04/05/2013 1:30PM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 14 - April 5, 2013

Michael Amoruso
Vyjack owns the home-court edge in the Wood with four wins at Aqueduct in four starts.

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

After what I saw last week from ORB (Shug McGaughey) and REVOLUTIONARY (Todd Pletcher), the final two major weeks of Kentucky Derby preps had better produce something newsworthy to dethrone that duo. They appear to be complete packages, and unless you are enamored with speed and brilliance, it’s hard to slot many, if any, above them.

This week’s fearless forecast

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

Friday’s grassy Transylvania Stakes on opening day at Keeneland lacks any Triple Crown nominees of major repute, but the race could serve some form flattery to Grade 3 Spiral winner and Kentucky Derby qualifier BLACK ONYX (Kelly Breen) by way of his Feb. 23 runner-up REDWOOD KITTEN (Wesley Ward). Also, we may get a line on next week’s highly regarded Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes performer Rydilluc (Gary Contessa) when two of his pursuers in the Grade 3 Palm Beach return, AMEN KITTEN (Wesley Ward) and HOLIDAY STAR (Graham Motion). Countdown fans know how much I love FIRE GUARD (Bill Mott), and I was hoping to see him in the Blue Grass, not the Transylvania as it turned out.

Saturday’s Calder Derby could wind up a step toward the Preakness Stakes, as its new calendar placement harkens back to the Aventura Stakes at Gulfstream several years ago and its plan to offer post-Florida Derby prep laurels. The race drew a pretty nice field for its listed $250,000 purse, and like the Transylvania could give us a line on the aforementioned Blue Grass aspirant Rydilluc. That’s because Palm Beach third-place finisher REPORTING STAR (Kathleen O’Connell) appears well placed in this matchup if the Circular Quay gelding can handle the dirt surface. SPEAK LOGISTICS (Eddie Plesa Jr.) had flirted with the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass, but after stablemate Itsmyluckyday secured the barn’s Kentucky Derby dance card last week in the Florida Derby, he was routed to the lower-hanging fruit here in his Calder backyard for a nice purse. The Grade 2 Fountain of Youth third-place finisher, he will take plenty of beating and could be a Preakness-type stand-in for Itsmyluckyday if things go wrong for that one in Louisville.

Sprinters get a trio of stakes this weekend on the 3-year-old trail, the Grade 3 Bay Shore at Aqueduct, the Florida-bred Sophomore Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs and the listed Bachelor Stakes at Oaklawn. None of these races has major implications on the Triple Crown scene, though the west-to-east move for Bay Shore contender SALUTOS AMIGOS (Eric Guillot) could give us a little sense of regional supremacy in a year when the Wood Memorial did not attract a big-time intersectional battle. The thing to watch in the Sophomore will be how RULER OF LOVE (Joan Scott) performs, as he could give us a line on next week’s potential Grade 1 Blue Grass favorite Noble Tune (Chad Brown) after chasing that one recently. And, finally, the Bachelor Stakes alumni could be horses you see back in the Chick Lang Stakes on the Preakness undercard, so that’s worth keeping an eye on for future plays.

Grade 1 Wood Memorial (Saturday/Aqueduct) [Get PPs]

Undefeated VERRAZANO (Todd Pletcher) gets tested for class and distance in Saturday’s Grade 1 Wood Memorial, a refrain not unique to him by any means, but every bit the key question of the weekend as the likely Kentucky Derby favorite if successful. You can say the exact same thing about VYJACK (Rudy Rodriguez), a fellow unbeaten facing the same line of questioning. Neither of the “Killer Vs” has shown any flinch in his game so far, and not even a nitpicker like me who does this for a living can line up a spiteful attack against their form. While VERRAZANO has run the faster races and may appear the most brilliant of his class, that type of anointing only works if you think horse races are a battle of who can run the fastest the longest. Problem is, most all route races are an exercise in starts and stops, maneuvers and decisions. The fastest player in the NFL does not lead the league in rushing by using such a simplistic comparison.

We will test these potential champions around two turns and 1 1/8 miles on Saturday, in a strong field size of 10 that will give us a much better line as to their Triple Crown credentials. VYJACK owns the home-court edge with four wins at Aqueduct from four starts, two on the main track that will be employed Saturday and two on the winterized inner-dirt track. Trainer Rodriguez returns from a suspension for a medication infraction, but his barn did not slow in his absence as brother Gustavo Rodriguez won 8 of 32 races at the helm. But a realist has to consider the Rodriguez situation and wonder internally or aloud if it will make any difference with how VYJACK has been or will be prepared. From a handicapper’s standpoint, I’m forced to essentially ignore its impact based on the data presented. The debate of it from a fan’s standpoint and bad publicity leading into a possible Kentucky Derby week barnstorm remains worthy chatter.

No controversies follow VERRAZANO, but the flashy son of More Than Ready exits one of the hardest to trust Kentucky Derby prep races historically. The Tampa Bay Derby was VERRAZANO’s first taste at a higher stakes level, and he passed it without hiccup. But note that just one of the last 20 Tampa Bay Derby winners returned to win his next start, that being 2009 Illinois Derby champ Musket Man. The 19 other Tampa champs the last two decades went on to lose in seven different preps, including three who misfired in the Wood Memorial. Since being inaugurated in 1981, no Tampa Bay Derby winner has added a Grade 1 win in his next start.

There are two ways to look at the “Tampa-next” talk. One, VERRAZANO simply may be better than every Tampa Bay Derby winner to date. That list includes 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, so it’s not as if the race has not been without dashes of superior quality. Two, the oft-called “quirky” Tampa Bay Downs surface could be the culprit in that some horses simply run well over it while others flounder. The Tampa Bay Derby winners obviously caught flight on footing they liked while others struggled. And when they head to a neutral site somewhere else, 95 percent of them over the past two decades have been incapable of repeating the feat.

If the two unbeatens both are to suffer their first losses, the late-running duo of NORMANDY INVASION (Chad Brown) and MR PALMER (Bill Mott) step forward to offer alternatives. I ended 2012 thinking NORMANDY INVASION was one of the very best 2-year-olds of this crop, but we’ve hit early April and I don’t trust much more about him. His Risen Star fifth earned plenty of discussion as a troubled trip, and perhaps that’s fair. But he picks up seven pounds from that race, and the cold, hard truth is that the horses he faced in the Remsen and Risen Star have combined to win exactly one race since those two races. I’ll give you a $50 bill today if you guessed that one win came at Will Rogers Downs. Could NORMANDY INVASION be the juvenile I thought he was? Maybe. But it’s hard for me to love blindly with my wallet.

MR PALMER, on the other hand, has been gaining trust and stature with me with every start. He’s the antithesis of so many sophomores. He’s not living on a reputation earned in sprints and baby races. His past performance line is almost playfully comical the way his story has been written. MR PALMER debuted sixth, then proceeded with fifth, fourth, third, second and first-place finishes while epitomizing improvement in the maiden ranks. Once he scored his inaugural win, he furthered that advancement with a visually fantastic win in the $100,000 Private Terms Stakes at Laurel Park. His experience and victory at 1 1/8 miles doesn’t ensure he’s a nine-furlong horse against tougher-classed horses like he faces in the Wood, but guarantees in this sport are written on wet napkins. No operation prepares a distance horse on dirt any better than Mott’s, so MR PALMER is in the right hands.

ELNAAWI (Kiaran McLaughlin) is a regally bred Street Sense colt who is half-brother to Grade 1 winner To Honor And Serve. His Grade 3 Gotham effort behind VYJACK served notice that the lightly raced runner could have a big future. Will that future show itself this Saturday? I liked most everything I saw about him in the Gotham, when he overcame trouble in a big field. That will serve him well and he would be no surprise to make a real dent in the Wood.

ALWAYS IN A TIZ (Dominick Schettino) and FREEDOM CHILD (Tom Albertrani) return home to New York after winter getaways and each makes a key change in the game plan. ALWAYS IN A TIZ adds blinkers, which could really help him after two worthy excuses at Oaklawn. In the Smarty Jones, he was away slower than expected when a horse next to him acted up in the gate, and in the Grade 3 Southwest he was asked way too soon in a poor decision by his rider. Calvin Borel comes to New York to ride in a curious twist. Meanwhile, FREEDOM CHILD adds Lasix for the first time in five starts, this coming after a blowout win at nine furlongs at Gulfstream Park in his most recent start. While maiden to Grade 1 is a big class rise on paper, he was sandwiched second between Grade 1 Florida Derby winner Orb (Shug McGaughey) and Grade 2 Louisiana Derby winner Revolutionary (Todd Pletcher) in what could turn out to be one of the most key November maiden races in Aqueduct history if the Wood is added to the mantel.

When you put two Vs together they make up a “W” and that’s probably the case in the Wood Memorial as either VERRAZANO or VYJACK will prove best and get the win. I loved the versatility shown by VYJACK last time, the local experience and sure-to-be juicier price.  There are five or six legitimate exacta considerations in the Wood, so dare to be different.

Wood Memorial selections: W) VYJACK; P) MR PALMER; S) VERRAZANO

Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby (Saturday/Santa Anita) [Get PPs + Watch Live]

Thursday’s pronouncement that injured Grade 2 San Felipe champ HEAR THE GHOST (Jerry Hollendorfer) would miss the Santa Anita Derby and Triple Crown chase dealt a blow to a West Coast crop that has struggled to find an identity dating all the way back to last year’s Breeders’ Cup. When California cannot defend a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on its home soil it is a significant statement. HEAR THE GHOST and his March 9 pursuer FLASHBACK (Bob Baffert) became two of the scant few Californians to rise to prominence over the winter and their rematch in the Santa Anita Derby offered hope that there could be a significant contender rise from the West.

Now the Santa Anita Derby appears to be a best in show contest amongst an eclectic trio of Baffert stablemates. FLASHBACK figures to be an odds-on favorite with the defection of HEAR THE GHOST, and probably was going to be favored anyway. SUPER NINETY NINE and POWER BROKER arrive at various stages of redemption in hopes of unseating their rising stablemate.

The speedy Salutos Amigos (Eric Guillot) forced a fast tempo in the San Felipe that quickly caught FLASHBACK and GOLDENCENTS (Doug O’Neill) in its web. The pace tussle cost Julien Leparoux his seat aboard FLASHBACK as Baffert called Garrett Gomez out of the bullpen – and doghouse – to resurrect the previously unbeaten colt’s reputation. The not-so-sweet irony was that it was Gomez fired in 2010 between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness aboard Baffert’s Lookin At Lucky, a move that wound up seeing Martin Garcia inherit victory in Baltimore and leave Gomez empty handed.
The rift between Gomez and Baffert, whether it even exists, means nothing to me on a personal level. For an analyst, the real quandary is how these two highly skilled professionals can coexist with such a diametrically opposed style of racing. Baffert trains for speed, speed and more speed. His horses are conditioned to incinerate the competition from the start. Gomez, on the other hand, has become the modern day Eddie D., as legitimately compared to the great Eddie Delahoussaye as any jockey in the last 20 years. No one times a late move better in today’s game than Garrett Gomez, and patience has become his calling card. It’s no surprise that the jockey-trainer statistics for Baffert-Gomez pairings fall way short of each individual’s high standards of winning. You put a power hitter on a team built for speed, and continuity in the lineup can be disrupted.

I’m fascinated to see how the Gomez replacement on FLASHBACK will play out. I’m rooting for great success as I’m in complete respect for the trainer and rider in this case. Both are among my favorites in the game. But if Leparoux’s downfall was a lack of patience on an obviously very fast horse, how much did Baffert take off the fastball of FLASHBACK in the mornings since the San Felipe to help Gomez’s attempt to right the ship?

Certainly the entry box makes a discerning horseplayer wonder. If Baffert had things in tip-top shape with FLASHBACK, why would he not send SUPER NINETY NINE or POWER BROKER to New York for the Wood Memorial this week, or the Arkansas Derby next week? Certainly you can’t think stablemate Den’s Legacy’s presence in the Arkansas Derby is more solid and worthy of protection than this. And Baffert long has supported the Wood Memorial with legitimate horses like Congaree, Bob and John and more. You could surmise it’s a respect for VERRAZANO, and trainer intent remains a fascination.

SUPER NINETY NINE appears a crack miler that caught even Baffert by surprise with how well he ran in the Grade 3 Southwest at Oaklawn in February. But that sloppy track performance likely was inflated by the conditions that several horses simply didn’t handle. What he can do at nine furlongs still looks mysterious, as he’s bred for it but doesn’t race like it. I’m not sure he can rebound from a wide and dull fifth in the Grade 2 Rebel to win this, but his blazing morning works and move to Garcia in the saddle tells me that this is the stablemate who is going to the front in the Santa Anita Derby.

POWER BROKER rated as California’s best 2-year-old of 2012 even if he was a wide fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. His win in the Grade 1 Frontrunner easily was the best juvenile performance of any West Coaster last year. Remember, Violence (Todd Pletcher) shipped in from New York to win the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity at season’s end. POWER BROKER had been very slow to come to hand this winter, and his campaign looks eerily similar to Jaycito’s spring of 2011 for Baffert. Jaycito came back from obscurity to run a distant second in the San Felipe in his 3-year-old unveiling and was hoping to make a last-ditch try for the Derby. POWER BROKER has as strong of a 1 1/8-mile pedigree as any horse in this race, and I love that he’s luring Rafael Bejarano back in the saddle; that’s a big vote of confidence as he likely could have ridden any of the three Bafferts here. It may sound impossible to win a Grade 1 in early April while being away since the Breeders’ Cup, but don’t forget Baffert did just that one year ago at Oakawn when he brought Plum Pretty back from the same break to win the Grade 1 Apple Blossom.

The other obvious non-Baffert players are TIZ A MINISTER (Paul Aguirre) and GOLDENCENTS (Doug O’Neill), the three-four finishers in the San Felipe. GOLDENCENTS continues to post six-furlong drills every eight or nine days as he has virtually all season. Respected workout analysts report that he might be on the downswing, and some of the shine came off of him in the San Felipe, though he didn’t run as poorly as it first felt. But this is not a strong Western crop and a weakened Santa Anita Derby to some extent, so it’s not out of the question that he can get back on the beam.

TIZ A MINISTER would be quite the story as a $6,500 yearling buy and $40,000 maiden claim at Del Mar last summer. He really came to hand when paired with the masterful closing hands of Gomez, and losing him to FLASHBACK could make all the difference. The pressure is on Joe Talamo. Longshot DIRTY SWAGG had throat surgery since his last start but appears overmatched against the top of the lineup.

Baffert stands a chance to go one-two-three in this race, and I’m going to go with the fresh POWER BROKER despite the long layoff. A year ago I never would have made such a pick. But as a handicapper I’ve seen far too many layoff horses in recent years outperform my time-honored respect for form cycles. We must change with the times or be overrun by them. There’s no shame in taking a horse off a long break – just make sure you get a fair price. POWER BROKER looks fair to me at about 7-2 given the big scratch.

Santa Anita Derby selections: W) POWER BROKER; P) FLASHBACK; S) TIZ A MINISTER

Last week’s selections: 2: 1-0-0. I had a cold exacta in the Florida Derby with top pick ORB over ITSMYLUCKYDAY. Second and third choices REVOLUTIONARY and longshot MYLUTE ran one-two in the Louisiana Derby, completing a good handicapping week.

Season selections: 34: 9-7-3.

Everyone’s a critic

This section reviews the week that was in the 3-year-old ranks. We’re exclusively in big-race mode now with Derby 139 in sight. I review the key Kentucky Derby “points preps” in further detail in the Countdown Rewind. Get my analysis of the Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, and UAE Derby by clicking on the race name.

Put ‘em in the gate

This Countdown section returns this week and lists the horses who have completed their preps and appear to have secured starting positions in Kentucky Derby 139. As of this writing, seven of the 20 spots in the gate have reservations barring injury.

ORB: The Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby winner gives Shug McGaughey his first Derby shot since 2002.
ITSMYLUCKYDAY: Holy Bull winner and Florida Derby runner-up brings Eddie Plesa to the big dance.
REVOLUTIONARY: Louisiana Derby winner is trainer Todd Pletcher’s most battle-tested Derby hopeful perhaps ever.
MYLUTE: Louisiana Derby runner-up proved his middle move in the Risen Star was worth forgiving.
GOVENOR CHARLIE: Sunland Derby champ, trained by Bob Baffert, has only three career starts.
BLACK ONYX: The turf-to-Polytrack-to-dirt move has been a good historical path in the modern era for the Spiral champion.
LINES OF BATTLE: UAE Derby winner follows in the footsteps of Daddy Long Legs for Aidan O’Brien.

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.



Illinois Derby (April 20): INCOGNITO, FRAC DADDY, SIETE DE ORO, FOR GREATER GLORY (possible), GUNDERMAN (possible).

Lexington Stakes (April 20): TAKEN BY THE STORM, DIVINE AMBITION.

Later to come: 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. ORB (Florida Derby, Gulfstream, 3/30)
2. ITSMYLUCKYDAY (Holy Bull, Gulfstream, 1/26)
3. VYJACK (Gotham, Aqueduct, 3/2)
4. REVOLUTIONARY (Withers, Aqueduct, 2/2)
5. ORB (Fountain of Youth, Gulfstream, 2/23)

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!