06/07/2012 8:06PM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 23 - June 8, 2012


Countdown to the Crown today completes 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 karma the Racing Gods serve. Your wishes aren’t always served.

1. Belmont’s stretch run to the wire is the shortest of all three Triple Crown races (1,097 feet), so please resist the temptation to repeat the oft-spewed misnomer about the “long stretch” at Belmont Park separating champions. This race, and its track configuration, is all about the turns. I’LL HAVE ANOTHER will either make or miss history in the Belmont stretch, but it’s the turns that will make or break his chances.

2. I understand trainers rightly being upset about rules being made up on the fly like the Belmont Stakes detention barn, but it’s rather disingenuous by these same guys to suggest that the change of scenery is somehow a new, dangerous hurdle for the horses. Every single day thousands of horses are shipped in to racetracks, by these same-level trainers or less, and held in receiving barns that are different than the stall they woke up in that morning. It happens with Aqueduct van-riders to Belmont, Hollywood van-riders to Santa Anita and slews of locales in-between. Nobody complains about the voluntary Pimlico stakes barn as most everyone shows up there and considers it a cool, all-star game hangout. It’s just when you’re told what to do that people often feel threatened.

3. Typically modest trainer Michael Matz has gone all-in on his reputation when it comes to UNION RAGS, saying he could have, and maybe should have, been a Triple Crown winner. Following a series of excuses, the firing of rider Julien Leparoux and a continued discourse about this horse’s unrealized greatness, Matz and ‘RAGS have a lot on the line Saturday.

This week’s fearless forecast

We call this puppy Countdown to the Crown. We’ve got a Crown on the line, so what more can we ask for? It’s time to whittle this Belmont Stakes field down to a champion. First, let’s look at the pace scenario.


Not on my tickets

GUYANA STAR DWEEJ: After taking eight tries to break his maiden, this colt didn’t show enough in allowance company at Aqueduct to make you think he’s got a major leap forward in him. He’s no bum on pedigree, even if he didn’t cost much. His bloodlines are flooded with Preakness success with names like Pine Bluff, Unbridled and Eddington all hitting the board at Old Hilltop and within his first two generations. But he’ll need more than pedigree to factor in the Belmont Stakes.

RAVELO’S BOY: He has been away since March 10, and this assignment seems like Mission Impossible for a horse who has not won a race since December. His damside pedigree spells “miler,” which means his closing kick in past 1 1/16-mile races may be rendered moot by the 12 furlongs at Belmont. The poor Triple Crown finishes for Prospective and Cozetti exiting the Tampa Bay Derby do not give much resume support. You’re braver than me if you can support his chances on Saturday.

FIVE SIXTEEN: Lightly raced gelding had one start per month the first four months of the year and hasn’t been seen since mid-April. The connections picked an awfully auspicious place to make his stakes debut. None of the horses he’s knocked heads with this year have gone on to any graded stakes success, so there’s little “hidden” class in these running lines. Sire Invasor would suggest he’ll handle some distance, but the Salt Lake on the damside of the pedigree doesn’t scream out for the trip by any means.

UNSTOPPABLE U: Trainer Ken McPeek jumped up a similar-looking horse in class in the 2003 Ohio Derby named Wild and Wicked, who made his graded stakes debut his third career victory in as many starts. But this assignment should be far more daunting given the quality of competition and 1 1/2-mile distance. The barn wasn’t ecstatic about the way he had been going physically in recent days, and that, coupled with inexperience and a lean foundation, is a tough recipe to embrace. Trainer Ken McPeek says he expects him to be in front, which is not going to be a “gimmee” versus PAYNTER.

OPTIMIZER: He’s been beaten by 48 combined lengths in his last three Grade 1 starts, and this week, to add insult to injury, his stablemate kicked trainer D. Wayne Lukas and sent him to the hospital to have his head stitched. I certainly wish all the best to the Hall of Famer and hope that he’s feeling better. Lukas truly has been one of my favorite people to cover in all of racing over the past few decades. After Wednesday’s post position draw, DWL joked that he got a date with the head nurse and sold two doctors a horse during his hospital stay, proving he can make lemonade from lemons. A Belmont win would be a get-well card for the ages, but OPTIMIZER never has run a race on dirt to make me think that we need to go shopping for stamps. Expect a mid-pack finish where he passes tired horses.

MY ADONIS: After vanning more than 1,350 miles to Kentucky and back to Maryland after testing the Derby’s also-eligible list, the son of Pleasantly Perfect was a flat third in Pimlico’s Canonero II Stakes on Derby Day. Obviously he had a reason to lose that day at 1-5 odds, but to project him forward and win the Belmont Stakes takes some creativity after four straight losses this year. Trainer Kelly Breen did exit the same Pimlico stakes last year with Ruler On Ice to upend the Belmont cart, but that was a sloppy-track-induced victory after which the horse still has yet to win another race. If you want to bet this guy, maybe start your rain dance now. Breen trainees are exceptional on off tracks at all levels.

Exotics contenders

STREET LIFE: Please don’t mistake his inclusion here as an endorsement for victory; we’re talking about the very bottom of trifecta or superfecta with this long-winded router. While I’m actually a big fan of this horse and maybe a sucker for the deep closer and the emotions they invoke, even I don’t like horses like this at all going 1 1/2 miles. Occasionally a deep bomber like Jazil wins a Belmont, but that 2006 anomaly came in a year when the Derby and Preakness winners (Barbaro and Bernardini) were noticeably absent. Street Life likely can’t beat good horses with his style at this trip, though he will pick off the lesser ones at a good price and may be worth including third or fourth.

ATIGUN: I like that Ken McPeek gave this long-winded runner a race on the Kentucky Derby undercard, getting him more big-crowd experience like he got at Oaklawn in the Arkansas Derby. The Dynaformer on the bottom of his pedigree will come in handy at the Belmont distance and McPeek engineered a 70-1 upset of the 2002 Belmont with Sarava. I harbor no delusions of him running first or second, but like Street Life, he’ll be an attractive price to slot third or fourth in the trifectas or superfectas in the hopes that one of the big four doesn’t fire.

UNION RAGS: No doubt the wider turns at Belmont Park will help the big, lumbering winner of last year’s G1 Champagne over the Big Sandy surface. Changing riders to John Velazquez, a superstar over the Belmont oval throughout his career, can only be considered a positive, taking nothing away from Julien Leparoux. But home-field advantage is a real element, just like Leparoux when he masters Keeneland. I think UNION RAGS will run his best race in some time, but the 1 1/2-mile distance of the Belmont Stakes always has been a major question mark with the son of Dixie Union. He stands a solid chance at a solid placing, but I’m hesitant to use him in the top spot given the distance and fact that I simply prefer others.

Win contenders

I’LL HAVE ANOTHER: As impressive as he was at Pimlico, and he wowed me more than any race he’s run to date, the star of the show still has one more huge hurdle. I have legitimate concern he’s losing some of the bloom off the rose. Recent gallops haven’t drawn the same rave reviews, and I have to say I’m not wild about the decision to just gallop between the Preakness and Belmont. These races take a toll. Point Given worked 5 furlongs in 59-and-change while making the third start of the series after a Preakness win. The ultimate two-a-day galloper, Afleet Alex, also worked 5 furlongs in-between. Yes, every horse is different, but 1 1/2 miles stays the same as does the challenge of three races in five weeks. I’LL HAVE ANOTHER stands a better chance to punch out his Belmont opponents than many of the Triple Crown pursuers past, but that doesn’t mean he’s a 3-5 shot to beat this field, which is where I think his win odds will settle after all the souvenirs. Trip-wise, he figures to carve out a magnificent journey right behind PAYNTER and UNSTOPPABLE U. If he can reproduce his efforts from his last four races this year, you’ll be crowning a legend. If he can’t, the door of disappointment swings open once again, and the Belmont Stakes trophy most likely would belong to one of the two remaining contenders on this list.

PAYNTER: Conceivably the best strategy to beat I’LL HAVE ANOTHER would be to be in front of him throughout. If the favorite doesn’t quite fire his best kick at the end of 1 1/2 miles, the hope would be that the early advantage would be enough to hold him at bay. If this Belmont Stakes indeed is won on the front end, PAYNTER must play that role. He’s overcome a lot in a short time: the Santa Anita Derby after just one 5 1/2-furlong maiden race; a wild hailstorm before the Derby Trial; and a Preakness Day melee crowd in his Pimlico allowance win. I like that trainer Bob Baffert worked him eight days after the Pimlico race. And, you have to love his pedigree, by Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Awesome Again out of a mare who is sister to two-time Breeders’ Cup Classic champ Tiznow. When owner Ahmed Zayat joked he was going to name a horse after Baffert’s young son Bode, it was this son of Awesome Again that Baffert was hoping would get the moniker, not the eventual horse we now know as Bodemeister. PAYTNER has been held in high regard by the barn for a long time. Now he has to see if he can make up for lost time and win the Belmont Stakes on a very light career resume in terms of depth. I’ll be using him in multi-race wagers in the top spot that suggest it’s not impossible.

DULLAHAN: When trainer Dale Romans beams, I beam. I’ve gotten to know him over the past several years as a member of the official Kentucky Derby notes team, and have become fairly adept at reading his body language. The facts that Romans’s horse has been working like a steamroller and the trainer has not been afraid to publicly play the role of spoiler speak volumes to me. DULLAHAN still strikes me as a horse who is better on turf or synthetic surfaces than dirt, but his dirt performance in the Kentucky Derby was good enough to get within 1 3/4 lengths of I’LL HAVE ANOTHER. Many contended that Secretariat’s best surface was turf, too. Hold off on the Secretariat e-mails, we’re not comparing the two horses. It’s just to say that top horses, even Belmont Stakes winners, can be high-class on multiple surfaces. DULLAHAN comes to Elmont a fresh horse after a five-week layoff. It’s a layoff that has been employed with great success since 2000 by a fistful of Belmont winners, and I’d expect DULLAHAN to run a dynamite race on Saturday. He’ll be my top choice and key to my wagers, both intra-race and multi-race, the latter plays also using I’LL HAVE ANOTHER and PAYNTER to end pick fours.

Quick hitters

Here’s a salute to the tens of thousands of racing fans each season who make Countdown to the Crown such a joy to put together. We’ll begin researching the 2013 crop in earnest when the summer meets begin at Saratoga and Del Mar next month. Thanks to Daily Racing Form for picking up the syndication this season and helping me bring this labor of love to the racing fans! If you’re at Belmont this weekend, be sure to drop by the Racing 101 handicapping booth on the grandstand track level for great racing fan education from my Night School Tour colleagues.