04/26/2013 11:37AM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 17 - April 26, 2013

Barbara D. Livingston
Orb, the Florida Derby winner, shows some similarity to 2009 runner-up Pioneerof the Nile in his path to the Kentucky Derby.

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

It’s a bad look for Bob Baffert right now. He’s 1 for 12 (10 out of the money) dating back to Arkansas Derby Day with Game On Dude life and death to hold on at 1-5 in the Charles Town Classic. Add in a scratch in a $400,000 race in which he would have been 1-5 with Book Review. And, his Kentucky Derby house of cards spilled off the table this spring, leaving his Derby 139 fate to a Sunland Derby winner whose entire resume is three races. To add injury to insult, Govenor Charlie reportedly is battling a bum foot that sent him to a Kentucky clinic last week. And the media swarm in Louisville awaits to ask Baffert questions about the sudden-death spike in horses in California and his runners involved.

This week’s fearless forecast

We break the season format this week to get into full Kentucky Derby 139 mode. Certainly Saturday’s Grade 3 Derby Trial at Churchill could land TITLETOWN FIVE (D. Wayne Lukas) a spot in the Derby starting gate a week later. And Pimlico’s Federico Tesio Stakes could produce a Preakness player or two in three weeks’ time. But the focus now needs to be on whittling down the Derby field, and that’s what we will start to accomplish.

Last year, we developed a historical comparable for each horse in the Derby field to lend a sense of place to each of the performers. It was widely received from fans and fellow media types, so we will make an annual tradition of that in the week before the Run for the Roses.

I’m a firm believer that horse races are not simply individuals racing against each other to see who’s fastest on this day. They are products of their resumes, pieces of a puzzle that some days fit better than others. Like any athletic performance, victory is not measured by your best days, but how you cope with situations that preclude weaker competitors from showing their best. Races are not unique; they are repeated struggles more often with the same variables over and over.

Let’s stack up the Derby 139 cast and see if their famous forerunners can help us see into their futures. We will take them alphabetically.

BLACK ONYX: The Spiral champ reminds me of 2008 Spiral winner Adriano, a winner on the Polytrack who had made his mark on the turf at Gulfstream. What also rings with these two is that they each had been tried on dirt before the Derby with disastrous results, Adriano beaten 17 lengths in the Fountain of Youth and Black Onyx this year trashed 19 lengths in a Gulfstream allowance. Both prove easy on the eye as physical specimens with some dirt pedigree. But Adriano finished 19th in the ’08 Derby and returned to a life on turf.

CHARMING KITTEN: A turf-type runner via Florida who punched his ticket in the Blue Grass Stakes for Todd Pletcher, the Charming Kitten story is not the first chapter in this book. The barn made the same ascension with Cowboy Cal in 2008 after a runner-up turf stakes try at Gulfstream and the Blue Grass second.  Charming Kitten, second in the Palm Beach, came back to run a close third in the Blue Grass and appears similarly skilled to Cowboy Cal. His predecessor split the field when 9th of 20 in Derby 134.

CODE WEST: Sometimes we overrate a horse based on pedigree and hope to see him fulfill it. That’s my case with Code West, whom I think is one of the better-bred Bob Baffert trainees ever for the Triple Crown tests. But he simply hasn’t run all the way to those hopes, and it harkens back to 2009 when I got hooked into a horse named Mr. Hot Stuff, younger brother to Colonel John. He, too, was a West Coaster with pedigree and not a burn-off speed horse that I thought would play in the Derby even if short on raw talent. Mr. Hot Stuff was not such hot stuff. He wound up 15th in the 2009 Derby.

FALLING SKY: Often you will see a horse on the trail that you recognize has talent, but you simply struggle to envision him completing the entire Derby assignment at 1 1/4 miles. Even with a fair pedigree to do so, Falling Sky’s running style and past performances fall short of the bar for the distance. It’s similar to American Lion, the 2010 Illinois Derby winner. He was fished around later in the spring trying to find an easier spot, and while it worked for him at Hawthorne, you could project him emptying out at Churchill. He finished 11th in Derby 136, not embarrassed, but not a factor.

FRAC DADDY: A good 2-year-old with a bad stroke of fortune at age 3 is a tough recipe for Derby success. You often hear the winning trainer recall how everything went perfect and the new champion “never missed a beat” all season. After a strong finish in last fall’s Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, Frac Daddy’s spring went awry with throat ulcers and hoof issues. Trainer Ken McPeek fought the clock and looked to have beaten the deadline with a good second in the Arkansas Derby. That’s a similar story to Square Eddie, who got back in time to run third in the Lexington of 2009, but was unable to fend off the injury bug and did not make the Derby field. Fingers crossed, we hope Frac Daddy’s worst days are behind him. But his missed time in February and March will do him no favors on the first Saturday in May.

GOLDENCENTS: The obvious comparison is stablemate I’ll Have Another from one year ago. But I’m going a different direction, based on running style. Three years ago, a California comet with a rookie Derby rider came to Kentucky fresh off a Santa Anita Derby score and riding a three-race win streak. But Sidney’s Candy got cooked in a pace battle with Conveyance in the Derby and tired to 17th. Goldencents has a familiar feel on style and rookie Kevin Krigger must avoid the trap that Joe Talamo did not. This runner has made the lead in all six career starts at some point and could see the front in Derby 139 at some point as well. Deep down you felt Sidney’s Candy was brilliant but unlikely to get 10 furlongs. I have to say Goldencents strikes me the same; but, if training well, he could hold for a share and fare better than Sidney’s Candy.

GOLDEN SOUL: We have seen a lot of solid, regional closers on the Derby trail over the years. Those keep-coming types earn their way to Louisville because they don’t fall apart late. Golden Soul fits that mold, much like a horse like Pro Prado was on the 2004 trail. By a turfy sire El Prado, as is Golden Soul by Perfect Soul, the late-running Pro Prado picked up minor placings in the Southwest, Rebel, and Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn. But in the Derby, his style did not play on a wet day and he ran 15th. Deep, regional closers who lack brilliance need everything to go their way. Golden Soul’s Fair Grounds stakes efforts sound a familiar tune.

GOVENOR CHARLIE: This kind of lightly raced horse has not been the MO for Bob Baffert’s Derby successes. The three-race career of Govenor Charlie dials us back a decade when Baffert’s horse Indian Express chased and tired to 14th of 16 in the 2003 Derby. Both colts are sons of Baffert-trained protegees. Indian Express followed Baffert’s Derby-winning run win with War Emblem the year before and was part of a weakened stable representation that also included Domestic Dispute on a three-race losing skid. The 2003 spring didn’t go well for Baffert, much like 2013.

ITSMYLUCKYDAY: Fans of Itsmyluckyday will like the comparison to Thunder Gulch, the 1995 Kentucky Derby winner. The predecessor was a good juvenile who dominated the early season at Gulfstream with wins in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby. But a single loss in the Blue Grass Stakes sent his supporters scurrying, and Thunder Gulch was overlooked at 24-1 on Derby Day. Fast forward to this season and Itsmyluckyday was good as gold in his first two starts at Gulfstream Park, and only had some of the shine come off his apple in the Florida Derby second. While it’s reasonable to question the distance pedigree of Itsmyluckyday in 2013, we can’t forget Thunder Gulch was sired by a champion sprinter, Gulch.

JAVA’S WAR: In 2009, there was a little, bitty racehorse who did most of his damage on Polytrack, but raced moderately well on dirt away from the bright lights. Few knew who Mine That Bird was before the sixteenth pole of the Derby when he stormed to his blowout win at 50-1 odds. Now comes another half-pint, a horse that trainer Ken McPeek told the Night School audience this year was too small to handle the Kentucky Derby’s rigorous trip. And this fellow deep closer mirrored the form cycle of Mine That Bird by unleashing a devastating corker in his third start off the layoff. But Java’s War hit third-off-the-layoff in his breakout Blue Grass Stakes win. For Mine That Bird, it came on Derby Day. He will need a dream trip like Mine That Bird for history to repeat given his physical stature, and Java’s War will be closer to 15-1 than 50-1.

LINES OF BATTLE: If the story of Lines of Battle seems redundant, it’s because we saw this a year ago. Daddy Long Legs invaded from Ireland with a lone prep race win the UAE Derby. It was his second trip to America after a failed and disappointing attempt in the previous fall’s Breeders’ Cup. Daddy Long Legs barely completed the course and finished last in 2012, and Lines of Battle doesn’t give us anything different to evaluate on form.

MYLUTE: When a quality regional trainer brings a good horse to Louisville who’s perhaps stuck in-between the distance game, we often see a midpack performance. The jury remains out if Tom Amoss has a true router with Mylute based on pedigree and his inability to run down Revolutionary with dead aim in the Louisiana Derby. Some of the same thoughts came a year ago when Jerry Hollendorfer brought Rousing Sermon to town after a third in the Louisiana Derby. Rousing Sermon didn’t embarrass himself (he finished eighth), and neither will Mylute. But horses like this might be a touch better shortening up to a middle distance than going farther.

NORMANDY INVASION: Not many are going to question the distance abilities of the Wood Memorial runner-up, but I will offer some doubt. Think back to 2007 and a horse by the name of Circular Quay. Here was a 2-year old who teased with runner-up route finishes in the Breeders’ Futurity and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. With a two-prep path marked out to the Derby the following year, he was mired in an awful trip in the Risen Star, where he finished fifth at 6-5 odds. It was the kind of trip note everyone saw, and everyone banked on him improving next time. Circular Quay delivered on that promise at 8-5 in the Louisiana Derby with a handy win. As for Normandy Invasion, he teased us in the stretch of the Remsen at age 2 and was put on the two-prep path. The Risen Star blew up in his face with a wide and troubled trip, and like Circular Quay he was on everyone’s trip notes list for the next outing. Normandy Invasion obliged with a strong close to finish second in the Wood Memorial and salvaged his spring and reputation – much like Circular Quay. But while both are by route sires, both are from more win-early female families that don’t hint at classic distances. Circular Quay mustered a sixth-place finish in Derby 133, and failed to light the board in all three career attempts beyond 1 1/8 miles. Chad Brown is a dynamite young trainer with Normandy Invasion, but Todd Pletcher was no slouch at Circular Quay’s side either.

ORB: Follow with me as I tell you about a colt on a four-race win streak, versatile in his pace needs, and one who finishes the back end of all of his races. He’s trained by a Hall of Famer and ridden by a jockey at the top of his profession. His Beyer Speed Figures topped out in the mid to upper-90s and that led people to think he may not be quite brilliant enough to win the Derby, but may have been the safest pick to trust in a wide-open year. It sounds like I’m talking about Orb, and I am. Only he’s an encore performer to 2009 runner-up Pioneerof The Nile. The predecessor had been bet to 8-5 odds or less in four straight wins and yet you knew he would not go favored. The public went for flashier options like Friesan Fire and Dunkirk and let Pioneerof The Nile go as the 6-1 third choice. Orb sounds like a similar trust factor in 2013, but the lust for brilliance likely will push him down to around third choice as well. Nobody predicted Mine That Bird to be the brilliant eagle he was that day, but Pioneerof The Nile ran the same trustworthy race his backers expected. You can count on Orb to do at least that much.

OVERANALYZE: Remsen winners don’t exactly have a sparkling reputation in the Triple Crown races through the years. Since 1995, only one Remsen victor has hit the board in any Triple Crown race. Many have spent the following springs trying to live up to expectations. Some succeeded later, like To Honor And Serve, while some others were able to do so before the classics. One of those was Nobiz Like Shobiz in 2007. The Biz lost his 3-year-old return at 60 cents on the dollar in the Fountain of Youth when finishing third. Instead of firing back in the Florida Derby, trainer Barclay Tagg opted to give him a little more time and found a bit easier spot in the Wood Memorial. Nobiz Like Shobiz restored his honor with a victory, but did so in a slow time that left few impressed. He would wind up 10th in the Derby as the fifth wagering choice. Recently, Overanalyze also was able to restore his good name by winning the Arkansas Derby. This, too, came after a heavily favored loss in his 3-year-old return in the Gotham. And instead of wheeling back in the Wood against those who had beaten him, the connections sent Overanalyze on the road to get his mojo back. The Arkansas Derby win also was accomplished in a terribly slow time. We will see if those similar plans and paths work out differently than it did for Nobiz Like Shobiz.  I will say from a visual standpoint, the Arkansas Derby finish for Overanalyze was more encouraging than what we saw in the ’07 Wood.

OXBOW: Sometimes a horse just fires a clunker on the way to Louisville. Backers of Oxbow hope that’s the case for their favorite. And they hope they can harken the spirit of Bet Twice, whose 1987 path to Louisville was similar to Oxbow. Bet Twice went 1 for 3 on the prep trail and simply went missing when fifth in the Florida Derby. It was over a track he handled with aplomb in the Fountain of Youth. It led fellow trainer Woody Stephens to deem Bet Twice the “mystery horse” of the ’87 Derby because nobody had any idea which Bet Twice would show up. Oxbow has had a 1-for-4 season and his fifth in the Arkansas Derby when he showed none of his customary early speed left pundits and fans dumbfounded. He had handled the Oaklawn surface just fine in the Rebel, so the list of excuses lands him in the “mystery horse” category. Bet Twice ran a superb second to Alysheba in the 1987 Derby after leading in upper stretch and would go on to deny that rival the Triple Crown with a blowout win in the Belmont. Oxbow is not without those capabilities, but only if the best Oxbow shows up.

PALACE MALICE: A bad-trip, excuse horse makes many friends. He also causes much ticket ripping. The key chapters for Palace Malice are yet to be written, but he reminds me of a horse a few years ago named Awesome Act. While Palace Malice’s trouble landed him in seventh in the Louisiana Derby, Awesome Act was able to overcome trouble in winning the 2010 Gotham. Much was written and said about how amazing he was that day. A stumbling start in the Wood Memorial while finishing a distant third had people talking about him for Louisville. Awesome Act was bet to fourth wagering choice at 11-1 off troubled trips and ran 19th. He went on to lose the last five races of his career and never saw victory again. I don’t foresee Palace Malice being bet that heavily in this year’s Derby, but Awesome Act is a stark reminder what happens when we become too married to our trip notes and stop evaluating how good a horse can be.

REVOLUTIONARY: I remember interviewing Elliott Walden about his 1998 Derby hopeful Victory Gallop way back when.  Walden held his hands out and motioned quickly how Victory Gallop could – bam, zing, zoom – his way through a hole and compared him to a running back in football. Victory Gallop hadn’t blown anyone away, his Arkansas Derby and Rebel wins each came by a head. He won the Rebel despite jockey Eibar Coa dropping the whip. He won the Arkansas Derby in a pedestrian final time. But Victory Gallop was an athlete. Now Walden is racing manager for WinStar Farm, which owns Revolutionary. If you have seen his Withers win on replay, you know there’s some bam, zing, zoom in his game. He followed that up with another photo-finish win in the Louisiana Derby that didn’t wow anyone on the clock. But if Revolutionary continues his role as Victory Gallop, there are some serious Triple Crown placings (second, second, first) in his future.

VERRAZANO: Todd Pletcher got a very late start on the 2009 trail with a regally bred colt who would make a meteoric rise. Dunkirk smashed his debut foes Jan. 24, 2009 and wheeled back with similar ease in topping his first allowance test five weeks later. And as the 6-5 favorite in the Florida Derby with a light resume, the would-be Kentucky Derby favorite showed his first vulnerability in his brief career, falling short of catching Quality Road. He would go into the Derby with less enthusiasm and wound up losing the post-time favorite’s role to Friesan Fire. This year, Pletcher’s late bloomer is Verrazano, a debut winner on New Year’s Day at Gulfstream. Verrazano had the calendar a bit more on his side as he was able to race four times heading into the Kentucky Derby compared with three for Dunkirk. And Verrazano may have shown his first hint of any vulnerability in his Wood Memorial victory, but still was good enough to win that race. Granted, there appear to be no Quality Road-caliber horses in this year’s Wood. No matter which side of the win picture he landed, however, there’s no disputing that the buzz for Verrazano has softened considerably after his final prep, albeit a good one. It figures to push his price up in Louisville like it did for Dunkirk. Most figure he will fare better than Dunkirk’s 10th, but note that Dunkirk did not train well Derby week as I personally observed and later was rebooted for a career finale that saw him run a courageous second in the Belmont Stakes.

VYJACK: No, the tail is not blue. And he did not win the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old. But still there are some Hansen vibes with Vyjack that are unmistakable. Both rattled off impressive winning streaks to open their careers while facing skeptics along the way who said they would be tripped by their next distance test. Both crushed their Gotham Stakes casts while showing for the first time that they did not need the lead to win. But both Hansen and Vyjack found the nine-furlong game to be a tougher task in their final Derby preps while noble in defeat. Still, many called them “exposed.” Hansen led all the way in a rollicking fast pace in the Blue Grass, only to be collared late by Dullahan. Earlier this month, Vyjack was beaten only a length when third in the Wood Memorial to his acid tests, Verrazano and Normandy Invasion. Hansen was dismissed as seventh choice in Derby 138 and finished a tired ninth after pressing the pace. Vyjack figures to be no better than that on the tote board as horseplayers could be exiting his bandwagon in similar fashion to Hansen.

WILL TAKE CHARGE: D. Wayne Lukas spent most of the spring trying to keep Will Take Charge separated from stablemate Oxbow, though the two locked horns once with a 1-2 finish in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn. Once Lukas felt Will Take Charge had done enough to merit Kentucky Derby consideration, he backed off on him and decided to give the colt seven weeks between starts. That’s a similar situation we saw in 2009 when Larry Jones had both Old Fashioned and Friesan Fire to keep apart. After Friesan Fire won March 16, Jones called off the dogs and opted to sit out the last round of preps and play his pat hand six weeks out from the Derby. Back then the Louisiana Derby was six weeks away, and note that Papa Clem came out of that race to win the Arkansas Derby three weeks later and wind up fourth in the Kentucky Derby. Friesan Fire picked up all the buzz talk as the late preps unfolded and was made the 7-2 race favorite. He beat one horse and finished 18th. Don’t expect Will Take Charge to take that kind of betting action; he will be a bigger price for sure. We can only hope the result is better than it turned out for Friesan Fire.

Quick Hitters

Next week’s Countdown will include my horse-by-horse analysis for the entire field and my final selections ... Grade 3 Illinois Derby winner DEPARTING (Al Stall Jr.) impressed this eye big-time last week and would be a live horse in the Preakness after we see what happens in the Derby. His win further flattered Louisiana Derby alumni … Horse-for-course WINNING CAUSE (Todd Pletcher) made a bid for horse of the meeting at Keeneland with his Grade 3 Lexington rally last Saturday. He’s difficult to project as any factor in the Derby on distance and surface from this eye … Saturday’s Federico Tesio favorite ABSTRACTION (David Carroll) is not Triple Crown nominated and would have to pay $100,000 in supplemental penalties to get into the Preakness ... TIZ A MINISTER (Paul Aguirre) meets Cal-breds in Saturday’s Snow Chief Stakes at Betfair Hollywood Park. Churchill Downs officials tell me that he is expected to be on a Louisville-bound plane Tuesday if he’s No. 20 or 21 on the points list and would run back on a week’s notice.

High Fives

Jeremy Plonk’s Top-5 rated performances by class so far this season (Dec. 26-present).

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)

How important is the prep season? Look at the leading Countdown prep performances as published from one year ago this week.

Stakes race

1. BODEMEISTER (Arkansas Derby, OP, 4/14)
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)
5. TAKE CHARGE INDY (Florida Derby, GP, 3/31)

The Kentucky Derby 1-2-3 was ranked 2-1-4 and the race’s top five finishers included four from this list.

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!