03/29/2013 1:31PM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 13 - March 29, 2013

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Barbara D. Livingston
Fountain of Youth winner Orb looks like the right fit for the job in the Florida Derby with his allowance-to-stakes class rise at the Gulfstream meet.

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

If Gulfstream Park’s main track resembles the superhighway we saw last Sunday at Sunland Park on its derby day, then we may not get any more feel for the classic-distance potential of the Florida Derby alumni. We can only hope what should be a tell-tale race at a tell-tale trip of 1 1/8 miles will be conducted on a neutral racetrack.

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races.

Triple Crown nominees LITTLE JERRY (Richard Baltas) and CHINA PRINCE (Craig Dollase) battle Friday in Santa Anita’s $70,000 Pasadena Stakes at one mile on turf. Keep an eye on how COUNTING DAYS (Carla Gaines) fares and you could get a little line on UAE Derby hopeful DICE FLAVOR (Paddy Gallagher) for Saturday morning’s big race overseas. ROSENGOLD (Julio Canani) aims for a third straight win as the favorite and will be making his first two-turn bid.

We span the globe Saturday morning for the $2 million United Arab Emirates Derby at Meydan Racecourse. The Group 2 event on the Dubai World Cup undercard features a pair of Americans, HE’S HAD ENOUGH (Doug O’Neill) and DICE FLAVOR (Paddy Gallagher). Both have some repute as HE’S HAD ENOUGH was second in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall and DICE FLAVOR registered a late-running win last month in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby. With leading Dubai Carnival divisional power Soft Falling Rain (Mike DeKock) opting to face elders in the Group 2 Godolphin Mile instead, perhaps this race on the Tapeta synthetic surface could be ripe for the Yanks. Both have won over synthetic surfaces and are solid finishers on a surface that’s kind to their styles. DICE FLAVOR would appear heading the better direction of the pair, while one never knows where the quirky HE’S HAD ENOUGH will be mentally.

Saturday’s Santa Anita card features the rich $200,000 Echo Eddie Stakes for California-bred sophomore sprinters. We’ll see if my season’s most-overrated opinion can find the class and distance relief to his liking when OMEGA STAR (John Shirreffs) rematches with SURFCUP (Bob Baffert). Perhaps a one-turn date in the Grade 3 Derby Trial at Churchill Downs could be on the line.

The Florida Derby undercard includes a race 1 turf allowance route that could fit a Grade 3 Lexington Stakes calendar placement for its winner. The same goes for a race 7 turf maiden route that features $1 million juvenile buy and recent debut runner-up FOREVER THING (Todd Pletcher).

Sunday’s lineup of racing is limited on the Easter holiday; best wishes to all!

Grade 1 Florida Derby (Saturday/Gulfstream Park) [Get PPs + Watch Live]

The recent history of the Florida Derby has been dominated by five straight winners who had raised in class from the allowance ranks earlier in the meet. To put that theory in practical context, I would surmise that the pure, stakes-only types potentially can be overplayed by this point in the GP season. With that in mind, does the extended break given to ITSMYLUCKYDAY (Eddie Plesa) and SHANGHAI BOBBY (Todd Pletcher) following January’s Grade 3 Holy Bull trump that trend? Or, is ORB (Shug McGaughey) once again the right fit for the job with his allowance-to-stakes class rise at the stand?

The Florida Derby’s “big three” are big enough to make it the season’s most important prep race to date. The 100-40-20-10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points scale aside, you don’t need a numbers racket higher than three to know this is a must-see race. And we need only two letters to answer the question whether this race is deeper than the big three? That answer is “n-o” to be frank.

Because of the race shape with two dynamite front-end runners like ITSMYLUCKYDAY and SHANGHAI BOBBY, neither hell-bent on needing the lead, and the race’s best closer being ORB, a plausible upset scenario for the seven “fillers” in this race fails to surface. To boot, none of the big three is harpooned in a terrible, wide post position that haunts Gulfstream runners on this nine-furlong oval. That said the focus becomes: Which of the big three is the right horse for Saturday?

SHANGHAI BOBBY ran exceptionally hard in his return from a 2 ½-month break when second best in the Grade 3 Holy Bull to ITSMYLUCKYDAY. While the 1 1/16-mile distance of the Fountain of Youth may have served him better last month than the Florida Derby’s extra half-furlong, the reigning 2-year-old champion would have been a serious bounce candidate to regress off that taxing return bid. He wisely was rested and will have every chance to be his best in the Florida Derby if his damside pedigree can get him the distance. That’s always been the thorn in his side, and likely why he was an April debut artist last year going 4 1/2 furlongs at Aqueduct.  BOBBY will try to emulate his daddy, Harlan’s Holiday, and tally a Florida Derby, but remember that Harlan’s Holiday had Affirmed and Dowager as grandparents on his damside, not Orientate like SHANGHAI BOBBY. I expect SHANGHAI BOBBY to run another strong race in defeat, but don’t project him capable of outpacing ITSMYLUCKYDAY and outfinishing ORB. The mix of that cocktail seems enough to knock him off his barstool, but he will not be embarrassed. He’s a classy horse.

The decision looms between ITSMYLUCKYDAY and ORB. ITSMYLUCKDAY owns two of the fastest wins of 2013, loves the track and “needs” the points more than ORB. With an inside-speed draw around two turns at Gulfstream, conventional wisdom says ITSMYLUCKYDAY has everything in his corner. And from a value standpoint, with three good options from which to choose, horseplayers may find LUCKY at an appealing-enough price -- even as the betting favorite.

Though none of the “other” seven in the Florida Derby appeal to me whatsoever in the top two spots, the presence of speedy MERIT MAN (Bob Hess) and potential pace-enhancer PICK OF THE LITTER (Dale Romans) tilt the discussion back to where you may consider ORB as a major late threat. We’ve read and heard plenty about how ORB is “in the clubhouse” in terms of points for the Kentucky Derby, and trainer Shug McGaughey can’t wait to get back to Louisville some 24 years after Easy Goer and 11 after Saarland. But I also know Shug pretty well and, believe me, winning his first Florida Derby means something to him. He’s also the last trainer on Earth to look five weeks ahead on the calendar. If ORB were to run terribly in the Florida Derby, he may not even be a Kentucky Derby horse to the honest-as-they-come horseman. You won’t hear about lost shoes, bad rides and tracks that didn’t favor his horse.

Retaining John Velazquez on ORB is a massive “get,” considering the powerhouses sent out this season by Todd Pletcher’s barn. And, Johnny V. likely could have named his call back on Kentucky Derby champ Animal Kingdom Saturday for the $10 million Dubai World Cup if he had wanted. Velazquez and Shug are an amazing duo in graded stakes over the past year. Give me that and the A.P. Indy and Unbridled up close in ORB’s pedigree as the distances get real. It’s a tight call in what I see clearly as a two-horse decision.

As for the “others,” the best hope for trifecta and superfecta round-outs would be INDY’S ILLUSION (Barclay Tagg), distance capable and one of those historically savvy GP allowance class risers for this race; FRAC DADDY (Kenny McPeek), who has battled foot problems and a throat ulcer since the Holy Bull; and ARE YOU KIDDING ME (Roger Attfield), whose fast turf finish last time behind Noble Tune (Chad Brown) indicates he could be picking off tired horses despite a wide draw. PICK OF THE LITTER essentially beat two maiden rivals last time in dominant fashion and there’s no telling what he’ll do when challenged. But he’s a big-sized horse who reminds a bit to the eye of Shackleford, who had four prior starts to his wake-up second in the Florida Derby for Romans in 2011.

Florida Derby selections: W) ORB; P) ITSMYLUCKYDAY; S) SHANGHAI BOBBY

Grade 2 Louisiana Derby (Saturday/Fair Grounds) [Get PPs]


As much respect as I have for REVOLUTIONARY (Todd Pletcher) as he takes his battle to New Orleans, the racing history here appears a very clear script. If you want to win the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, it’s best to get a race over the track prior in the Risen Star Stakes. That’s how Hero of Order, Pants On Fire, Friesan Fire, Pyro and Circular Quay did it. If those names aren’t familiar, they are five of the last six Louisiana Derby winners. To dial in deeper, since this race extended to 1 1/8 miles, all three to gain victory were alumni of the Risen Star and its apparent need for course experience.

The 14-horse field for the Louisiana Derby ranks far deeper in prospects than the same-day Florida Derby. But at the top end, the Florida Derby outshines the A-listers in this cast. After all, Lecomte winner Oxbow (D. Wayne Lukas) has shifted focus back to his Oaklawn Park homebase. And Risen Star victor I’ve Struck a Nerve (Keith Desormeaux) is recovering from ankle surgery. So the Louisiana Derby will be absent of the winners of the track’s two major lead-ins.

If the Risen Star dominance is to continue in the Louisiana Derby, the obvious places to start are with runner-up CODE WEST (Bob Baffert) and third-place finisher PALACE MALICE (Todd Pletcher). The gate also will include the Risen Star’s sixth-, seventh- and eighth-place finishers GOLDEN SOUL (Dallas Stewart), MYLUTE (Tom Amoss) and PROUD STRIKE (Steve Asmussen).

But it’s CODE WEST who interests me most. He’s been gaining steam in my assessment of this crop as a serious threat to be “the” horse by Kentucky Derby Day. Bred to run all day, the son of Belmont winner Lemon Drop Kid has some Real Quiet about him in terms of consistency, versatility and progression toward the Derby. Stuck down inside in a weird-paced Risen Star, he should benefit greatly from being in a manageable post No. 8 and with a more defined front-end target in this race. The new face to the Louisiana Derby pace figures to be TITLETOWN FIVE (D. Wayne Lukas) on the stretch-out from sprints and with an aggressive early rider in Jon Court.

If CODE WEST doesn’t deliver from the Risen Star, that race’s alumni next in line to consider would be PALACE MALICE, who understandably tired a smidge late in his first attempt around two turns. His pedigree says the trip will be a bonus once his fitness and foundation catches up. He’s worked three times since the Risen Star, while Baffert, Amoss and Asmussen have given their charges four drills. MYLUTE rates the best rebound chance from the Risen Star’s off-the-board finishers. His Dec. 26 win here was too good to forget and he made a strange middle move in the Risen Star that I’ve already dubbed weird-paced. Post No. 11 will do him no favors, but he’s got game.

The new faces to the Louisiana Stakes scene obviously start with REVOLUTIONARY, heroic winner of the Grade 3 Withers at Aqueduct. We throw around that adjective too much, but from a horse’s standpoint, you couldn’t have shown more bravery than he did late in his stakes unveiling. I adore his miler-speed pedigree up top by the brilliant War Pass and the stamina on the bottom by 10-furlong Grade 1 Alabama winner Runupthecolors, a daughter of A.P. Indy. One could argue he’s beaten little in two victories on the inner dirt at Aqueduct, but his running lines are littered with important sophomores in this class all the way back to his debut. I expect a very big run, and the lengthy Fair Grounds stretch would appear a match for his finishing style. REVOLUTIONARY has not been the best of performers leaving the gate, and in a big field of 14, this will provide him a very Kentucky Derby-like rehearsal. If you’re a fan of this horse, and I am, then you want to see him in a race just like this – even if he comes up just short. A good late run for the exacta would be no shame when giving away local experience over a track that’s proven tough on shippers in this race.

The real X-factors in the Louisiana Derby include DEPARTING (Al Stall Jr), as visually impressive as any sophomore in Countdown this season, but certainly untested for distance and class; GROUND TRANSPORT (Mike Stidham), a rising son of Big Brown I seriously considered using higher until he drew post No. 13; and TITLETOWN FIVE, the aforementioned pace marker for a Lukas barn that’s already shipped in to win three major stakes at the meeting. TITLETOWN FIVE had been aimed at the much easier Grade 3 Sunland Derby last week, and given his recovery this winter from a removed chip, you have to wonder if a slow workout in 1:16.20 on March 19 at Oaklawn made DWL call an audible because he needed more time. The horse is a big talent when right.

You could make solid arguments in several directions in the Louisiana Derby, which makes it different from the Florida Derby. I’ll be surprised if the winner is not one of my top two here, but there are compelling options for a horseplayer to disagree.

Louisiana Derby selections: W) CODE WEST; P) REVOLUTIONARY; S) MYLUTE

Last week’s selections: 3: 0-1-0. Top choice DIVINE AMBITION was overtaken late by second pick CROP REPORT in the Rushaway, while longshot second choice BLACK ONYX was the Spiral winner. The Sunland Derby selections missed the target badly. Time for a midseason slump buster!

Season selections: 32: 8-7-3.

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 Spiral Stakes and Sunland Derby by clicking on the race name.

Last Saturday’s Spiral Stakes undercard at Turfway Park included the $75,000 Rushaway Stakes, and heavily backed CROP REPORT (Graham Motion) did not disappoint. He calmly reeled in loose-leading DIVINE AMBITION (Darrin Miller) to win in hand and tally his first stakes win. A son of Medaglia d’Oro. CROP REPORT is being discussed by owner Team Valor as a potential Belmont Stakes contender. How he gets there could be via the Grade 1 Blue Grass at Keeneland and/or the May 11 Grade 2 Peter Pan at Belmont. DIVINE AMBITION ran a good race, but could not hold his pace advantage to the wire. He’s being aimed at a 1 1/16-mile Polytrack return in the Grade 3 Lexington at Keeneland, which seems a solid placement. The Rushaway appeared a two-horse race on paper, and it played out that way with the winner solidly best.

Allowance and maiden races

Last Saturday’s Santa Anita race 5 maiden sprint at 7 furlongs provided ZEE BROS (Bob Baffert) a launching pad toward a stakes date. The fast-sprinting son of Brother Derek would appear short of top route distances on damside pedigree and running style, but certainly not short on talent. He’s one to watch this summer for the King’s Bishop at Saratoga, if not something sooner on the Preakness or Belmont undercards (Chick Lang or Woody Stephens Stakes). Aggressive placement could see him in the Grade 3 Derby Trial at Churchill on April 27.

The quality of Oaklawn’s stakes players this season got a mild confidence boost Sunday in a race 5 allowance sprint won by OFFICER ALEX (Lynn Whiting). Outrun badly in the Smarty Jones and Grade 3 Southwest Stakes, he found the class relief a fine elixir and dominated this cast from start to finish.

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.

Wood Memorial (Aqueduct, April 6): VERRAZANO, VYJACK, NORMANDY INVASION, ELNAAWI, WEST HILLS GIANT, MR PALMER, SPEAK LOGISTICS (or Blue Grass), SIETE DE OROS (or Illinois Derby), TRANSPARENT, ALWAYS IN A TIZ, TIZ THE TRUTH (possible), POWER BROKER (or Santa Anita Derby), THE TRUTH AND K G (possible), GO GET THE BASIL (possible).

Santa Anita Derby (Santa Anita, April 6): HEAR THE GHOST, FLASHBACK, GOLDENCENTS, FOOTBRIDGE (or Blue Grass), STORM FIGHTER, DEMONIC (or Arkansas Derby), SUPER NINETY NINE, TIZ A MINISTER (or Blue Grass), CERRO (possible), EXAMEN (possible), POWER BROKER (or Wood).

Arkansas Derby (Oaklawn Park, April 13): OXBOW, DEN’S LEGACY, FALLING SKY, TEXAS BLING, WAR ACADEMY, OVERANALYZE, HEAVENS RUNWAY, SHOW SOME MAGIC, BASHAAR (possible), DEMONIC (or Santa Anita Derby).

Blue Grass (April 13): RYDILLUC, NOBLE TUNE, UNCAPTURED, CHARMING KITTEN, DEWEY SQUARE, TAKEN BY THE STORM, JAVA’S WAR, BAMBAZONKI, DYNAMIC SKY, TIZ A MINISTER (or SA Derby), CROP REPORT (or Peter Pan), FEAR THE KITTEN, MY NAME IS MICHAEL, GIANT FINISH, FOOTBRIDGE (or SA Derby), SPEAK LOGISTICS (or Wood), CHANNEL ISLE (or Transylvania/Northern Spur), FIRE GUARD (possible)

Illinois Derby (April 20): INCOGNITO, FREEDOM CHILD, SIETE DE OROS (or Wood), FOR GREATER GLORY (possible), GUNDERMAN (possible).

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!