04/06/2012 9:04AM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 14 - April 6, 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 the graded stakes earnings list. Go big or go home.

1. Julien Leparoux is the most maligned Kentucky rider since Pat Day, and also the best one since. That’s no coincidence. Fans have a love-hate relationship with patient riders at short prices. For every horse you think Leparoux got beat (UNION RAGS anyone?), there are 17 that would have had nothing left in the tank in the stretch with other riders aboard other than the patient Frenchman. You can probably count on one hand the number of times he’s been out of horse in the stretch in a big race, but please don’t use the finger you flipped in your angst about the UNION RAGS  ride.

2. Before you bemoan the Kentucky Derby graded earnings system and what good 2-year-old and non-dirt form means to the race’s acceptance, would it be fair to keep a Breeders’ Cup champion like WROTE (Aidan O’Brien) out of the field? There are no perfect answers, but this one works well enough as it is, mainly because there are no people involved in picking who’s in and who’s out. Let money talk.

3. Anyone down on EL PADRINO after the Florida Derby, continue reading below about Thunder Gulch in 1995. If you get a $50 mutuel in Louisville, you’ll have history to thank, not me. Certainly it’s fair to drop him some in stature after a dull Florida Derby effort, but if your worst “off” day is beaten three lengths in the Florida Derby, it’s been a pretty good spring.

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. We’re going to focus on the big dirt route preps this weekend, namely the G1 Santa Anita Derby, G1 Wood Memorial and G2 Illinois Derby.

But the tremendous action in sophomore stakes also includes Friday’s G3 Transylvania Stakes on the turf at Keeneland, where MONASTIC (Tom Proctor) hopes he doesn’t beat himself once again. If he keeps his head on straight, literally, he’ll give the likes of STATE OF PLAY (Graham Motion) and ICON IKE (Larry Jones) all they can handle. And Saturday’s stacked card at Aqueduct includes a G3 Bay Shore renewal that’s must-see for sprint fans. TRINNIBERG (Bisnath Parboo) tunes up for a potential Preakness date following his blitzkrieg in the G3 Swale. His Bay Shore rivals include red-hot HARDENED WILDCAT (Chad Brown) in search of his fourth straight win.

G1 Santa Anita Derby (Saturday/Santa Anita)

West coast leading hopeful CREATIVE CAUSE (Mike Harrington) removes the blinkers for the first time in his career Saturday when he figures to be a solid favorite in the G1 Santa Anita Derby. He is bred for the distance, and the 1 1/8-mile challenge should help separate CREATIVE CAUSE from several of his challengers. Who else might be inclined to stick around for the $450,000 first prize and $150,000 second money that’s so important in the pursuit of graded stakes earnings?

[SANTA ANITA DERBY: Early look video, news updates, watch the race live]

The alternatives to CREATIVE CAUSE start with I’LL HAVE ANOTHER (Doug O’Neill), one of the toughest handicapping quandaries on the Countdown trail in years. His return score in the G2 Lewis Memorial was so good that you have to take it at face value. But here’s a horse who has raced once since September and comes into the local derby off a scheduled  two-month break to hopefully avoid the “bounce.” O’Neill trainees have been very susceptible to bounces in graded stakes in the past when making their second start off of a big-time return effort. Great Hunter was never the same after his huge come-backing performance in the 2007 Bob Lewis Memorial, for example.

To be frank, I have no idea what to do with I’LL HAVE ANOTHER. His works have been modest in recent weeks since a ridiculously fast 6 furlongs in 1:10 flat on the Santa Anita Handicap day program between races. He could win Saturday or regress mightily. I wouldn’t bet the pick 6 or a huge pick 4 ticket without including him, but my gut says look elsewhere in intra-race bets if his odds are less than 5-1 and they almost certainly will be. Those playing smaller tickets in the pick four might be best-served just singling CREATIVE CAUSE, or else Pandora’s Box gets blown wide open.

Last year’s Santa Anita Derby was won by Midnight Interlude, fresh off of a maiden score, so it’s not too late to join the party. Horses like PAYNTER (Bob Baffert) and HOLY CANDY (John Sadler) hail from the West’s best barns and impressed in their recent graduations. PAYNTER is a regally bred son of Awesome Again out of Tiznow’s full sister, so it’s as surprising how successful he was in his sprint debut than anything. Remember Baffert nearly tallied the G2 San Felipe with BODEMEISTER fresh from the maiden ranks earlier this meet. Note, he’ll be headed to the Arkansas Derby next instead of running Saturday. HOLY CANDY would rather be aimed at next week’s G1 Blue Grass at Santa Anita, but that’s a gamble since he may not make that field if it were to oversubscribe at the entry box (given he’s just a maiden breaker). Sadler would rather have another week given ‘CANDY just ran 15 days ago, but the calendar may not provide that option if they have Kentucky Derby dreams.

If I’LL HAVE ANOTHER bounces and neither of the maiden winners steps up, the Santa Anita Derby top spots should be rounded out by LIAISON (Bob Baffert) and MIDNIGHT TRANSFER (Carla Gaines), both solidly respected from this eye. LIAISON will appreciate the patient hands of Rafael Bejarano returning to the saddle. MIDNIGHT TRANSFER ran strong internal fractions in the G2 San Felipe and was left a smidgen short in the final sixteenth of a mile. His pedigree taps out somewhere in this neighborhood, but if they go a bit slower earlier today without BODEMEISTER in the lineup, it could extend MIDNIGHT TRANSFER into a situation where his proficient turn of foot is very valuable. The faster they go early, the less effective MIDNIGHT TRANSFER will be at 1 1/8 miles. He reminds me of Caracortado a great deal in that regard. In long races, he wants a slow pace and to accelerate his two- to three-furlong move. The faster they go early, the more, in turn, you should like LIAISON, who is much more of a traditional stalk-and-close type. I’d expect this pace to be on the faster side looking at it on paper.

At the end of the day, CREATIVE CAUSE remains the best of his generation on the West Coast. He was the best 2-year-old I saw in California since last summer and nothing has changed that. A win here makes him as good of a Kentucky Derby threat from California since Point Given in 2001, ahead of the likes of well-bred Santa Anita Derby winners like Colonel John and Pioneerof The Nile.


G1 Wood Memorial (Saturday/Aqueduct)

I’m not sure I’ve toiled more on a race all season long than Saturday’s $1 million Wood Memorial. For a field of eight with clear-cut favorites in GEMOLOGIST (Todd Pletcher) and ALPHA (Kiaran McLaughlin), surely there are better ways to spend my late nights than popping antacids. The kicker lies in the wise-guy horses, and for me, unfortunately, there are three of them in this very field. Let’s tackle that trio first, and then get back to the logical favorites.

[WOOD MEMORIAL: News updates, contender replays, watch the race live]

STREET LIFE (Chad Brown) has been as visually impressive late in his last two races as any closer on the 2012 Triple Crown trail. These kind of horses get my attention as I’m not a big fan of speed, and I love to see a horse with some endurance and will to win. By Street Sense out of a Grindstone mare, should we be surprised STREET LIFE wants to get to the wire in time? His family is painted all over the walls at Churchill Downs, after all. You don’t fly home late like he did in the Broad Brush overnight stakes with such a horrendously slow pace and not have some specialty to you. He’s beaten absolutely nothing and the early splits have been so slow that the speed figure math will not flatter him.

TIGER WALK (Ignacio Correas) was an upset threat from this camp at 31-1 when fourth in the G3 Gotham here on March 3, but his post 13 that day kept me from pulling the trigger as a top pick. He didn’t run poorly, has been training well at Pimlico since and now lures the Hall of Famer John Velazquez to the saddle. This is a horse who has been hinting at potential stardom on video and the day he puts it all together won’t come as a surprise to me. Will it be Saturday or when he gets back to turf or Polytrack with his pedigree?

THE LUMBER GUY (Mike Hushion) first appeared on our Countdown radar in January with a debut sprint win vs. New York-breds. His stakes win at Laurel was dominant thereafter and he’s gotten a serious of workouts on the deep Belmont training track to build stamina since then. I wanted to dismiss him in the G1 Wood as a pace casualty and a horse thrown to the wolves. Then I researched trainer Hushion’s fantastic success stretching horses out from sprints to routes, including some 9-furlong stakes extensions at Saratoga in recent summers. History doesn’t mean much to THE LUMBER GUY specifically, but it means Hushion picks his spots and horses wisely in estimating which ones can handle it. If GEMOLOGIST doesn’t go with him to the front, THE LUMBER GUY could be lone speed in the Wood. We’ll see how much Javier Castellano respects this sprinter and just when he sends his mount GEMOLOGIST after the pacemaker. Or, will Joe Bravo, a hustling pilot, come out barking on TEETH OF THE DOG (Michael Matz) and play the presser’s role for the favorite? If he does, it could be curtains for THE LUMBER GUY.

Okay, now that we’ve introduced GEMOLOGIST, riddle me this: Can you ever remember a horse 4-for-4 lifetime in April, trained by a power-broker barn, a Grade 2 stakes winner with an average winning margin of 4 lengths, who is not ogled by everyone in the lead-up to the Kentucky Derby? Maybe it’s because he debuted at Turfway. Maybe it’s because he wasn’t part of the Breeders’ Cup discussion in the fall. Maybe it’s because he didn’t return until March and we haven’t had him in the stakes talks for more than four months. But what exactly is the knock on GEMOLOGIST? By Tiznow out of a female family with some European turf route influence, he’s got what you want to see in a Triple Crown pedigree.

By many indicators, GEMOLOGIST should romp in the Wood Memorial, then the question becomes, “Is this horse the Kentucky Derby favorite?” But not so fast.

ALPHA stands in the way in the Wood Memorial in an attempt to win three of the four major sophomore stakes held at Aqueduct this season. He won the Count Fleet and G3 Withers with measured ease, then skipped the G3 Gotham and began shopping the national stakes schedule to find the softest final prep destination. The Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby were passed over in favor of the Wood, though after a 109-1 upsetter took the $1 million Louisiana Derby last weekend, one could argue they missed their easiest chance. ALPHA doesn’t need graded earnings to make the Derby field and his two-month layoff since the G3 Withers means he could be left a bit empty at the end of 1 1/8 miles. The destination is Louisville for that team, and a top 3 or 4 in the Wood would be sufficient to move on. While I look at ALPHA’s “big picture” as one of the leading Triple Crown hopefuls, as a handicapper I want to fire against him in this spot.

Finally, there’s MY ADONIS, a consistent horse in every start except the one at Delta in which he ran off insanely fast under the lights. He’s been much more patient since then and I expect he’ll fire another solid shot, but come up short on the win end. After facing ALGORITHMS and HANSEN in his last two starts, it’s very fair to say that MY ADONIS is actually dropping in class today despite moving from Grade 3 to Grade 1 stakes.

It comes down to just accepting GEMOLOGIST as a logical favorite at 7-5 odds or so, or going for the gusto when you have horses you like who will be overlooked. It’s time to reach for the stars. TIGER WALK and STREET LIFE have the price appeal and upside to these eyes. If GEMOLOGIST wins, I’ll live without the $4.80 and look forward to seeing him as an unbeaten Kentucky Derby prospect!

G1 Wood Memorial selections: W) TIGER WALK; P) STREET LIFE; S) GEMOLOGIST.

G2 Illinois Derby (Saturday/Hawthorne)

Horses are staying in New York and California because they can’t get into the G3 $500,000 Illinois Derby. The standing-room only crowd of 14 that will start also includes three also-eligible entrants. For some reason there’s a spring break run on Stickney, like it’s South Padre Island. Bring your sun screen and a bottle of aspirin to figure out this handicapping puzzle.

[ILLINOIS DERBY: Early look video, news updates, watch the race live]

When the favorite is 4-1 on the morning line, you know you have your work cut out for you. When that favorite has never raced around two turns or beyond one mile like CURRENCY SWAP (Terri Pompay), horseplayers have a license to dig deep. Very deep. Last year’s G1 Hopeful winner has done nothing wrong to date and his runner-up to GEMOLOGIST (Todd Pletcher) on March 16 was a fine-enough return after six months on the sideline. By the time this race runs at 6:46 p.m. ET, we’ll already know how GEMOLOGIST fared in the Wood. But that might not really tell the story of CURRENCY SWAP, whose biggest question isn’t about class, but rather distance and stamina. Pedigree and past performances both suggest that 1 1/8 miles is asking an awful lot, especially against 13 rivals. He’ll have to prove it to me. Regular rider Rajiv Maragh opted to stay in New York to ride Caleb’s Posse in the G1 Carter.

Beyond the Grade 1 winner CURRENCY SWAP, the waters get awfully murky in the Illinois Derby. The other 13 runners are a combined 8: 0-0-0 in graded stakes races with RING IT UP (Chris Richard) finishing fourth in the G3 Southwest at Oaklawn to best that list. From a pace standpoint, I draw up the race as having three front-running speed horses, four pace pressers, three mid-pack types and four deep closers That’s about as even and murky as it gets. Advantages can’t be gleaned from a pace standpoint either.

So with pace and class difficult to assess, X-factors like trip handicapping become my mode of thought. After watching all of the races for OUR ENTOURAGE (Todd Pletcher), I have real doubts that he’s capable of finishing the deal with flair. Pedigree says he should, but his action late in races isn’t dynamic and he almost waits on runners. With Hawthorne’s 1,300-plus feet of stretch, if he waits on others, someone will oblige and pass him late. But I think he’s rock-solid for a top-four finish and pretty trustworthy. He’s working the way you want to see one work in the a.m. Pletcher B-teamers like Joe Vann and Pollard’s Vision have made the Illinois Derby a regular for the barn, which has won the race 4 times in the 11 years since it’s been moved ahead in the calendar to be a Kentucky Derby prep.

Two horses that give me positives from a trip-handicapping standpoint are PRETENSION (Chris Grove) and FRANKIE IS ROCK (Rodolfo Aguilar). PRETENSION ran strong internal splits in the G3 Gotham when moving a bit too soon behind HANSEN, who would be 1-5 in this race. He reunites with jockey Javier Santiago, who once upon a time was Bob Baffert’s favorite flavor in the saddle and won the 2004 Louisiana Derby on Wimbledon. Two brownie points if you remember that. I’m a big fan of trainer Chris Grove getting horses fit at the deep Bowie Training Center in Maryland and this horse could move forward at 1-1/8 miles when others struggle with it. I hope the price is more than the 5-1 morning line, which would be short to take. I think he’ll be closer to 10-1.

FRANKIE IS ROCK showed some spotty interest in his races this winter and those type of horses sometimes break out with a big effort when donning blinkers. I don’t know much about the connections, but this is a well-bred son of Rock Hard Ten and a maternal grandson of Spinster winner Fowda. He doesn’t give much ground back in races once he’s engaged, so if the blinkers put him in the race, don’t be shocked if his style and pedigree don’t keep him around to blow up the superfecta.

DONE TALKING (Hamilton Smith) was much better at age 2 than his comeback race in the G3 Gotham suggested. His patient, old school trainer obviously didn’t have him cranked that day, but it’s hard to get excited when he barely picked up a hoof. This late runner should improve, and almost has to, but to what degree, it’s hard to say. Respect Maryland-based Sheldon Russell in the saddle; he’s a very sharp young rider from England. SATURDAY LAUNCH (Ken McPeek) has done all his best work on turf while facing outstanding company lines. I’d like to see him stay at Keeneland for Friday’s Transylvania, where he’s cross-entered. But he fits here on class.

Pace players HAKAMA (Mike Trombetta), MORGAN’S GUERRILLA (Mike Maker) and Z ROCKSTAR (Donnie K. Von Hemel) all converge in a regional hodge-podge for outstanding trainers. HAKAMA could find himself glued to the rail from his post position under pressure, but Trombetta has won this race before with Sweetnorthernsaint, the subsequent Kentucky Derby favorite of 2006. Z ROCKSTAR exits a big-time effort in an Oaklawn allowance where he went much faster than the next-day Rebel. He would be no shock to win this. MORGAN’S GUERRILLA is the most lightly raced horse in the field with only two starts and both came on sloppy tracks in wire-to-wire fashion. From post 12, it’s asking a lot for this son of Ghostzapper, but he’s done things the right way so far. Get a price if you like him.

G2 Illinois Derby selections: W) PRETENSION; P) OUR ENTOURAGE; S) FRANKIE IS ROCK.

Last week’s selections: 2: 0-1-0. Top choice MARK VALESKI ran second in the Louisiana Derby, while top pick EL PADRINO ran fourth in the Florida Derby.

Season selections: 33: 12-4-4.

Everyone’s a critic

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

G1 Florida Derby (3/31, GP-11)

TAKE CHARGE INDY (Patrick Byrne) was both galvanized and Calvinized on the front end of his 7-1 upset in Saturday’s G1 $1 million Florida Derby. He gained stature with each passing furlong, played chicken with REVERON (Agustin Bezara) at the quarter pole, and ran on strongly through the wire and galloped out solidly after an excessive celebration penalty was thrown on Calvin Borel by the zebras. I’d like to tell you how much of a fluke this was because UNION RAGS (Michael Matz) and EL PADRINO (Todd Pletcher) mustered only third- and fourth-place finishes. But it’s not as simple as a pace makes the race blanket statement and accusation of a front-end theft.

No disputing the fact that 6 furlongs in 1:12.09 helped the cause for front-running TAKE CHARGE INDY. But he clicked off 23.60, 24.11, 24.38, 23.87 and 12.83 splits en route to a solid 1:48.79. When he needed to go, he had that 23.87 fourth-quarter blitz in him, and that’s admirable. Of the seven Florida Derby editions contested since Gulfstream reconfigured to a 9-furlong oval, TAKE CHARGE INDY’s final time ranks only behind Quality Road (1:47.72) and Big Brown (1:48.16), and ahead of Scat Daddy, Barbaro, Ice Box and Dialed In. That’s pretty decent company.

The 12.83 final furlong was faster than Big Brown (12.98), but Big Brown ran 6 furlongs in 1:10.08, a full TWO seconds faster than TAKE CHARGE INDY. Barbaro came home in 12.93 after dueling Sharp Humor to 6 furlongs in 1:11.37. Scat Daddy, who was a length off of 1:10.82 for 6 furlongs, came home in 13.08. Quality Road hit 6 furlongs in 1:10.66 and still stormed home in 12.44 over a lightning-fast track. These numbers for ‘INDY, they’re not so bad in perspective.

I don’t think you can call a horse by A.P. Indy out of millionaire Grade 1 winner Take Charge Lady fluky. The result of the Florida Derby gets a little murkier when you consider that REVERON held for second. Can you accept the fact that the listed Gulfstream Derby winner and G3 Sam F. Davis third-place finisher is this good or a product of the pace? That’s a much more difficult call to make than TAKE CHARGE INDY.

One thing we learned Saturday is that the G2 Fountain of Youth wasn’t very good, at least behind UNION RAGS. Not only did UNION RAGS finish third in the Florida Derby when expected to win, but fellow FoY alumni NECK N’ NECK (Ian Wilkes), FORT LOUDON (Stanley Gold) and NEWS PENDING (Dale Romans) all lessened their placing in the Florida Derby and managed to beat only one horse home.

Now let’s address UNION RAGS and EL PADRINO. Countdown readers weren’t surprised to see Javier Castellano and Julien Leparoux involved in close quarters. Dial back one week, when we predicted right here: “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.”

Castellano spent most of the backstretch run making sure UNION RAGS could not get out into the clear. It was good race riding and cleanly done without danger. As a jockey, he did his job in keeping his sights on a favorite that was bet to 40 cents on the dollar. If he’s on a horse as good as he thinks he is, and I also thought EL PADRINO could make his trip, then Castellano figures he’ll be able to run down TAKE CHARGE INDY and REVERON when he says “go.” His only problem was that his mount came up flat in a performance that looked like a classic bounce to me. The taxing, stakes-record duel and travel to and from the G2 Risen Star appeared to take some starch out of EL PADRINO. While he didn’t quicken tremendously, Trakus does show he came home in a solid 12.75, second-fastest in the race only to UNION RAGS’S 12.58. No doubt UNION RAGS was coming home better of the two on this day and ‘RAGS galloped out much better than anyone other than TAKE CHARGE INDY.

UNION RAGS is a big, imposing racehorse, but he’s hinting to be almost too big for his own good. You may recall he ran into trouble in the Champagne, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and now the Florida Derby. Compact, athletic, adept, push-button horses can motor their way into and out of spots. But that’s not UNION RAGS physically. Still, there’s such a fantastic amount of talent with this racehorse. Trainer Matz is a master horseman who has done nothing wrong to date and is bringing him along perfectly to peak on the first Saturday in May. The question will be trip, and what he does with a bad trip. After all, UNION RAGS has a history of finding them, and the Kentucky Derby can create bad trips like you’ve never dreamed were possible. 

Meanwhile, EL PADRINO looks an awful lot like Thunder Gulch on paper. Both were October maiden breakers at Belmont who were able to handle the Remsen’s 1 1/8-mile distance at age 2. Still, both were considered second- or third-string types heading into winter with their respective powerhouse barns. Both won their first two starts as 3-year-olds and then caught tough pace situations in their final preps, finishing fourth. Thunder Gulch was a dull fourth in the Blue Grass behind one-hit wonder Wild Syn, who stunned the field wire-to-wire. In fact, he was outfinished in the Blue Grass by Suave Prospect, a horse he had beaten earlier in the spring. Sound familiar in terms of EL PADRINO? Thunder Gulch went from a 6-5 shot in the Blue Grass to a 24-1 forgotten soul in the Kentucky Derby. In case you missed it, EL PADRINO closed Sunday in the final Derby future wager pool at, you guessed it, 24-1. And who was the assistant trainer to D. Wayne Lukas with Thunder Gulch? Todd Pletcher.

Florida-wintered horses have won five of the last six Kentucky Derbies, and the trio of TAKE CHARGE INDY, UNION RAGS and EL PADRINO all still look to have a very legitimate chance to extend that sunshine stranglehold.

G2 UAE Derby (G2 UAE Derby, 3/31 Mey-4)

Doing his best impersonation of Shackleford from the 2011 Preakness, Saturday’s $2 million UAE Derby winner DADDY LONG LEGS (Aidan O’Brien) looked like an absolute mess in the paddock and during warm-ups. But at the end of the 1 1/8 miles on the Tapeta synthetic surface, he had everyone else in a lather. He became yet another son of hot young sire Scat Daddy to make noise on the 2012 trail, winning by daylight in a performance that will punch his ticket back to Louisville. DADDY LONG LEGS was trounced at Churchill Downs in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall, but in his first start since that debacle appears to have made great strides from age 2 to 3. What I liked about this performance is that he was able to track a speed horse and pounce, a running style that translates well to American dirt racing in general and the Kentucky Derby specifically.

Among those in his wake in the UAE Derby was stablemate WROTE (Aidan O’Brien), who made a fair impression in his first start since winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf last fall at Churchill. He presented himself a danger turning into the homestretch and just couldn’t kick on with his stronger stablemate on this day. WROTE has more of a distance pedigree on turf, while DADDY LONG LEGS appears stronger on pedigree for a middle-distance dirt race. I really respected the way DADDY LONG LEGS galloped out after this 1 3/16-mile race.

Louisiana Derby (4/1, FG-10)

What in the Rockamundo is going on here? Shades of Rockamundo’s 108-1 upset in the 1993 Arkansas Derby made an April Fools’ joke out of the $1 million Louisiana Derby on Sunday when 109-1 shot HERO OF ORDER (Gennadi Dorochenko) literally one-upped his high-paying Derby trail predecessor. If you had the classic parlay between those horses (and I’m sure some horseplayer you know CLAIMS he/she did), congrats for turning your $2 into $26,275.20.

I joke about the 2012 Louisiana Derby because I have no other recourse. From post No. 12 with 12 losses compared to one victory, HERO OF ORDER offered no reason for faith. And I’m not nearly smart enough to offer valuable insight as to why it happened. The only thing this handicapper can see is that the last time Dorochenko moved HERO OF ORDER from turf to dirt, he broke his maiden by 5 lengths. HERO OF ORDER apparently responded to a turf prep after running second in the grassy Black Gold three weeks prior.

We mentioned last week that the Louisiana Derby this year looked to be a good dress rehearsal for the Kentucky Derby, and with a head-scratching winner that burned out bulbs on the toteboard, I guess we got something Derby-like after all.  The Louisiana Derby has a short history at 1 1/8 miles, so this 1:50.13 final time doesn’t offer much context other than to say it’s smack dab in-between Pants On Fire last year and Mission Impazible in 2010. But the final furlong in 13.47 was abysmal, and only third-place finisher ROUSING SERMON (Jerry Hollendorfer) was doing anything of note late. Runner-up MARK VALESKI (Larry Jones) hung badly in the stretch after looking to be a winner with a furlong to go. The track Saturday was plenty fast and the G2 New Orleans Handicap was run in a track record 1.47.64. These horses should have been in the low 1:49s.

For Derby purposes, we likely don’t have to worry about HERO OF ORDER, who is not a Triple Crown nominee. Even if he’s supplemented late to the Derby for $300,000, he would not be placed ahead of any Triple Crown nominee on the preference list of graded stakes earnings. Bottom line: he needs 19 or less horses to enter the Kentucky Derby to have any hope, even after paying $300,000 to supplement. Dorochenko could take him to Keeneland for the Lexington or Churchill for the Derby trial in hopes of prepping for the Preakness, but that’s an awfully big supplement to swallow.

MARK VALESKI did not come out of the race in good shape. Trainer Jones reported he lost a shoe and returned lame. You never know the extent of these kinds of post-race discussions. When did he lose the shoe, at what point did something go wrong, and are we even being given the straight scoop? We’ll have to take a wait-and-see approach on MARK VALESKI and evaluate him on the ground in Kentucky on Derby Week if he makes it that far. The key word for him may be far, regardless of health. I love his talent but have been noting all spring that his pedigree could trip him up beyond 1-1/16 miles and it certainly appeared to be a possible reason for his stretch fizzle. Of course, the aforementioned maladies and shoes could be at the wheel as well.

ROUSING SERMON came home well enough to make you want to see more from him, though he doesn’t appear to be a brilliant type. His third-place finish may have been as much to do with class relief as anything. Mild rallies for fourth and fifth on the west coast against highly regarded CREATIVE CAUSE (Mike Harrington) and I’LL HAVE ANOTHER (Doug O’Neill) were moderately improved here. Hollendorfer has mentioned the Belmont Stakes and that might not be a bad idea, though this kind of horse rarely wins that 1 ½-mile marathon.

As for the others in the Louisiana Derby, CIGAR STREET (Steve Margolis) ran a solid race for a third career start when hanging in the lane to be fourth. He will have a nice check in his future if he’s allowed to develop. This was just a tall order on three weeks rest and little foundation. SHARED PROPERTY (Tom Amoss) and WINDSURFER (Todd Pletcher) just didn’t do enough and appear a cut below, but decent racehorses of stakes ilk. Z DAGER (Steve Asmussen) and MR. BOWLING (Larry Jones) had their day in the sun in a weak Lecomte that has proven to be a mild disappointment.

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.
G3 Lexington (Keeneland, 4/21): HOLIDAY PROMISE, HERO OF ORDER (or Preakness), FLASHY DRESSER, GUNG HO (or Blue Grass); SCATMAN (or Blue Grass or Derby Trial), more to be determined.
G3 Derby Trial (Churchill, 4/28): BOURBON COURAGE; SCATMAN (or Lexington or Blue Grass); more to be determined.

Quick hitters

G3 Spiral winner WENT THE DAY WELL (Graham Motion) will bypass another prep and train up to the G1 Kentucky Derby in a change of plans initially considered after his win at Turfway … Top Oaklawn-based filly ON FIRE BABY (Gary Hartlage) also has been redirected straight to Louisville without another prep, though her connections announced this week that it’s an Oaks date she covets … California Derby winner RUSSIAN GREEK has been moved from trainer Jerry Hollendorfer to flavor of the day Gennadi Dorochenko of Louisiana Derby upset fame. Owner Mikhail Yanakov, a fellow Russian from Dorochenko’s hometown, will aim the G3 Spiral also-ran back in next Saturday’s G1 Blue Grass … Arizona-bred EZ EFFORT (Todd Pletcher) crushed Gulfstream maidens on the Florida Derby undercard in his first start since being privately purchased. The younger brother of G2 winner Uh Oh Bango is not Triple Crown nominated, but awfully talented and likely stakes-bound ... European ATTENBOROUGH (Jeremy Noseda), once looked at as a Blue Grass prospect, tanked Sunday upon his first start of the year, finishing ninth at Doncaster … The races to circle on the calendar next weekend are the G1 Blue Grass from Keeneland and the G1 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn.

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)
4. NAJJAAR (Oaklawn, 3/2)
5. DISCREET DANCER (Gulfstream, 1/7)

Stakes Race

1. TAKE CHARGE INDY (Florida Derby, GP, 3/31) * NEW *
2. CREATIVE CAUSE (San Felipe, SA, 3/10)
3. EL PADRINO (Risen Star, FG, 2/25) 
4. UNION RAGS (Fountain of Youth, GP, 2/26) 
5. HANSEN (Gotham, Aqu, 3/3)

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!