04/19/2012 8:29PM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 16 - April 20, 2012


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 memory of the great Dick Clark. If people talk about you for 60-plus years, you must have hit all the right notes.

1. BODEMEISTER will be favored in the Kentucky Derby for two reasons. One, racing people will respect his Arkansas Derby tour de force. Two, non-racing people are going to be drawn to the violins and heartfelt features on Bob Baffert’s heart condition and the fact this horse is named for his cute-as-a-button kid.

2. Ever wonder why jockey agents make 30 percent or more with top pilots? Try making the call for Ramon Dominguez between ALPHA or HANSEN in this year’s Kentucky Derby. Want to ride first call for Godolphin in America’s premier race, or remain loyal to the 2-year-old champion for an owner who’ll never have a horse this good again?

3. Once again, the graded stakes earnings list has done its job and the situation has magically taken care of itself. It’s like college football’s BCS. Every year pundits declare Armageddon on the horizon, and the system works. Name one horse not in the top 20 who deserves to bump one out who is? For those who cry that 2-year-old stakes should be de-emphasized, imagine the unhealthy cramming in the entry box every April if the 3-year-old races counted twice as much.

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. The big ones are in the books, but the G2 Jerome at Aqueduct and the G3 Lexington at Keeneland still could have some Triple Crown influence.

G3 Lexington Stakes (Saturday/Keeneland)

Trainer Todd Pletcher aims for a fourth Lexington win in the six years this race has been on Polytrack, and I won’t bury the lead here. I think he gets it with HOLIDAY PROMISE. The G3 Spiral Stakes runner-up is part of a solid, but unspectacular, Lexington field of 11 that features morning line favorite CASTAWAY (Bob Baffert), winner of the G3 Southwest at Oaklawn.

[LEXINGTON STAKES: Get PPs and handicapping analysis on Saturday's Keeneland card]

We see a predictable mix of dirt, turf and synthetic performers in this year’s Lexington. And while someone near you is sure to scream about how dirt horses have no chance, remind them this race’s five-year Poly history features two winners who prepped on dirt, two winners who prepped on synthetic and one who prepped on turf. Truth is, Keeneland’s surface is almost equal across the board at all class levels in terms of prep surfaces. Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good grudge, right?

The pace should be honest in the Lexington with CASTAWAY doing all his best running on or near the lead. Fast sprint debut winner JOHANNESBOURBON (Kellyn Gorder) is well-drawn and likely to push the issue. A few others could be in the early mix, including rail-drawn MORGAN’S GUERRILLA (Mike Maker), who was game in defeat in the G3 Illinois Derby from a wretched post. Maker takes the blinkers off, and patient rider Julien Leparoux climbs aboard. But from the rail, he may have to show a little more speed than the blinkers-off move may have hoped to stunt.

The sixteenth-pole finish line will be in effect for the Lexington because of Keeneland’s 1 1/16-mile configuration. That said, you want to be in the mix turning for home. That’s the kind of trip HOLIDAY PROMISE turned in March 24 in the Spiral, when menacing big-time in upper-stretch before flattening out at the end of nine furlongs. The shorter distance, shorter stretch run and back-to-back Keeneland bullet workouts since then make him the horse to beat.

GOLD MEGILLAH (Graham Motion) could not have looked better in the flesh when he ran in the Rushaway on March 24 at Turfway. He simply had no pace to close into and ran a bang-up race. FLASHY DRESSER (Fred Seitz) exited that race to win a $250,000 stakes at Charles Town last week, and GUNG HO (Mike Maker) went from the Rushaway to a big third in the G1 Blue Grass last Saturday at Keeneland. If not for post 11, GOLD MEGILLAH may be the top play here. Still, I like him quite a bit.

CASTAWAY went far too fast at Sunland when hooked on the front end and is a better horse than that. Still, he likes to have it his own way. Baffert has sent just two horses to Keeneland to run on the Polytrack and one of those (Samba Rooster, 2nd in the Lexington) was a horse from Florida that he started training just prior to the race and wasn’t part of his program. This just doesn’t look like a natural place for CASTAWAY, though a capable racehorse.

SUMMER FRONT (Christophe Clement) is the X factor. Unbeaten in three turf starts last year, he’s been away since December. He’s been training at the deep Payson Park training center in Florida, and that’s been Clement’s successful approach with Keeneland raiders in past Spring Meets. He’ll be fit and dangerous from a good, ground-saving post position.

G3 Lexington Stakes selections: W) HOLIDAY PROMISE; P) SUMMER FRONT; S) GOLD MEGILLAH.

G2 Jerome Stakes (Saturday/Aqueduct)

If STIRRED UP (Bob Baffert) is the horse I think he is, he should steamroll late in this one-turn mile and announce himself one to watch for the later Triple Crown races. The G2 Jerome carries a $200,000 purse and was nicely redirected on the NYRA stakes calendar to provide late-starting horses like STIRRED UP a late spring platform.

[JEROME STAKES: Get PPs and handicapping analysis on Saturday's Aqueduct card]

THE LUMBER GUY (Mike Hushion) is another late bloomer who didn’t start until January of this year. He provides the early speed from the rail after setting the tempo in the G1 Wood Memorial two weeks ago. Turning back to a shorter distance obviously makes sense, but you fairly can wonder if THE LUMBER GUY will be able to replicate an effort representative of his talents. He could run huge or stop. If forced early by Baffert’s “other” horse, BRIGAND, the task for THE LUMBER GUY gets even tougher. Horses like TERM LOAN (Rick Violette) and RIGHT TO VOTE (Eoin Harty) also have some early “quicks.”

RIGHT TO VOTE was third to UNION RAGS (Michael Matz) at this one-turn mile distance last year in the G1 Champagne, and it’s interesting that Harty bypasses the G3 Lexington at Keeneland for this spot when RIGHT TO VOTE was stabled in Lexington the past few weeks. If they’re looking for a little easier spot with a smaller field size, that’s not a great vote of confidence for RIGHT TO VOTE.

BRIGAND was a brilliant juvenile early in his career and a win-early type who cost $925,000 at the 2-year-old sales. Baffert has sent New York-breds back east for the purse program in the past, and this looks like BRIGAND is more a candidate for state-bred stuff this summer and maybe a table-setter Saturday with blinkers on. Stablemate STIRRED UP wants to close and this high-priced rabbit may help the cause.

DAN AND SHEILA (Todd Pletcher) didn’t come home very fast in his maiden win at Gulfstream, and then the Lecomte Stakes turned out to be a dud. So it wasn’t totally surprising to see him overmatched in the G3 Gotham against HANSEN, but you never expect a Pletcher charge to run 22 lengths back. DAN AND SHEILA may improve some with hot-riding Rosie Napravnik in the saddle, but I’m not sold completely.

ADIRONDACK KING (John Servis) spent too much energy mid-race trying to compensate for a terrible post draw in the G2 Rebel and was left flat in the lane. He’s a decent sort who probably would be better around two turns than this trip, but I expect he’ll run pretty well. Servis wisely bypassed the G1 Blue Grass to find some lower-hanging fruit. He should fit well at this level.

G2 Jerome Stakes selections: W) STIRRED UP; P) ADIRONDACK KING; S) THE LUMBER GUY.

Last week’s selections: 2: 0-0-0. Top choice HOLY CANDY was fourth in the Blue Grass, while top choice NAJJAAR never got involved in the Arkansas Derby, a race won by Countdown second choice BODEMEISTER.

Season selections: 38: 12-5-4.

Everyone’s a critic

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

G1 Arkansas Derby (4/14, Kee-11)

If you are over 40, the handwriting was on the wall. If you’re under 40, it was all there on Twitter for the world to see. When trainer Bob Baffert (@Midnightlute) tweeted that BODEMEISTER was heading to the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby just a day after his stablemate SECRET CIRCLE had won the Rebel, two things became clear. One, the stable didn’t see SECRET CIRCLE as a slam-dunk Derby horses. Two, BODEMEISTER is a serious hombre.

BODEMEISTER crushed his stablemate and nine others in Saturday’s $1 million Arkansas Derby, drawing off to win by 9 1/2 lengths. You couldn’t help but watch the stretch run and harken back to Curlin’s eerily similar performance in the 2007 Arkansas Derby. It was just BODE’s fourth career start, while Curlin turned the trick in one less prior outing and won by 10 1/2 lengths. But that’s splitting historical hairs.

BODEMEISTER also looked an awful lot like Smarty Jones from his 2004 Arkansas Derby win. Both left from a far outside post, assumed command, slowed the tempo with gears, and then re-broke in the stretch. How can you see an 11.97 final furlong from BODEMEISTER and not say “Wow!”?

If it turns out BODEMEISTER has hints of Smarty Jones and Curlin, we might as well pack up the family truckster and just drive to Baltimore for the second jewel of the Triple Crown. But where he’s different than Curlin and Smarty Jones is that BODEMEISTER has been beaten. So if he’s this good, what does that say about his California conqueror CREATIVE CAUSE (Mike Harrington)? If you were impressed by the Arkansas Derby, and you should be, then you have to look at CREATIVE CAUSE and the other west coasters with more fondness than you did seven days ago.

Said rival trainer Doug O’Neill of I’LL HAVE ANOTHER repute: “If (BODEMEISTER) runs a repeat of that race, we’re all in trouble, but that’s why they run these races.”

We’ll talk plenty more in the coming weeks about the historical and developmental challenges BODEMEISTER faces in Louisville. For now, tip the hat and say hello to a potential star. Jockey Mike Smith will ride him once again in the Derby after ditching the mount on DADDY NOSE BEST (Steve Asmussen) just 24 hours after accepting that call. It was one of the more bizarre jockey commitments I’ve ever seen. Why on earth you’d commit to DADDY NOSE BEST before you see what BODEMEISTER does the next day makes no sense whatsoever.

Since the Arkansas Derby, Baffert was forced to take SECRET CIRCLE out of Kentucky Derby consideration on Thursday after exiting the race “a little crabby.” He’s an admirable racehorse who always fires, but they’re not going to squeeze the lemon dry. They probably did cartwheels when he ran second to nab $200,000 in purse money on Saturday.

SABERCAT (Steve Asmussen) ran on decently for third in the Arkansas Derby and vindicated himself as a horse who belongs in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. He’s more than a product of just a big purse push from the Delta Jackpot, and America’s winningest trainer of recent times has one who will at least be passing horses in the Louisville lane. His daddy Bluegrass Cat was runner-up in Barbaro’s Derby score, but SABERCAT will have to have two very good weeks of training to replicate that finish and to win me over. At least he’s moving in the right direction for a barn that was second a year ago with Nehro.

As for the others in the Arkansas Derby, disappointments were led by NAJJAAR (Danny Peitz), OPTIMIZER (D. Wayne Lukas) and ISN’T HE CLEVER (Henry Dominguez). The first two likely just aren’t fast enough to do any real damage against quality horses with speed. As for the latter, I never like a horse running in a race for any reason other than it being the intended goal.

G1 Blue Grass (4/14 Kee-11)

Few surprises developed from the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes. Pace-making favorite HANSEN (Mike Maker) ran his guts out on the front end, and second choice DULLAHAN (Dale Romans) took his measure in the lane and ran by for the score. The top four betting choices ran in the top five with the only real excuse being fourth-place HOLY CANDY (John Sadler) overcoming early traffic issues and a wide trip.

The Blue Grass has its most potent alumni since Street Sense in 2007 when you look forward to the Kentucky Derby. HANSEN set a quick tempo at Keeneland, clicking off 23.10 and 23.54 opening quarter-miles. The 46.64 opening half-mile was 1.32 seconds faster than any of the other five Blue Grass renewals on Polytrack, not to mention nearly three full seconds faster than the average Blue Grass split during that span. A lesser horse would have folded the tent, but HANSEN showed his championship mettle. Remember, this was his first attempt at 1 1/8 miles. So the extra distance, coupled with the ludicrous splits, should have conspired to wipe him out. That HANSEN was beaten only 1 1/4 lengths, came home in 12.75, and easily bested all the others is a testament to him being a big-time horse.

Some will say that HANSEN had it all his own way because no one was breathing down his neck and he appeared to be running easy. I take that differently. He ran the others off their feet and looked comfortable doing it. A great horse is one running really fast and doesn’t look like it. The question about HANSEN simply comes down to pace pressure in the Kentucky Derby. He’s not going to embarrass anyone and tire to run 18th. Post position and other speed in the race will be the determining factors in what you do with HANSEN in Louisville.

DULLAHAN overcame some missed training time due to a popped splint after his Palm Beach Stakes second in Florida. Trainer Romans gets the conditioning job of the spring so far for that recovery and deserves tons of credit. While the winner finished up super-sharply in 11.91, many observers of the gallop-out noted that it was non-existent. I prefer to see a stronger gallop-out given that the races are increasing in length down the line. But given that DULLAHAN was coming back off a minor injury, if he was shut down on purpose past the wire, I can’t argue with that strategy. You would think after 9 furlongs in a stakes-record 1:47.94 that Mine That Bird’s little brother got more than enough out of the listed distance. DULLAHAN goes to Churchill Downs clearly as one of the horses to beat.

PROSPECTIVE (Mark Casse) also will move on to the Derby as a longshot after a sixth-place run, beaten 6-1/2 lengths, on the strength of his G2 Tampa Bay Derby win.

As for the others, HOLY CANDY showed why he’s been a hot horse on the West Coast this year with a better-than-it-looks fourth. The Candy Ride colt came home in a razor-sharp final furlong of 12.14, considerably faster than anyone except DULLAHAN.  He had to overcome a lot and still beat the winners of the Louisiana Derby, Tampa Bay Derby and Palm Beach Stakes in doing so. Depending on the stable’s plan, HOLY CANDY would be an interesting new shooter in the Preakness to consider, but most likely a dominant player in Hollywood Park’s Swaps this summer or Haskell on a return trip east.

Kentucky Derby lineup as we see it

Creative Cause – Joel Rosario
Dullahan – Kent Desormeaux
Bodemeister – Mike Smith
Union Rags – Julien Leparoux
Alpha – Ramon Dominguez or TBD
Hansen – Ramon Dominguez or TBD
Take Charge Indy – Calvin Borel
Gemologist – Javier Castellano
I’ll Have Another – Mario Gutierrez
Went the Day Well – John Velazquez
Daddy Nose Best – Garrett Gomez
Sabercat – Corey Nakatani
Done Talking – Sheldon Russell
Daddy Long Legs – Colm O’Donoghue or TBD
Liaison – Rafael Bejarano or TBD
Rousing Sermon – Russell Baze or TBD
Mark Valeski – Rosie Napravnik
Prospective – Luis Contreras
El Padrino – TBD
Reveron – Elvis Trujillo or TBD

Bubble watch: Isn’t He Clever, TBD; Optimizer, TBD
Countdown projects not to run: Drill, Trinniberg.

Open jockeys worth a look: Jose Lezcano, Joe Talamo, Edgar Prado, Robby Albarado, Shaun Bridgmohan, Victor Espinoza, Alex Solis, Shane Sellers, Cornelio Velasquez, Rajiv Maragh, Alan Garcia, Martin Garcia.

Quick hitters

G1 Santa Anita Derby champ I’LL HAVE ANOTHER (Doug O’Neill) drilled 6 furlongs Thursday at Hollywood Park in 1:13.60 in his first move since his final prep score. He will work again at Hollywood on April 27 and fly to Louisville the next day. He won’t have a local drill under the Twin Spires … EL PADRINO (Todd Pletcher) worked Sunday at Palm Meadows in company with last year’s Travers champ Stay Thirsty, going a half-mile in 49.01 in a work that did not dazzle DRF clocking ace Mike Welsh ... UNION RAGS (Michael Matz) arrived in Kentucky on Sunday, bedding down at Keeneland where he’ll work this weekend before heading to Churchill Downs for a final Derby drill. It’s the same pattern Matz followed with Barbaro in 2006 … LIAISON (Bob Baffert) worked 6 furlongs Wednesday at Hollywood Park with blinkers off in 1:13 … FLASHY DRESSER (Fred Seitz) scored a visually eye-defying win in Saturday night’s $250,000 Robert Hilton Memorial Stakes on the Charles Town Classic undercard to remain unbeaten. Don’t be surprised to see a big for-sale sign go up on the impressive Rushaway Stakes champ … MARK VALESKI (Larry Jones) arrived Tuesday at Churchill Downs ... ALPHA (Kiaran McLaughlin) had a minor set-back from an infection after the Wood Memorial (due to cuts suffered in the race), which has forced him to stay a few extra days in New York.

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. BODEMEISTER (Arkansas Derby, OP, 4/14) * NEW *
2. I’LL HAVE ANOTHER (Santa Anita Derby, SA 4/7)
3. CREATIVE CAUSE (San Felipe, SA, 3/10)
4. DULLAHAN (Blue Grass, Kee, 4/14) * NEW *
5. TAKE CHARGE INDY (Florida Derby, GP, 3/31)

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!