04/27/2012 7:24AM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 17 - April 27, 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 NFL draft. Anyone can tab a can’t-miss quarterback. It’s those late-round sleepers that develop your real following from those in the know.

1. The presence of sprinter TRINNIBERG has the capability of turning the Derby pace stupid. In a perfect world, the instructions to the riders of HANSEN, BODEMEISTER, GEMOLOGIST, I’ll HAVE ANOTHER et al would be to ride the race like TRINNIBERG isn’t even there. Just forget him. But you can’t instruct the adrenaline inside those horses when 150,000 people scream, the gates open and a 20-way cavalry charge paints the Louisville skyline. And when everyone tries to sit second, there will be a bevy of noses nuzzling their hind ends along quicker than they want to settle.

2. The horses most critical to my morning observation in Louisville this week will be those who possibly could bounce off of sharp performances, namely BODEMEISTER, I’LL HAVE ANOTHER, DULLAHAN, HANSEN and GEMOLOGIST. Plus, I’ll want to see if EL PADRINO has gotten his A-game back after his Florida Derby regression.

3. Florida’s winter snowbirds have dominated recent Derbies, Calvin Borel has become a Derby institution and TAKE CHARGE INDY arguably is the best-bred horse in the 2012 cast. Why are we still handicapping this race? And why on earth am I still deciding if I even want to use him on my tickets? Ah, the beauty and baffling life of horseplay!

This week’s fearless forecast

We break format in Countdown as the 138th Kentucky Derby fast approaches. No more prep previews and reviews, but rather we take a look at the contenders and pretenders that are present. Because the Derby is such a unique race given the crowd, distance, weight, field size et al, sometimes a horse’s past performances don’t translate to what can and will happen under the Twin Spires. I like to draw on historical past performances and compare and contrast this year’s crop to horses of yesteryear in hopes of gleaning a sense of how they may fare on the first Saturday in May.

ALPHA: (Horse Profile): Stay Thirsty (2011).

Both sons of Bernardini with turfy pedigrees on the dam side to run all day, Alpha and Stay Thirsty are more workmanlike than brilliant. Their records are mirrors almost, 6: 3-2-0 for Alpha and 6: 2-2-0 for Stay Thirsty heading into Derby Day, both trying to return to Churchill and wash away memories of bad efforts in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile the previous fall. At 2, they were second in the Champagne and Hopeful, respectively, both wanting more distance. Stay Thirsty spent his prep season trying to avoid stablemate Uncle Mo, while Alpha has been re-aimed a few times to find the path of least resistance this year. Stay Thirsty wound up second in the Belmont and won the Travers, which wouldn’t be a bad or impossible fate for Alpha either. 

BODEMEISTER: Curlin (2007).

Late-starting sophomores who missed their juvenile seasons, both Curlin and Bodemeister wowed the crowd in their respective Arkansas Derby editions by dominant margins. Visually both re-broke like wild horses the final furlong, Curlin in just his third career start and Bodemeister in only his fourth. Both got 101 Beyers in their maiden wins and jumped right into graded stakes company. Bodemeister improved 7 Beyer points in his second stakes, while Curlin improved 6. Coincidentally, Rafael Bejarano rode both in their maiden wins, but neither by Derby time. Curlin ran a solid third in the 2007 Kentucky Derby before going on to win the Preakness and two eventual Horse of the Year titles as one of the game’s greats. Could a more experienced horse take Bodemeister’s measure in Louisville like Street Sense did with Curlin? That’s a very plausible scenario. Curlin regressed to a 98 Beyer figure in the Derby after his Arkansas fig of 105.

CREATIVE CAUSE: Pioneerof The Nile (2009).

The 2009 Derby runner-up to Mine That Bird was a consistent West Coaster who never seemed to give you maximum effort, but you’d look up at the results posted and he was always there. When handicapping that year’s Derby, you knew that Empire Maker-Lord At War in the pedigree would get Pioneerof The Nile the trip, but you kept wondering where the explosive winner was going to come from that was just brilliant enough to beat this consistent performer. No red-boarder can claim they had Mine That Bird sleuthed, but Pioneerof The Nile’s Derby placing almost looked assured before the race. Creative Cause looks the same way. His Giant’s Causeway-Dream of Summer pedigree and never-say-slide consistency are rallying cries for his fanbase. Just like ‘Nile, it’s only a matter if someone runs a more brilliant race, or if he finally gets down on his belly and runs a corker at the right time.

DADDY LONG LEGS: Master of Hounds (2011).

Just like Coolmore’s 2011 Derby entrant, Master of Hounds, this is another juvenile Breeders’ Cup shipper returning back to the Derby with one prep race, the UAE Derby in Dubai. Master of Hounds missed by a nose in Dubai last year, while Daddy Long Legs did him one better with a win. Racing Post Ratings put Daddy Long Legs at 117, while Hounds checked in at 115. Neither had a particularly good Breeders’ Cup experience the first time around, but Master of Hounds ran a credible fifth in his return trip for the Derby with a vastly superior route pedigree to this year’s raider.

DADDY NOSE BEST: Ten Most Wanted (2003).

In 2003, Ten Most Wanted parlayed a couple of solid second-tier Derby prep efforts in the El Camino Real Derby and Illinois Derby into some real steam come Derby Week. He turned heads as a blossoming horse in a pair of timed works over the CD track and became that wise guy horse we all know, and some love. He wound up co-third choice despite never trying Grade 1 company prior. Fast forward to the present, and Daddy Nose Best has become all the morning rage in Louisville. He won’t be anywhere near co-third choice like Ten Most Wanted, but it sure looks like the words “Daddy Nose Best” are going to be the most often-uttered response to the question, “So, who’s your Derby longshot this year?”

DONE TALKING: Tale of Ekati (2008).

A veteran trainer with Mid-Atlantic ties saw his Derby hopeful wake up in the final prep with a slow-timed win that didn’t wow the masses. Barclay Tagg’s 2008 Wood Memorial winner plodded to a 1:52.20 victory that was just too slow for anyone to respect. Now comes Done Talking for Maryland-based veteran Hamilton Smith, a complete no-show in his first prep of the year, just like Tale of Ekati’s Louisiana Derby flop. Done Talking rebounded to win the G2 Illinois Derby in a 1:53.80 clocking that will fail to raise any pulses. Both horses are grandsons of Kentucky Derby winners (Sunday Silence for Tale of Ekati and Unbridled for Done Talking). Done Talking will be similarly overlooked as Tale of Ekati’s 37-1 offering, but can take solace in that his speed-snubbed predecessor turned in a very commendable fourth behind Big Brown. Don’t be shocked if Done Talking gets the last word on this year’s superfecta.

DULLAHAN: The Cliff’s Edge (2004).

That closer in the crop that everyone has waited on to deliver a late-running knockout punch, The Cliff’s Edge put it all together when he ran down the speedy star Lion Heart to win the 2004 Blue Grass. The manner and performance was eerily similar to Dullahan’s nab of Hansen earlier this month. Most considered The Cliff’s Edge the alternative to speedball Smarty Jones from Oaklawn (Bodemeister, anyone?) and figured the presence of Lion Heart and Smarty Jones would set things up for Cliffy (again, sound familiar?). A sloppy track threw a monkey wrench into the plans and the speed of Smarty and Lion Heart held, while The Cliff’s Edge rallied from 17th to be fifth. But The Cliff’s Edge certainly came with his run, as should Dullahan.

EL PADRINO: Thunder Gulch (1995).

We have mentioned plenty about his similarities to Thunder Gulch in previous editions of Countdown and that continued to ring true this week when jockey Rafael Bejarano fell into his lap after Secret Circle was withdrawn from consideration. Pat Day was not available to Thunder Gulch after the 1995 Blue Grass loss, because he opted to ride stablemate Timber Country. That subsequently put Gary Stevens on Thunder Gulch in a fortuitous pick-up. El Padrino’s former jockey Javier Castellano opted for Pletcher stablemate Gemologist in yet another historical encore to this interesting plot.

GEMOLOGIST: Came Home (2002).

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a horse with a perfect record from a respected circuit come into the Kentucky Derby with as little major win fanfare as Gemologist. But Came Home in 2002 came awfully close. He was 7: 6-0-0 and hardly challenged in his wins, which included a perfect 3-for-3 mark that season that culminated in the G1 Santa Anita Derby. Yet, Came Home was 8.20-to-1 in a wide-open Derby in which Harlan’s Holiday was made the 6-1 favorite, at the time the highest Derby post-time choice ever. Somehow fans made five other horses lower odds than Came Home (even Perfect Drift and Saarland) with no visible reason to do so, other than just not quite trusting his front-running record. Both Came Home and Gemologist are grandsons of Mr. Prospector. I get the feeling Gemologist may be 4th or 5th betting choice in this year’s Derby wagering despite a record slightly more flashy than Came Home.

HANSEN: Unbridled’s Song (1996).

The 1995 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Unbridled’s Song came to Churchill in ’96 with a 7: 4-2-0 career mark and a few runner-ups at short odds (comparatively, Hansen 6: 4-2-0). Unbridled’s Song was a tactical front-runner who didn’t necessarily have to have the lead, as is Hansen. Both owned by guys who were a little off the beaten path of normal, and not shy to crow about their horse’s fortunes, the similarities continue. Unbridled’s Song sported a pedigree not in question for the trip, as does Hansen, but still you had reservations if either truly would get the distance under the circumstances. A foot problem and bar shoe may have un-did Unbridled’s Song on Derby Day, but he never ran another winning race of consequence after he hit his peak on the Derby trail. Hansen’s next chapter is to be written.

I’LL HAVE ANOTHER: Indian Charlie (1998).

An impressive Del Mar winner at 2, Indian Charlie went on the bench for nearly 6 months before returning with a vengeance at Santa Anita in 1998. He rattled off three impressive wins, topped by a Santa Anita Derby win over a more battle-tested and seasoned stakes horse in Real Quiet. With only four career starts, he came into the Derby as the favorite and ran a credible third as Real Quiet turned the tables. I’ll Have Another had a similar absence of fall and early winter racing this year, returning with eye-catching  wins in the Lewis Memorial and the Santa Anita Derby. His Santa Anita Derby was a minor drop on the Beyer scale, as was Indian Charlie’s. Will there be enough foundation to get I’ll Have Another the 1 1/4 miles, or may he, too, see the tables turned by his more seasoned rival Creative Cause? I’ll Have Another has a pedigree more conducive to the Derby, a feather in his cap, when historically comparing with Indian Charlie. But ‘Chuck had Bob Baffert and Gary Stevens on his side, not Derby rookie Mario Gutierrez. That factor likely leads to a bigger price on I’ll Have Another, who won’t vie for the favorite’s role as Indian Charlie did.

LIAISON: Anees (2000).

Grade 1-winning closers at age 2, both West Coasters Anees and Liaison really failed to deliver much excitement in the 3-year-old preps and came to Louisville with the hopes that their previous laurels and apparent want for the 1 1/4 miles distance would wake up their performances. Anees didn’t find it with a 13th-place finish in 2000, and the 1999 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner wound up a one-hit wonder. Liaison could very well be looking at a similar fate.

MARK VALESKI: Gayego (2008).

Even though Gayego won the 2008 Arkansas Derby at 1 1/8 miles, he was a horse most couldn’t envision succeeding much past the sprint and mile-type distances. The same rings true for me when I think of Mark Valeski, who twice was runner-up routing in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby. They sport similar marks of 5: 3-2-0 for Gayego and 5: 2-2-0 for Mark Valeski and both owned a pair of sprint wins on their pre-Derby resumes. Rarely ever do modern, serious Derby horses have two sprint wins before the first Saturday in May. Both Mark Valeski and Gayego were battlers even in defeat, not ones to throw out the anchor, even if the pedigree says maybe they should. Respected horses with distance limitations are not knocks, but rather a 10-furlong reality.

PROSPECTIVE: Mine That Bird (2009).

A top juvenile at Woodbine on Polytrack at age 2, Mine That Bird was blitzed the first time he tried America’s big boys in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, ending his freshman season with a last-place finish. Same story for Prospective, last year’s caboose in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Mine That Bird lost both preps at Sunland on the middle tiers of the stakes ladder in 2009, while Prospective was more successful, winning twice in Tampa. By the time they got to Louisville, Mine That Bird was 8: 4-1-0 lifetime and Prospective now stands 8: 4-2-0. Mine That Bird turned out to be a 50-1 Derby stunner, and I think you’ll see Prospective among the highest of all prices in this year’s Derby as well after a dull try in the Blue Grass. Unless top Canadian rider Luis Contreras channels his inner-Cajun and becomes Calvin Borel overnight, this likely is where this historical comparison ends. But, if trainer Mark Casse shows up in cowboy boots, a handlebar mustache and crutches, this time I’ll be sure to put a at least a few of the hard-earned down for good mojo.

ROUSING SERMON: Chocolate Candy (2009).

Two West Coast closers trained by Jerry Hollendorfer make for a direct comparison. Both were battle-hardened and rarely missed a check, Chocolate Candy 9: 4-2-1 and Rousing Sermon 9: 2-2-4, before Derby starts. Both cashed checks in Hollywood’s Real Quiet and CashCall Futurity at age 2 and were low-90 types on the speed figure scale. Chocolate Candy closed decently for fifth in Mine That Bird’s meltdown 2009 Derby, and if all broke just perfectly right with a scorcher pace set-up, Rousing Sermon could close into that similar neighborhood teasing the bottom of the superfecta.

SABERCAT: Steppenwolfer (2006).

It’s amazing how many of these first-blush comparisons get spooky about 20 seconds into further evaluation. The plod-along closer in the Arkansas Derby of 2006 behind Lawyer Ron, Steppenwolfer was a son of Kentucky Derby runner-up Aptitude and figured to be a keep-coming type. It’s not like he never won, his 8: 3-2-2 record was commendable coming into Louisville. Now look at Sabercat, a son of Kentucky Derby runner-up Bluegrass Cat, and the plod-along closer in this year’s Arkansas Derby. He sports a very comparable 8: 3-0-2 career mark. Steppenwolfer wound up the third-place finisher in his Derby of 2006 behind Barbaro and Sabercat’s papa Bluegrass Cat. This guy could be on the bottom of some tris and supers as well if history repeats.

TAKE CHARGE INDY: High Yield (2000).

Wire-to-wire winner of the Fountain of Youth and Blue Grass in the spring of 2000, High Yield on his best day was a supremely bred front-runner who could lead gate to wire. But the vast majority of his career starts to that point saw him lose ground in the stretch (8 times to his 4 wins). While Take Charge Indy has started only half as much, the story proportionally is similar. He’s lost ground in the stretch 4 times to his 2 wins, and his regal pedigree carried him to front-end scores under his best efforts. The problem for horses like this comes in the Derby performance of High Yield, where he simply wasn’t pure speed to lead, chasing in fifth, and more prone to back up than move forward in a race. He tired to be 15th under master Churchill reinsman Pat Day, while the modern-day Day, Calvin Borel, will try to see if Take Charge Indy can fare better.

TRINNIBERG: Houston (1989).

A 10-length winner of Aqueduct’s Bay Shore and 5-length romping winner of Churchill’s Derby Trial in 1989, the speedball Houston ranked as one of the fastest Kentucky Derby “speeds” of modern times. Houston went the opening half-mile in 46.60 over the slowest Derby Day track anyone has seen in many a decade. We already knew Houston was a route fraud after stopping in the Santa Anita Derby, and most pundits expect we’ll see that proven out with Trinniberg on Derby Day. Speed may be dangerous in the Derby some years, but when you have quality horses in the lineup like Houston had in 1989 with Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, that won’t carry past the quarter-pole. Given the depth of this year’s cast, Trinniberg would be hard-pressed (literally) to repeat Houston’s eighth-place finish. Trinniberg is a 1-9 shot, as far as fellow Bay Shore winners go, to follow Houston’s result more so than that of the race’s most famous winner, none other than Secretariat.

UNION RAGS: Point Given (2001).

Narrow loser of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs the previous fall when clearly much the best (sound familiar already, Rags fans?), Point Given was a massive behemoth of a runner who’s light bulb shined high wattage when he was on a his game. Sometimes he was too big and too good for his own good, but not often. He’s a lot like Union Rags in that way physically and mentally. Certainly Point Given had a bit more pedigree for the classics than Union Rags, but their records (8: 5-3-0 vs. 6: 4-1-1) ring similar to their physical presences. You get the feeling that Union Rags may be the best horse of this generation, but do better in the Preakness and Belmont with smaller field sizes, just like his historical comparable. Both had two-prep campaigns where they didn’t quite get enough hard racing out of those tests, perhaps one of the reasons why Point Given flattened out in the Derby lane and was wound tighter for his subsequent bids.

WENT THE DAY WELL: Animal Kingdom (2011).

You have to make this comparison with the same owner, trainer and jockey as the 2011 Derby winner, not to mention they took the same one major stakes prep route in Turfway’s Spiral. After his win in late March, we detailed in Countdown how Went the Day Well actually ran a better race than Animal Kingdom’s prep in most regards. The Ragozin Sheets gang agreed, assigning Went the Day Well a number 2 1/2 points faster than the eventual ’11 Derby champ. Dirt-wise, Went the Day Well is far ahead of Animal Kingdom on pedigree and performance, having won on the main track at Gulfstream Park. He’s yet to beat anyone of major consequence, but if Went the Day Well trains like a monster at Churchill in his final workout, there’s no reason, with a hot pace expected, why he can’t prove lightning strikes twice. Graham Motion was sick in the stomach after losing Toby’s Corner last year and wasn’t doing cartwheels for Animal Kingdom in the lead-up. With this horse, the reserved Englishman already appears far more optimistic.

Bubble watch

The field of 20 looks fairly set barring any late injuries or defections. If there’s a shift, here’s who looks to move into the discussion: Optimizer, Jon Court; My Adonis, Elvis Trujillo or TBD; Hero of Order, Eddie Martin.

Quick hitters

I’ll be on the ground in Louisville beginning this weekend and will provide an early edition of Countdown to the Crown next week on Thursday so that you’re all set for advance wagering by Oaks Day. The pre-Derby edition will include full comments on all 20 horses and my bottom-line analysis of how and where I’ll use them or toss them. Look for training notes and breaking opinions from me on Twitter @Horseplayernow … Saturday night’s Grade 3 Derby Trial at Churchill Downs looks to be a showdown between PAYNTER (Bob Baffert) and impressive Fair Grounds riser BOURBON COURAGE (Kellyn Gorder) … Last week’s G3 Lexington winner ALL SQUARED AWAY (Wesley Ward) is not Triple Crown nominated and his 70-1 upset provided at least some modest form-flattery for Spiral winner WENT THE DAY WELL (Graham Motion) and El Camino Real Derby champ DADDY NOSE BEST (Steve Asmussen), two horses that handled him easily in prior stakes.

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) 
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!