04/13/2012 8:39AM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 15 - April 13, 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 paying to see Titanic re-released in 3-D.  If you’ve seen one sink, you’ve seen them all.

1. We snickered a year ago when the Breeders’ Cup created a 2-year-old sprint race to appease the breeding industry’s self-infatuation with phony black-type for catalog pages. Now SECRET CIRCLE (Bob Baffert) just may be a race away from getting the last Derby-prep laugh in Arkansas.

2. I’m not sure we’ve seen a cooler grouping of trainers in a recent Kentucky Derby prep than Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert, John Sadler, Graham Motion, Mike Maker, Dale Romans, Wesley Ward and Jonathan Sheppard. What in the Gennadi Dorochenko is going on with this year’s Blue Grass?

3. The horse most perilous on the graded stakes earnings list - at or around the $250,000 mark - also happens to be my favorite horse of the spring, EL PADRINO (Todd Pletcher). But I don’t begrudge the system if he doesn’t get into the Derby. He had a giveaway start in an allowance that didn’t accrue any swag, and there were no laws denying him the opportunity to run better than fourth in the Florida Derby. 

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. With Grade 1 showcases at Keeneland and Oaklawn, we’re primed for a huge weekend. There are a trio of minor stakes around the country worth a quick mention before we dig into the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby.

G1 Del Mar Futurity and G2 San Vicente winner DRILL (Bob Baffert) was re-routed from Saturday’s Blue Grass to the listed Northern Spur Stakes on dirt at Oaklawn. The Arkansas Derby undercard race looks like a wise move for the son of OP-loving Lawyer Ron. How PEE H DEE (Chris Richard) runs on the drop in class might give us some barometer on the G3 Southwest and G2 Rebel alumni and their ability to hold home court later.

Post time for the $150,000 Calder Derby is 5:10 p.m. ET, which will be a valuable assist in evaluating Blue Grass Stakes contenders HOWE GREAT (Graham Motion) and DULLAHAN (Dale Romans). Horses like EMPIRE BUILDER (Luis Duco), CSABA (Phil Gleaves), SCORCHER (Jose Garffalo) and EL ROMANO (Manny Azpurua) share common company lines from the Palm Beach and Kittens Joy Stakes at Gulfstream.

And finally, if you don’t get enough big-time action on CNBC with the major Grade 1 stakes telecast, stay up for the $250,000 Robert Hilton Memorial on the Charles Town Classic undercard. The 7-furlong race boasts unbeaten Rushaway Stakes winner FLASHY DRESSER (Fred Seitz) and a post time of 9:15 p.m. ET.

G1 Blue Grass (Saturday/Keeneland)

I eat, breathe and sleep Keeneland. Check that; there’s not been much sleep this week. Outside of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Breeders’ Cup days, there’s not a more exciting date circled on the racing calendar to me than Blue Grass Day. And this year’s G1 $750,000 Blue Grass is the most anticipated for me at least since Lion Heart and The Cliff’s Edge locked up in 2004. Sure, Street Sense was here in 2007, but we all expected that to be a promenade.

[BLUE GRASS STAKES: Live video, PPs, wagering, and analysis on Saturday's Keeneland card]

Reigning 2-Year-Old Champion HANSEN (Mike Maker) is in the house, and that’s newsworthy in itself. Of the eight previous Eclipse Award-winning juveniles to race in the Blue Grass, seven of them have finished in the exacta. Given the strength of this year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile alumni, there’s no reason to think HANSEN won’t add to that list of strong Blue Grass performances. After all, 8 of the 13 BC Juvenile alumi already have won at least one graded stakes in 2012, which is unprecedented and startling. That’s why you’re looking at a $250,000 bubble for the Top 20 in graded earnings. This is a quality crop of sustained money earners.

HANSEN overcame post 12 in the G3 Gotham and passed all the tests in his first start without blinkers. He’s better-drawn Saturday in post 4, but this pace scenario will prove to be the next challenge. He’s never been in a race with this much heat. SCATMAN (Mike Lauer) twice has put up the strongest Moss Pace Figures in the Derby preps this season, according to my pal Randy Moss, and he’s harpooned out in post 13. Jockey Shaun Bridgmohan has no recourse but to gun from the wide draw. I’d actually wish that Lauer would scratch and await next week’s G2 Lexington. This is a seriously talented racehorse who just has a nearly impossible task ahead of him Saturday.

HERO OF ORDER (Gennadi Dorochenko) has made the lead at some point in 11 straight races, and most surprisingly at the wire of the Louisiana Derby 13 days ago at 109-1 odds. He’s in post 12! Talk about outside speed sawing off the field. Rail-drawn HEAVY BREATHING (Todd Pletcher) ran the opening half-mile in the G3 Spiral a whopping three seconds faster than the same-day Rushaway at Turfway on March 24. He’ll be sent along from a tough draw, too. And front-running HOWE GREAT may not need the lead or be capable of getting it against these horses, but he’s certainly going to be one at some point to push on the front-runners’ tails to quicken them along.

So, it’s welcome to Lexington, HANSEN. But the front-running welcoming party figures to be standing-room only. Can he handle the pace and kick on? We’ll find out Saturday, but it’s a fantastic debate as to HANSEN’s Kentucky Derby chances, where you even expect the early pace temperature to be a few degrees warmer. The way this race sets up, if HANSEN ding-dongs too hard in the Blue Grass, he could be wrung-out for May 5. It’s a fascinating 1:49 or 1:50, this Blue Grass.

I have a hard time thinking any of the other speed horses can survive this pace, and HANSEN should be the last one standing among those pushing the throttle from the start. So which of the horses moving late can take down the 1 1/8-mile test?

DULLAHAN (Dale Romans) seems a logical vote-getter for “most likely to succeed late.” His closing style was on display over this track in a productive renewal of the G1 Breeders Futurity during the Fall Meeting. Since then, he ran a troubled fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile that was better-than-it-looks and his comeback try in the Palm Beach was text-book perfect to set him up. But DULLAHAN has had some health blips this season, most recently a minor popped splint that set back his training a few days. If not for that relative uncertainty, you’d have to think he’s primed for Saturday.

If DULLAHAN isn’t up to the challenge, PROSPECTIVE (Mark Casse) makes sense with a mid-pack rally like he pulled off in the G2 Tampa Bay Derby. Here’s a horse who was one of Canada’s best 2-year-olds on Polytrack last year, so the surface change shouldn’t be of concern. The Tampa Bay Derby has been a hit-or-miss prep for the Blue Grass, with horses like General Quarters and Street Sense making positive transitions and others like Odysseus and Big Truck running on flat tires.

Three X-factors in the race who could run first or thirteenth are EVER SO LUCKY (Jonathan Sheppard), MIDNIGHT CROONER (Bob Baffert) and HOLY CANDY (John Sadler). Among them stands just three maiden victories, but each has something to embrace. EVER SO LUCKY was a visual star at age 2, and Hall of Famer Sheppard likely wouldn’t be here if he didn’t really feel good about the horse. It’s been a bitter winter/spring dealing with minor physical issues for ‘LUCKY, but most everyone agrees he’s been a talented horse since he blistered the Timonium sales last May. MIDNIGHT CROONER’s big brother Midnight Interlude didn’t look any more accomplished than this guy when he upset last year’s G1 Santa Anita Derby. Baffert and Garrett Gomez teaming at a price in a big stakes that could push $30 for a $2 wager; that’s what we call value, win or lose. And finally, HOLY CANDY has been one of the most talked-about West Coast sophomores all season, despite a rash of second-place finishes before a breakout performance March 23.  No way he’ll be anywhere near the 30-1 morning line, but the price will be healthy. I absolutely loved his last race when he finished up strongly in 23 seconds the final two quarters and got faster each split of the race. Sure, it’s a big step up in class, but he faced an eventual G3 winner as well as G2 and G3-placed rivals while in the maiden ranks. There may be a few riders in America as good as Joel Rosario, but no one makes him play second fiddle. In fact, I’m going to end on that high note. It’s upset time.

G1 Blue Grass selections: W) HOLY CANDY; P) HANSEN; S) PROSPECTIVE.

G1 Arkansas Derby (Saturday/Oaklawn)

From the moment they hit the wire in the G2 Rebel Stakes on March 17, I’ve been looking for someone to beat SECRET CIRCLE (Bob Baffert) when he stretched out to 1 1/8 miles in the G1 Arkansas Derby. Baffert himself may not have to look far, and didn’t wait long to throw the name of BODEMEISTER into the Hot Springs ring. Despite winning the G3 Southwest at 3-5 odds and the G2 Rebel at even-money, SECRET CIRCLE already has lost the morning line favorite’s role to his stablemate. Regardless of how the public eventually sees this race, it’s very curious to see two horses with such fleet running styles matched up from the same barn. How good would either have looked in the Wood Memorial or Illinois Derby a week ago?

[ARKANSAS DERBY: Get PPs and handicapping analysis on Saturday's Oaklawn card]

Though the Baffert trainees have outstanding speed from the gate, they may not hold the keys to the pace. That toll keeper may be STAT (Todd Pletcher), inside-drawn in post 2 and coming off of four straight races around a single turn. He’s got 45- or 46-second speed for the opening half-mile if that’s what John Velazquez dials. Obviously over a slower Oaklawn strip, 45 or 46 at another track reads on the clock more like 47, such as what we saw in the Southwest and Rebel. The only other horse capable of forcing the pace appears to be ISN’T HE CLEVER (Henry Dominguez), the pride of New Mexico who was fast enough to show California speed in the G2 Lewis. The son of Smarty Jones would be quite a story at Oaklawn, once again coming from the “wrong side of the tracks” in terms of glamour meetings. His jockey Robby Albarado generally is very aggressive early in two-turn races and I’d expect CLEVER to be a pressing third or fourth at worst.

The pace looks honest, but not impossible for the front-runners.

COZZETTI (Dale Romans) appears to be coming to fore for a trainer that doesn’t mince words when he has one doing very well. I know this first-hand having covered Romans the past several years on the official Kentucky Derby daily notes team. If he says COZZETTI is sitting on a breakthrough race, and he has, then I will be including him in my exotics. Having the benefit of seeing the Blue Grass Stakes a half-hour earlier, the performances in Kentucky for horses like HOWE GREAT and PROSPECTIVE could give us a better line on COZZETTI’s strength of schedule. One horse whose schedule strength I’ve questioned all winter is SABERCAT (Steve Asmussen). His dominant G3 Delta Jackpot win has been denigrated time and again by weak performances from the race’s alumni. SABERCAT actually ran pretty well mid-race in the Rebel and then tired late, which was reasonable off a fourth-month break. He can improve some, but I don’t envision him punching out all of these fighters.

Expect a solid amount of money to pour in for OPTIMIZER (D. Wayne Lukas), who visually appeared to be flying at the end of the G2 Rebel. The clock tells a less impressive story than the eye, but this truly is a 1 1/4 miles kind of horse and has been for some time. It’s just a matter of how quickly he can get there. Jon Court has won the past two Arkansas Derbies by a neck in the same time, so he obviously knows how to keep on a schedule. Those 17-1 and 25-1 prices on Line of David and Archarcharch will be a distant memory as OPTIMIZER likely settles somewhere around 5-1. I think that’s a vast underlay at this stage, but I’m not cold on the horse so much as the value assessment.

The deep closer who will be the value is NAJJAAR (Danny Peitz). He ran easily the fastest final splits of any horse in the G2 Rebel, but the outside post totally did him in that day. Because he was out in post 11, he was wrangled back so slowly early to save ground that his first quarter approached nearly 27 seconds. He simply had too much to do after that point. Now in post 3, Borel can settle him into a nice stride in 25-and-change or so near the back of the pack and already be glued to the wood. I am expecting him to unleash a big quarter in 23-and-change nearing the top of the stretch and burst onto the scene. If Calvin finds a path, this is the horse the Baffert trainees must fear. Note NAJJAAR had been working in 1:04s, 1:02s, 1:01s all season and peaked with a minute-flat drill April 6 for the big show.

NAJJAAR will be my biggest bet of the 2012 prep season. If he does what I think he’s capable of, Calvin Borel could have a difficult decision for his Derby dance partner as he pursues a fourth garland of roses in six years. After all, Florida Derby winner TAKE CHARGE INDY (Pat Byrne) awaits him under the Spires.

G1 Arkansas Derby selections: W) NAJJAAR; P) BODEMEISTER; S) SECRET CIRCLE.

Last week’s selections: 3: 0-1-0. Third choices reigned with GEMOLOGIST and I’LL HAVE ANOTHER, but they don’t pay for that nonsense. Top choice CREATIVE CAUSE was a runner-up in the Santa Anita Derby; longshot price stab TIGER WALK was a mild fourth in the Wood; and PRETENSION was troubled and off the board in the Illinois Derby. This is no time to go cold - let’s get hot again!

Season selections: 36: 12-5-4.

Everyone’s a critic

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

G1 Wood Memorial (4/7, Aqu-9)

Twice this year I twisted myself in knots over obvious races and twice my response at the wire was, “Duh!” (Nobody ever said my internal conversations were brilliant.)

Last Saturday’s G1 Wood Memorial turned out every bit as obvious as it should have been. GEMOLOGIST (Todd Pletcher) and ALPHA (Kiaran McLaughlin) exuded their class and simply were too good for their rivals at Aqueduct. GEMOLOGIST got first jump on his principal rival and later repelled ALPHA’s late bid in a determined effort.

ALPHA went to the rodeo on the clubhouse turn, trapped on the rail as several runners pushed and shoved for position. He gave up two lengths immediately to GEMOLOGIST at that point, though Javier Castellano had the 6-5 favorite racing three or four paths wide and returned some of that margin in early ground loss. By the time the horses passed the half-mile pole, ALPHA was glued inside GEMOLOGIST and bided his time behind the pace-setters. Meanwhile, GEMOLOGIST remained clear in the three-path and surrendered some ground in exchange for continued momentum.

In upper stretch, it appeared ALPHA would get the measure of GEMOLOGIST, the latter’s leg action somewhat flailing inside the furlong marker and appearing to be spent. When ALPHA came to GEMOLOGIST, however, Castellano got a little something extra late to turn away Ramon Domniguez’s late bid. In the final jump or two, it actually looked like ALPHA totally threw in the towel. GEMOLOGIST galloped out the much better of the pair.

What we had was a race that slowed down each and every step. THE LUMBER GUY (Mike Hushion) sprinted away like a wild horse on the first turn and helped carve out fractions of 23.04, 24.53, 24.97, 25.20 and 13.22 the final furlong.  You would expect an unbeaten leading Kentucky Derby horse like GEMOLOGIST to either run faster than 13.22 late or at least look good doing it. He seemed to win this on guts.

Both ALPHA and GEMOLOGIST are deserving Kentucky Derby aspirants with pedigrees to play at 10 furlongs and connections who have won American classics. You can’t look at their resumes and think much differently. But you also can’t watch this replay or study the chart and feel certain that the Wood Memorial was a true representation of either on their best day. It’s kind of a weird one for me in that I don’t like this race nearly as much as I like both horses. Countdown readers may recall a similar take on WENT THE DAY WELL (Graham Motion) after the G3 Spiral three weeks ago. My handicapping acumen tells me these horses all are much better than their final prep performances may look to the eye or clock.
TEETH OF THE DOG (Michael Matz) ran a solid third in this race and is coming to hand nicely for a patient horseman. He could be a factor in lesser Derby events this summer with a chance to be a Travers/Haskell type later on. The Preakness would not be out of the question in Matz’s neck of the woods. TIGER WALK (Ignacio Correas) may have run well enough in fourth to warrant a Preakness inquiry for his Maryland-based connections.
G1 Santa Anita Derby (4/7 SA-6)

If you thought ALPHA was going to run by GEMOLOGIST in the stretch of last Saturday’s Wood Memorial, raise your hand if you also thought CREATIVE CAUSE (Mike Harrington) had the measure of I’LL HAVE ANOTHER (Doug O’Neill) in the G1 Santa Anita Derby stretch. Call me guilty on both charges.

Those attending this past Tuesday’s Night School national online fan education class were treated to 90 minutes on trip handicapping. Guest instructor and NYRA analyst Andy Serling was emphatic in how important the start is to the overall scheme of race shape. Watch the replay of the Santa Anita Derby and you’ll see exactly what Serling meant.

On paper, the SA Derby looked like a pace incinerator. Longshots SENOR RAIN (Peter Miller) and BLUESKIESNRAINBOWS (Bob Baffert) figured to duke it out with blazing debut maiden sprint winner PAYNTER (also Baffert). But the moment the gate opened, both PAYNTER and SENOR RAIN bobbled next to one another, and voila BLUESKIESNRAINBOWS found himself able to scoot clear from the outside and set the tone. The double-bobble also allowed I’LL HAVE ANOTHER to capitalize and accept a dream drip in second, kept inside and behind the lone speed.

No one this side of Pluto expected the Santa Anita Derby pace to be 47.11 and 1:11.14. Cal-bred allowance horses earlier on the card went 45.78 and 1:10.42, while the very next route race on the card went 45.69 and 1:09.20.

It’s no surprise then that BLUESKIESNRAINBOWS and I’LL HAVE ANOTHER both were still firing in the stretch when favorite CREATIVE CAUSE came calling. What was funny is that NBC’s blimp shot showed every rider in the race down the backstretch moving to the outside of BLUESKIESNRAINBOWS, indicating they didn’t want to be stuck behind that longshot when he stopped cold. But that never happened because the tempo failed to intensify.

When the race did quicken turning for home, BLUESKIESNRAINBOWS gave the best 100 yards he had left in him and gave the field a quick scare. CREATIVE CAUSE motored nicely along the rail and stuck his head in front of I’LL HAVE ANOTHER just as the pair passed the quarter-pole. Joel Rosario appeared to have absolute dead-aim on the Santa Anita Derby trophy. Although he didn’t corner particularly well on either bend, I’LL HAVE ANOTHER hit his best gear in upper stretch just like he did in the G2 Lewis Memorial and had an instant “bam!” gear. When CREATIVE CAUSE wandered a bit in the lane and reverted back to some old habits, the dogfight was on. I’LL HAVE ANOTHER prevailed by a nose with a final furlong in 12.52 and final time a sizzling 1:47.88. CREATIVE CAUSE galloped out the better of the two.

My take is that trainer Harrington has been trying his darnedest all year to keep CREATIVE CAUSE from peaking before Kentucky Derby Day. It’s the only rationale I can give for why he took the blinkers off before the Santa Anita Derby. Nine horses out of 10 will gain focus with blinkers, and removing them seemed to open Pandora’s box here with CAUSE not laying his body down in the stretch. If CREATIVE CAUSE puts blinkers back on for the Kentucky Derby, he would be my pick right now to wear the roses. We’ll see if that’s the equipment change to come, and just how he trains in the coming weeks before any commitments.

Take absolutely nothing away from I’LL HAVE ANOTHER, who ran a dynamite race for the second straight time. His trainer, too, was trying to avoid doing too much this season and balancing against the bounce. Two months between starts helped that cause, but unfortunately the No. 1 most important factor about the Kentucky Derby is the date. You can’t beat the calendar. The SA Derby and May 5 are four weeks apart. O’Neill has to hope he can reproduce that kind of effort on half the recovery time. I can’t wait to watch this horse train in person in Louisville. He’s probably the most important visual analysis you can make Derby Week.

As for the others, PAYNTER ran a promising fourth for his second career start and overcoming his gameplan change at the start. What a fun prospect he appears to be for races like the Swaps and Haskell this summer. LIAISON will move on to the Kentucky Derby for Baffert, but he just treaded water in sixth and hasn’t been on his game of late. MIDNIGHT TRANSFER (Carla Gaines) for some reason was nowhere at any point in this race and kept wide. It was a performance that makes you wonder if the barn really was pressing for this race or if the owner’s excitement at running was calling the shots. Either way, it was a non-effort and he’s a much better horse than that down the line at a middle distance.

G2 Illinois Derby (4/6, Haw-9)

Please forgive my lack of forgiveness. After a 10th-place finish in the G3 Gotham in which late-running DONE TALKING (Ham Smith) was done running before the real running started, how could a handicapper in his or her heart of hearts jump back in? This, friends, was a classic “draw a line through the race” situation that you can only determine after the fact or on blind faith. This time, faith worked best.

DONE TALKING was an impressive 2-year-old who had a run-all-day look about him that made the Broken Vow colt one to watch. Maryland-based Smith took a patient approach all winter/spring, something he’s done throughout his long and successful career in the Mid-Atlantic. In Countdown, we noted in the Gotham preview that we expected him to be short of his best knowing Smith’s history, and that a decent fourth or fifth would make him a big threat in his final Derby prep. But 10th, beaten 20-plus lengths, that was a tough one to just scribble through and forgive.
The right horse won last Saturday’s G2 Illinois Derby at 1 1/8 miles. The race laden with horses questionable at classic distances and short on foundation had one serious Triple Crown prospect in it. DONE TALKING obliged and is a deserving starter in Louisville, even if the clock at Hawthorne suggests otherwise. Certainly there’s no shine on a 1:53.88 final time or sun-dial slow final furlong in 14.08. But Hawthorne isn’t a track that you’re going to look great over visually. DONE TALKING will be a 50-1 shot in the Kentucky Derby, though the Derby has been kind in recent years to career regional horsemen like Ham Smith when they finally get their one big horse. Hats off  to rising star rider Sheldon Russell on a deserved trip to the Derby.

Runner-up MORGAN’S GUERRILLA (Mike Maker) deserves applause in an effort probably too good to lose. From post 12 and with only two maiden races under his belt, the son of Ghostzapper rewarded his connections’ confidence and optimism.  It was a good day for Maryland as not only did DONE TALKING win, but the Preakness may have picked up a player in third-place finisher HAKAMA (Mike Trombetta).

CURRENCY SWAP (Terri Pompay) was one of the most beatable favorites of the entire Countdown season and was no factor in 11th after a troubled run through the clubhouse turn. OUR ENTOURAGE (Todd Pletcher) once again shut it down on the lead in the stretch in a predictable outcome for those who studied his races.

Quick hitters

UNION RAGS (Michael Matz) bounced sharply out of his G1 Florida Derby defeat, working a half-mile in 48.40 breezing Thursday at Palm Meadows, second-fastest of 16 works on the morning. He will van to Kentucky this weekend and train at Keeneland in the immediate days … Look for REVERON (Agustin Berera) in next Saturday’s G3 Lexington in a last-ditch attempt to push his graded stakes earnings into the Top 20. The Lexington may pick up HANDSOME MIKE (Doug O’Neill), knocked out of this week’s G1 Arkansas Derby with a minor bug ... Florida Derby alumni TAKE CHARGE INDY (Pat Byrne) and EL PADRINO (Todd Pletcher) are expected to remain at Palm Meadows in Florida for the bulk of their pre-Derby training. The latter could be aimed at the Preakness if he doesn’t make the Derby field … G3 Sunland Derby winner DADDY NOSE BEST (Steve Asmussen) breezed an easy 5 furlongs in 1:02.40 on Monday at Churchill Downs, his first work since his New Mexico road trip … Several fans have asked me in recent weeks if there will dime superfecta wagering on the Kentucky Derby, and the answer is no.

High fives

Jeremy Plonk’s top-5 rated performances by class so far this year (Dec. 26-present). We’ve eliminated the undercard races and only have been focused on the major stakes in recent weeks.

Stakes Race

1. TAKE CHARGE INDY (Florida Derby, GP, 3/31)
2. I’LL HAVE ANOTHER (Santa Anita Derby, SA 4/7) * NEW*
3. CREATIVE CAUSE (San Felipe, SA, 3/10)
4. EL PADRINO (Risen Star, FG, 2/25) 
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!