06/07/2013 9:15AM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 23 - June 7, 2013

Barbara D. Livingston
Revolutionary (above) and Orb are Jeremy Plonk's Belmont Stakes win contenders.

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

The season finale of Countdown to the Crown has arrived. Thanks for a great run this year, and we’ll exit the Countdown season when the clock ticks zero for the Belmont Stakes. Riding out on a high note with everyone excited and hopeful is how we roll. Enjoy the big race at Big Sandy.

This week’s fearless forecast

Sometimes the Triple Crown season is so good we stand along the rail at Belmont Park with our lighters held high and chant, “One more song!” until the band returns to the roar of the crowd. This has been one of those seasons as the encore in Elmont promises to be as good as the first two sets. Let’s do it one more time with Orb, Oxbow and the rest of the O-show players.

Not on my tickets

MIDNIGHT TABOO: As much as I respect the connections, this lightly raced colt takes a monumental leap in class and foundation for the mile and one-half race on Saturday. He’s a maternal grandson of 1995 Belmont and Kentucky Derby champ Thunder Gulch, and his daddy Langfuhr was a freak at Belmont Park whose sired some awfully good winners over this strip since. But while the pedigree impresses, his entire three-race career encompasses less than two full laps around the oval at Big Sandy. I would not be surprised if he’s part of the early pace mix stretching out from a one-turn race, but patient rider Garrett Gomez most likely puts him somewhere just off the first flight if the horse allows him.

VYJACK: Nothing in his pedigree, or performances in the Wood Memorial or Kentucky Derby, would hint that the Belmont Stakes distance can be attained. On his best day, he remains one of the best pure talents in this 3-year-old crop, but projecting that best day to come after a debacle in the Derby and at this lengthy trip rates a reach at best. Patient rider Julien Leparoux will give him every chance to conserve energy, but the son of Into Mischief will have to allow the rider to do so. If he fights Leparoux, a wrestling match could ensue and that’s a recipe for a double-digit placing. Vyjack long has been a tough horse to harness and his recent training has shown him to be headstrong. Add in the swirling medication controversies surrounding Rudy Rodriguez and his recent ice-cold run, and it’s easier to simply prefer others.

WILL TAKE CHARGE:  We know he’s 17 hands tall; we’ve been reminded more than a few times by trainer D. Wayne Lukas. We know he had a troubled trip in the Kentucky Derby and that’s certainly quantifiable to this eye. But what we don’t know is exactly what the heck happened in the Preakness when Will Take Charge simply did not show up for work. While it’s fair to say maybe he didn’t like the track, neither did Orb, and that rival put Will Take Charge seven lengths in his rearview mirror on a completely off day. His 28-1 upset in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes this spring at Oaklawn remains the biggest upset of a major 3-year-old dirt race on the Countdown season, and perhaps now we know why. He’s been beaten 46-plus lengths in three losses this year to go with his two wins. Which horse shows up? Even if his big body bodes well on the sweeping turns, a 14-horse field does not play well to the same attribute, and his damside pedigree, while sensational as a son of Take Charge Lady, completely taps out at a distance well short of this.

FRAC DADDY: Yes, it’s true Ken McPeek orchestrated the biggest upset in Belmont Stakes history when his Sarava won the 2002 edition. Sarava never won another race after that 70-1 shocker, losing the last eight trips to post of his career. But Sarava came into the Belmont off a victory in the Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico on the Preakness undercard. He had been first or second in all five races in the U.S. and simply had not yet been tested for class. A Belmont Stakes victory by Frac Daddy won’t register anywhere close to 70-1 on the tote’s Richter scale, but it would be every bit as unlikely if not more. Frac Daddy has run four times this year and has been beaten by more than 63 lengths, with only the Arkansas Derby distant runner-up coming within a 16-length margin of error. When Frac Daddy drew the rail, McPeek openly said they were going to the lead and rolling the dice on a style change. The only thing on Frac Daddy’s form that suggests it’s even possible is a series of blazing half-mile workouts recently at Churchill Downs. While that shows Frac Daddy may be doing exceptionally well after a spring of minor setback after setback, it’s hardly a proven road map for 12 furlongs. I dig this horse some as a fan and horseplayer, but I just don’t think this is the right place, right now.

GOLDEN SOUL: Given the respect I put on this year’s Louisiana Derby as the top prep race of the season, the Kentucky Derby runner-up remains a bit of a contradiction for me. He closed more than 15 lengths to be a solid second in Louisville with a fantastic ride and trip under Robby Albarado. His bankroll is improving from sixth in the Risen Star to fourth in the Louisiana Derby to second on the first Saturday in May. His late-running style would lead you to think he’s a run-all-day type. But Golden Soul’s pedigree is far closer to a miler-type than a mile and one-half marathoner. His “improvement” in placings also corresponds to an ever-faster series of paces in front of him. That type of scenario often fools the eye and horseplayer into thinking that a horse with a shorter, two- or three-furlong rally in him is a true stayer. Golden Soul’s best races likely are those at middle distances with fast paces. When Oxbow got an easy pace in from of him in the Lecomte, he couldn’t dial within 11 lengths of that rival. Even if the Belmont Stakes pace melts down, Golden Soul’s pedigree may keep him well short of finishing the deal Saturday. Add in the uncertainty as to how slowly he recovered from a taxing Derby effort. I think you’ll see a horse make a move mid-turn and flatten out to finish out of the money.

INCOGNITO: You won’t find a much better gene pool than the one in which this A.P. Indy-Octave colt swims. His papa won the 1992 Belmont Stakes over this trip, and his mama won the mile and one-quarter 2007 Mother Goose on Big Sandy as well. And the Belmont history drips as A.P. Indy sired 2007 race champ Rags to Riches, while trainer Kiaran McLaughlin won the 2006 Belmont with Jazil while riding a 19-year-old in Fernando Jara. He goes “old school” this year with Irad Ortiz at age 20. But family photos aside, the Godolphin blue colorbearer carried just 116 pounds in his last two starts, which were three-eighths and a half-mile shorter than Saturday’s test. But he’s run six route races in a row since December nearly on the same date each month, so that and his pedigree should get him the distance. Incognito was beaten 15-plus lengths on a sloppy track in the Peter Pan to Belmont foe Freedom Child. I expect that margin between those two to be closer this time around, but I’m not sure that does enough to put Incognito on the board.

UNLIMITED BUDGET: While I had a very good Derby 139 in terms of wagering (for once), the horseplayer in me can’t help but whine just a little about what might have been had this filly won the Oaks. Let’s just say there was a rather large Oaks-Derby double to Orb that became confetti when Unlimited Budget hung in the lane on Oaks Friday. The Oaks pace projected to be incinerator-hot, and Unlimited Budget appeared on paper to be the patient type who could capitalize. But that all changed at the start when she was bumped, and as often happens, the adrenaline and competitive juices kicked in as the athlete began to retaliate and compensate. Unlimited Budget battled too close to the pace and was left flat when she needed it most, allowing Princess of Sylmar to rally by for the score. Without the bump at the start, it’s plausible to think she wins the Kentucky Oaks and comes to Belmont 5 for 5 without a blemish. That’s only significant to the price. An unbeaten Oaks winner would take considerably more betting action than one exiting a third-place finish. No doubt the Lady Luck angle with the filly and jockey Rosie Napravnik will garner a fair share of action from the fairer sex. Note the filly gets a five-pound weight allowance to 121 pounds, which can certainly factor at such a distance as this. But the Valid Appeal sprinter-miler pedigree on the damside remains a difficult hurdle for me to accept at a mile and one-half. Javier Castellano never flinched in taking the mount on Todd Pletcher stablemate Revolutionary, which tells me the gap between these two contenders should be large enough to keep the filly out of the money.

FREEDOM CHILD: Never trust a race on a wet track. I can’t emphasize that enough. Gaudy win margins on wet tracks are as common as Lindsay Lohan court appearances. When you see a crushing victory like Freedom Child’s win in the Peter Pan – or Orb’s win in the Kentucky Derby for that matter – you must draw a line through that race and evaluate the horse based on the races you see before that skewed result. Wet track results are a product of two things, and those two things work together by definition to create a big margin. Some horses relish the slop and others hate it. Put a leap forward together with a stalled engine and you get blowout margins. It happens in maiden races and graded stakes. None of his is said to disparage Freedom Child, but rather to caution handicappers that the reasons you like or dislike Freedom Child in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes should be things not related to his May 11 performance. What makes this son of Malibu Moon a further exercise in speculation is the fact that his Wood Memorial class test was aborted at the starting gate when the assistant starter held onto him when the horse broke. He was declared a non-starter for betting purposes, and it’s my opinion that his past performance running lines should be omitted like a horse once the rider is unseated, etc. To show Freedom Child running 10th by 17 lengths in the Wood Memorial does his resume a disservice and skews the observation of horseplayers. If he’s a non-starter for betting purposes, his career record should read 2 for 5 now, not 2 for 6 as it officially does. If I can’t evaluate the Wood or Peter Pan with any certainty, and I cannot, I’m left with prior starts to go by. Freedom Child split Orb and Revolutionary at Aqueduct last fall in the strongest maiden race I can recall in Countdown’s eight seasons. Obviously he’s improved since then and he’s won toting 120 pounds over nine furlongs at Gulfstream. All three of his wins have come wire to wire, and I don’t envision that scenario as an easy chore on Saturday given the field size and who else lines up in the gate. Given he adds 10 pounds off the Peter Pan win, I’d be very surprised if he can pull off a victory in the Belmont. Certainly a forecast for wet weather puts him higher up the discussion. To what I wrote earlier about never trusting a wet track race, here’s an instant update: Trust a wet track race only when they run back on a wet track. Add him to the “exotics inclusions” if the track comes up wet.

PALACE MALICE: There may not be a more overrated or underrated horse on the 2013 trail than this son of Curlin. That’s how wide the disparity is when evaluating Palace Malice. Eight races into his career, I still have very little grasp of what we’re looking at in terms of potential. Following the Kentucky Derby, I noted in this space that he has a big one in him someday, maybe a 4-year-old star a la Lawyer Ron for Todd Pletcher. I did not expect him to be in the Belmont Stakes fray, and it’s fair to wonder if that’s some Dogwood Stable zeal, or if the horse truly belongs here Saturday. He has trained exceptionally well, but I loved his workout going into the Kentucky Derby, too, even with the blinkers then. Obviously the blinkers backfired on raceday, and the hood has been removed in New York. The Kentucky Derby pacesetter has not won the Belmont Stakes since Bold Forbes in 1976, and I don’t expect that to change this Saturday. But I would be lying if I said Palace Malice doesn’t strike fear into my twitchy finger when I punch my tickets and don’t include his number. I don’t know what to make of him, and my wagering history tells me that when you’re uncertain about a horse, you save your money. If you included every horse that gave you high blood pressure, your cuff would explode as fast as your wallet. When in doubt, leave them out. You can always bet your next firm opinion with saved money. But if you like Palace Malice, none of my indecision should stop you.

Exotics inclusions

OVERANALYZE: The quality of his Arkansas Derby signature score was underlined some when Oaklawn rival Oxbow rolled to a front-running Preakness score three weeks ago. Now we’ll see if the quirky resume of Overanalyze can take its turn of self-correction. Since his first day at the races, he’s been on a win-one, lose-one pattern over eight races. The Arkansas Derby victory did not hold shape when he ran 11th in the Kentucky Derby. But his previous two off-the-board finishes resulted in blowout victories the next time. With horses like this, it’s difficult to determine what is substantive about the record and what is coincidental or circumstantial. For instance, his four losses could be reasoned as: A rapid rise into graded stakes off a maiden win; his first road trip to Kentucky; his first start off a three-month layoff to start the year; and a mildly troubled trip in the Kentucky Derby. Certainly if we shamed every horse who lost the Kentucky Derby, we’d only have 139 respected runners in the history of the American racing scene. The stance with a win-one, lose-one type of horse seems easier to take when they are exiting a victory. You can reason that physical issues may be the reason why they drop off in performance after a strenuous effort. You can also look very smart in your horseplaying life saying horses will lose a race. You’ll be right 90 percent of the time in a 10-horse field. But projecting a win-one, lose-one horse to win the next start after a dull effort is a much more difficult assignment. A handicapper must be forgiving of the loss and find excuses and reasons why. And, statistically and realistically, it’s simply harder to predict a win than a loss. My point in this whole “Who’s on first” conversation is to say that Overanalyze’s chances to win the Belmont likely have nothing to do with the pattern of finishes he’s shown in the past. How’s that for overanalyzing? What I have seen throughout this horse’s career is a runner who occasionally shows some explosive brilliance, but nearly always comes with a steady beat. That’s a very good Belmont Stakes recipe over the marathon trip. Add in Belmont maestro John Velazquez to the saddle and you have a horse capable of a very solid placing, even if the win-one, lose-one streak likely ends here.

OXBOW: While 15-1 winners of the Preakness are as rare a sighting as Sasquatch, to deflect the accomplishment of this impeccably bred colt would be a short shrift. Oxbow earned his 15-1 price tag at Pimlico because of his inconsistency, not his inability. On his game, the son of Awesome Again remains a dangerous hombre. Off his game, Oxbow can make even a confident handicapper blush. The secret sauce remains his comfort zone when allowed to make the lead. He’s made the lead by the second call in five of his 11 starts, and in those races he owns a strong 3-0-1 record. In the six races he failed to poke his neck in front by the second call, his record is 0-1-0. It doesn’t take Pittsburgh Phil or Andy Beyer’s nephew to figure out the Preakness champ. Oxbow’s ability to win the Belmont Stakes will be staked completely to the pace scenario. If he can make the lead and dictate the action, look out. If he can’t, it’s kryptonite. Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens certainly feels like the right man for the job, and I love seeing D. Wayne Lukas back in the high life. The window dressing of Calumet Farm’s resurrection makes for even better theater. With Freedom Child to his inside, one would assume the post position draw – like it did in the Preakness – finally did this guy a favor. It had been a horrific run of far wide or far inside post draws this spring for Oxbow, and he’s painted on canvas for all of us to see that he’s a one-style horse who simply becomes compromised by such hurdles. Recent history screams that a Preakness performance is difficult to repeat at Belmont. No horse who competed in the middle jewel of the Triple Crown has won this race since Afleet Alex in 2005, and the only Belmont winners in the last dozen runnings to have competed in all three Triple Crown legs were Afleet Alex and Point Given (2001). While it’s difficult to confidently place Oxbow in the exotics placings without winning, that’s where my gut tells me his Belmont tale will end. In his eight career losses, only two of them were by less than five lengths, so it’s not as though he’s going to nibble with consistency. He’ll fire, or he won’t, and that most likely will be predicated on the pace.

GIANT FINISH: Unless you dine on 6-5 shots, the heart of a horseplayer comes from the desire to ferret out something others do not. After all, every good payoff needs a little chaos by definition in the parimutuel game. If you landed on 34-1 runner-up Golden Soul in the Kentucky Derby – either by a stroke of good handicapping or a stroke of the “all” button – you realize what I mean. Take the race’s two favorites and sandwich them around a longshot in a large field size and you get a Derby trifecta that paid nearly $7,000 for a deuce. It didn’t take a genius to come up with that; just a solid price horse. When you look at the distance variable in the Belmont Stakes, the desire to unearth something uncovered makes plenty of sense. The two most-recent final jewels have included longshot placings from Atigun (20-1) and Ruler On Ice (24-1), hardly household names by the time the vans left Louisville and Baltimore. As uninterested as I was in Giant Finish’s late entry into the Kentucky Derby, I’m equally excited about his presence in the Belmont Stakes. As I wrote here after the Derby, his grinding, run-all-day style would play perfectly over a trip like this, and his sire was a local dynamo at Belmont. The midpack finish by Giant Finish as a Derby afterthought probably deserves more appreciation than he will get, given he wasn’t lagging far behind the fast pace, and he wasn’t being collared late by all the rally types. Hall of Fame jockey Edgar Prado has had a career rebirth over the last several months and is riding as well as he has in a decade. And lest we forget it was Prado who piloted two of the Belmont Stakes’ all-time stunners, 70-1 Sarava in 2002 and 36-1 Birdstone two years later. I don’t forecast a victory for Giant Finish, but a giant finish for this horse would be underneath in the exotics. If he runs two-three-four behind my top choices, get behind me in the pay line.

Win contenders

ORB: Kentucky Derby winners rarely tank in the Preakness, so even if you scoffed at his 3-5 odds in Baltimore, you had to be equally surprised at his complete non-effort. Now Orb’s task will be to become the first Derby-Belmont winner since Thunder Gulch in 1995. But before drawing that comparison, understand that Thunder Gulch ran much better in defeat at Old Hilltop, third by three-quarters of a length. For Orb to win the Belmont Stakes, he will have to become the first Derby winner to lose the Preakness by nine or more lengths and rebound in New York since Johnstown in 1939. In fact, no horse to finish off the board in the Preakness has rebounded to win the Belmont since fellow fourth-place finisher Touch Gold in 1997. And to throw more gasoline on the fire, the Preakness was nowhere near Orb’s worst career performance. That came last Sept. 8 when he was beaten 22 lengths … in his only start at Belmont Park. So why on Earth would anyone want Orb at what figures to be a $7 or $8 mutuel? Sometimes things just feel right. You don’t pinch-hit for your star shortstop just because he’s a .111 career hitter against a particular pitcher. Certain athletes earn the right to defy the statistics of the short run. You’ve won with them before; you know that they are capable of; and you know that there’s no one else you’d rather have on your side. Orb’s dominant spring in the Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby earned that trust. He’s only the fourth horse ever to sweep those races, joining Tim Tam, Spectacular Bid and the aforementioned Thunder Gulch. What do those other three horses all have in common? They each won two-thirds of the Triple Crown, adding either the Preakness or Belmont to their Derby scores. Nobody claims that Orb is the next Spectacular Bid, but in an era where fly-by-night horses are lucky to post one big-time effort a year, the three-race tear in Florida and Kentucky puts Orb on another level in 2013 terms. Trainer Shug McGaughey would have been the first trainer in America to pull the plug on the Belmont had Orb not shown a readiness to race. His presence in the starting gate ought to be all you need to know about his physical abilities to win on Saturday. The question now comes down to the surface, and if Orb will handle it. Pimlico was slow and deep, perhaps even more so inside, where Orb raced. Belmont is notoriously deep and called Big Sandy for a reason. Might Orb not prefer that kind of footing? Maybe. But the week’s rains and further forecast of rain means Belmont very likely will be a sealed track on Saturday, and the way Orb got over a blazing, hard strip at Gulfstream this spring, Mother Nature might be on his side in battling against deep footing.

REVOLUTIONARY: I had barely cashed my ticket on the Derby when my mind already had circled Revolutionary for the Belmont. Given Todd Pletcher’s aversion for the Preakness, you just knew that his Derby posse would be redirected at the Belmont Stakes. Watching horses gallop out past the wire is something I do every race. And while it’s not a science by any means, the artisan in any horseplayer can choose to interpret its meaning. Revolutionary galloped out monstrously after the Louisiana Derby and again was best beyond the wire in the Kentucky Derby. Skeptics will say that they don’t pay past the wire, and that’s true. But when adding distance from Race A to Race B, the gallop-out takes on more importance than a run-of-the-mill dash going six furlongs on any given Saturday. Over the past decade, the Belmont success story has been written most often by Derby alumni resting up the five weeks between races and winning fresh in the final jewel. It worked for Union Rags last year, as well as recent Belmont champs like Summer Bird, Jazil, Birdstone and Empire Maker. It’s Empire Maker that Revolutionary most reminds me of, placing behind Funny Cide in the 2003 Derby before Bobby Frankel aimed him at a Belmont bonanza. Revolutionary has the pedigree like Empire Maker as well as the proven past performances, winning over multiple racing surfaces en route to the Derby.

In the spirit of honesty, upon which I pride Countdown, I was set to single Revolutionary and key everything in the wagering world around him on Saturday. But after watching his workout videos in recent days and the respected commentary I’ve read and heard, my confidence has come down a shade. His recent activity has not sparkled as much as he had going into the Kentucky Derby, where he ran an admirable third. That factor has brought Orb back into the win fold for me as a security blanket to Revolutionary in multi-race wagers, as well as my keys on top in the intra-race bets.

Enjoy the Belmont and we’ll see you in 2014!

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. 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 about the 3-year-old or national racing scene at Jeremy@Horseplayernow.com.