05/03/2013 11:39AM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 18 - May 3, 2013

Barbara D. Livingston
Revolutionary is battle-tested, and will have "Mr. Derby" aboard in jockey Calvin Borel.

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.

[DRF LIVE AT THE KENTUCKY DERBY: News updates, photos, videos]

Straight from the gate

The workout coverage from Churchill Downs has been truly exceptional in 2013, and the folks at Kentuckyderby.com as well as Daily Racing Form’s Mike Welsch deserve a dozen-rose salute for their work. With Welsch’s eagle eyes, racing fans are a few lengths better off than we’ve ever been heading into our favorite day of the year.


This week’s fearless forecast

Everything we love about this game comes wrapped in 20 presents this Saturday. One of them will have a big surprise inside if we’re fortunate enough to unwrap it. It’s time to go top to bottom with this year’s Kentucky Derby 139 field.

I don’t believe in mincing words when you get this deep into the process. It’s time to take tough stances for and against. Don’t be offended if I don’t pick your horse. If you want a handicapper to tell you seven or eight horses are on his win list, go read someone else. My goal isn’t to brag afterward that I kinda, sorta put you on the winner. If we’re right, we’ll know it. If we’re not, we’ll have had a heck of a time in the process.

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Not on my tickets

LINES OF BATTLE: None of the Coolmore stock from Ireland ever has done anything off the plane in the Kentucky Derby, and this year’s UAE Derby was one of its weakest ever, with Soft Falling Rain skipping the race to run in the Godolphin Mile. The UAE Derby also lacked a Godolphin blueblood of any repute this year, so there’s less to appreciate about that race than even Daddy Long Legs a year ago. And he finished last under distress in Louisville. Lines of Battle clearly is not the worst horse in the race, but he would appear once again miscast in the wrong race in his stable’s pursuit of history.

GIANT FINISH: The last horse to enter the Derby picture just before the draw, this New York-bred has not faced top competition. His pressing, forward style likely will find him chasing quicker runners and giving way when the real running begins. Trainer Tony Dutrow said he would send an assistant down to saddle the horse. If the trainer’s not showing up, neither is my money.

FALLING SKY: Rarely are horses who finish in the high teens in the Derby the late-running plodders, so the weakest of the early pacesetters and chasers often end up in retreat. If he gave away five lengths late in the Arkansas Derby and Tampa Bay Derby with modest paces, the extra distance, bigger field, and increased pressure Saturday could triple that total, unless he runs the race of his life. Faith in him delivering such a performance, not shown anywhere in his past performances, has checked out of my hotel. I would love more than anyone to see a grandson of Sea Hero win this, as he still rates one of my favorite horses – and Derby winners – ever. But fondness doth not make a wallet thick.

VYJACK: There’s no mystery about it: Vyjack is as mysterious as any horse in this year’s Derby. He won four straight starts before suffering his first loss in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial, where he finished a length behind Verrazano in third. After the race, word from the ownership was that Vyjack bled (through Lasix). That soon changed to a lung infection, and regardless of the ailment, Vyjack was shipped from his Aqueduct home base to the Fair Hill training center in Maryland so he could be treated in the hyperbaric oxygen chamber. If it was a lung infection and it has cleared up, we could see a return to his big win in the Gotham Stakes. The gelding looked to have special qualities in that score, like Smarty Jones in 2004. But if he carries an issue with bleeding through Lasix, the demands of the Kentucky Derby, in conjunction with a pedigree that’s already sketchy to achieve the trip, could result in a total retreat. This is a horse who could finish first or last and makes it difficult for me to put him in the middle ground. He has the ability to become the next Kentucky Derby winner but will have to do it with my cash sitting on the sidelines. If you’re ranking the most talented of this crop, he’s way farther up the charts than this. But for Saturday’s race, we have too many other options with less mystery.

BLACK ONYX: If you’re building a statue of a Derby winner, hire this guy to be the stand-in model. Unfortunately, he was scratched from the Derby on Friday morning. 

WILL TAKE CHARGE: The long layoff and lack of a 1 1/8-mile prep are two serious violations of trust when it comes to a Derby horse for me. I’ve been a fan of this guy since Keeneland last fall, and his Unbridled’s Song-Take Charge Lady pedigree made him a dream date for a return to the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes. The fact that trainer D. Wayne Lukas opted to train him for seven weeks instead of running in a race he was born to compete in makes me skeptical that he is about to peak. We’ve seen Will Take Charge show speed in some races and settle more in others. Given that he’s fresh, the Rebel winner might find himself chasing faster horses early but overeager and resisting to settle. If that’s the case, the 10 furlongs are going to get him. He needs too much to go right for me to recommend, even if I am a fan.

FEAR THE KITTEN: This also-eligible entrant did not make the Derby field because Black Onyx was not scratched until after the Friday morning cutoff time.

GOLDEN SOUL: There’s not much difference between Golden Soul and the aforementioned Fear the Kitten. They ran second and third in the Grade 3 Lecomte while employing similar tactics, and neither has won a race this year or a stakes. If you don’t think the pace comes back the block, this son of Perfect Soul becomes very difficult to recommend. Yes, he’s a closer, but the pedigree doesn’t scream for 10 furlongs. Still, he edged Fear the Kitten in New Orleans and seems marginally better on dirt than that rival. The Louisiana Derby rates as my top prep of the season, and that race’s fast pace likely aided his rally from last of 14 to be fourth. He’s going to pass some horses, but how many remains a number too low for me to use in the superfecta.

MYLUTE: When you ask a good horse to run a bit farther than he’s most likely capable of, his final placing most often is more a product of the competition. Against the right field, with the right pace setup, overcoming pedigree and past-performance limitations can be achieved. It’s all about the matchups in that case. But when the rivals number 19, including nine coming off major graded stakes victories, the possibilities for a horse like Mylute to stave off so many challengers becomes a losing numbers game. This is one of the most talented middle-distance horses in the entire 2013 crop from this eye, but his inability to close out a two-turn race four times in five tries speaks to a massive challenge Saturday. Expect him to be much closer to the pace in the Derby than he was at Fair Grounds, and he will continue to hang on as long as the closers sputter. Those who launch from the back with fervor, however, likely collar him.

CHARMING KITTEN: I love the fact that his dam is named Iteration, which means to repeat a process over and over with the hope that you achieve a desired result. Owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey are going to run their entire litter of Kittens until one hits in the Kentucky Derby. But that forecast this year looks cloudy at best, even if I’ve twisted in the wind more so on this horse than I probably should. I like the turf-to-Poly-to-dirt progression that’s worked so well in recent years for Animal Kingdom, Paddy O’Prado, and others. And Charming Kitten was moving quite well on the back end of the Blue Grass. But trainer Todd Pletcher criticized this colt’s workout earlier in the week, and that’s a situation you simply don’t see unless the workout was decidedly on the disappointing side. I toyed with the three Blue Grass alumni for inclusion on my tickets and will stand against this pricy option with some hesitation.

JAVA’S WAR: Like Charming Kitten, this colt was ringing the bell late in the Grade 1 Blue Grass. But unlike Charming Kitten, we’ve seen what this Ken McPeek trainee can do on dirt, and it was a solid second in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby. But the audible to run in the Blue Grass was owner Charles Fipke’s, not McPeek’s, and the trainer had cautioned publicly after the Tampa Bay Derby that Java’s War was too small and not built for the rigors of the first Saturday in May. He circled the field in the Blue Grass for a rally that even befuddled a Polytrack student like me. Java’s War wouldn’t be the first horse slight of build to win the Derby. And on dam-side pedigree, which I deem most important for distance success, he’s wonderfully bred to be a successful runner at the Derby distance and beyond. I don’t think he’s of the quality of Dullahan from the 2012 Blue Grass, who wound up third in the Derby, which means his late rally could fall just outside the exotics. But I’m not sure he’s handling the track well enough here this week to make the exotics radar, so I have moved him down some.

OXBOW: I wouldn’t be shocked if veteran jockey Gary Stevens tries to pull a Winning Colors and fires this horse to the lead. Nobody will out-pedigree him for Churchill Downs and 1 1/4 miles. His daddy won the Breeders’ Cup Classic here, and his dam is a sister to Tiznow, who won the first of his two BC Classics under the Twin Spires. The question for Oxbow becomes whether he’s moving the right way coming into the Derby. His Arkansas Derby was subpar in a poor change of tactics, and his training at Churchill Downs has not led anyone to believe that a big bounce-back is near. This is a horse I like a whole bunch, but I’m not sure the Derby works for him. It’s about peaking on the right day, and I’ve lost some faith that Oxbow’s day can be this Saturday. I’ll be cheering for the Golden Boys, Lukas, and Stevens but keeping the gold in my pocket after a tough decision.

VERRAZANO: Fool me three times, and my cap will be doffed for good. Countdown readers may recall (why do I remind you of my bad opinions?) that I swung against Verrazano in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby and Grade 1 Wood Memorial, each time in favor of horses with the home-field advantage at better prices. Rewinding the video, that didn’t work out too well, as the unbeaten colt kept on winning. Now he comes to Louisville as one of the expected Derby favorites, except that no one with a keyboard or microphone picks him to win this time. I’ve been picking against him all spring. This is a bandwagon that you might not want to board. Furthering things I really shouldn’t remind anyone of, it was early in 2012 that I deemed Verrazano’s older brother, El Padrino, as perhaps Todd Pletcher’s best-prepared early-season Derby hope ever and even went as far as to circle him as the winner before anything bloomed that spring. By the time May rolled around, El Padrino looked like a hot mess at Churchill Downs and was badly off form. The twist here is that Verrazano is the anti-El Padrino, lacking any of that good juvenile foundation but coming into the Derby in a more positive shine. No, the Wood Memorial didn’t dazzle anyone on margins, but it was good enough that it lured John Velazquez off of Grade 1 Florida Derby winner Orb in order to stick with him. If you think Velazquez was tied to Pletcher and that was the lone reason, look no further than to see fellow Pletcher pilot Javier Castellano abandon Revolutionary for the Chad Brown-trained Normandy Invasion. When it comes to Derby mounts, you ride the horse, not the barn. Velazquez’s faith in Verrazano merits weight in our handicapping decisions; it’s not simply a “yes, sir” deal with the barn. To the point of the rider, lest we forget Velazquez is coming back from a fractured rib and wrist in recent days, and those are two pretty important pieces of the operation for a jockey. Couple that with a lack of a 2-year-old foundation that very well could catch up with Verrazano. No unraced juvenile has won the Derby since 1882, and that’s because those horses lacked months of 2-year-old training. Most unraced 2-year-olds are dealing with shin issues and growing pains that prevent them from training, or else they would be at the track. Only a few times in a century does a freak like Curlin or Bodemeister come along and challenge that norm. But even those horses failed to smell the roses. If you believe Verrazano brings more to the party than Curlin or Bodemeister, you go to the windows. If you don’t, you roll the dice like I’m going to Saturday. What’s the penalty for “fool me three times,” anyway?

Exotics inclusions

FRAC DADDY: Respect the Arkansas trail to Churchill or be beaten by it. That’s the mantra since 2004, when a long procession of horses from that circuit first started dotting the Derby superfecta. They haven’t missed one since. Frac Daddy made a premature move down the backstretch of the Arkansas Derby, one that left him in a drive far too long. If Victor Lebron harnesses the move better Saturday, this Churchill Downs-loving colt appears to want the distance. Not every Oaklawn raider has been a Smarty Jones, Bodemeister, or Curlin in repute. There are Kentucky Derby superfecta fillers like Steppenwolfer, Papa Clem, and Denis of Cork. This is a physically strong, stout colt who has not had the smoothest of seasons, with foot and lung issues. I don’t see him winning, but an exotics jolt approaching 30-1 or 40-1 is not without intrigue as I punch the SAM machine.

NORMANDY INVASION: While he’s narrowly built like Real Quiet, I’m not sure that leggy, slender look will play well in a 20-horse field with his past running style. Normandy Invasion seems a bit fresh in his training of late for his closing style, and perhaps Brown wants him up closer to the pace, but this is no time to change tactics. This is a supremely talented colt with a high ceiling, and he’s capable of more than his 1-for-5 record, but did he get enough out of his two preps? Given the putrid record of the Wood Memorial alumni here the past decade (none in the money since 2003), you wouldn’t be against the grain so much if you took a shot eliminating him. But it’s no easy thing to do with a horse who obviously calls out to you on the screen that he’s a player. I will be including underneath, but probably not an exacta player.

GOLDENCENTS: No horse in Derby 139 appears more dependent on the pace than the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby winner. From point A to point Z, he may be the fastest horse on the trail. But who pushes him off those points across the alphabet soup and pushes his buttons of patience likely decides his fate. While I abandoned his predecessor, I’ll Have Another, from win contender to exotics contender last year after he drew post 19, Goldencents started his evaluation below the win cusp for me, even before the pill pull. I respect him, but I don’t trust him. The California crop has been so bad this year that it resembles nothing of the stalwarts whom that coast boasted in 2012. Horses like Creative Cause, Bodemeister, Paynter, and I’ll Have Another all seem in a league far above what was on display in 2013 out west. The mere fact that Bob Baffert developed not a single Derby horse to make the gate this year puts raises suspicion about just how good Goldencents may be. Stacking up contenders based on strength of schedule still holds merit. To his credit, and why Goldencents is not a toss-out, is the fact that he hit the road at age 2, won a very productive edition of the Grade 3 Delta Jackpot, and was a solid second in the Grade 1 Champagne to since-injured champion juvenile Shanghai Bobby. Where he falls short of I’ll Have Another would be on pedigree for the distance. He’s simply not as well-bred for the route as last year’s champ. But he’s still a viable candidate to take them a very long way and see his number in lights.

ITSMYLUCKYDAY: The Florida winter flash has much more physical presence than I had known. “Lucky” looks like a machine. While it’s fair to wonder if he peaked too early in the year, it’s to trainer Eddie Plesa Jr.’s credit that he backed off of running in February’s Fountain of Youth. That rest might be exactly the right remedy that most early-winter horses who peak too soon aren’t ever given. Itsmyluckyday has been given time to reboot this year, and the spacing of his races and talents could take him a long way Saturday. The pedigree still seems a bit short to win the shooting match. And realistically, you have to assume Orb must come back to him to reverse the Florida Derby finish. Those two factors lead me to put this horse on the bottom of the exotics and not the win end, but he’s a very serious top-five player.

PALACE MALICE: No horse adding blinkers has won the Kentucky Derby since Sea Hero in 1993, but I thought Palace Malice looked exceptional in his workout inside of Overanalyze in recent days. He never gave an inch and galloped out best. The dam-side pedigree built for turf is what I love in a Derby gene pool, and with sire Curlin on top, Palace Malice theoretically should be better the longer he goes. Granted, that defies this horse’s past performances, where he’s guilty of flattening out late in races. My first take on him was that he had a stamina issue, the classic “hanger” who can’t finish his drink. But some “hangers” have idling issues more so than fitness, and increased focus could make them resist the urge to idle when they’ve drawn alongside their rivals. Blinkers on, for a horse like Palace Malice, could make a monumental difference. Albeit a workout and nowhere near the Derby distance, I thought his morning move in blinkers was a step in the direction that this one-time “hanger” might be a price banger to watch. I’ve mentioned my deep respect for this year’s Louisiana Derby, and it’s a fact that the Polytrack preps at Keeneland and Turfway have been highly potent in the Derby superfectas (since 2007, Keeneland’s first spring meet with Polytrack, every year except 2008 has had at least one Polytrack prepper). We talked about this horse back in January in Countdown as one of Las Vegas’s hottest winter-book plays (he was 35-1 at Wynn Las Vegas despite not racing since August), and he’s grown on me in recent weeks. If not for the blinkers, I’d probably be less interested. With them, he’s a horse at 20-1 or 30-1 under Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith, who could be just what your exotics need under a potentially formful win result. And if he’s still a hanger, he wouldn’t be the first to stick the landing on the bottom of a trifecta or superfecta.

OVERANALYZE: Trainer Pletcher called his final Derby workout “the best I’ve seen him breeze ever.” I won’t use words like “best” and “ever” with Overanalyze, but I did rank him as the top 2-year-old of 2012, and his Arkansas Derby victory was as good visually as anyone this season. Granted, it was slow. But it looked good and was done the right way, with a pounce and draw-away style. The success of the Arkansas Derby as the key prep for Louisville has been unmatched since 2004, so winning the Arkansas Derby in commanding fashion makes you a player even if that race appears to be a peg below its par. In Rafael Bejarano, you get one of the best riders in the game not to have won a Kentucky Derby, and it’s only a matter of time before that changes. Two wins at 1 1/8 miles in the Remsen and Arkansas Derby add up to respect. It’s fair to note that he’s run big races every other race, so he’s on pattern to throw a dud. That can be a physical issue when some horses do not reproduce their best every time, but sometimes it’s just a coincidence. The beauty of taking the optimistic view here is that Overanalyze will be every bit of 15-1 or 20-1, so you’ll get paid to err on the side risk.

Win contenders

REVOLUTIONARY: The term “battle-tested” gets tossed around often on the Derby trail, and it’s something for which I’ve always had a fondness. You don’t measure great athletes by their best days. You measure them by their greatest successes when they don’t have their best stuff. Even when faced with impossible adversity in the Withers Stakes this winter at Aqueduct, Revolutionary escaped a race that less than 1 percent of the current horse population could have won. The athleticism to navigate through the stretch that day defies speed figures, brilliance, and the calling cards many horseplayers employ. And if you want speed and brilliance, it’s not like Revolutionary hasn’t shown that. Dial back to his fall maiden win at Aqueduct. Backers will get “Mr. Derby” aboard in Calvin Borel. I hear moans that Borel hurts your price, but price only matters if you win. Losers still cost $2 where I come from. There’s no one you’d want up in this race more than Borel, and if you’re fortunate enough to win, the point or two on the tote board won’t crush your weekend. The pedigree is a slick mix of speed up top by sire War Pass and stamina on the bottom with Runupthecolors, the winner of the Grade 1 Alabama at 1 1/4 miles. Revolutionary’s gallop-out after the Louisiana Derby rates as one of the best I’ve seen on the trail for a horse making that next distance step. If it rains, and the forecast says it could, remember that sire War Pass won the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Monmouth on perhaps the sloppiest track ever for a major race.

ORB: The Kentucky Derby often comes down to the “now” horse, the one ready to run the race of his life. No horse or jockey is any more “right now” than Orb and pilot Joel Rosario. Fans who watched Rosario make a record-breaking mockery of the Keeneland meeting in April know what I’m talking about. And it’s obvious that Orb has become the “buzz” horse since arriving in Louisville, stealing the spotlight from New Yorkers Verrazano and Normandy Invasion. His recent workouts have cut the price on Orb from what I felt would have been 7-1 or 8-1 to probably 7-2 or 4-1, and that’s a tough pill to swallow if you’ve been hedging on his relative merits against the rest of the field. But I’ve never doubted his talents and place among this crop since he closed twice to win over a Gulfstream Park strip where closers just don’t win like that. Admittedly, there is some Shug McGaughey-homerism going on with a lot of horseplayers who want to see the lovable horseman get his first Derby win. I won’t argue against that sentiment, as there won’t be a more deserving guy under the Twin Spires on Saturday. The only concern will be if Orb can keep it together mentally before the race. If he stays composed, faith in Rosario and the horse to work out the trip are at a maximum level.

It’s a two-horse Derby in my eyes, and the last time I said that was 2006, when Barbaro and Lawyer Ron stood out from the field. The former won by a dominant margin, while the latter exited with a knee chip and later became a champion at age 4. The top pair in this year’s Derby give me that same vibe.

High Fives

Jeremy Plonk’s top-five rated performances by class so far this season (Dec. 26 to present).

Stakes Race
1. ORB (Florida Derby, Gulfstream, March 30)
2. ITSMYLUCKYDAY (Holy Bull, Gulfstream, Jan. 26)
3. VERRAZANO (Wood Memorial, Aqueduct, April 6)
4. VYJACK (Gotham, Aqueduct, March 2)
5. REVOLUTIONARY (Withers, Aqueduct, Feb. 2)

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!