04/12/2013 2:42PM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 15 - April 12, 2013

Courtney Heeney
Drawing post 13 for the Blue Grass will provide a tremendous challenge for Rydilluc, the Palm Beach Stakes winner.

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

Between now and the time the horses unsaddle after Saturday’s Grade 1 Blue Grass at Keeneland, someone’s going to look you square in the eye and tell you that the race on Polytrack meant nothing. That it’s apples and oranges. That we don’t know any more now than we did before the race about Prospect X.

Then pop them in the kisser with this fact: Every Kentucky Derby trifecta since 2007 has had at least one horse who had prepped most recently on a synthetic surface. Street Sense and Animal Kingdom provided wins after the surface switch, while Dullahan, Hard Spun, Pioneerof the Nile and Paddy O’Prado hit the board on Derby Day. How ‘bout those apples … and oranges?

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. This marks the last of the big ones, three weeks out from Kentucky Derby 139.

Grade 1 Arkansas Derby (Saturday/Oaklawn) [Get PPs]

Nine straight years a horse from Arkansas’s Triple Crown trail has landed in the Kentucky Derby superfecta, dating back to the great Smarty Jones in 2004. So while this year’s Oaklawn centerpiece may seem softened by the absence of the three major local stakes preps winners on the season, it would be foolhardy not to look at this race as perhaps the definitive event on the trail.

Smarty Jones Stakes and Rebel Stakes winner Will Take Charge (D. Wayne Lukas) will bypass the Arkansas Derby and train up to the Kentucky Derby off of a seven-week break. And Rebel speedster Super Ninety Nine (Bob Baffert) stayed home in California last week in a failed Santa Anita Derby bid. May we be left with an Arkansas Derby that’s ripe for the outsiders to carpetbag from afar?

Six out-of-towners will take on that task when they collide with a quartet of locally based horses. I’m going to start with the locals, because I think they are stronger than many folks think. OXBOW (D. Wayne Lukas) possesses all the tools you could ask for in a Derby hopeful. The Awesome Again colt is out of Tiznow’s sister and can match his pedigree with anyone on the trail. He’s got tactical speed, but does not need the lead. He’s overcome trouble, raced in big fields, and shown the ability to KO the competition in blowout style when the opportunity presents itself. For the third straight race, OXBOW has drawn post position No. 10 for the Arkansas Derby. His two losses from wide posts in the Risen Star and Rebel were over two different tracks, at Fair Grounds and Oaklawn, vs. two different pace profiles, and he managed to hold the lead in the stretch both times only to lose both by a combined margin of six feet. The last time Oxbow wasn’t parked in the parking lot to start a race, he crushed the Lecomte Stakes field by 11-plus lengths. Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens has the call in his comeback bid for the roses. A decent finish here makes OXBOW clearly one of the top four or five favorites for the Kentucky Derby in my estimation.

No doubt the Rebel runner-up rates the best of the Oaklawn locals, but a couple of others beg your attention.

TEXAS BLING (Danele Durham) just continues to outrun expectations each time he heads out. Toss out a no-show on a sloppy track in the Southwest, and this is a horse with first, second and fourth-place finishes at 128-1, 18-1 and 55-1 in stakes on this circuit. While I don’t think he’s got enough pedigree to be a force at classic distances from off the pace, the pairing with closer extraordinaire Calvin Borel could be a match made in toteboard heaven in the Arkansas Derby. The race will have no shortage of early gas. If it sounds impossible or just downright beneath your snobbery, consider this is the same race that Borel lit afire with 108-1 shot Rockamundo back in 1993, years before most people outside of Kentucky, Louisiana, and Arkansas had ever heard of Calvin. Jay Leno wasn’t calling him back then. Danele Durham may not be a household name, but a small-stable female trainer named Kathy Ritvo did fine with Mucho Macho Man in his Derby third-place finish two years ago.

The other price local to beware of is CARVE (Steve Asmussen). He caught the Countdown eye in February with a visually sharp late rally to nab West Coast raider Title Contender (Bob Baffert) in a route allowance. That win catapulted him to the Rebel, where he broke terribly slow from the rail and made little dent late. What catches the eye again on CARVE is his workout two weeks after the Rebel, a bullet five-eighths in 1:00.40 at Oaklawn. That’s a sizzling move when you consider the Asmussen barn standard is about 1:02 and this horse had a series of 1:02s prior. The wakeup lightbulb could be on, and you’re going to get 30-1 or more on a very live exotics wire. I’ll be using him underneath.

The six-pack of Hot Springs tourists includes WAR ACADEMY (Bob Baffert), a horse who I simply am either going to be so right or so wrong about when the postscript completes. He’s the morning-line favorite because Baffert has owned Hot Springs, winning seven major 3-year-old Derby prep races there in the past few springs. Bodemeister’s dominance in last year’s Arkansas Derby remains fresh in the minds of those who fear what a Baffert blazer can do. But I have seen none of that Bodemeister brilliance from this colt. He had a public workout in company in winning his first route race March 15 when distance-challenged stablemate Manando (Baffert) was a loose and easy prey.

Going back to the San Vicente, that race has proven impotent, with next-out runners twice misfiring in the Sunland Derby, and Treasury Bill (Ron Ellis) completely run out of town when he tried the Rebel Stakes here last month. If you like WAR ACADEMY you deserve probably three or four times the price he’s going to be Saturday. It is possible for a California allowance horse to rise up and win this race as we saw with Line Of David three years ago over future Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver. But he was 17-1 and that more than makes my price point. Instead of “WAR,” I’ll give peace a chance in the Arkansas Derby.

Of the Baffert entries, I much prefer DEN’S LEGACY, the throwback horse of this year’s crop. He’s got a lot of Real Quiet about him as a horse who just shows up to work. April 2013 marks his 10th straight month in racing action without a break. But he’s had five straight graded stakes placings, so there’s no sign of slowing yet. His effort in the Rebel was indicative of his overall game – solid, but unspectacular. DEN’S LEGACY never has shown knockout instincts. He’s 2 for 11 with wins by a neck and half-length. Some horses idle waiting on others and love to mix it up. I expect him to be in the superfecta somewhere, but hesitate to put him on top in a multi-race wager.

DIVINE AMBITION (Darrin Miller) and FALLING SKY (John Terranova) both seem like the same horse to me. They want to be forwardly placed and have a license on damside pedigree to handle the trip. But neither owns past performances that indicate to me he’ll handle this kind of pressure and defeat this caliber of field.  FALLING SKY looks the more talented of that pair for sure, but they are kind of rowing the same boat.

Two wildcards who could be anywhere front to back at the wire are FRAC DADDY (Kenny McPeek) and OVERANALYZE (Todd Pletcher). Their efforts last fall after the Breeders’ Cup in Kentucky and New York put them high on everyone’s radar heading into winter. But their three combined starts at age 3 show a fifth-, sixth- and seventh-place finish. To back either one, you have to simply trust their trainers, two of the more successful in the game. The company lines both have kept have failed to produced big results this spring, though Normandy Invasion’s wakeup call in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial last week could be viewed as a feather in the cap of OVERANALYZE’s Remsen score more than four months ago. But that’s a stretch in comparables.

Arkansas Derby selections: W) OXBOW; P) TEXAS BLING; S) DEN’S LEGACY

Grade 1 Blue Grass (Saturday/Keeneland) [Get PPs]

An overflow field of 15 entered the Grade 1 Blue Grass (14 can start), but this race been about one horse for me for some time.

I’ve had my eye on RYDILLUC (Gary Contessa) for the Blue Grass Stakes since his Jan. 5 turf allowance win at Gulfstream Park. Fast forward three months and nothing has changed. RYDILLUC still looks like a horse to fear in Saturday’s $750,000 main event on Keeneland’s Polytrack. But post 13 will provide a tremendous challenge as this son of Medaglia d’Oro aims to become the fourth straight Gulfstream turf prepper to win the Blue Grass.

RYDILLUC absolutely skips over the grass and earns perfect, pressing trips each time and then explodes in the lane to separate from the pursuit. He visually looked well in spots in his workout video I’ve seen from Keeneland over the synthetic surface, but in other spots of the drill was not skipping along. The addition of seven pounds in weight from his Palm Beach Stakes win, the difficult post draw, and uncertainty on the surface mean that I’m now open to more than just a cold single in this race.

If he runs his A-plus race, I have no doubt that RYDILLUC can and will win the Blue Grass. None of the others entered strike me as “wow” runners that can explode their ceiling beyond what we’ve seen from them. No one here is running off the television screen or increasing their figures by 30 points out of nowhere. Horses No. 2 through 14 offer wonderful handicapping debates and difficult separations.

UNCAPTURED (Mark Casse) posted an admirable return in the Grade 3 Spiral last month at Turfway Park. The 1 1/8-mile distance is a tough assignment when you’ve been away four months, and this Lion Heart colt was even in performance that day. The Blue Grass rates a much tougher assignment, but after Casse was slow to get this horse into tip-top form over the winter, his best friend now may be three weeks between races. How well did he bounce back from that race and is he any better now than he was at age 2 when he was Kentucky’s best juvenile?

Turf runners CHARMING KITTEN (Todd Pletcher) and BALANCE THE BOOKS (Chad Brown) come from powerhouse stables and both are stakes winners on the lawn. And while the Blue Grass profile from turf to Polytrack has been successful, these two ran clunkers in their lone Polytrack attemps. CHARMING KITTEN copped a trouble comment in his non-effort here last fall in the Breeders’ Futurity, but he was going nowhere in the back of the pack when he ran into the melee. If you watch the replay of RYDILLUC vs. CHARMING KITTEN last time in the Palm Beach, there’s no way you see the tables turned, even if there’s a four-pound weight shift to CHARMING KITTEN this time. RYDILLUC will have to take a big step back to be beaten by his Palm Beach rival. The other Floridian moving turf to Poly is TESSERON (Josie Carroll), but he’s hard to recommend at the distance based on damside pedigree.

JAVA’S WAR (Kenny McPeek) is a diminutive horse whose trainer has said he isn’t a Kentucky Derby-type fit.  How will he handle a bulky field of 14 could tell the tale in the Blue Grass as the late-running son of War Pass will have plenty of support with Julien Leparoux riding. He appears to bring his game on any surface, and the runner-up in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby got a boost when victorious Verrazano (Todd Pletcher) doubled down to win the Grade 1 Wood Memorial last week. There’s plenty to like about JAVA’S WAR on Saturday if he can steer clear of traffic. Another closer in the same mold as JAVA’S WAR is FEAR THE KITTEN (Mike Maker), a long-winded type from an ace Keeneland barn. You certainly could see these two moving in tandem if the pace is quick early, which it appears it could be.

PALACE MALICE (Todd Pletcher) could vie for favoritism in the Blue Grass. He’s long been a hot horse among bettors and was a winter-book heartthrob in Las Vegas before he made his seasonal return. Trip handicappers will salivate over his Grade 2 Louisiana Derby bump and grind. Whether you love him or are indifferent, PALACE MALICE certainly didn’t get to show his stuff at Fair Grounds last time. Now the question comes whether his stuff was good enough to factor even if he had space. The Curlin colt flattened out late in the Risen Star at 1 1/16 miles and owns only a maiden sprint win on his resume. On two weeks’ rest, he’s a fair play at 8-1 or so, but nothing less.

The top two betting choices in Tampa’s Grade 3 Sam F. Davis, MY NAME IS MICHAEL (Bill Mott) and DYNAMIC SKY (Mark Casse), both figure to be the biggest prices either has seen this year. While I’ve never caught the buzz on MY NAME IS MICHAEL, I have been a backer of DYNAMIC SKY and feel there’s some talent in the tank. But his pedigree may leave him a bit short for this kind of assignment, though he’s bred to love the Polytrack and ran a good second here as a juvenile. The way Joel Rosario is riding at Keeneland right now, dismiss DYNAMIC SKY from your exotics at your own risk.

UNDRAFTED (Wesley Ward) figures to set the table from post 3 and stretching out from sprints. But sprint to route at this level on this surface is not an easy hill to climb. FOOTBRIDGE (Eoin Harty) may be better equipped of those pace factors to last the trip based on pedigree, and trainer Harty has done well historically the longer his horses go on the Keeneland Polytrack. The third member of the early pace brigade, WEST HILLS GIANT (John Terranova), has the opposite local trainer profile as FOOTBRIDGE. Terranova’s Keeneland success has come in shorter races, and WEST HILLS GIANT is drawn wide with a serious chance of losing significant ground.

Blue Grass selections: W) RYDILLUC; P) UNCAPTURED; S) JAVA’S WAR

Last week’s selections: 2: 0-0-1. Top pick VYJACK (Rudy Rodriguez) managed third in the Wood Memorial, while the terrible pick of POWER BROKER (Bob Baffert) finished off the board in the Santa Anita Derby in an admittedly “too-cute” attempt from this corner.

Season selections: 36: 9-7-4.

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 Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial by clicking on the race name.

Put ‘em in the gate

This section lists the horses who have completed their preps and appear to have secured starting positions in Kentucky Derby 139. As of this writing, 12 of the 20 spots in the gate have reservations barring injury. We’ll plug in jockeys where they are known or assumed.

ORB (Joel Rosario): The Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby winner lost rider John Velazquez, but trainer Shug McGaughey picked up the red-hot Rosario.
ITSMYLUCKYDAY (Elvis Trujillo): Working at Calder this past week for the biggest race of trainer Eddie Plesa’s life.
REVOLUTIONARY: Louisiana Derby winner lost his rider to NORMANDY INVASION, and may get Mike Smith or Calvin Borel depending how things turn out.
MYLUTE (Shaun Bridgmohan): Louisiana Derby runner-up bedded down at Churchill Downs and knows that territory.
GOVENOR CHARLIE (Martin Garcia): Possibility he could be the last Baffert standing, an unthinkable thought at one point.
BLACK ONYX (Joe Bravo): The Spiral champion will rest up this weekend and see how his common rivals flatter or unflatter his form.
LINES OF BATTLE: UAE Derby winner follows in the footsteps of Daddy Long Legs for Aidan O’Brien.
VERRAZANO (John Velazquez): Wood Memorial winner and undefeated Todd Pletcher trainee the likely Derby 139 favorite.
NORMANDY INVASION (Javier Castellano): Late-running Wood runner-up figures to be the “steam” horse by Derby Day and could be second choice or make a run at favoritism.
VYJACK: Reportedly had lung and/or bleeding issues in his Wood Memorial third and should be monitored in his works.
WILL TAKE CHARGE (Jon Court): Rebel Stakes winner will bypass an April prep for D. Wayne Lukas and train up to the dance.
GOLDENCENTS (Kevin Krigger): Santa Anita Derby winner will try to give O’Neill barn back-to-back success stories in Louisville.

Bubble watch

This new section offers a look at the horses who are finished running and could be sweating out a berth in the Derby 139 starting gate. Horses expected to race again before the Derby are exempt from this wait-and-see list.

Right now Countdown projects 12 confirmed horses for the Kentucky Derby starting gate barring injuries. Even if Saturday’s Grade 1 Arkansas Derby and Grade 1 Blue Grass send three horses apiece, we’re still looking at only 18 horses for the Derby on merit with two last-ditch preps to go. As we’ve cautioned all season, the vitriol spewed at the Kentucky Derby points system was misguided and not going to be a factor. Kudos to Churchill Downs for the best publicity stunt since Geraldo found empty wine bottles in Al Capone’s vault.

Here’s the best of the bubble as it stands today.

MERIT MAN: Florida Derby third-place finisher would add to the Kentucky Derby pace if he makes it in.
DEPARTING: Probably the most talented of the horses having to sweat it out, but I’d prefer this lightly raced colt be aimed at the Preakness.
CODE WEST: Disappointment in Louisiana Derby, but he has enough pedigree and performance to make me think he wouldn’t be embarrassed on Derby Day.
TIZ A MINISTER: Run-along tease didn’t fire in the Santa Anita Derby and I would be indifferent if he made it or not.
SUPER NINETY NINE: Baffert has intimated he’s a miler and I’d be surprised to see him entered in Louisville.

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. DECLASSIFY (Santa Anita, 4/6)

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. VERRAZANO (Wood Memorial, Aqueduct, 4/6)
4. VYJACK (Gotham, Aqueduct, 3/2)
5. REVOLUTIONARY (Withers, Aqueduct, 2/2)

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!