03/30/2012 8:13AM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 13 - March 30, 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 an egg salad sandwich from your local Texaco station. Digest them at your own risk.

1. News of Bob Baffert’s heart attack in Dubai on Monday shot fear into this mind upon hearing the story, and now that the affable trainer is recovering well in the United Arab Emirates, I want to send a hearty hug from all of our Countdown to the Crown readers. Get well!

2. Hats off to Todd Pletcher and his owners for running EL PADRINO against UNION RAGS (Michael Matz) in Saturday’s G1 Florida Derby. Too many people in the game today are averse to losing, and we rarely see rivalries develop and horses get battle-tested for that reason. I think we’re going to see both horses, and racing fans, benefit immensely.

3. Fair Grounds’ brilliance of staggering the Louisiana Derby between Saturday’s Final Four basketball games and Monday’s national championship tilt already has been rewarded. The roundball gods sent Louisville and Kentucky to New Orleans for the Final Four, which might help the FG crowd just a tad this Sunday, don’t you think?

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. We’re into big-stakes mode now with the season’s biggest weekend of multi-million dollar preps. Saturday’s $2 million UAE Derby in Dubai isn’t part of our Countdown radar, per se, but note that Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner WROTE (Aidan O’Brien) and El Camino Real Derby runner-up LUCKY CHAPPY (Graham Motion) are part of the cast. Post time for the UAE Derby is set for 10:25 a.m. Eastern.

There is one maiden race even at this late stage that bears watching. Saturday’s race 7 at Gulfstream features SPIN OUT (Nick Zito), who will meet up with an intriguing lot of rookies. Also note the debut of Stay Thirsty and Andromeda’s Hero’s little brother BOCELLI (Bill Mott) and the regally bred Street Cry-Beautiful Pleasure colt NORTH OCEAN (George Weaver). Also, EZ EFFORT, younger brother to Uh Oh Bango, makes his unveiling for Todd Pletcher after a fantastic career debut on the West Coast and subsequent private sale. Quite a cool race on the Florida Derby undercard!

G1 Florida Derby (Saturday/Gulfstream Park)

The top-end strength of the $1 million G1 Florida Derby is so strong it makes this the race of the season to date, and that’s without much supporting depth. But that’s just how good UNION RAGS (Michael Matz) and EL PADRINO (Todd Pletcher) rate. Outside of the big two, the Gulfstream showpiece offers back the two-four finishers in the G2 Fountain of Youth in NEWS PENDING (Dale Romans) and NECK ‘N NECK (Ian Wilkes), as well as the Gulfstream Park Derby winner REVERON (Agustin Bezera), a last-out third in the G3 Sam F. Davis at Tampa. While TAKE CHARGE INDY (Pat Byrne) is only listed stakes-placed to date, few would argue against his class and he very well may be third choice in the betting.

[FLORIDA DERBY: Video previews, watch Saturday's full card live]

Barring massive regression by the top pair, or an unforeseen leap in performance by someone else, this is a classic, two-horse race. They don’t always turn out that way, but that’s how you slice the 2012 Florida Derby. The showdown is set between the two horses I’ve had ranked at the top of my balloting the past several weeks. Making his third start of the season and second at the meet, it’s fair to think EL PADRINO could have the edge over UNION RAGS in the Florida Derby based on where he’s at in his form cycle.

But I fully expect UNION RAGS to be at his best. Trainer Matz has won a Kentucky Derby with Barbaro in 2006 and knows that his colt must get more out of this race than he did in a G2 Fountain of Youth victory in which he never really took a deep breath. The presence of EL PADRINO will give him a quality rival to gain that all-important toughness. I’ve been a staunch supporter of EL PADRINO as Pletcher’s best Derby prospect ever and nothing has changed that so far. I expect him to win or run a good second against a rival that would be no shame in losing to. This nonsense in today’s game that you must win every start just isn’t realistic. Teams win the Super Bowl who only made the playoffs via the wildcard, and No. 4 seeds make the Final Four as No. 1 seeds are back home watching. No matter which horse wins and which horse loses Saturday, both UNION RAGS and EL PADRINO are as good of Kentucky Derby hopefuls as anyone on the trail this year.

Tactically, the Florida Derby doesn’t have a dead-set front-runner, though REVERON most likely will set the tone. While not short on pedigree, he seemed to hit the wall in the Tampa Bay Derby at 1 1/16 miles, though a tough draw in post 10 that day did not help the cause. NEWS PENDING pressed the pace in the Fountain of Youth and held throughout to be second. There’s not a lot of quit in his game, so he’ll be perfectly positioned to overtake REVERON and will get tested when the favorites come calling from just off the pace. You might see TAKE CHARGE INDY just off the flank of NEWS PENDING and try to make first run under Calvin Borel. Both EL PADRINO and UNION RAGS should be glued as one throughout the running with perhaps EL PADRINO slightly ahead before they both decide it’s time to go. Expect Julien Leparoux and Javier Castellano to be riding the race against each other and moving as soon as the other does.

Third-place money in the Florida Derby will be worth $100,000 in graded stakes earnings, so depending on who runs third, this race legitimately could push three horses on to the first Saturday in May.

G1 Florida Derby selections: W) EL PADRINO; P) UNION RAGS; S) NEWS PENDING.

G2 Louisiana Derby (Sunday/Fair Grounds)

Sunday’s main event in New Orleans will provide as good of a Kentucky Derby dress rehearsal on the track as any race the entire prep season. With a massive field size, 1 1/8 miles distance and elongated run through the stretch, this is about as “Derby” as a prep gets once the horses leave the starting gate. Also key to the equation is the presence of cheap speed, something any Kentucky Derby hopeful who likes to race forwardly must deal with in Louisville. Why not find out now if you can handle it and move on?

With G2 Risen Star winner EL PADRINO (Todd Pletcher) declining the return trip and staying home for the G1 Florida Derby, the due respect in the Louisiana Derby turns to rising star MARK VALESKI (Larry Jones), who took that rival to a nose decision in a stirring renewal of the Risen Star, one that was completed in stakes-record time. Making his first start around two turns that day, and running clearly a career-best race to date, it’s fair to wonder if MARK VALESKI will bounce off that performance and regress a bit Sunday. If he doesn’t, MARK VALESKI very well could dominate this group. He was more than five lengths ahead of the rest in the Risen Star and that margin was not getting any closer at the end of 1 1/16 miles. In all fairness, I’m not sure the pedigree of MARK VALESKI will get much more than these kinds of distances, but Larry Jones rarely sends one over unfit for the challenge.

Z DAGER (Steve Asmussen) was third in the Risen Star, but from post 11 he strikes me as a horse who will struggle to repeat that performance. With only four career starts, there’s room to improve and he’s working well. Still, the newcomers to the Louisiana Derby field make this race, overall, deeper than the Risen Star, even without EL PADRINO.

Among the new faces to the Fair Grounds stakes scene are CIGAR STREET (Steve Margolis), the meet’s most dominant two-turn maiden winner, and ROUSING SERMON (Jerry Hollendorfer), a deep-closing Californian who hopes the long stretch run and honest playing surface will give him a better shot than at Santa Anita. WINDSURFER (Todd Pletcher) has gotten better in each start for an always-respected barn, while FINNEGANS WAKE (Dale Romans) should give us an even more intersectional barometer after a late-running third in New York’s G3 Gotham to champion HANSEN (Mike Maker).

No doubt horses like ROUSING SERMON and FINNEGANS WAKE will be dependent on a fast early pace to help their chances. They want to see the field spread out so they can navigate through the pack and weave a winning path. They should get that request as this field has plenty of early pace types, including favorite MARK VALESKI. Local sprinter COMISKY’S HUMOR would appear vastly overmatched, but has cheap speed to push the throttle. HERO OF HONOR made the pace in the Risen Star and has been on the lead at some point in each of his last 10 starts regardless of distance or surface. I’m not sure what CIGAR STREET will do, having wired his second start and first route attempt, but with the benefit of a slow pace. My guess is he’s fast enough to be with the leading flight, but not required to do so. The problem with CIGAR STREET is that his 13 3/4-length win margin and 99 Beyer Speed Figure have made him the 3-1 second choice in the betting, and that’s horribly undervalued even if you loved his maiden win, as I did.

MARK VALESKI has to answer the bounce question, the distance question and the pace pressure question. That’s a lot to ask at odds that figure to be about 5-2 while coupled with G3 Lecomte victor MR. BOWLING in the betting. Still, he appears a pretty special racehorse to this eye. I wouldn’t single him in the pick four, but I wouldn’t spend a lot of cash trying to beat MARK VALESKI in this spot either.

The interesting price horse to me is SHARED PROPERTY (Tom Amoss), who has been working exceptionally well and adds blinkers for the first time. This was a visually stirring performer to open his career and one that I have had high hopes for since. He’s been victimized by horrible post position draws in shorter races this year and now from post No. 6 and with a longer run into the first turn, I fully expect him to make a big improvement. You’ll probably get double-digit odds Saturday and the son of red-hot sire Scat Daddy would be my first option if trying to beat the favorite.

G2 Louisiana Derby selections: W) MARK VALESKI; P) SHARED PROPERTY; S) CIGAR STREET.

Last week’s selections: 2: 0-0-1. Third choices WENT THE DAY WELL and DADDY NOSE BEST scored in the Spiral and Sunland Derby, while our top picks didn’t fare as well as recent weeks. STIRRED UP finished third in the Sunland Derby, while MR. PRANKSTER finished far, far off the board in the Spiral.

Season selections: 31: 12-3-4.

Everyone’s a critic

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

G3 Spiral Stakes (3/24, TP-10)

Is he is, or is he ain’t, your Animal Kingdom? That’s the riddle horseplayers must solve when evaluating Saturday’s G2 Spiral victor WENT THE DAY WELL (Graham Motion). Decent grammar aside, that’s one heck of a question. All the similarities were there as Team Valor’s colors once again flew highest in this $500,000 test at 1 1/8 miles. Shipping in from Gulfstream while making the rise to stakes company for the first time, Animal Kingdom launched his 2011 Kentucky Derby-winning campaign at the very same Florence oval. Let’s forget the rest of Saturday’s Spiral field for a moment, and for all intents and purposes, none appears Triple Crown mettle anyway.

Let’s look at WENT THE DAY WELL versus Animal Kingdom. After all, when putting together a scouting report like we do here in Countdown, what better measuring stick is there than the most recent Derby champ?

Pedigree-wise, Animal Kingdom was sired by a sensational turf miler in Leroidesanimaux, but on the damside was flooded with European distance influences. Meanwhile, Went The Day Well is by Proud Citizen, runner-up in the Kentucky Derby and third in the Preakness of 2002. And even though Proud Citizen got some distance in the Triple Crown, he was considered more of a miler/middle-distance type and was later aimed at shorter races like the Met Mile, Forego and Ancient Title. Went The Day Well, like Animal Kingdom, gets his stamina from the damside. His mama Tiz Mae’s Day never raced, but she’s by two-time Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Tiznow and hails from the bloodlines of Epsom Derby winner Roberto. So, the breeding similarities are there. High-quality middle-distance horse on top, serious stamina influences on bottom.

In terms of surfaces, Animal Kingdom was tailor made for the Polytrack at Turfway based on his past experiences, having run very well on Polytrack at Arlington and Keeneland at age two. Went the Day Well was more of a question to handle the surface this time around, even though he ran well on turf in England as a juvenile and on dirt this season at Gulfstream Park. When you redirect the surface topic back to the dirt for the Kentucky Derby, advantage goes to Went the Day Well based on pedigree and past performances compared to Animal Kingdom.

Time-wise, Went the Day Well went nearly a full second faster in his Spiral win than Animal Kingdom, stopping the clock in 1:51.33. Went the Day Well ran his fourth quarter in the 25.85 range and the final furlong in 13.26. Animal Kingdom timed about 26 flat and 13.36 on the back end of his Spiral score. Again, advantage goes to Went the Day Well. The Beyer Speed Figures initially put them within a point of one another. At worst, it’s a push.

So while the similarities are fun to talk about with the humans involved, right down to jockey John Velazquez, it appears that Went the Day Well and Animal Kingdom stack up pretty favorably. This year’s crop may be tougher than last year’s or perhaps even weaker; that is still to be determined. So while Went the Day Well could develop just as potent as Animal Kingdom did between now and Derby Day, whom he faces has as much to do with his chances at repeating history as anything.

At this stage, Animal Kingdom had two preps at age 2 and two as a sophomore. Went the Day Well had two runs as a juvenile and now three as a sophomore. He’s actually ahead of his stablemate in terms of race experience. Still, the connections have indicated he needs to learn more and they may run him again in the G3 Lexington at Keeneland on April 21, which would only give Went the Day Well a two-week window then until the Kentucky Derby. That would be a vast preparation difference between him and Animal Kingdom. Stay tuned.

As for the others in the Spiral, favorite HEAVY BREATHING (Todd Pletcher) set a ridiculous tempo, getting the half-mile in 46.98, nearly three full seconds faster (15-plus lengths faster) than the same-day Rushaway Stakes for 3-year-old routing colts. He held on for third money despite the torrid fractions, but it was hardly endearing to see 25-1 stablemate HOLIDAY PROMISE (Todd Pletcher) get the place money when he had been struggling to make serious dents in allowance races at Laurel and Aqueduct. You’ll likely see both those Pletcher trainees at Keeneland next, especially considering that HEAVY BREATHING was made a late Triple Crown nominee after the Spiral. HOLIDAY PROMISE will try the G3 Lexington next, but is not considered a Triple Crown hopeful by the barn. HANDSOME MIKE (Doug O’Neill) curiously was wrangled back at the start by Joel Rosario from the far-wide post and asked to run a different style. He never threatened, but did pass horses for fourth, and will try again in the G1 Arkansas Derby to punch his ticket to Louisville.

My bottom line is that I was not impressed with the Spiral race, but am falling more in favor with its winner the more I look at things. I never caught the Animal Kingdom buzz last year until it was too late, so history tells me he deserves our fullest evaluation in the weeks to come.

G3 Sunland Derby (3/25, Sun-11)

If it looked like HEAVY BREATHING (Todd Pletcher) went a little too quick in the G3 Spiral on Saturday, the same story played out Sunday for that barn in the G3 Sunland Derby. This time, it was stablemate ENDER KNIEVEL (Todd Pletcher) who scorched the Sunland strip in an opening half-mile of 46.24, dueling to submission with post-time favorite CASTAWAY (Bob Baffert). These two checked out of the Hotel Sunland early, tossing their room keys on the front desk midway around the far turn of the 1 1/8-miles test.

Their abrupt departure gave the appearance that stalking ISN’T HE CLEVER (Henry Dominguez) moved too soon, but he essentially inherited the front of the pack when the speed duel instantly evaporated. Turning for home, the local star appeared to have the $400,000 winner’s share in his crosshairs. But Julien Leparoux aboard DADDY NOSE BEST (Steve Asmussen) had the measure, determinedly rallying through the lane to get there by a comfortable three-quarters of a length. The final time of 1:48.59 was very solid with the winner running a fourth quarter in the upper :24s and final furlong in the low 12s, very solid indeed.

The top pair put eight lengths on the rest, including show finisher STIRRED UP (Bob Baffert), who got a wonderful trip and pace setup and did absolutely nothing with it. Why he was up close early and then allowed to settle back was befuddling given his running style. Had he been taken back to make one run, he might have been in the discussion late, but his stretch run was nothing else if not flat. This is why I prefer Martin Garcia on horses with natural speed and Rafael Bejarano riding the Baffert closers.

DADDY NOSE BEST became the first horse this year to win a 9-furlong stakes prep in the G3 El Camino Real Derby and now is the first two-time winner at the prep season’s most-telling distance. His maternal granddaddy is 1995 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Thunder Gulch. Trainer Asmussen just missed last year’s Kentucky Derby with runner-up Nehro, and there’s a lot about this horse’s style that’s similar to his predecessor. DADDY NOSE BEST has much more foundation under him than Nehro, but won’t arrive in Louisville with quite the same class tests as the Louisiana Derby and Arkansas Derby provided his elder stablemate. The fantastic season for young sire Scat Daddy continues with DADDY NOSE BEST.

CASTAWAY’s meltdown leaves him unappealing for the classics, while ISN’T HE CLEVER was not Triple Crown series nominated until a late payment this weekend. While talented, ISN’T HE CLEVER would do well to make tons of money this summer on the rich Derby tour throughout states not named Kentucky, but he’s not overmatched if pressed on with by his connections. STIRRED UP remains an untapped talent, and maybe a Belmont Stakes kind of horse if he found the right bridge between here and June. But he’s got a ways to go to get there.

Listed stakes

Rushaway Stakes (3/24, TP-8)

FLASHY DRESSER (Fred Seitz) turned Countdown heads with a dominant debut win at Gulfstream Park against what appeared a dynamite cast of potential runners. On Saturday at Turfway Park, he built on that with a professional, hard-fought victory in the $75,000 Rushaway Stakes at 1 1/16 miles. In doing so, he answered questions about distances, surfaces, shipping and class, beating a stakes-proven horse like GUNG HO (Mike Maker). There’s a lot of good to take out of this listed stakes win for the son of Flashy Bull. The big kicker was the pace, a pedestrian half-mile in 49.89 (nearly 3 seconds slower than the G3 Spiral later in the day). That allowed all of the horses within earshot of the lead to stay the trip and turn the stretch run into a dogfight.

FLASHY DRESSER should appear next at Keeneland with the G1 Blue Grass or the G3 Lexington on the radar for a Seitz barn that typically has a horse or two really ready for that meeting. Out of a Two Punch mare, I don’t see FLASHY DRESSER getting a 9 or 10-furlong distance with a moderate-to-fast pace, so I would be more inclined to see him in the Lexington next at 1 1/16 miles. Expect to see owner Ken Ramsey give GUNG HO a shot at one of the Keeneland stakes as well, and he will benefit from this race being his first start back after a layoff, and the fact that it was not a taxing race even in a narrow defeat.


I don’t know how far BOURBON COURAGE (Kellyn Gorder) can run, but he’s a serious racehorse. Saturday at Fair Grounds, he advanced to 2-for-2 lifetime with a crushing 6-furlong allowance win in 1:09.42, a time you just don’t see often in New Orleans. A second-level allowance for older fillies/mares went in 1:10.81 a few races prior. He ran the final furlong in 11.89. While he’s sired by Kentucky Derby runner-up Lion Heart, the damside pedigree out of a Carson City mare may indicate shorter distances. But note the dam is half-sister to Six Crowns, a daughter of Secretariat who produced none other than Chief’s Crown as well as G1 Santa Anita Handicap third Tribunal. BOURBON COURAGE will be in a stakes the next time you see him, and I would consider him armed and dangerous. He’s the best newcomer to the scene I’ve seen in middle-America this year and was a late supplement this past weekend to the Triple Crown. He’s got Preakness “new-shooter” written all over him if he can extend more distance next time out, perhaps in the one-turn mile of the G3 Derby Trial at Churchill.


After three straight second-place finishes, it was win or quiet-down time for HOLY CANDY (John Sadler) on Friday at Santa Anita. The highly regarded and talented son of Candy Ride had long been bandied about as one of the west’s most promising 3-year-olds, but had yet to secure his first win. On Friday, he got that much-needed score with a mile maiden tally in 1:35.98, drawing away by 3 1/2 lengths despite some late greenness. HOLY CANDY is out of an unraced mare who is a daughter of G1 Ashland winner Lunar Spook. While the G1 Santa Anita Derby makes sense in his backyard, I’d much prefer to see him in the G2 Illinois Derby, a race where California speed historically has made this class leap.

Where are they headed?

This section looks 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.
G2 Illinois Derby (Hawthorne, 4/7): PAYNTER (or Santa Anita Derby), OUR ENTOURAGE, SLAMIT, SWAG DADDY, TEETH OF THE DOG (possible); more to be determined.
G1 Arkansas Derby (Oaklawn, 4/14): SECRET CIRCLE, BODEMEISTER, ON FIRE BABY (or Fantasy vs. fillies), OPTIMIZER, JAKE MO, SABERCAT, SCATMAN (possible), Z ROCKSTAR, HANDSOME MIKE, ISN’T HE CLEVER (possible)
G3 Lexington (Keeneland, 4/21): HOLIDAY PROMISE, WENT THE DAY WELL (possible), FLASHY DRESSER (or Blue Grass), GUNG HO (or Blue Grass); more to be determined.
G3 Derby Trial (Churchill, 4/28): BOURBON COURAGE; more to be determined.

Quick hitters

European invader ATTENBOROUGH (Jeremy Noseda), a lightly raced son of Medaglia d’Oro, is expected by Keeneland officials for the G1 Blue Grass on April 14 with an eye on the G1 Kentucky Derby if all goes well … Top Florida turf performer EXOTHERMIC (Rusty Arnold) has now been off the workout tab since Feb. 24 … DISCREET DANCER (Todd Pletcher) did not go in the G2 Louisiana Derby as expected, and instead was rerouted to a vacation on the farm in Ocala, no apparent malady was made public … Filly ON FIRE BABY (Gary Hartlage) worked a race-like 7 furlongs in 1:27.80 Tuesday at Oaklawn. She’s looking more and more dangerous for the G1 Arkansas Derby as she gets better and better … MIDNIGHT TRANSFER (Carla Gaines) needed a new pilot for the G1 Santa Anita Derby after rider Victor Espinoza was sidelined this week due to a broken hand, and Gaines landed none other than Mike Smith … DULLAHAN (Dale Romans) recently missed training time due to a popped splint, reported DRF’s Mike Welsch, but has resumed training and Romans said remains on target for the G1 Blue Grass in two weeks … Pool 3 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager will stay open until after the Louisiana Derby on Sunday to accommodate bettors, a wise move by Churchill Downs officials. Because we’re still five weeks from Derby Day, my advice is to get twice the price you expect on May 5 or else wait it out … Next week’s races to circle on the calendar include Saturday’s G1 Santa Anita Derby, G1 Wood Memorial and G2 Illinois 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)
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)
3. BOURBON COURAGE (Fair Grounds, 3/23) * NEW *
4. NAJJAAR (Oaklawn, 3/2)
5. DISCREET DANCER (Gulfstream, 1/7)

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!