05/10/2013 10:41AM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 19 - May 11, 2013

Barbara D. Livingston
Normandy Invasion is a difficult case - hard to see winning a classic, but tough to leave off a ticket anytime soon, either.

Editor’s note: 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

Even in an entitlement society where everyone feels owed something, you can’t help but be floored by the unanimous affection and genuine fondness folks have for Shug McGaughey, who is training his first Kentucky Derby winner in ORB. I can’t recall a time in any sport where so many people left a major event pleased with the outcome. There were no home teams or road teams. It wasn’t the U.S. against the world. It was simply the good guy winning. And everyone was cool with that.

This week’s fearless forecast

Saturday’s Grade 2 Peter Pan deserves our attention as a prep for the Belmont Stakes on June 8. The field includes FEAR THE KITTEN, scratched from the Kentucky Derby off the also-eligible list, as well as a few Grade 3 Illinois Derby alumni who could give us an early Preakness push for or against the middle jewel’s key new shooter Departing.

Everyone’s a critic

This section reviews the week that was in the sophomore class. Kentucky Derby 139 proved to be a memorable race won by a deserving horse and rider. Let’s go through the field, 1 to 19, with a post-script and what the future could hold for each.

ORB (1st): We had a Charlie Whittingham moment during this year’s lead-up to the Kentucky Derby that simply superceded everything we saw and read all season. When Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey commented April 21 about ORB, "I've never had a horse show so much improvement over this short period of time at this time of the year," you might as well had been in line at post time. As understated as he is masterful in conditioning racehorses, McGaughey simply doesn’t talk like that. This, after all, is a guy who went from 1989 to 2002 without a Derby starter, immediately following a second-third finish with Easy Goer and Awe Inspiring, no less. Then from 2002 to 2012, he watched the Derby from the sidelines again. McGaughey’s first Florida Derby winner, ORB, brought him to racing’s cathedral with the right horse, at the right time and in the right hands. It smacks eerily reminiscent of the late Whittingham, who had gone from 1960 until 1986 before returning to the Derby with a colt named Ferdinand. A master horseman of few peers, Whittingham respected the Derby too much to bring just any horse, and vowed that if he ever returned, he would be saddling a horse capable of being draped in the roses. McGaughey, no doubt, made the “Bald Eagle” proud on Saturday when he brought ORB up to America’s signature race in absolute, tip-top shape. The Malibu Moon colt had stolen all the morning thunder from his Derby 139 rivals, clearly the darling of the clockers, both those with stopwatches and those simply with eyeballs not needing a number behind the impressive training. Steam horses come in many varieties, some delivering on the promise like Smarty Jones, Barbaro, and Street Sense. Now you can add ORB to that list, the first name to roll off the tongue when asked, “Who has impressed you this week?” After a bit of a clumsy break, jockey Joel Rosario settled Orb near the back of the pack and patiently bided his time as the front-runners carved out the fourth-fastest opening half-mile in Derby history. Rosario, exiting a Keeneland meet so successful that it would make Pat Day and Julien Leparoux blush, asked his partner for run about 3 1/2 furlongs from the wire and they began picking off horses while four and five wide on the far turn. By the time ORB locked Normandy Invasion in his cross-hairs at the top of the stretch, observers knew it was just a matter of the final margin, which turned out to be 2 1/2 lengths. ORB now owns a five-race winning streak, the longest by a Derby winner since the unbeaten Barbaro made the Derby his sixth straight win in 2006. Throughout the season, he’s proven that a clock serves as a bad barometer, never running particularly dazzling times, but with an ability to just cut-and-paste his running lines no matter what’s happening in front of him. He’s everything you want in a Derby winner and a representative for the sport you are proud to talk about in front of the Sunday school class. In my immediate zeal after the Derby, I could find no overwhelming reason why this can’t be the first Triple Crown winner in 35 years. But logic tells me as the days pass that good reason exists for the lengthy drought, and the challenges facing ORB are no different than they were for Silver Charm or Smarty Jones, much less unforeseen developments that plagued Big Brown and I’ll Have Another. If it’s meant to be, this will be a Triple Crown winner of which we can all be proud. But they’ll make him earn it in Baltimore, and as you’ll read below, there’s a realistic threat awaiting Belmont.

GOLDEN SOUL (2nd): Some years a Derby second like Bodemeister or Hard Spun will wow you as an observer. And every so often, a Closing  Argument or Invisible Ink will pick up the pieces at huge odds when the pace incinerates. As respectful as you want to be Golden Soul, it’s hard not to put him in the latter category at this point. As you’ll read many times down the line in this column, credit is due jockey Robby Albarado for working out a clean and fruitful trip. After breaking in a minor tangle, the late-running Golden Soul managed to save plenty of ground and came running in the stretch with a solid move. Trainer Dallas Stewart looked straight past the Preakness in an instant and set his countdown to the Belmont Stakes. Deep closers rarely win the Belmont, or run particularly well over the 1 1/2 miles, but it’s the favorite destination for long-winded sophomores nonetheless. Maybe this one has a little Dollar Bill in him, the popular minor-finishing tease from the Stewart barn in the early 2000s who rang up more than a million bucks while going 4 for 22. There could be much worse fates. Regardless of what I project him to do moving forward, even with a great pace setup, you have to appreciate the two, three, five finish of the Louisiana Derby alumni and state that clearly as the top prep race of 2013.

REVOLUTIONARY (3rd): A decade ago, Empire Maker couldn’t get to Funny Cide in the Derby and redirected his energy at thwarting his popular rival’s Triple Crown bid in the Belmont Stakes. Revolutionary, meet Empire Maker. It won’t take much mental maneuvering to see that plausible scenario setting itself up at Belmont. The Louisiana Derby winner, who awed me with a tremendous gallop-out after conquering New Orleans, rallied up the fence to be third at Churchill Downs in a performance just a touch below win quality. And like he did in Louisiana, his Kentucky gallop-out bested the field and makes you want to see him again next time. The 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont Stakes figure to play perfectly to a horse who is developing into a run-all-day machine. He may not be the fastest horse on all days, but like Orb, he has a knack for what it takes and how to deliver it. Calvin Borel gave him a textbook ride that has done him so well to win three Derbies. Revolutionary saved all the ground, rallied in tandem with Golden Soul, and only had a minor zip-zip move around Oxbow in the stretch to navigate. All in all it was a very good trip by Kentucky Derby standards and he delivered on his promise as the second wagering choice by finishing a solid third. The future remains high-wattage for Revolutionary, and that could come as soon as the Belmont Stakes. If healthy, there’s a big summer prize with his name on it, either the Haskell or Travers, and he certainly looks like a 3-year-old that could develop in the Breeders’ Cup Classic division by fall.

NORMANDY INVASION (4th): Admittedly, my heart leaped in my throat spinning off the turn the way this son of Tapit appeared to be headed toward a date with destiny. It’s hard watching the replay even and not thinking Normandy Invasion had the roses in his grasp. One of two things happened, or both. Armchair jockeys want to stone Javier Castellano for moving too soon and leaving his charge empty when it counted. But honest pedigree and past performance handicappers can claim that they saw this coming. Which one is right? We won’t know until Normandy Invasion writes his next few chapters. The Trakus data on Normandy Invasion indicates he didn’t really lay it down when visually storming to the front. Quite possibly he was the “eye of the five-die” as I like to say, sitting alone in the middle as horses to his front and horses to his back were in transit in opposite directions. As the speed tired, and the closers still had work to do because the fast pace stretched the field so many lengths, Normandy Invasion perhaps just inherited the illusion of a big move. Noble’s Promise had a similar trip in the 2010 Derby when burners Sidney’s Candy and Conveyance dropped the anchor, if you recall or care to re-watch. Trainer Chad Brown either was trying to put more speed into Normandy Invasion in his workouts after the Wood Memorial, or the horse was not cooperating with the rider and the trainer was covering for his athlete. One rarely knows in the post-workout quotes exactly what the trainer feels. But Normandy Invasion ran a more impatient race in the Derby than he had previously, and his training indicated that was on the horizon. Despite his closing style in earlier races, the pedigree by Tapit out of a Boston Harbor mare never has guaranteed much success in classic-distance races. So did Normandy Invasion run out of gene pool in the stretch, run out of gas from his training or was he simply the victim of a rider who moved too soon? My take is that I’ve seen Javier Castellano make the right call nearly every time he throws a leg over his mount, and I’m less certain that this horse trained the right way or was built for the trip to start with. He’s 1 for 7 for a reason, and Castellano was aboard for only two of those. As for the Preakness, trainer Brown first ruled it out. Then the story changed that the horse was doing so well he’d reconsider the middle jewel. Owner Rick Porter of Fox Hill Farm has been known to call the shots with his horses on more than one occasion. The fact that Porter is based next door in Delaware and has a “now” horse possible for the Preakness should not go unnoticed. The trainer intent and next result for Normandy Invasion remain a fascinating study. I’m torn that he’ll ever win a big one at a classic distance, but would be scared to death to leave him off a ticket anytime soon.

MYLUTE (5th): Things started a little tight with some mild bumping and shuffling for Mylute, who had only one horse beat under the line the first time. The Louisiana Derby runner-up lagged back in the pack until midway on the far turn when he commenced his rally at the same time that Orb set sail from the back. And whereas the winner closed with more zip, Mylute more than held his own a few boxcars back on the train. Rosie Napravnik gave Mylute a good ride after being dealt a minor disadvantage at the start. Mylute never stopped trying and his stride looked well throughout the run to the wire, simply not fast enough to outfinish a few who were closing better. Obviously he’s outrunning his pedigree on the damside as you don’t see many Valid Expectations offspring competing at high levels in key routes. This rates one of the toughest calls of this 2013 crop as to what should be next. The Preakness could be next, and it would be hard to argue against giving him the chance. But at the same time, there’s a little trainer on my shoulder screaming at me saying, “Take the easy money, dummy! Aim this horse for shorter, richer 3-year-old races this summer.” Mylute appears the type who could line up a million-dollar campaign chopping down derbies in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Ohio, etc. But I could also see him making some noise in Baltimore if he runs as well there as he did in the Louisiana Derby and Kentucky Derby. He has a license to play with the big boys, even if his pedigree is questionable at longer distances. Tough call. Fun horse. I like him a lot.

OXBOW (6th): Horses beaten 9 3/4 lengths don’t line up for a series of “atta-boys” too often, but Oxbow found more than a few appreciative horseplayers after his sixth-place finish. He pressed in second place after six furlongs in 1:09.80, the fourth-fastest opening three-quarters in Kentucky Derby history. The horses in his zip code at that stage all wound up between 12th and 18th. But it was Oxbow still punching at the sixteenth pole before finally paying his toll. I’ve long considered him among the very best of this crop, and his Derby trip and performance underscored that fondness. No doubt he ran on a good part of the track and saved all the ground, but pace players cannot downgrade what they saw in an otherwise meltdown. He flashed more of that natural early foot that was absent in the Arkansas Derby, and had the pace been reasonable, he likely would have been part of the exotic wagers cashed. The chatter Derby week was highly negative to his chances and the way he had been training, but Oxbow gave them more positive tones to talk about when the mud settled. He moves on to the Preakness as a horse with an up-and-down reputation, but capable of dishing out the jabs on the front-end and hanging around until the late rounds. That’s more than many of these can boast.

LINES OF BATTLE (7th): Handicappers have to admit when they’re punching at shadows, and horses like Lines of Battle are just that for me. I had no clue what to do with him in the Derby for certain, but was not enamored with his company lines in Dubai and the past track record of the Aidan O’Brien runners sent over here for the roses. With 19 options that’s enough to stand-against and hope for the best. Lines of Battle ran better than I projected in a solid Derby showing, an effort similar to Master of Hounds here in 2011. Give Ryan Moore credit after going a bit wide on the first turn. He found a nice inside position and moved in tandem with the closers Golden Soul and Revolutionary. He angled out swiftly in upper stretch and barely missed a beat while sustaining a modest close. Neither of his trips to America have been Earth-shattering, this or the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf last fall, but both are encouraging enough to make you want to see him back here in the Breeders’ Cup at some level. I don’t project his pedigree to make him a major factor at longer distances, so he could wind up being and in-betweener type in terms of best trips.

WILL TAKE CHARGE (8th): The Derby got off to a bit of a rocky start for the Rebel winner, who brushed a bit with Orb and then struggled to find his best stride while leaning in under Jon Court. Will Take Charge’s stride was choppy and jumpy in the off going under the wire the first time, which does not surprise given his complete no-show on a wet track in the Southwest. But Will Take Charge eventually found some rhythm and was moving about 4 to 5 wide alongside Orb nearing the quarter pole and had to take up sharply when a wobbly legged Verrazano ducked a bit outward and sawed him off. With his momentum vanquished, Will Take Charge lost all chance at that point for a major placing and did fairly well with some grit to wind up eighth. Considering he had never raced beyond 1 1/16 miles and had not started in any race in seven weeks, this was a pretty commendable performance. He will go on to Pimlico next as a very interesting player in that he’s now in the sweet spot of the form cycle. The Preakness will be his second start in nine weeks, and the tables turn a bit in his favor versus his more softened-up rivals who raced closer to Derby Day in their final preps. A fast track obviously improves his chances after seeing him twice fight the off going. There’s probably not enough pedigree there to think he’s a Belmont Stakes horse, so his best chance of making noise in this year’s Triple Crown comes next week.

CHARMING KITTEN (9th): Edgar Prado gave the Blue Grass third-place finisher a fabulous ride through the stretch the first time, deftly sliding down a few spots every few gallops until he nearly got to the fence from post 15. Charming Kitten did ride the rail down the backstretch and into the far turn within a good striking position mid-pack. But he wasn’t strong enough to keep that position from Golden Soul or Revolutionary, who followed suit inside with rallies. This one had zero excuses and simply didn’t finish with any punch given every chance by a Hall of Fame rider who did his part. All in all, it was a solid effort, but not nearly good enough on this day. Expect to see this one back on grass this summer.

GIANT FINISH (10th): The second-longest shot in the field at 38-1 odds, he received a very nice trip under Derby rookie Jose Espinoza. The Spiral third-place finisher sat perfectly just behind the faster first flight into the clubhouse turn while not losing ground. He continued to save ground through the far turn but couldn’t quicken three-eighths out when the pace picked up, and remained fairly one-paced. Forced out a bit in upper stretch, he continued on and proved the field’s true grinder. It’s a running style befitting of the Belmont Stakes if they’d be so inclined, and this effort certainly exceeded bettors’ expectations and my expectations. Giant Finish likely won’t be brilliant enough to win a big one, but he could earn some checks down the line in races you may not expect.

OVERANALYZE (11th): He broke as clean and smooth as any Derby horse could dream, and came back to hand for jockey Rafael Bejarano nicely. The Arkansas Derby winner lost a bit of contact with the front group down the backstretch, and then was shuffled a bit on the far turn to be nearly last in between calls while saving ground. Overanalyze slowly made up some ground in the stretch while in late traffic in an effort that is befitting of his middling finish. Not bad, not great. He continued his career pattern of good race, bad race and was unable to follow up on his visually sharp win in Hot Springs. This would be a logical horse to try the Belmont Stakes next, and you can expect a better placing next time for a runner who would appear capable of the distance. His Derby result signifies what we’ve seen throughout a career – he’s a solid racehorse, but not a world-beater at this stage.

PALACE MALICE (12th): One of my many gigs is to provide stats and research to NBC Sports for its telecasts of the Triple Crown, and when Hall of Fame jockey-turned-analyst Jerry Bailey contacted me about equipment changes for the Derby, we uncovered some interesting data. Bailey was aboard Sea Hero in 1993, who won the roses while taking blinkers off after his final prep. He wanted to know how horses changing equipment for the Derby had fared historically. Going back to Sea Hero, I found that none of the 16 horses adding or removing blinkers for the Derby had hit the board in two decades. Only two had finished as well as fourth. This is important for two reasons: one, it shows very few trainers make a change going into such a race; two, it shows a pattern of unsuccessful experiments with horses as talented as Stay Thirsty, Lookin At Lucky and War Chant. The addition of blinkers with Palace Malice turned out to be as disastrous a decision as one could make. As sometimes happens at any class level, this colt ran off with the hood and never came back to his rider, Mike Smith, who was helpless to slow him down once he took flight. Word following the Derby is that Palace Malice will be given some R&R and rebooted for a campaign later this year. Here’s five saying he won’t wear blinkers when that day comes.

JAVA’S WAR (13th): Typically a slow breaker, Java’s War broke so slowly that he nearly deserved a “dwelt” comment. That worked for him in the Blue Grass Stakes when he quickened sharply on the Polytrack, but none of that translated to his Derby stretch run. The diminutive colt was ridden the way he needed to be by Julien Leparoux, taken back and kept wide of the rough going in between the herd. But he simply wasn’t good enough to overcome the ground loss and early giveaways. He’s a pretty versatile horse with plenty of options, and given his body type and turn of foot, he could wind up being an effective turf miler some day. Don’t be surprised to see him in races like the Virginia Derby or Secretariat on grass later this summer.

VERRAZANO (14th): The unbeaten Wood Memorial winner slipped to fourth choice in the win pool wagering, and wasn’t respected a whole lot more in the multi-race will-pays where more sophisticated players swim on Derby Day. For a horse hyped as strongly as Verrazano was early in the season, and among a crop of horses short of fast times and figures, this was a bizarre abandonment of support. Perhaps the five-pack from Todd Pletcher split up some of the money, and the New Yorkers had two good options with Normandy Invasion gaining steam. The backstretch buzz screamed that he wouldn’t hit the board. For me, the rapidly waning support for Verrazano proved more fascinating than his listless performance. That part wasn’t a big shock, as we’ve seen dozens of these hot flashes in the past get gobbled up in the Derby. A lack of foundation and battle toughness left him wanting when the real running began, not to mention a pedigree that never claimed 10 furlongs to be embraceable. The talents are obvious, but I doubt you’ll see him again before a potential Saratoga revival in either the King’s Bishop or the Travers. The former, which would have him shortening up distance, might be the best next chapter.

ITSMYLUCKYDAY (15th): The Florida Derby runner-up was one of the few Derby horses who had some proven off-track form, and many pundits figured he would benefit from the conditions Saturday. But a tired effort left trainer Eddie Plesa to pull the “disliked the track” excuse from his wallet – for lack of another explanation. His Florida form was franked by Orb in the Derby, so his obvious talents are quantified. But the question remains if he peaked too early this winter, and his Derby finish does nothing to discredit that vibe. Itsmyluckyday moves on to the Preakness and picks up a new pilot in Hall of Famer Mike Smith. I’m not sure that Baltimore is where he finds his form again, but this won’t be the last we hear from Itsmyluckyday in the major stakes ranks. Horses go in and out of peak form for a myriad of reasons; he’s not the first and won’t be the last.

FRAC DADDY (16th): Jockey Victor Lebron opted to keep Frac Daddy wide into the first turn with a chance to drop in, which can’t be a criticism on a sloppy track where keeping your horse clear of the kick-back can sometimes help. Running wide throughout, he never menaced and was outrun to the quarter pole, from which he offered no zest in the lane. It’s been a tough winter/spring for this colt, who appears to have some talent, but remains a good distance away from showcasing it. Later in the summer, he might be one who comes to hand by the Travers and is worth a look then. But his time between now and then will provide us all we need to know.

GOLDENCENTS (17th): Last week’s Derby preview noted that Goldencents was the race’s most dependant horse on the pace setup, and that proved prophetic. A victim of a fast pace in the Sham in his only prior loss since the fall, Goldencents once again didn’t handle heat the right way in Louisville. Jockey Kevin Krigger didn’t attack the run-off leader, Palace Malice, but even in chase mode his mount was gassed. Krigger wrapped up on him the last furlong-plus and took good care of the horse. Goldencents was the first contender to arrive in Baltimore to begin Preakness preparations. The pace scenario will have to change dramatically when we see the final Preakness field in order to think he’s this year’s Louis Quatorze, a tired 16th in the 1996 Kentucky Derby before wiring the Preakness.

VYJACK (18th): To win the Kentucky Derby, you need everything to go right. Whether it was a bleeding issue or a lung infection that hindered Vyjack out of the Wood Memorial, it was enough to derail his Derby chances and preparation. Jockey Garrett Gomez indicated the colt shied from the crowd on the outside from post 19, and ran off rank early and unmanageable. That’s a far cry from the push-button horse of March in the Gotham. The talk now is that the connections will give the Preakness a go, but Vyjack rates a very difficult recommendation based on how his last month has gone. In no disrespect, he’s a horse who can get back on track later this summer in races like the Haskell or West Virginia Derby, where stamina often aren’t the most important factor when stacked against brilliance. That’s where I would be aiming, not Baltimore.

FALLING SKY (19th): Chase and tire is a common refrain for front-running horses incapable of making the lead, and that’s exactly what happened to the John Terranova trainee. Falling Sky could not keep pace with the wicked splits and readily retreated as his form suggested he would. The last-place Derby finisher exited the race with a left-front ankle chip that was removed earlier this week. Expect to see him shortened in distance when he returns in the fall if all goes as planned.

Quick hitters

Next week’s Countdown will include my horse-by-horse analysis for the entire Preakness Stakes field and my final selections. If you’re headed to Pimlico for Black-Eyed Susan or Preakness Day, be sure to stop by the Wagering 101 tent in the infield and say hello. I’ll be there with my Night School Tour troupe of fan educators teaching the game to the masses right next to the main wagering pavilion. The event is co-sponsored by America’s Best Racing, the Maryland Jockey Club, and Daily Racing Form.

High fives

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

Stakes race
1. ORB (Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, 5/3)
2. ORB (Florida Derby, Gulfstream, 3/30)
3. ITSMYLUCKYDAY (Holy Bull, Gulfstream, 1/26)
4. VERRAZANO (Wood Memorial, Aqueduct, 4/6)
5. VYJACK (Gotham, Aqueduct, 3/2)

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!