01/13/2012 10:01AM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 2 - Jan. 13, 2012


Editor’s Note: 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 hockey masks Jason Vorhees donned in the Friday the 13th slasher movies. If you’re full of holes, you’re vulnerable no matter how hard the facade.

1. Slots money in New York this winter/spring is going to change the prep landscape, evidenced already by Count Fleet winner ALPHA (Kiaran McLauglin) aimed at the Aqueduct graded stakes ahead. The G3 Withers has been moved earlier in the meet and the G3 Gotham has been infused with added money. There’s $600,000 in graded stakes earnings BEFORE the Wood Memorial, which is going to have a trickle-down effect on the players at Gulfstream, Fair Grounds, Tampa Bay Downs and Oaklawn, not to mention the synthetic preps in Kentucky. Oaklawn upped its G2 Rebel to $500,000 and that should help solidify its status.

2. Todd Pletcher’s most successful Triple Crown results have come with horses like Rags To Riches, Super Saver, Stay Thirsty and Dunkirk. All four had A.P. Indy prominent in the bloodlines. ‘Rags was sired by A.P. Indy; Super Saver’s damsire was A.P. Indy; Stay Thirsty’s daddy Bernardini was a son of, you guessed it, A.P. Indy; and Dunkirk’s mama Secret Status was a daughter of A.P. Indy. So while they all get giddy over his fast runners and faster figures, you’d be better off just looking for that A.P. Indy bloodline in the program.

3. California has hardly been home sweet home for Texan Steve Asmussen. His flashy 3-year-old winners last year were sent to the sidelines (Tapizar, Maclean’s Music, Willburn), and this year is off to a rocky start, including HIERRO finishing last in Saturday’s G3 Sham.

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. Four listed stakes are on tap this weekend, starting with Saturday’s $100,000 California Derby at Golden Gate Fields and $100,000 Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. Then on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Monday we have the $100,000 Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn and the $75,000 Jimmy Winkfield Stakes at Aqueduct. The Monday events will not be drawn in time for Countdown previews, so we’ll provide full recap coverage next week. For a complete Smarty Jones Stakes wagering guide, courtesy of Oaklawn Park, visit Countdowntothecrown.com on Monday to download.

Before we preview the Cal Derby and Pasco, let’s get into a busy weekend of undercard events.

A trio of allowance races later today (Friday, Jan.13) are slated for Aqueduct (race 1), Fair Grounds (race 8) and Turfway Park (race 7). The Fair Grounds 6-furlong sprint might be the most appealing of the trio, led by impressive Dec. 17 winner RADIANT TALENT (Steve Margolis) and accomplished G3 Nashua Stakes third-place finisher SEEKER (Steve Asmussen). That field also includes the return of MARK VALESKI (Larry Jones), who was last seen defeating eventual Spectacular Bid Stakes winner ANCIENT ROME (Tony Dutrow) at Delaware Park in September. His company lines also include none other than UNION RAGS (Michael Matz). At Aqueduct, Maryland Juvenile Championship winner KING AND CRUSADER (Rick Dutrow) headlines the Big A mile contest as he tries two turns for the first time. And at Turfway Park, we see the quick return of PHANTOM FURTY (Mike Lauer), a romping 8-length maiden sprint winner just 14 days ago. TIGERDUDE (Jeff Thornbury) is a son of Aptitude who romped to a two-turn local maiden win Dec. 23.

At Gulfstream Park later today (Friday, Jan. 13), also keep an eye on third-time starter COMMON BOND (Bill Mott) in a race 7 maiden turf mile. He’s a half-brother to outstanding 2011 sophomore TO HONOR AND SERVE. In that race, SILVER MAX (Dale Romans) and SHAUN WASHINGTON (Jimmy Jerkins) exit a similar December event that has been totally unflattered by its alumni, including race winner MARGANO (Barclay Tagg). Tampa Bay Downs offers a similar turf route maiden that lured N.B.A. MONEY (Ian Wilkes), a well-bred son of G1 winner Mayo on the Side.

Gulfstream’s Saturday undercard notables include a split division of a 7-furlong maiden sprint in races 3 and 7. Race 3 includes the debut of well-bred runner SPRING HILL FARM (Todd Pletcher), by Smart Strike out of G2 Shuvee winner Colonial Minstrel. Works suggest he’s no great shakes, and the firster to watch may be ENTRAINMENT (Brendan Walsh), a son of Medaglia d’Oro who is out of a half-sister to G1 winner Lawyer Ron. BIRD TALE (Nick Zito) also debuts for Marylou Whitney as a son of her Belmont/Travers champion Birdstone. Race 7 appears the much stronger of the two divisions on paper, however. Dubai World Cup winner Well Armed’s little brother ARM FORCE (Eoin Harty) makes his career debut, but note big bro didn’t win until career start No. 8! ECABRONI (Todd Pletcher) looks to be a more ready-made product to graduate following a sharp debut second and series of solid drills since. RISE AGAINST (Rick Dutrow) has progessed nicely toward a maiden-breaking score, while RESTRUCTURING PLAN (Jonathan Sheppard) is a $140,000 juvenile buy who faced a pair of next-out winners in his fall debut at Delaware Park that included eventual Spectacular Bid Stakes winner ANCIENT ROME (Tony Dutrow).

Oaklawn offers split divisions of a maiden route Saturday in races 2 and 5. In the former, horses solidly beaten at Churchill by ballyhooed runners CASUAL TRICK (Nick Zito) and HIERRO (Steve Asmussen) return to the races in DOUBLE RAH RAH (Jinks Fires) and $350,000 yearling buy GAMEDAY NEWS (D. Wayne Lukas). Shadwell late-runner NAJJAAR (Danny Peitz) will try to pick up the pieces. In race 5, the tougher division on paper, CHALYBEATE SPRINGS (D. Wayne Lukas) exits a much better try vs. CASUAL TRICK and finally looks ready for graduation after several stakes attempts last year despite maiden status. Keep an eye on SPEED SCORE (Donnie K. Von Hemel), even in his debut in a pretty tough Remington maiden sprint and with pedigree to do more. Dam Moon Maven is half-sister to Pin Oak’s Grade 1 winner Changeintheweather.

BROTHER FRANCIS (Jim Cassidy) returns to the maiden ranks Saturday after placing in both the G1 CashCall Futurity and Real Quiet Stakes when he headlines a race 5 turf mile at Santa Anita. He figures to be a short-priced favorite against QATAR’S PEARL (Simon Callaghan), who was favored over DADDY LONG LEGS (Aidan O’Brien) when those two met last year in Ireland. FRENEMY (Bob Baffert) tries turf after being outgunned by stablemate SKY KINGDOM at Hollywood on the Cushion Track.

Saturday’s race 2 maiden sprint at Aqueduct appears one of the more promising there so far this winter, led by ROCKIN BOOGIE (Bruce Levine), a $200,000 purchase who is half-brother to G2 Milady winner Made For Magic. Sprint-pedigreed HARDENED WILDCAT (Chad Brown) should move forward off her debut, but since he’s out of G1-placed sprint mare Wild Snitch, his future looks “short.” The Darley-owned, Kiaran McLaughlin-trained entry of ORIGINAL ART and LE BERNARDIN will get plenty of attention, but the latter clearly is the more route-bred of the two. LE BERNARDIN is half-brother to 9-furlong specialist Tattinger Rose, a Grade 3 winner of the Sabin. Also at Aqueduct on Saturday, race 9 is an intriguing New York-bred maiden sprint given that PANTHRO (Stan Hough) comes north from open company tilts at Gulfstream and also-eligible SHY HUMOR (Mark Hennig) moves east after chasing eventual G3 Sham winner OUT OF BOUNDS (Eoin Harty) last time out at Hollywood Park.

Also at Aqueduct, keep tabs on Sunday’s race 4 maiden route. QUIET MAN (Eddie Kenneally) was a decent fourth in his debut at Churchill behind talented EVER SO LUCKY (Jonathan Sheppard) before disappointing in his Gulfstream Park return. The trip north might be the elixir to victory. QUORUM (Sandino Hernandez) wheels back after just 15 days and adds blinkers. It’s his second northern attempt since chasing the likes of Gulfstream Park Derby winner REVERON (Agustin Bezara) when racing in Florida.

Pasco Stakes (Saturday/Tampa Bay Downs)

We’ll learn just how good ADIRONDACK KING (John Servis) is when this field of 10 hits the wire in the 7-furlong Pasco, one of the key points on the road to the March 10 G2 Tampa Bay Derby. The impeccably bred son of Lawyer Ron and $1.3 million-earning Alabama winner Jostle could put the conditioner of Smarty Jones back in the limelight. If ADIRONDACK KING is to win his fourth straight race, he’ll have to upend the 1-2 finishers of the local Inaugural Stakes, ANGELOFDISTINCTION (Daniel Pita) and WILDCAT CREEK (Eddie Plesa). The latter is a very fast half-brother to sensational sprint filly Pomeroy’s Pistol and rates the one to catch from the outside post.

ADIRONDACK KING has not been tested outside of Pennsylvania, but his company lines from his races at Parx are littered with a strong run of next-out winners. Jockey Stewart Elliott will be aboard in a familiar pairing for those of us who fondly remember the 2004 magic. From a pace set-up, he should be looking for a stalking position behind WILDCAT CREEK and the very fast SEVEN KIND (Manny Azpurua), who comes across-state after battling in a dynamite Gulfstream allowance Dec. 16 against future stakes stars ALOGORITHMS (Todd Pletcher) and CONSORTIUM (Kiaran McLaughlin).

The field also includes Calder stakes winners FOR OBY (Pedro Meastre) and BURNING TIME (David Fawkes), who both exit Gulfstream stakes attempts and aren’t without consideration. PROSPECTIVE (Mark Casse) also comes from across-state from his Palm Meadows home base. Canada’s G3 Grey Stakes winner didn’t fire at all in the G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, so this race may tell the tale if he’s capable of producing on the dirt. His mama, Spirited Away, won the Truly Bound Stakes at Fair Grounds around two turns on dirt, so the pedigree is there. I expect him to be running on strongly at the end.

MOROCCAN BREW (Dennis Ward) appears highly talented off of two efforts at Delaware Park, but curiously has only one published workout since Nov. 22. The barn has been on a tear at Tampa and is 2-for-2 with horses this meet making similar layoffs in the 60 to 75-day range.


California Derby (Saturday/Golden Gate Fields)

Northern California’s first of two stops on the Triple Crown prep trail presents a 1 1/16-mile challenge Saturday over the Tapeta synthetic surface. Hopefuls here look to land a spot in the G3 El Camino Real Derby on Feb. 18. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer won this race in 2006, 2007 and 2009 and his dominant run in recent history looks to continue with the uncoupled duo of RUSSIAN GREEK and RECONSTRUCTION. The former appears the most gifted, while the latter possesses superior early speed and should be setting the table for his stablemate.

RUSSIAN GREEK rallied from 12 lengths back to win the 1-mile Gold Rush Stakes on Dec. 10. Prior to that he was fifth sprinting in the Golden Nugget Stakes, one of the more productive $62,000 minor stakes you’ll ever see. Everything out of that race has come back to do good things in stakes company, including CHIPS ALL IN (Jeff Mullins) running a corker in the Eddie Logan on Santa Anita’s turf. A repeat of either of his last two efforts may be all RUSSIAN GREEK needs, and he’s had an awesome workout tab since his last race. A son of Giant’s Causeway, this is a very promising prospect who’s maternal grand dam is $600,000 earner Train Robbery, who was G1-placed up to 9 furlongs.

RECONSTRUCTION missed two weeks on the workout tab just prior to the New Year, and anyone who follows Jerry Hollendorfer’s career knows that his horses work out like clockwork every 6 or 7 days. I would expect RECONSTRUCTION to be a bit short on stamina in his first route attempt, though pedigree suggests he’ll make the distance if fit.

If not the Hollendorfer pair, then BLACKY THE BULL (Jeff Bonde) and HODGE (Mike Machowsky) deserve respect. BLACKY THE BULL misfired in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint, but acquitted himself with a decent third in the Gold Rush behind RUSSIAN GREEK. How far he wants to go remains a mystery, but I like the 6 and 7-furlong stamina works for Saturday’s assignment. HODGE was third in the G3 Hollywood Prevue, and even though he lures local superman Russell Baze to ride, his stamina comes into question. Half-brother Depeche Cat was third sprinting in last year’s 7-furlong Pasco at Tampa Bay Downs, coincidentally also renewed on Saturday.
SENOR RAIN (Peter Miller) is a total wildcard, third in the Real Quiet Stakes before being pulled up in the G3 Generous on turf in late November. He took three weeks to return to the workout tab after that, but appears to be training well since and with a chance to get back on the mark.

California Derby selections: W) RUSSIAN GREEK; P) BLACKY THE BULL; S) HODGE.

Last week’s selections: 3: 0-0-1. LONGVIEW DRIVE held gamely at a price to finish third in the Sham, but price stabs SPEIGHTSCITY and SALVATORE G. both were total non-factors in the Count Fleet and Turfway Prevue. Here’s to more success this week!

Season selections: 3: 0-0-1

Everyone’s a critic

This section reviews the week that was in the 3-year-old ranks.

G3 Sham Stakes (1/7, SA-3)

Five-horse fields don’t do much to ready a horse for the rigors of the Triple Crown, but if you’re going to catch one, now’s the time early in the year. Battle-tested traits are admirable, but they can wipe a horse out before spring arrives. That said, we don’t want to take too much out of Saturday’s G2 main event going 1 mile at Santa Anita. But with a five-horse field going the very easy two-turn distance of a flat mile, this is what you want for a first race of the year if you’re the trainer.

Adding blinkers to LONGVIEW DRIVE (Jerry Hollendorfer) may have backfired, as he showed a world of early interest and actually put himself on the lead over a typically eager SECRET CIRCLE (Bob Baffert), who had the blinkers removed for this contest. Those equipment changes reversed the roles between cat and mouse. To both horses’ credits, LONGVIEW DRIVE remained game and determined on the rail despite being the hunted, and SECRET CIRCLE relaxed splendidly off the flank of the leader and didn’t waste energy attacking too soon. The subtle point I appreciate was going into the clubhouse turn, when SECRET CIRCLE allowed Rafael Bejarano to let off the accelerator and allow his rival to clear over in front of him. One horse showed guts, the other showed patience. Both are traits that will serve you down the line.

Nobody would have imagined seeing OUT OF BOUNDS (Eoin Harty) glued inside SECRET CIRCLE heading into the far turn, but that’s exactly where they were when the running picked up. Stuck in a bad spot on the rail, OUT OF BOUNDS accepted Garrett Gomez’s cues to slow down and let the field separate some in order to find room. That allowed him to get into the three-path once the horses straightened and take dead aim on the leading pair. The big, lumbering son of Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Unbridled Elaine proved best over the final furlong in a determined effort from the top three. Credit here goes to Eoin Harty. As I noted to an online live chat audience on Saturday, OUT OF BOUNDS looked immaculate in the flesh before the race and his stable had him absolutely beaming.

The obvious disappointment in the race was second betting choice HIERRO (Steve Asmussen), who looked effortless winning his maiden race at Churchill, but turned in a dismal effort in his stakes unveiling. It’s the second straight weekend of 3-year-old stakes disappointments for that barn at Santa Anita, following a similarly disengaged effort by DADDY NOSE BEST on the turf in the Eddie Logan. HIERRO’s only interest was in fighting jockey Julien Leparoux early and often in the Sham. He refused to settle and a forgiving handicapper could cite that for his performance, but he was given his head with 3 furlongs to run and simply did nothing with the opportunity, finishing last. If you can’t settle in vs. four rivals and have any finishing punch going a flat mile because of general rankness, neither is a very good sign for a classics contender. It’s too early to give up on HIERRO, obviously, but look for the Asmussen barn to further his education in the mornings with some longer drills and works in company.

Count Fleet Stakes (1/7, AQU-8)

The horse sitting third appeared to be in receipt of a dream trip when handicapping Saturday’s Count Fleet Stakes. When the classiest horse in the race also gets the dream trip, you can put a circle around him or her in your program and head to the pay line. That’s exactly what happened when G1 Champagne runner-up ALPHA (Kiaran McLaughlin) got back on the beam at Aqueduct after a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile disaster. 

The son of Bernardini didn’t behave well in the gate once again, but after a very minor misstep out of the blocks, he was well in hand stalking the pace under Ramon Dominguez. Confidently handled 3-wide on both turns, ALPHA had the measure on the pacemakers at any point he wanted them. Even with a slow 6 furlongs in just under 1:14, ALPHA pulled away in the final yards to show his class. The fourth quarter in :24.70 was solid over this track and he galloped out very well. ALPHA ran nearly a full second faster than 3-year-old fillies in the Busanda Stakes in the race prior to the Count Fleet, so it looks well on the clock.

STEPHANOATSEE (Graham Motion) was compromised on two fronts, first a slow pace and second a lack of personal acceleration. The grind-it-out younger brother to Preakness champ Shackleford lacks his brother’s brilliance, but certainly looks to be a run-all-day stayer. Blinkers could wake him up there to some degree. When jockey Cornelio Velasquez opted to stalk with HOW DO I WIN (Todd Pletcher) instead of going after class-challenged sprinter IL VILLANO (Susan Crowell) on the lead, the fate on the win end for STEPHANOATSEE was all but sealed. Look for him to improve with some pace help.

After being bumped at the start SPEIGHTSCITY (Gary Contessa) showed absolutely no interest and, instead of receiving a perfect trip on paper as it appeared he might, turned out to be a lousy selection by yours truly and had no moxie. SHKSPEARE SHALIYAH needs a return to turf, but won’t get that in New York until late spring.

Look for ALPHA and STEPHANOATSEE to rematch in the Feb. 4 G3 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct, and for ALPHA to get plenty of gate schooling sessions between now and then, and STEPHANOATSEE’s connections to seriously consider blinkers.

Turfway Prevue Stakes (1/7, TP-8)

In the interest of full disclosure, the top two horses I picked in this race wound up last and next-to-last, so I’m not sure you want my two cents after the fact. The 6-furlong split was as fast as any 6-furlong race all night, so this race was there for the taking in the final sixteenth of a mile. And when the 6-1/2 furlongs completed, trainer Mike Maker was smiling one-two with 6/5 favorite MR. PRANKSTER and runner-up MAGIC SEASON, who rallied from sixth and eleventh, respectively.

MR. PRANKSTER was demolished by 29 lengths in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill routing on Nov. 26, and certainly appreciated the Turfway Prevue’s class relief. MR. PRANKSTER became the first stakes winner for young sire It’s No Joke, a versatile sort who won stakes from 7 furlongs to the 1-1/4 miles Hawthorne Gold Cup. He could stretch back out someday on this pedigree. His half-brother Atticus Jack won the 9-furlong Hinds Memorial at Fairplex in September over a classy field.

Don’t dismiss FRANKIE IS ROCK (Rafael Flores) after a decent third-place finish. He’s got the best route pedigree in this field and was the best finishing runner of those tied up in the early pace, despite a four-wide run around the turn. He looks like a player in the Turfway route stakes coming up.

Allowance races

Trainer Todd Pletcher made all the noise over the weekend at Gulfstream Park, winning both sophomore allowances. On Saturday, his speedy half-brother to graded stakes sprinter Travelin Man, DISCREET DANCER, blew away the field in a 1-mile extension. On Sunday, his STAR CHANNEL captured his second grass win at the meet by taking a 1 1/16 miles turf test. DISCREET DANCER, a 5 1/2 furlong track record-setter in his debut, will garner the early season headlines after posting two straight blowouts. He got away with rather easy splits for this kind of race (1:11.42 for six furlongs), and then finished up with a :24.90 final quarter-mile that looked better than it clocked. DISCREET DANCER galloped out nicely and didn’t appear gassed, but again, these were not taxing splits at any juncture. The jury remains out on his 2-turn ability, but at first blush, I wouldn’t be afraid to bet against him routing based on pedigree. But what I saw Saturday was certainly nothing but a positive step in the right direction. Pletcher indicated after the race that the Jan. 28 G3 Holy Bull might come back a little too quickly, but a stretch-out was imminent. Runner-up NECK ‘N NECK (Ian Wilkes) finished up nicely for second vs. DISCREET DANCER and he appears to be getting better with each start. He’ll certainly appreciate a return to a two-turn event next time.

As for Pletcher’s Sunday turf winner, STAR CHANNEL, by the barn’s Breeders’ Cup Turf champion English Channel, he sure looked an awful lot like dear old dad, racing with his head high and aggressive on the lead. What an immediate vision back to his papa in terms of visual styles. There’s no doubt about distances up to 1 1/16 miles for STAR CHANNEL, the question will be whether he can handle dirt some day. Put him squarely on your Turfway and Keeneland watch lists for the Lane’s End or Blue Grass. Nobody in behind STAR CHANNEL appeared to run remarkably or run into significant trip troubles, including Barbaro’s kid brother MARGANO (Barclay Tagg), who failed to deliver much late. AFRICANIST (Eddie Kenneally) was a solid second in his first start since the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club and has opened up his surface horizons now to handle just about anything. Overall, this looked like a very deep and talented field that simply was outrun start to finish by the best horse on this day. Don’t be surprised if several next-out performers score from this Jan. 8 race.

The week’s other noteworthy allowance came Thursday when SKY KINGDOM (Bob Baffert) absolutely cantered to a two-turn victory at Santa Anita over three rivals. The fourth-place finisher in the G1 CashCall Futurity essentially turned this into a paid workout, geared-down to the wire with a seven-second final sixteenth. SKY KINGDOM is a very serious racehorse by Empire Maker out of a Kingmambo mare, and those who followed Countdown last year know how much I love to see that turf pedigree on the damside when looking for a Derby horse. There is very little separating this horse and Baffert’s more well-known contender, LIAISON. Meanwhile, runner-up SMART ELLIS (Richard Mandella) was fourth in the Eddie Logan on turf 12 days’ prior and was a formality in the place spot as SPIRIT RULES (Paul Aguirre) failed to deliver a route performance worthy of his 93 Beyer Speed Figure sprint maiden win.

Maiden races

Santa Anita offered a pair of promising maiden sprint performances Saturday, first by CONSULADO (Mike Puype) in race 6 and then by come-backing THREE VASES (Robertino Diodoro) in race 9. CONSULADO ran away and hid by 7 1/4 lengths in his second career start, blowing away a field that included ballyhooed $1 million debut baby WELTER WEIGHT (Steve Asmussen). WELTER WEIGHT seemed to be going nowhere for much of the going, finally figured things out late and slugged out a distant, runner-up finish. CONSULADO is by More Than Ready out of a Broad Brush mare and would certainly project out to a two-turn race and be a prime candidate to try something on the Polytrack in Kentucky with that pedigree. This win flattered the Dec. 17 Hollywood maiden score by TENACIOUS THOMAS (Melody Conlon), and note that runner worked over the Santa Anita turf earlier Saturday morning. Meanwhile, THREE VASES was sensationally quick early from a wide post, cleared the field in a few jumps and ran very hard in winning his first start since debuting second in the Graduation Stakes at Del Mar last summer. He looks like a sprinter at this point, but the horse to watch in longer races may be runner-up EZ EFFORT (Kory Owens), half-brother to Saturday’s G2 San Pasqual Stakes hero Uh Oh Bango. This In Excess colt made a sharp close after blowing the start and may have a bright future vs. Cal-breds or open foes.

At Fair Grounds last Friday, TETRADRACHM (Paul McGee) stalked joint leaders with a perfect trip before having a real battle on his hands in the stretch to prevail in a three-way photo over PROPER EMPIRE (Tony Richey) and SIR BOND (Neil Howard), the latter disappointing when he totally hung after looking like a dead-aim winner. The winner was very determined and galloped out well after this 1 1/16 miles maiden test. While the first-blush look at the pedigree would lead you to think TETRADRACHM is a miler at best (by Badge of Silver out of a Cherokee Run mare), note that his maternal grand dam was second in the 1 3/8 miles G2 New York Handicap. This was a professional maiden score over what appears to be quality opponents. SIR BOND had been second at Churchill to HIERRO in the fall, but maybe this Friday loss was proper foreshadowing to HIERRO being a bit overrated going into the G3 Sham? Meanwhile, PROPER EMPIRE had a bit of an awkward start and continues to look like a solid finisher by Empire Maker. He won’t be a maiden long.

RACONTEUR (Todd Pletcher) didn’t exactly score like you’d expect a 1/5 shot to in last Friday’s Aqueduct 9-furlong maiden stamina test, but he got the job done by a neck in a race that was run like a carousel with a very slow pace. The son of A.P. Indy probably will get a stakes chance going long after finally punching home in his sixth attempt, but appears more of a grinder. As we noted at the top of Countdown, Pletcher has had Triple Crown success with these A.P. Indy genes in the past, so we’ll see if this one improves enough to be capable.

Another big-barn win that didn’t conjure up the taste of mint juleps on your lips came from UNBRIDLED MINISTER (Ken McPeek) in Saturday’s race 6 maiden mile at Gulfstream Park. The son of Unbridled’s Song received a dream trip just behind the leaders, then the seas parted in upper stretch for him to forge by in a grinding :13.04 final furlong. The news here may be unflattering in nature, too, in that TIZ YANKEE (Nick Zito) didn’t deliver much of a fight on the lead after running second in his debut to eventual Gulfstream Park Derby third-place runner KING KID (Dale Romans). We thought KING KID looked only modest in the stakes reviewed last week, and this common opponent comparison does not flatter him at all.

Gulfstream produced a wild one Wednesday when rookie dasher DIEZ (Darrin Miller) missed the break of a 5-furlong turf sprint, but somehow rallied from 12th and last to win a seven-way photo that saw two separate dead-heat finishes underneath. Dismissed at 21-1, this is a very interesting son of Rock Hard Ten. He’s half-brother to international traveler and router Jack Sullivan, and potentially effective on most any surface. Given owner Silverton Hill Farm’s success with Polytrack performers, mark this one down as a serious player at Turfway or Keeneland this spring.

Around the horn in other maiden races last week, turf-bred MABROOM (Danny Peitz) was about as professional as you could possibly look in winning Sunday’s 1 1/16 miles grass test at Fair Grounds. The Lemon Drop Kid colt is flooded with European damside influences and was stuck inside the entire trip and worked his way out late to score, though matched vs. a field that looked awfully soft on paper … LAKE VICTOR (Steve Asmussen) outran three rivals at Fair Grounds Thursday, getting the last quarter of his 6 furlongs in :24.51, but did not produce much of any gallop-out. The disappointment was the debut last-place finish from VERY LUCKY (Larry Jones), a half-brother to G1 winner Summer Soireee … A.P. Warrior colt HAND I WAS DEALT (Matthew Klintz) scored a daylight win Friday at Turfway Park in a solid time ... New York-bred READYTODEFER, by Defer, romped state-bred maiden milers Saturday at Aqueduct by 7 lengths in his first start since switching barns to Bruce Levine … It was a total flop return for SMOKE IT OVER (Neil Howard) on Saturday at Fair Grounds, never factoring in a 6-furlong maiden won by ninth-time starter HERO OF ORDER (Gennadi Dorochenko) in a slowish 1:10.85 ... At Gulfstream on Wednesday, DREAMING OF NINO (Nick Canani) won a slow 6-furlong maiden sprint while sporting a sprinter’s pedigree.

Quick hitters

G2 Remsen winner O’PRADO AGAIN (Dale Romans) will miss the Triple Crown chase due to a condylar fracture in his right foreleg, first detected following a workout Saturday at Gulfstream Park. He is expected to race again after a few months off … UNION RAGS (Michael Matz) worked Wednesday for the first time since his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up finish, breezing 3 furlongs at Palm Meadows in 38.35, according to DRF clocker Mike Welsch. His goals remain a G2 Fountain of Youth-G1 Florida Derby two-prep path … LIAISON (Bob Baffert) worked in company with stablemate CASTAWAY on Thursday at Santa Anita, drilling 5 furlongs in :59.20, easily besting his workmate. The G2 Lewis Memorial is next on Feb 4 … Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champ HANSEN (Mike Maker) posted his third southern workout Saturday at Gulfstream Park when he breezed 5 furlongs in 1:00.40 … Next weekend’s stakes to circle include the Jan. 21 G3 Lecomte at Fair Grounds.

High fives

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

Maiden Race
1. MIDNIGHT TRANSFER (Santa Anita, 12/26)
2. FED BIZ (Santa Anita, 12/30)
3. CONSULADO (Santa Anita, 1/7) * NEW *
4. EXOTHERMIC (Gulfstream Park, 12/29 * TURF *)
5. UNUSUAL HEATWAVE (Santa Anita, 12/31 * TURF *)

Allowance Race
1. DISCREET DANCER (Gulfstream, 1/7) * NEW *
2. SKY KINGDOM (Santa Anita, 1/12) * NEW *
3. STAR CHANNEL (Gulfstream, 1/8) * NEW *
4. CAPETOWN DEVIL (Fair Grounds, 12/30)
5. ARGENTINE TANGO-dq’d (Gulfstream Park, 12/26, * TURF *)

Stakes Race
1. OUT OF BOUNDS (Sham, SA, 1/7) * NEW *
2. ALPHA (Count Fleet, Aqu, 1/7) * NEW *
3. REVERON (Gulfstream Park Derby, GP, 1/1)
4. CHIPS ALL IN (Eddie Logan, SA, 12/31 * TURF *)
5. GOT EVEN (Cal Breeders Champions, SA, 12/26)

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!