05/03/2012 9:32PM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 18 - May 3, 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 hailstorm that rocked Louisville and my windshield last Saturday. Start with a tiny crack and they’re bound to blow wide open in no time.

1. From the department of “too much information,” it should be noted that Lady Gaga music has been playing in the men’s room of the Churchill Downs press box this week. While that may turn over the spirits of Red Smith and Joe Hirsch, maybe it’s an omen of further change on the traditional Derby landscape. After all, we have a Derby favorite trying to do something that hasn’t been done since 1882.

2. Any thought that the Derby pace may not get testy went out the window Thursday morning by anyone who watched HANSEN (Mike Maker) in his gallop. He was completely rank and unmanageable and spent more time looking at the crowd than focusing his attention. Unless he gets crushed and squeezed coming out of the gate, this horse is going full tilt with TRINNIBERG (Bisnath Parboo). Advantage: closers.

3. After his late January allowance win, I stuck my neck out and declared EL PADRINO (Todd Pletcher) the Derby winner if he made the race. He’s here, barely, but there are great suspicions he’s not doing well and I didn’t like what I saw from his Wednesday and Thursday gallops in his first-overs at Churchill. From this eye, he maybe shouldn’t be here. In the declaration of honesty, I’m off the wagon and don’t feel bad about saying so. I’d rather give analysis based on the best available information than try to strain myself to pat my own back if I was right. If he wins, I won’t swan dive off the Twin Spires in angst; he’s covered in the future bets at 24-1.

This week’s fearless forecast

This is Countdown, after all. Let’s count down the Kentucky Derby 138 contenders categorically from the ones “not on my tickets” to the most serious “win contenders.”

Not on my tickets

TRINNIBERG: He appears to be a total pace casualty, and while there’s respect for his sprint ability, there’s a cavern between 7 furlongs and 10. Visually his body-type is clearly that of a sprinter, so any hope that he may stretch out doesn’t appear in his DNA or past performances.

DADDY LONG LEGS: He didn’t pick up a hoof here in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and even though he won the UAE Derby after completely melting down pre-race, I don’t want anything to do with that wasted energy amongst the throng of 150,000 on Derby Day. The rail draw was the nail in the coffin.

LIAISON: It’s never easy to confidently slot Bob Baffert trainees this low, but the Derby legend has saddled 15th and 16th-place finishers in the past two Derbies. Admittedly, the horse has been doing pretty well here at Churchill, but I’ve given up confidence in him after a series of subpar efforts. In a year when there wouldn’t be so many good options, maybe you swing for him. But I can’t against this year’s cast, especially from post 20.

OPTIMIZER: Equipped with the right style to pass horses late, the inconsistent D. Wayne Lukas charge nuzzled his way into the field Tuesday when Mark Valeski dropped out. Do you trust his late run in the Rebel or think he’s more inclined to his Arkansas Derby fizzle? His closing splits never have impressed, even when they looked good on paper, so I lean to the latter. He’s not for me, but I admit to be an unabashed D. Wayne Lukas fan. I’m glad to see him in the big dance. Post two does his no favors eating dirt.

EL PADRINO: Countdown fans know I LOVE this horse, I really do. But I’m also a realistic gambler and strive to put the reader first in how I present my analysis. He’s simply not doing as well as he was earlier in the year, and my hopes that he would show up at Churchill and impress turned 180 degrees sour when he looked gassed coming off the track Wednesday. There’s some solace in having him at 24-1 in the future wagers if he wins, but my hard-earned Saturday will not be on him.

HANSEN: He is fast and talented, but I was disappointed a bit in his Blue Grass after further inspection, not because he ran poorly – he most certainly did not. But because he went way too fast the opening half-mile. Horses don’t go that quickly on the Keeneland Polytrack in route races. It was a set-back because he had just shown the ability to rate in New York and his versatility would be both admirable and necessary come Derby Day. The way he galloped here Thursday gives the absolute impression that he’s going to be unmanageable and engage whoever is in front of him, namely Trinniberg, and that’s a bad recipe.

BODEMEISTER: If I was ranking the best Derby horses, he clearly would be in the top three. But ranking horses and betting on them are two different birds. The Kentucky Derby doesn’t go to the best horse most years. In fact, rarely does. I’m not convinced he’s the second coming of Curlin, though he may be darned close. But Curlin only managed third in 2007 Derby behind the more seasoned Street Sense and Hard Spun. If Bodemeister is a smidgen behind Curlin, that means he could be off the tickets. And at what should be favorite’s status, there’s no value in a horse trying to become the first unraced juvenile to win the Derby since Apollo in 1882. If he wins this first leg, you could be looking at a Triple Crown winner. But it’s asking an awful lot of a talented colt, and we don’t know how he’ll react to the blistering pace scenario looming. Tough call, but I’m standing against.

Exotics threats

DONE TALKING: The faster they go early, the more horses like him are capable of picking up the tired pieces in the stretch. He would be shocking to win, but as a bottom-end finisher on the trifecta, superfecta or Super High 5, Done Talking is the kind of horse historically known to make the payoffs exponential. Trainer Hamilton Smith told me Tuesday that Done Talking developed the serious illness colitis after the Remsen last year and missed a month of time during the winter, leaving him 2-3 works short in this Gotham Stakes return bid. It’s the first time that non-effort has been explained. Jockey Sheldon Russell can flat-out ride and is Maryland’s next star to the national stage ala Kent Desormeaux, Edgar Prado and Ramon Dominguez.

DADDY NOSE BEST and SABERCAT: I’m lumping them together even though they run as separate betting interests. Both Steve Asmussen trainees have had excellent weeks at Churchill Downs in the lead-up and have similar, deep-closing styles. With strong-closing jockeys Garrett Gomez and Corey Nakatani as veteran pilots, they share those similarities as well. Daddy Nose Best has gotten more “steam” from his training, but Sabercat comes off a highly proven prep path at Oaklawn. If you like one, I’m not sure how you can’t like both.

ROUSING SERMON: I like to read trainer’s body language and Jerry Hollendorfer has been a guy I’ve followed at these big races on several occasions in the past. We often have general racing conversations and I value his opinion. Hollendorfer rarely talks highly of his own horses, preferring to keep low key. But he really likes how Rousing Sermon is going, which says something when he was super-conservative even talking about his star filly Blind Luck back in her Kentucky Oaks run. Other than Event of the Year, this is his best 3-year-old he’s said, and I get the physical feel that this is a sneaky-good longshot if things turn up wet. He’s never run on a wet track, but he’s gotten over some soupy tracks really well in the mornings and his body looks like a turf miler, athletic, compact, and those types often handle the slop.

GEMOLOGIST: He is unbeaten to date, and there’s a certain lack of clamor about Gemologist that eventually wears on you as a handicapper. How can a horse who’s done so much and done so little wrong still have such little pomp and fanfare to him? While I tend to swim upstream when it comes to handicapping, I do happen to believe that sometimes where there’s smoke, there’s fire. If Gemologist hasn’t impressed the masses yet, it’s probably for good reason. He’s won, but hasn’t been impressive in doing so. He’s better than many of these horses, and trained very well here Thursday. So while I can’t pull the win trigger, he’s an exotics threat.
PROSPECTIVE: I really like the way this horse is galloping up to the race and he was fancied earlier this year in Countdown before a lackluster Blue Grass try at Keeneland. Horses who like the footing at Tampa Bay Downs often love the Churchill track they get in the spring time and he appears to be among that mold. He’s one I’ve followed all week and trainer Mark Casse has been outwardly pumped up about the way he’s coming up to the race. He’s a grinder who is going to throw up 24s around the track as far as he can. Others will be faster earlier and later, but his style and post draw could land him in the gimmicks.

I’LL HAVE ANOTHER: In both wins this year, I’ll Have Another freaked spinning out of the turn and burst in upper stretch. That’s very often the winning recipe for a Derby score. In that style, he’s very similar to his West Coast rival Creative Cause. This colt looks fabulous in the mornings this week. If he can put together another big effort, this time on a shorter turn-around, this is a serious win threat. That’s still a question no matter how well a horse gallops and trains, given the 10-furlong demands of a 20-horse field. But I admit there’s no visual sign of a pending bounce on the horizon from this eye. I had him in the win contenders’ list until he drew post 19 on Wednesday. If you recall, this horse has trouble cornering and from that post, any extra issues on the first turn could be curtains.

DULLAHAN: Horses with action better-suited for turf can and have won the Derby (i.e. Barbaro), but admittedly I would have liked to see Dullahan get over the dirt a bit smoother at Churchill Downs. He hasn’t trained quite as machine-like in recent days like Dale Romans’ Shackleford did last year. But this is a better horse on paper than Shackleford in my estimation, which says a lot. He’s still a major win threat, and if the price drifts up near 10-1, you’ll have hard time looking the other way. The margin between the top 5-6 contenders isn’t much, so his inefficient movement over the track may be splitting hairs, but that’s part of the fun and frustration this week.

CREATIVE CAUSE: The biggest knock on Creative Cause is that he hasn’t always given his best effort, rarely extending out and “getting on his belly” and fully extending himself. If you go back and watch his G1 Norfolk win last October at Santa Anita, you’ll see what this horse can do when he brings his A-game and focuses on his work. His resume looks fantastic despite his visual loafing. If trainer Mike Harrington has succeeded in keeping him from peaking all spring long as he’s feared happening, Creative Cause could be ready for a breakout performance. He doesn’t need to improve to win the Derby, he needs only to match his best efforts. His performances in the Norfolk or San Felipe are as good as anything in this generation. Harrington told me he’d like to sit fifth or sixth down the backstretch just behind the principal speed horses. But visually, his final Derby workout didn’t offer much gallop-out after a quick half-mile, and he’s trained sparingly and spotty since then. That hesitation dropped him from being my top pick for the race and made me disappointed to remove him from the win contenders.

Win contenders

UNION RAGS: Everything about Union Rags speaks to class and it’s difficult to imagine that he’s not sitting on his best performance of the year. Trainer Michael Matz has him impressing in the morning. I do think it’s fair to question him for 1 1/4 miles to some extent, but even with a stronger route pedigree, there’s no guarantee any of these get the trip in less-than-ideal circumstances. He’ll win the post parade contest and look like a million bucks, but when in traffic, his big, burly body may not be best-suited for the rodeo. If Julien Leparoux can keep him out of trouble, which has been a repeated issue with this big-bodied colt who is a little more linebacker than tailback, this looks like the horse to beat. But Union Rags has found plenty of trouble in the past, and at a short price of 5-1 or so, it’s a tough decision to determine what exactly would be fair odds.

TAKE CHARGE INDY: Calvin Borel told me in an exclusive interview for Night School tonight (8:30 pm ET at DRF.com) that he wants to sit fourth or fifth with Take Charge Indy and attack the other speeds from there, a similar trip he worked out with Super Saver in 2010. From post 3, he’ll save all the ground in doing so if he breaks forwardly and holds his position. I’m not sure this horse wants to pass rivals, but I loved what I saw in the flesh when he arrived in Louisville from Florida. He clearly looked way better than the Pletcher trainees who came off the same plane. His training here on Thursday was dazzling to this eye and it appears Borel is sitting on a loaded pistol. He hasn’t shown the ability to pass horses yet in the stretch in my video study of Take Charge Indy, but trainer Patrick Byrne has him blossoming to run the race of his life.

WENT THE DAY WELL: Some horses grow on you. Count Went the Day Well among those. The more I look into his Spiral performance and compare it with Animal Kingdom, the more interesting he becomes. Fair enough, if he’s not following Animal Kingdom’s suit with the same connections and preps, he’s probably a lot less interesting. But those factors aren’t flukes when the people involved are Graham Motion and John Velazquez, two of the real supreme members of the training and riding profession. Motion adding a small blinker after the Spiral win was approved by the stewards (equipment changes after victories must be approved), and the way the horse gawked and loafed late in victory certainly warranted the move. If he improves off the Spiral, look out. He’s looked outstanding in the flesh this week and it’s now a matter if he’s good enough on his best day.

ALPHA: Any questions about his health and wellness were quashed Tuesday morning when he made his first appearance over the Churchill strip and absolutely wowed me. He looked as good as any horse out there and it was all-new surroundings. Alpha overcame trouble in the G1 Wood, and you like to see that for a horse going into the Derby given the likelihood that trouble will rear its head Saturday. This is a classy racehorse who has been juggled around in softer spots all year and now gets his chance to prove himself against the big boys. At a fair price of 15-1 or so, he makes plenty of sense to me. I love the turfy breeding on the damside of the pedigree. Since he arrived at Churchill earlier this week, Alpha has flourished and really trained sharply. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin has him sparkling right now. The racing gods love a good story, and with the passing recently of McLaughlin’s father, there won’t be a dry eye in the house if he looks to the heavens and hoists the trophy.