05/24/2013 2:38PM

Countdown To The Crown: Week 21 - May 24, 2013

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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

It’s no surprise that D. Wayne Lukas fell from the top of the Thoroughbred game. Consider the passing of mega-owners like Eugene Klein, William T. Young, and Bob Lewis, not to mention the meteoric rise of Lukas’s one-time assistant Todd Pletcher, who competed for his owners like Michael Tabor. But with just one big client – Brad Kelley and his reemerging Calumet Farm – Lukas already has won a Breeders’ Cup race and a Preakness. Give the man a checkbook and it makes all the difference in the world.

This week’s fearless forecast

We don’t have a race to look forward to this weekend with any Triple Crown implications, though the Grade 3 Arlington Classic on turf brings some familiar faces from the trail back to the fore. Grade 3 Lexington runner-up GENERAL ELECTION (Kellyn Gorder), Illinois Derby second FORDUBAI (Greg Geier), and Oaklawn series alumnus BROWN ALMIGHTY (Tim Ice) are among the dozen entered. Everyone’s a critic

This section reviews the week that was in the class of 3-year-olds. We take the 2013 Preakness field from top to bottom in order, searching for the whys and hows of a wild one in Baltimore.

OXBOW (1st): If his Kentucky Derby did not prove too taxing, it was an effort clearly good enough to make them all sweat in the Preakness. And that proved true as Oxbow dominated the proceedings in Baltimore while leading every step except the very first. It has been noted in this space all season that there’s not a better classic pedigree than his, a son of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Awesome Again out of a full sister to two-time Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Tiznow. Given the right pace scenario, his class and pedigree could win the day, and that’s exactly what happened at Pimlico. Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens took advantage of the situation when expected pacemakers Goldencents and Govenor Charlie failed to show early sizzle either by design or default. This win was no fluke: Oxbow had the pedigree, connections, and past performances worthy of a Triple Crown race victory. The time was slower than any Preakness in a half-century, but this track was slow and has been all season. The Preakness clocked about five lengths faster than Last Gunfighter’s Pimlico Special victory the day before. Despite a minor bump at the start from stablemate Will Take Charge, Oxbow still shot to the front as Stevens kept him about two or three paths off the inside despite being loose on the lead. The stereotypical dead rail at Pimlico appeared to be in play as riders tried to avoid the inside. Oxbow was three or four paths off the fence when he straightened for home. He finished with good energy and galloped out much the best. No one will confuse Oxbow for being consistent, but plenty of inconsistent horses have delivered A-list performances in past classic races and earned accolades. The victory pushed D. Wayne Lukas past Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons for all-time Triple Crown race victories with 14. Lukas had not tasted Triple Crown success since Commendable’s 2000 Belmont Stakes win, and honestly that “Fitzsimmons fact” was lost on me given the time between scores. Lukas now has won Triple Crown races in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. Oxbow moves on to the Belmont Stakes much like he has all season – as a huge danger in any race in which he competes, but one that cannot be fully trusted to deliver a top performance. Such is his resume, and so it remains until we see huge performances continually paired.

ITSMYLUCKYDAY (2nd): From my blessed vantage point just above the finish line at the NBC broadcast position, no horse rated even close to the Florida Derby runner-up on looks when they came out onto the track. From a pure visuals standpoint, it was a blowout, and Itsmyluckyday at that point made any concerns about him being “over the top” a moot point. It was too late to do anything about it from a betting standpoint for me, but I Tweeted out his standout looks at that moment (@Horseplayernow) and knew that not including him in my exactas was now a possible mistake.. Itsmyluckyday loomed large in the upper stretch and simply couldn’t get to Oxbow, who continued to kick home. The final margin of 1 3/4 lengths made the Derby an aberration, and we can fairly say now his was not a form cycle in decline, but rather a poor performance in Louisville. Itsmyluckyday took a four-wide run on first turn when having a chance to drop in, but was kept wide like most in the race and remained wide. He had a crystal clear trip, tried hard with his head down running in the lane, but just was second best. Look for him to be retooled for a Haskell campaign over his summer home track at Monmouth.

MYLUTE (3rd): After the Derby and Preakness, Mylute has run two of the strongest Triple Crown races in tandem. A close fifth in the Derby and third here by 2 1/4 lengths, he has fired both times with his best shot. Mylute broke flat-footed on Saturday and had Departing take his path at the start. Once again, he had that short move and burst about him, getting a rise out of Dave Rodman’s call at the quarter pole, but timing the move on a horse like this is very tough. Though he finished better than some in the lane, his head was very high and gasping some late, losing all efficiency. Mylute is extremely talented with some distance issues, and he will wisely avoid the Belmont Stakes in search of a productive summer season. I can’t wait to see him down the road at 1 1/16 miles and 1 1/8 miles.

ORB (4th): It’s easy to say Orb was overhyped and just as easy to find criticisms with any 3-5 shot when that horse finishes out of the money. But any horse sporting a five-race winning streak that includes the Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby, and Kentucky Derby deserves any and all accolades tossed his way. For every person who wants to crow that Orb was overrated, those same folks have to admit that the three horses who beat him in the Preakness all were horses Orb already had beaten with varying degrees of ease. The only logical conclusion when Oxbow, Itsmylfuckyday, and Mylute all turn the tables on Orb would be that the favorite came back to the pack. Orb brought his C-game to a race in which he once again needed his A-game. Truly special horses probably could have won this race with their B-performance, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. But Orb was nowhere near the best we have seen him this spring. His Pimlico effort would not have won the Fountain of Youth or Florida Derby against the likes of Violence or Itsmyluckyday.. Nor would his Preakness effort have come close in the Kentucky Derby. Orb, beaten nine lengths at Pimlico, just did not fire. Horses are not machines; all the great ones have lost races you would have expected them to win. Certainly we saw some degree of emotional piling on with Orb, a horse people tried to “will” to victory in addition to sound handicapping logic. He looked at least 6-5 or even money to me in a field of nine without any emotional stake. That extra incentive for the public drove him to an underlaid 3-5 price, the shortest in the Preakness since Big Brown was 1-5 in 2008. But Orb looked every part the Preakness winner to me going in, so I can’t claim a single “I told you so” at any closing price.

So why did he get beat? Much was made about the rail going into and out of the race. And while it’s true Orb never went five or six wide at any point around horses in Baltimore, it’s not like he was glued to the wood. Orb dragged Joel Rosario into third midway down the backstretch. But Titletown Five went at the same time and put him in the back of a diamond behind Oxbow ahead, Titletown Five to the inside and Goldencents to the outside. At that point, Orb decelerated from third to sixth in about 15 strides by my count, and never re-gathered. This was not a great trip, but also not the kind of trip that beats a star on his game. Orb, less than his best on this day without argument, had no extra will to make a second run and was even from there out to the wire. He did not embarrass himself, but his letdown in performance certainly felt like a letdown to the public watching. It’s fair for horses to let down, and it’s also fair for sports fans to feel let down. We’re all mortal; those who race and those who watch. Can he rebound in the Belmont Stakes? Absolutely. And if trainer Shug McGaughey deems him ready to run, know that he only will be in the final jewel if he’s giving off all the right signs. Otherwise, this is a camp that would wait for a Travers game plan.

GOLDENCENTS (5th): As dominant as the Californians were in 2012 with I’ll Have Another, Bodemeister, Creative Cause, Paynter et al, it’s proven quite telling that the 2013 crop of West Coasters has been so much weaker that it can’t even compete for the lead in these Triple Crown races. What happened to the California speed? Oxbow and Palace Malice have set the tables so far, leaving the Californians in chase and fade mode. Goldencents was put into a hard drive from the three-eighths pole and wasn’t catching Oxbow at that juncture, steadily fading to be beaten more than nine lengths. While he didn’t completely retreat like he did in the Derby, Goldencents was spent for the final three-sixteenths of a mile. A race like the Swaps at Hollywood Park this summer would appear a smart target, if not a longer break with an eye toward late summer. Trainer Doug O’Neill said Thursday that the King’s Bishop at Saratoga in August would be a likely target.

DEPARTING (6th): The public went pretty cold on Departing, sending him away fifth choice among a cluster at 10-1 odds. I misread that, projecting he would be second choice or co-second choice. Suspicions that he could be a bit distance-limited may have been telling after he made a Preakness move and hung when it counted, beaten 10 lengths. Jockey Brian Hernandez pinned him to the hip of Orb into the first turn and then tracked just outside that one’s every move on the backstretch. He passed Orb when that rival was shuffled a bit into the far turn, and sustained a small run toward the inside, but not on the fence, to the quarter pole. Departing lost his leg action the last furlong and wasn’t going anywhere. He would be a logical candidate back at Churchill Downs in June for the Matt Winn at 1 1/16 miles.

WILL TAKE CHARGE (7th): While stablemate Oxbow moved forward off the Kentucky Derby, Will Take Charge lumbered in the back, beaten 16 lengths. The well-bred colt just doesn’t show up nearly often enough to be trusted. I used him second in exactas with Oxbow, both underneath Orb, to no avail. Will Take Charge broke inward a bit and brushed with Oxbow, but never ran a jump and had little visible excuse. Lukas said the horse fought the track and his large size and stride make him a candidate for the Belmont Stakes on the sweeping turns. That part may be true, but I’m probably incapable of trusting this one firing a big shot. Take my temperature in a few weeks.

GOVENOR CHARLIE (8th): After a lethargic break, the Sunland Derby winner was hung wide into the clubhouse turn. He never reached any contention and continued a frustrating April and May on the trail for Bob Baffert. Beaten 32 lengths, he will regroup back west with races like the Swaps and perhaps the Haskell targeted. Baffert has done well with that New Jersey foray over the years, but this horse may be more West Virginia Derby than Haskell. Both are attractive prizes at which to shoot. Govenor Charlie was asked too much too soon with too many distractions to his health and wellness.

TITLETOWN FIVE (9th): Eased home, the future sprinter was beaten 47 1/4 lengths in the Preakness. This simply was the wrong race at the wrong time. The only Preakness horse who raced tight to the inside at any point, he was inside on the clubhouse turn before retreating. It was a classic “no lead, no pass” and Titletown Five was done more than three furlongs from the finish. Look for him to take aim on sprint races like the King’s Bishop at Saratoga this summer if healthy.

Quick Hitters

CODE WEST (Bob Baffert) may have “pulled a Paynter” and earned a Belmont Stakes bid via the allowance ranks on the Preakness undercard. While he won Saturday’s finale with ease, he didn’t gallop out with much earnest at all. Word came this week that Rosie Napravnik would have the mount … Jockey Javier Castellano will reunite with Kentucky Derby third-place finisher REVOLUTIONARY (Todd Pletcher) in the Belmont Stakes and could vie for favoritism … The filly Unlimited Budget (Todd Pletcher), third in the Kentucky Oaks, also has designs on the Belmont for a barn that won it with the filly Rags to Riches in 2007.

High Fives

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

1. ORB (Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, 5/3)
2. OXBOW (Preakness, Pimlico, 5/17)
3. ORB (Florida Derby, Gulfstream, 3/30)
4. ITSMYLUCKYDAY (Holy Bull, Gulfstream, 1/26)
5. VERRAZANO (Wood Memorial, Aqueduct, 4/6)

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!