, just based on the field size and more options to make someone increase the tempo.

Pletcher sends in the pair of HEAVY BREATHING and HOLIDAY PROMISE, the former considered the much stronger of the duo off of two blowout wins to open his career at Gulfstream Park. On pedigree, HEAVY BREATHING is bred to absolutely relish the Polytrack. Sire Giant’s Causeway is one of the foremost synthetic sires in the game today, and the damside of HEAVY BREATHING has more Polytrack influence. HEAVY BREATHING hasn’t beaten much and faced only five rivals in each of his Gulfstream wins, but it’s also fair to think he might move way forward over this surface from his two dirt tries. Given he won those by 11 combined lengths, that’s substantial, even if in modest times.

STEALCASE (Mark Casse) was my upset special to knock off HANSEN (Mike Maker) in the G3 Gotham three weeks ago, but a poor start look him out of the mix and he could rebound with a clean trip. He’s yet to run on anything but dirt, but spent some of his winter in Ocala training on synthetic. I really liked his Gulfstream maiden breaker before the Gotham, and there’s likely going to be a tempting price in hopes of a rebound. Casse adds blinkers for the first time.

ILL CONCEIVED (John Servis) was super-game in his local second in the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes and is another with a pedigree to love the synthetic. His daddy Spanish Steps is a full brother to Unbridled’s Song, whom I consider the strongest Polytrack sire in the game. The new California raiders add some pace influences to make you think ILL CONCEIVED won’t be on the lead again, and Servis would prefer he not be.

The California influence in the Spiral also offers intrigue. HANDSOME MIKE (Doug O’Neill), RUSSIAN GREEK (Jerry Hollendorfer) and ALL SQUARED AWAY (Peter Miller) all invade from their Hollywood Park training bases. Hollendorfer has never lost the Spiral, winning with Event of the Year and Globalize back in the dirt era at Turfway. RUSSIAN GREEK is a steady comer who just didn’t fire in the G3 El Camino Real Derby when 4 1/2 lengths behind HANDSOME MIKE for a minor placing. HANDSOME MIKE must find a way to finish what he starts. Since breaking his maiden in a downhill turf sprint, he’s lost ground in the stretch in all four attempts beyond that distance. By white-hot young sire Scat Daddy, he could be the pace presence that overtakes ILL CONCEIVED for the front of the Spiral pack.

HEAVY BREATHING and WENT THE DAY WELL almost assuredly will be a bit overplayed on the toteboard because of their connections, when compared to what they’ve accomplished. But dismiss Pletcher and Motion at your own peril. I’m going with the third of the three-headed training monster in this field, Mike Maker, with the local star MR. PRANKSTER. The jockey change to Rosie Napravnik intrigues me and the price will be improved after a disappointment at 4-5 odds last time. I could see STEALCASE waking up at a price and will be mixing him in with the top three selections below in the exotics. Casse adds blinkers in a move that worked for G2 Tampa Bay Derby winner PROSPECTIVE recently. I also like RUSSIAN GREEK to bounce back with a good effort, but we’re getting deeper into this without a concrete call.

This is not one of those run-to-the-bank feelings, but hopefully the joke won’t be on us for taking MR. PRANKSTER.

G3 Spiral Stakes selections: W) MR. PRANKSTER; P) HEAVY BREATHING; S) WENT THE DAY WELL.

G3 Sunland Park Derby (Sunday/Sunland Park)

With $800,000 in graded stakes earnings up for grabs, Sunday’s Grade 3 Sunland Park Derby is more than just the old stomping grounds of 2009 Kentucky Derby champ Mine That Bird. It’s a place where the top two finishers can all but ensure themselves a spot in this year’s main event at Churchill Downs.

[SUNLAND PARK: Get PPs and watch the Sunday card live]

That said, a dynamite field of eight has entered, ranking from this eye as the best field in the race’s 10-year history. Bob Baffert sends out two legitimate sophomores in G3 Southwest Stakes winner CASTAWAY and recent maiden winner STIRRED UP, one of the real up-and-comers in the 2012 class. But big-name competition looms with ENDER KNIEVEL (Todd Pletcher) and DADDY NOSE BEST (Steve Asmussen), the latter a determined winner of the G3 El Camino Real Derby last month. Local stalwart ISN’T HE CLEVER (Henry Dominguez) was hardly embarrassed when he challenged the big boys in California and rates one of the stiffer Sunland-based challengers in this race’s history.

The field also includes turf stakes winners TEQUILA FACTOR (C.L. Wilson) and NO SPIN (Tim Ice).

CASTAWAY and ENDER KNIEVEL could put on a pace show from the two inside posts, and with ISN’T HE CLEVER likely to press just to their outside, this 1 1/8-mile hurdle will not be scaled without some guts on the front end. If the front-runners aren’t up to the distance under duress, the late-running DADDY NOSE BEST and STIRRED UP would appear the beneficiaries. All runners carry an equal 122 pounds, but note CASTAWAY will be lugging seven more pounds than he did in his visually sharp G3 Southwest Stakes victory at Oaklawn.

ENDER KNIEVEL has a license to like the going at Sunland as his sire Distorted Humor also was responsible for 2010 Sunland Derby champ Endorsement, who upset a hot Bob Baffert-trained favorite exiting a Southwest win at Oaklawn named Conveyance. History has a chance to repeat. I’m inclined to swing against ENDER KNIEVEL since he’s never been around two turns, and nine furlongs is a long way to go the first time they ask you to route. He’s got a good-looking workout tab, though, and you know he’s fast.

STIRRED UP strikes me as a horse with tons of upside and pedigree that suggests distances like this will be of no concern. He’s by Belmont winner Lemon Drop Kid and out of a mare by Quiet American, who happened to be sire of Kentucky Derby/Preakness winner Real Quiet. These are the Baffert types I love, not the run-off speed types. You could say he’s getting a class test, but many would argue that facing BODEMEISTER (Bob Baffert) and HOLY CANDY (John Sadler) on the West Coast in maiden races is like running in a graded stakes..

G3 Sunland Park Derby selections: W) STIRRED UP; P) CASTAWAY; S) DADDY NOSE BEST.

Last week’s selections: 3: 3-0-0. It was a cold sweep of the three preps last week as Countdown top selections SECRET CIRCLE (Rebel), RACONTEUR (Private Terms) and STREET LIFE (Broad Brush) all turned in winning performances. We’re heating up as things get serious now with 6 top-choice wins in the last 9 preps.

Season selections: 29: 12-3-3.

Everyone’s a critic

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

G2 Rebel Stakes (3/17, OP-10)

The Great Wall may be in China, but there was some kind of fencing of significance in Hot Springs, Ark., on Saturday when what appeared to be a fine field of 3-year-olds slammed smack into it. The G2 Rebel Stakes officially was 1 1/16 miles in distance, but I’m not so sure anyone got the trip after watching the race visually and on the clock. Let’s allow the fractions to speak for themselves. They were 23.44, 23.66, 24.33, 26.25 and 6.88. As you can see, this field stopped to a near-crawl in the fourth quarter of the race, and the final sixteenth of a mile projects out to about 28 seconds if this group was asked to run all the way to the Kentucky Derby’s 1 ¼-mile test.

Anyone of sane conscience who watched the race live or on replay would have sworn that front-running SCATMAN (Mike Lauer) was drawing off to win by a wide margin in upper stretch. He put everyone away, kicked clear a few lengths, and then, just as suddenly, was spent. By the time he passed the sixteenth pole, SCATMAN’s leg action took a noticeable change toward complete fatigue. He’ll be a top miler someday. Meanwhile, SECRET CIRCLE (Bob Baffert), the popular winner at even-money odds, looked dead in the water and fooled the eye to re-rally, only to revert to some of his past efforts with a drift in the lane that once again hinted of a horse who had hit his limit. Then along came OPTIMIZER (D. Wayne Lukas), weaving through the field like his trousers were on fire. But he made up a grand total of 3 1/2 lengths over a final five-sixteenths of a mile that took a painful 33.13 to complete.

There’s a handicapping axiom that holds pretty darned true and goes something like this: When a clump of horses are all close together at the wire in a slow time, the race wasn’t very good. The top seven here were within about five lengths and the clock was brutally honest in its critique. I have a hard time arguing against that, even for a race that I totally loved on paper going into it.

SECRET CIRCLE deserves credit for being more adaptable in style than he once hinted he could be. He’s not a run-off speed horse anymore and that’s a plus. He’s never been short on pedigree, but he’s not yet shown the stamina to scare off the top of the 3-year-old division. His resume looks an awful lot like The Factor from a year ago, but those comparisons don’t really hold up. The Factor was far more headstrong and brilliant than this colt. SECRET CIRCLE was compared to Silver Charm by Baffert on the day after the Rebel, and stylistically that might be more like it. But he’s going to have to really blossom in my estimation to reach those kind of heights that Silver Charm found in 1997. The Charm was one of the most impressive Derby-week morning steamers in the last 20 years and came to hand at the right time, so maybe the last chapter on Secret Circle won’t be able to be written until then. Right now, I’m not seeing it.

The G1 Arkansas Derby on April 14 absolutely looks ripe for the taking from a ship-in performer to this eye. Even short on training, experience or lousy posts, I expected more from closers like NAJJAAR (Danny Peitz), ATIGUN (Ken McPeek) and ADIRONDACK KING (John Servis). The KING had a bout of colic earlier this week post-Rebel and that puts his spring on the ropes.  Even SABERCAT (Steve Asmussen), whom I didn’t fancy so much in this spot off of an overrated G3 Delta Jackpot score, did not deliver as much as expected. Meanwhile, CYBER SECRET (Lynn Whiting) had a dream trip and rejected it. Unless you think OPTIMIZER has put it all together now and storms by at 1 1/8 miles, there’s not a lot of confidence oozing from the Rebel also-rans. JAKE MO (Allen Milligan) continues on solid, but unspectacular, just like his papa Giacomo and maybe lands a big one someday if it falls apart like it did for dad. The best gallop-out actually wasn’t by OPTIMIZER, but rather by NAJJAAR, who perhaps can build off this race as I feel he’s quite talented.

Most of name players are expected back for the Arkansas Derby, and this effort will not scare anyone away, nor should it. With $1 million on the line and given his stable’s depth, I’m not surprised Bob Baffert may send BODEMEISTER to join SECRET CIRCLE in the gate. At the least, some of this year’s Californians should be checking on travel plans to Arkansas and avoid the Santa Anita Derby’s rigors.

Listed stakes

Broad Brush (3/17, AQU-2)

The G1 Wood Memorial picked up a player of some repute Saturday when STREET LIFE (Chad Brown) turned in his second straight eye-popping, rallying victory. The son of Kentucky Derby champ Street Sense flew his fourth quarter in the upper 23s and then came home in just over 6 seconds the final sixteenth to nab COPY MY SWAGGER (David Jacobson), who appeared to be long gone with a big lead.

This $75,000 overnight stakes won’t pass the class test with many and it’s fair to remain loyal to those who have faced tougher competition at this stage. But STREET LIFE appears a horse with much upside and is improving as the distances get farther, something not all in the 3-year-old class can claim. He’ll never break any slide rules for speed figure aficionados with his deep-closing style. STREET LIFE would need to win the Wood or maybe catch the very fringe of the top 20 graded stakes earnings list with a second-place finish. But, then again, the Wood would be only his fourth career start and unless he’s a star in that race, he shouldn’t be going on to the Kentucky Derby anyway. He’s earned the right to see what he can do against the big boys.

Private Terms (3/17, LRL-9)

RACONTEUR (Todd Pletcher) ran to his past performances in Saturday’s $100,000 Private Terms Stakes, grinding out a victory that needed every inch of Laurel Park’s elongated stretch run for one-turn miles. Despite a flashy pedigree, he’s never been flashy, but you have to respect a horse who has now won three of his last four starts by about one length combined. The A.P. Indy-Miss Kate colt ran a shade over 25 seconds the final quarter-mile to track down HAKAMA (Mike Trombetta) by a head as the 9-5 favorite.

The top pair flattered the form of New York’s top winter stakes victors HANSEN (Mike Maker) and ALPHA (Kiaran McLaughlin) as they exited the G3 Gotham and G3 Withers, respectively. Trainer Pletcher indicated to Maryland Jockey Club officials after the race that a return date for the local Preakness prep, the Cannonero II Stakes on May 5 (formerly the Federico Tesio Stakes), could be in order for RACONTEUR. Don’t be surprised if Trombetta sends HAKAMA to Keeneland for the G3 Lexington with a pedigree to like the Polytrack and the 1 1/16 miles distance, and the trainer has been known to raid that meet in recent years.

Allowances

GEMOLOGIST (Todd Pletcher) did everything you want to see in his 3-year-old return, breezing to an easy score in a one-mile allowance last Friday at Gulfstream Park. In defeating last year’s G1 Hopeful winner CURRENCY SWAP (Terri Pompay), GEMOLOGIST at least got more from this race than a $20 oil change. Still, it wasn’t the same thorough check under the hood that the G2 Rebel Stakes would have been, but it’s a start. The devil now comes in the details of what’s next. GEMOLOGIST had an easy comeback win, thus allowing Pletcher to run back in three weeks in the April 7 G1 Wood Memorial, leaving four weeks between the final prep and Kentucky Derby Day. Makes sense to me, given how un-taxing the comeback race was in the allowance ranks. GEMOLOGIST now needs to get a good test in New York, even if HANSEN heads to the Blue Grass as is now expected. CURRENCY SWAP wasn’t totally embarrassed in defeat, even if seven lengths in arrears to a dominant victor in 1:35.95. His trainer said the son of High Cotton could go next in the Wood Memorial as well.

Pletcher’s riches continued Saturday at Gulfstream when last year’s Saratoga Special runner-up STAT romped in a race 4 mile allowance on the main track by 6 1/4 lengths in 1:35.90, a few ticks quicker than GEMOLOGIST the day prior. By Unbridled’s Song out of a Gilded Time mare, he doesn’t appear to be a major distance kind of horse, but that sire is pure dynamite on Polytrack and the 1 1/16 miles G3 Lexington and Keeneland would be where I’d love to see him next.

The Northern California stakes alumni got a little resume boost last Friday at Santa Anita when SENOR RAIN (Peter Miller) rocked the tote in a seven-furlong allowance. Third in the California Derby and well beaten in the G3 El Camino Real Derby, SENOR RAIN rebounded to best a strong sprint field that included highly regarded trio of HIERRO (Steve Asmussen), CONSULADO (Mike Puype) and BRIGAND (Bob Baffert).

Z ROCKSTAR (Donnie K. Von Hemel) further underscored the form of his Southwest Stakes division when he rebounded last Friday to win a race 8 allowance at Oaklawn. While no match for SECRET CIRCLE (Bob Baffert) on Feb. 20, the son of Rockport Harbor was sharp in 1:44.09 for 1 1/16 miles, running .46 faster than his Southwest conqueror ran in the next-day G2 Rebel Stakes. With the win, Z ROCKSTAR may have earned his way back into the G1 Arkansas Derby discussion.

Maidens

Now that we’ve reached the final six-week push to the Derby, only a super-significant maiden performance will be noted from here out.

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, NEWS PENDING, REVERON, FORT LOUDON, NECK N’ NECK, GOLDEN TICKET (or Blue Grass)

G2 Louisiana Derby (Fair Grounds 4/1): MARK VALESKI, DISCREET DANCER, CIGAR STREET, Z DAGER, SHARED PROPERTY, AFFORD, COMISKY’S HUMOR, FINNEGANS WAKE, FIRE ALARM, HERO OF ORDER, MR BOWLING

G1 Wood Memorial (Aqueduct, 4/7): GEMOLOGIST, PROSPECTIVE (or Blue Grass), MY ADONIS, ALPHA (possibly Louisiana Derby or Florida Derby), TIGER WALK, DONE TALKING, OUR ENTOURAGE, CURRENCY SWAP

G1 Santa Anita Derby (Santa Anita, 4/7): CREATIVE CAUSE, BODEMEISTER (or Arkansas Derby), I’LL HAVE ANOTHER, LIAISON, ROUSING SERMON, BLINGO, MIDNIGHT TRANSFER, BROTHER FRANCIS

G2 Illinois Derby (Hawthorne, 4/7): PAYNTER; more to be determined.

G1 Arkansas Derby (Oaklawn, 4/14): SECRET CIRCLE, BODEMEISTER (or Santa Anita Derby), ON FIRE BABY (or Fantasy vs. fillies), OPTIMIZER, JAKE MO, SABERCAT, SCATMAN (possible), Z ROCKSTAR.

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

Quick hitters

G2 San Felipe winner CREATIVE CAUSE (Mike Harrington) has exited his score in fine fettle, returning to the workout tab in just 10 days and drilling a bullet 5 furlongs in 59.80 Tuesday at Hollywood Park. G1 Santa Anita Derby runners beware … UNION RAGS (Michael Matz) has posted slow breezes the past two Saturdays since his G2 Fountain of Youth score, a dawdling 5 furlongs in 1:04.21 at Palm Meadows last Saturday, slowest of 22 moves on the day …EL PADRINO (Todd Pletcher) breezed the same distance at Palm Meadows last Sunday in 1:01.22, his second solid work since his G2 Risen Star victory … OPTIMIZER (D. Wayne Lukas) plummeted from 125-1 to 35-1 in the Wynn Las Vegas futures after his Rebel rally. What a difference a stretch run makes! …  Next week’s races to circle on the calendar include Saturday’s G1 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and Sunday’s G2 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds.

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)
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. GEMOLOGIST (Gulfstream, 3/16) * NEW *
3. NAJJAAR (Oaklawn, 3/2)
4. DISCREET DANCER (Gulfstream, 1/7)
5. FED BIZ (Santa Anita, 2/9) 

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)
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!