01/18/2013 1:53PM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 3 - Jan. 18, 2013

John Duca/Tom Cooley Photography
In the Pasco, Dynamic Sky became the first success story to exit the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

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 injury bug can bite at any time on the Triple Crown trail, and already we’ve seen big-name barns lose prospects for 2013. Among the sidelined: HIGHTAIL (D. Wayne Lukas), GULFPORT (Dale Romans), JOHA (Mike Maker) and ARCHWARRIOR (Todd Pletcher). TITLETOWN FIVE (D. Wayne Lukas) could return in late March after a minor setback, the barn reported this week.

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. As is custom, I’ll outline some undercard races of note before diving into the stakes analysis and selections. Due to the entry schedule and Countdown deadline for posting, I will handle Monday’s Jimmy Winkfield Stakes from Aqueduct only in the review section next week.

Friday’s race 4 maiden mile at Santa Anita has the feel that something important is in the works. FOOTBRIDGE (Eoin Harty) is a highly respected Street Cry colt who exits a potential key race behind BELVIN (Bob Baffert) and was crying out for distance in his debut. He’s had a bullet drill since and looks to be a good race away from a stakes date. FOREST BOY (John Sadler) was runner-up in that key Dec. 26 race and has long been high on the stable’s list. CURLY TOP (Bob Baffert) removes blinkers for his third route and the Curlin colt has been flattered by his past rivals in recent weeks. COASTAL BREEZE (Bob Baffert) exits one of the better maiden races of the meet at Santa Anita. Also-eligible MORENO (Eric Guillot) looms a danger if he can draw into the field. PYTHON (Steve Asmussen), with Empire Maker-Escena bloodlines, appears well-meant and scratched from a very tough race Dec. 29 in order to find a softer debut spot. He missed no time in training and has worked strongly twice since.

BEYOND COMPARE (Tom Proctor) gets an interesting dirt experiment in a race 5 maiden sprint Friday at Tampa Bay Downs. The $375,000 Tapit colt is out of a full sister to the spectacular turf mare Voodoo Dancer, but raced only on Polytrack and grass in two Arlington Park starts last summer. His competition includes the fellow comebacker MR. D’ORO (Jason Servis), third in his debut when last seen at Monmouth behind the eventual stakes winner PURPLE EGG (Jane Cibelli). A good dirt run from BEYOND COMPARE could really open up his possibilities.

Oaklawn Park lost two days of racing last week to weather and track conditions and has brought back one of those allowance events in Friday’s race 8 at 6 furlongs. CAROL’S JIMMY (Kenny Smith) returns in the entries from last Sunday, but new face LOOSENTHESECONDARY (Mike Stidham) appears dangerous off a Fair Grounds allowance win. Another make-up event was brought back Saturday in a race 7 maiden route, where MR BLACKTHORN (Steve Hobby) got a much more advantageous post draw than he had last week. SEAL TEAM FOUR (Eoin Harty) is a new face to that lineup this week, as is MOON BACK MORE (Kenny McPeek), who has chased some toughies in Kentucky. This race came back even tougher than it was a week ago.

Saturday’s Gulfstream Park card kicks off with a race 1 allowance at 7 furlongs that came up rather soft in terms of depth. It should be an easy return for PALACE MALICE (Todd Pletcher), an impressive Saratoga maiden breaker by Curlin. The field does include 50/1 Spectacular Bid Stakes surprising runner-up CITY OF WESTON (Antonio Sano) as well as MAJESTIC HUSSAR (Eddie Kenneally), half-brother to 2011 grassy Palm Beach Stakes winner Joe’s Blazing Aaron. Two events later, a 1 1/8-mile maiden route in race 3 could be another Pletcher playground as UNITARIAN makes his third start. He’s one of three pursuers of MOUNTAIN EAGLE (Nick Zito) in this heat, and could give us a barometer on that Dec. 8 maiden mile winner. Incidentally, MOUNTAIN EAGLE has been off the workout tab at Palm Meadows since New Year’s Eve.

Saturday’s race 2 maiden sprint at Santa Anita looks rather weak on paper by that circuit’s standards, though first-timer GOVERNOR CHARLIE (Bob Baffert) carries plenty of that barn’s history. The Midnight Lute colt is a grandson of Kentucky Oaks heroine Silverbulletday. REMIND ME (Robertino Diodoro) split the field in a massive key race Nov. 25 at Betfair Hollywood Park in which the top three finishers all have returned to win and MANANDO (Bob Baffert) since has finished third in the G3 Sham Stakes.

Fair Grounds rescheduled its turf stakes on Saturday given wet conditions in recent days, so Saturday’s race 4 turf maiden mile could very well see a surface change. Hansen’s baby brother GUNDERSON (Mike Maker) hasn’t shown much in two starts to date, so time is ticking to see if he’ll have any Triple Crown trail legacy. MARGIN (Al Stall) makes his debut and he’s full brother to G2 Crown Royal American Turf winner Lattice. The Big Brown colt GROUND TRANSPORT (Mike Stidham) looms an obvious danger if this one gets moved to the main track.

At Golden Gate Fields on Saturday, a race 8 maiden special weight sprint includes RUSSDICULOUS (Doug O’Neill) for University of Louisville hoops coach Rick Pitino et al. He’ll try easier sailing after tiring in a troubled Santa Anita super-tough maiden mile on Dec. 29.

Saturday’s minor stakes docket also includes the $85,000 Pepsi Cola Handicap at Sunland Park. The New Mexico-bred sprint features STORMS SURPRISE (Owen Bringhurst), already a two-turn stakes winner at the meet and one who could stretch back out for the Sunland Derby trail. He could have his work cut out for him beating ATTILA’S HURRICANE (Bart Hone) at this sprint distance, however. And on Saturday night, Texas-breds meet in the Groovy Stakes at Sam Houston, where WORLDVENTURER (Bret Calhoun) could give us an early barometer for Monday’s Smarty Jones at Oaklawn Park. He exits a good third in the Springboard Mile at Remington, and that race figures a prominent prep for Monday’s action at Oaklawn.

Race 4 Sunday at Aqueduct matches maiden sprinters, including MR BEAUREGARD (Tom Albertrani), who has had the misfortune in three starts to date of facing VYJACK (Rudy Rodriguez), RYDILLUC (Gary Contessa) and REVOLUTIONARY (Todd Pletcher), all of whom continue to look like serious racehorses. NOW AND THEN (Kiaran McLaughlin) debuts as a $375,000 son of Tiznow out of a very precocious, win-early female family.

Lecomte Stakes (Saturday/Fair Grounds) [GET PPs]

Two and 10 are the key numbers in Saturday’s G3 $200,000 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds. Two turns and 10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points are the determining digits in this one. Four of the nine entrants exit sprint races and will try to extend their talents around two turns in the 1 mile and 70 yard steppingstone to the G2 Louisiana Derby in March. The Lecomte has had a hit-and-miss impact on the Derby trail -- Kentucky and/or Louisiana -- over the past decade.

AVIE’S QUALITY (Josie Carroll) is the morning-line favorite with leading local pilot Rosie Napravnik assigned. Avie’s Quality won the Display Stakes at Woodbine, and you could say his Canadian juvenile form was flattered some last week when DYNAMIC SKY (Mark Casse) and SKY COMMANDER (also Casse) ran one-two in the Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. But to say the Woodbine form has been trustworthy at higher levels over the years would be a misnomer. It, too, has been hit or miss. Carroll did move from Woodbine Polytrack to the Fair Grounds dirt with 2009 Lecomte runner-up Patena. DRF Formulator shows that she’s a sparkling 1-3-0 from 4 starts the last five years when making the synthetic-to-dirt move in a Fair Grounds stakes race. I do love the pedigree by miler Elusive Quality and out of a turf route dam like Fly for Avie, winner of the grassy G1 E.P. Taylor at 1 1/4 miles. AVIE’S QUALITY may be this quality, but I’d prefer to get a price to find out as a bettor. And that’s not likely to be the case. Fair odds should be closer to 5/1, not 5/2. But dismiss him at an assumed risk.

CIRCLE UNBROKEN (Garry Simms) won the G3 Bashford Manor at Churchill last summer and hasn’t been seen since August. He is fast in the mornings and afternoons, and that should be no surprise as his mama Baldomera was a very good Mid-Atlantic sprinter. But this is a rather win-early pedigree to me on the damside, and a route distance would be a big obstacle, even if sired by Broken Vow. Baldomera has been bred to predominantly sprinters for good reason.

The other seven entrants seek their first stakes win, and it is stakes debuter GOLDEN SOUL (Dallas Stewart) who garners most of my attention. One of the better maiden winners of the Countdown season, he romped home Dec. 30 over this track around two turns in an easy test. The short field and slow pace flattered his result, no doubt, but he visually impressed and rates every chance on class having challenged a key horse and key race in SAYLER’S CREEK (Kenny McPeek) at Churchill last fall. The Stewart barn has won the Lecomte with Saintly Look and Storm Surge in the past decade.

OXBOW (D. Wayne Lukas) also has some key-race form in his running lines from the Churchill fall meet, and he will appreciate a much better post No. 4 draw in the Lecomte than the post No. 11 harpooning he took in the G1 CashCall Futurity last month. This is a highly talented Awesome Again colt with pedigree to burn as his dam is full sister to the great Tiznow and fellow G1 winner Budroyale. He’s been training at Oaklawn Park since early December, where the weather and track conditions have been a bit dicey. Since Christmas, six training days have been lost due to snow, ice, heavy rains or washed-out track conditions. It is plausible OXBOW could be a race short of his best, but if he fires a winning-type effort, he will be good enough to have his picture taken Saturday. OXBOW could control the pace, which looks rather soft, though you’d expect at least one of the stretch-out sprinters to be asked for gas.

Other noteworthy points in the Lecomte: MALIBU HIGH (Cecil Borel) will be ridden by Miguel Mena in place of the injured Calvin Borel, who is nursing a broken wrist; IVE STRUCK A NERVE (Keith Desormeaux) will have a brother tag team as jockey Kent Desormeaux gets the mount on the Sugar Bowl runner-up; and G2 Kentucky Jockey Club fifth-place finisher FEAR THE KITTEN (Mike Maker) will make his first start since owner Frank Irwin transferred him from the Luis Cotto barn.

Lecomte Stakes selections: W) GOLDEN SOUL; P) OXBOW; S) AVIE’S QUALITY.

Frank Whiteley Stakes (Saturday/Laurel Park) [GET PPs]

This $125,000 sprint at 7 furlongs is a very intriguing regional race that might produce a Preakness prospect. We have the last-out winners of the Maryland Juvenile Championship and Tri-State Futurity, but most interesting is the 14-length maiden winner HEAT PRESS (Graham Motion) in the famed Sagamore Farm colors. This is a Malibu Moon colt who was fourth at Churchill Downs last fall behind eventual G2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes runner-up FRAC DADDY (Kenny McPeek). HEAT PRESS will turn back from three straight routes, but the super-long Laurel Park stretch that utilizes the second finish line for seven-furlong races will give him every chance to stretch his legs.

IN THE FAIRWAY (Jeff Runco) has won three straight stakes on the Charles Town bull-ring and will be tested for class. His Tri-State Futurity win at 7 furlongs held up pretty nicely when fellow Whiteley entrant HANKY DOODLE (Gary Capuano) came back to run second in the Maryland Juvenile championship to the battle-tested ALPHA MIKE FOXTROT (Dickie Small).

ORE PASS (Mike Trombetta) is a total wildcard just 14 days after stopping on a dime at 3/5 odds in a tough maiden sprint at Parx. His debut was awesome at Laurel in November, but his reappearance was just as startling in the other direction. And note that the fourth-place finisher from the ORE PASS maiden win came back to run last of 10 as the favorite in a maiden sprint Thursday at Laurel. My advice is to tread cautiously with ORE PASS, but he may be one to consider if going deep in a multi-race play.

Frank Whiteley Stakes selections: W) HEAT PRESS; P) IN THE FAIRWAY; S) ALPHA MIKE FOXTROT.

Kitten’s Joy Stakes (Sunday/Gulfstream Park) [GET PPs]

No Kentucky Derby qualifying points will be on the line in Sunday’s 1 1/16-mile Kitten’s Joy on the Gulfstream Park turf, but that doesn’t mean the race is to be ignored. With the G3 Spiral at Turfway and the G1 Blue Grass at Keeneland on Polytrack surfaces later in the spring, we’ve seen Gulfstream turfers make a serious dent on the trail. Think names like Animal Kingdom, Paddy O’Prado and Dullahan just in recent years.

In the “old days,” it was rare to see a turf-to-dirt move on the Derby trail. But now it’s common to see a turf-to-Polytrack, and then onto dirt, series of surface changes. The Kitten’s Joy may be a one-off prep in that regard, but it’s undeniable how strong the Gulfstream turf sophomores have been over the years.

FIRE GUARD (Bill Mott) was as pretty of a visual winner as you’ll see when he blitzed Tampa Bay Downs maidens on Dec. 1 to open that meet. While he shipped for an easier spot to break his maiden, his class should not be questioned. The son of First Defence debuted a strong runner-up at Saratoga to CHARMING KITTEN (Todd Pletcher), who likely goes favored in the Kitten’s Joy after solid turf stakes placings in the G2 With Anticipation and Dania Beach. CHARMING KITTEN may have been a hard-luck loser of the Dania Beach while four wide, and the winner got through on the pine. But he’s also a grinding-type runner devoid of a super-burst, and that often is a recipe for nibbling on the turf, not winning.

When you handicap turf races at Gulfstream in the winter, focusing on Mott and Pletcher trainees never is a bad idea. But Nick Zito on the turf? That’s a new one.

FLYING BIRD (Nick Zito) is 2 for 2 on the green, including a much-the-best Churchill Downs win during the fall meet when he easily handled Kitten’s Joy rival SUMMIT COUNTY (Dale Romans), who already has returned out of that race to win an allowance at the Gulfstream meeting. But my DRF Formulator Stat of the Week shows that Zito’s barn is 0-0-0 in 8 starts in turf stakes races over the last five years, with his best finish being a fifth-place effort. Even so, the barn has had a great start to the GP meet with more than 50 percent in the exacta heading into this week.

BAMBAZONKI (Chris Block) was extremely green when we saw him last at Keeneland in the fall, and if trainer Block gets this son of Hard Spun’s head on straight he could be a pretty good horse. I won’t be shocked if he moves forward, but prefer others in this spot. SUMMIT COUNTY and stablemate PRADO CAT (Dale Romans) figure in the mix for a barn that was fourth in this race last year with Cozetti.

Kitten’s Joy Stakes selections: W) FIRE GUARD; P) CHARMING KITTEN; S) FLYING BIRD.

Smarty Jones Stakes (Monday/Oaklawn Park)

Note that Monday’s Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn will not be drawn in time for Countdown’s deadline, and I will provide a complete Oaklawn Wagering Guide for this event, available Sunday, at Countdowntothecrown.com. Stop by and download for picks, analysis and wagering strategies. Among the probable starters are Remington Park’s Springboard Mile 1-2 finishers TEXAS BLING (Danele Durham) and WILL TAKE CHARGE (D. Wayne Lukas), the latter a son of Take Charge Lady.

Last week’s selections: 2: 1-0-1. Top choice DYNAMIC SKY (Mark Casse) scored the Pasco Stakes following the scratch of PURPLE EGG (Jane Cibelli), while our Cal Derby top pick TREE OF LIFE (Craig Dollase) finished a troubled third behind second choice ZEEWAT (Jerry Hollendorfer), the heavy race favorite.

Season selections: 4: 2-0-2.

Everyone’s a critic

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

Stakes races

A pair of odds-on favorites scored the two stakes this past weekend, but neither was safe from anxious moments.

The $100,000 Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday provided DYNAMIC SKY (Mark Casse) the backdrop to become the first success story to exit the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Sixth when last seen at Santa Anita, the son of Sky Mesa added blinkers in the Pasco, received a horrendous ride from jockey Javier Contreras, but proved much the best once he got outside of a wall of horses in upper stretch. Stablemate SKY COMMANDER could not hold him off late, though the runner-up deserves credit for a good effort following a solid bump at the start. Trainer Casse shipped twice to Tampa for sophomore stakes wins last year with Prospective and appears to have a good one here again. The final time of 1:22.79 was just .24 off a track record that has stood since 2006. And the Pasco clocked about 5 full lengths faster than the same-day Gasparilla Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. But the caveat must be stated: the top five finishers in the Pasco were within 4-3/4 lengths of each other at the wire. Unless this was the greatest 7-furlong race in Tampa history, it’s hard to completely dive into the raw time with unbridled excitement. No matter if you count on the clock or not, you can’t leave this race with a negative impression of the winner, DYNAMIC SKY. But this was his fifth career start with a trouble line each time -- perhaps because he’s a May 10 foal and it all hasn’t come together mentally and physically. The Pasco still rates the best stakes so far this season in Countdown. The winner would be tough in the G2 Tampa Bay Derby if sent back this way, but with two Casse stable bullets and a seemingly big future for DYNAMIC SKY, I wouldn’t be against this horse trying the Gulfstream crowd and sending SKY COMMANDER back for the Tampa two-step. Longshot players beware SILVER DAY (Bill Kaplan) next time after being squeezed at the start and galloping out like a freight train in his first start in two months. You’ll want him back routing next time at a very thick price. The perplexing PURPLE EGG (Jane Cibelli) was a pre-race scratch, having also missed the Gulfstream Park Derby earlier this month with a temperature and missing two races last year as a juvenile when becoming unruly pre-race, necessitating his gelding. I love his talent, but PURPLE EGG soon may become the Purple Enigma.

Saturday’s $100,000 California Derby at Golden Gate Fields eventually went to script as 4/5 favorite ZEEWAT (Jerry Hollendorfer) proved best in the end. But it was a rocky start for the Harlan’s Holiday colt, who hesitated at the break and then had lone speed WILDCAT MOON (Jeff Bonde) saw him off a stride out of the gate. So instead of ZEEWAT and WILDCAT MOON locking up in a projected pace battle, the lead was left for the sprint-pedigreed WILDCAT MOON as ZEEWAT raced from off the pace. And the pace turned out to be pedestrian with splits of 25.43, 25.17, 24.65, 24.64 and a final sixteenth in 6.61. These Tapeta surface performers did pick up steam as the race progressed, which you would hope, given the ease of the first half-mile. ZEEWAT got a nice education in this win, giving 3-8 pounds and having to race from off the pace, close into a slow pace and do so while four-wide on the far turn. He reminds me a bit of Cause to Believe, the barn’s 2006 Cal Derby and El Camino Real Derby winner who made it to Louisville. The horse who took the worst of the Cal Derby trip was TREE OF LIFE (Craig Dollase), the eventual third-place finisher making his first start since being gelded. When ZEEWAT missed the break, this typical closer wound up in the unenviable and unfamiliar position of being the pace pursuer in second. Then, when straightening for the drive, TREE OF LIFE was in tight quarters and lost three or four positions back to sixth place in upper stretch. It was admirable to see him come back again after all that. I would imagine you’ll see the top three back for a deserved second dance in the Feb. 16 G3 El Camino Real Derby.

Allowance races

Even though he has yet to race this year, SAYLER’S CREEK (Kenny McPeek) continues to be flattered by his former company mates. Saturday’s race 9 allowance route at Turfway Park saw I DO BELIEVE (Mike Maker) score his second straight local win since being dusted by SAYLER’S CREEK at Churchill Downs. But before you get excited about this Flashy Bull colt becoming a stakes player at Turfway or Keeneland, note I DO BELIEVE walked the final quarter-mile in 27.92 with ugly visuals. And the time was only about 2 lengths better than $8,000 claimers ran in the previous race.

The Mine That Bird and Sunland Park derbies may have a stretch-out contender named IZE IN COMMAND (Weston Martin) following last Friday’s allowance sprint score at Sunland Park over ex-Doug O’Neill trainee PAPA G.T. (Henry Dominguez). There’s plenty of route pedigree in this stakes-placed gelding as a grandson of A.P. Indy and Unbridled’s Song. This is a good-looking, leggy Master Command offspring who appears better-built for the routes to come.

Saturday’s race 4 turf route allowance at Gulfstream Park looked weak on paper and turned out that way as WAR ON LIMEHOUSE (David Vivian) won the rematch with Dec. 23 conqueror RICO SUAVE (Nicholas Gonzalez). You never like to see a turf race with splits that look like dirt (in that they slow down each fraction), but that’s what you had in this event.

G2 Saratoga Special third-place finisher IN HARM’S WAY (Mike Hushion) continued to struggle holding a lead Wednesday when nipped at the wire in a race 5 allowance sprint at Aqueduct. New York-bred maiden claiming winner CHAPMAN (Chris Englehart) took his measure in the final strides this time.

WHERE’S DOMINIC (Mike Trombetta) punched out allowance foes Wednesday in race 8 at Laurel Park in his third start. The son of Midnight Lute was professional and tractable over a sloppy surface and surged past a field that included four stakes-placed performers. With Woodman on the bottom of his pedigree, he deserves a shot to route next.

Thursday’s 7-furlong prep for the UAE 2000 Guineas at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai was won by Southern Hemisphere-bred 4-year-old Soft Falling Rain, trained my Michael DeKock. We’ll have to wait and see how the Northern Hemisphere 3-year-olds progress on the UAE Derby trail to see if we’ll have any influence from the desert.

GIANT FINISH (Tony Dutrow) wired New York-bred allowance routers in Thursday’s race 8 at Aqueduct as an odds-on choice. Fifth in the Damon Runyon in December, the son of Frost Giant benefitted from a very easy pace.

Maiden races

The most anticipated maiden race of the week came Sunday in a 7-furlong Santa Anita race 4 sprint. That’s where the $400,000 Bernardini colt DEMONIC (John Sadler) made his debut against the younger brother of Notional named TIZ THE TRUTH (Bob Baffert). The two staged a great finish with DEL MAR SUNSET (Bob Baffert) between horses in a three-way tussle, even if the come-home furlong was an acceptable, but not spectacular, 12.65. TIZ THE TRUTH saved all the ground in a rail-skimming ride from the returning Gary Stevens, but DEMONIC had a measured nose in victory despite racing four and five-wide for much of the going. DEMONIC is a colt Sadler highlighted to our Night School national fan education audience last November as one of his key Derby trail prospects this year, and he delivered at first asking even if he never seemed to lay down on his belly and run hard in the lane. The long-striding colt may not be push-button, and while he’s a half-brother to the graded stakes sprinter Silver Edition, note his mama won the G3 Delaware Oaks routing and his fourth dam is Furl Sail, so there’s route in the genes. Visually I think he’ll be better around two turns. TIZ THE TRUTH was very game in defeat and won’t be a maiden long. This was a solid race and performance, but won’t crack the Top 5 maiden performances of the season to date.

JACK MILTON (Todd Pletcher) debuted a very impressive turf route winner in Saturday’s race 6 at Gulfstream Park, handling a wide post position, stalking nicely and moving three-wide on the turn with a nice stretch flourish. JACK MILTON ran the final sixteenth in a sparkling 6 seconds flat after a 23.20 fourth quarter. The son of War Front probably doesn’t want much farther than this 1 1/16 miles, but appears talented in beating a promising field in a tough debut assignment. Runner-up WAR DANCER (Ken McPeek) will crush maidens next time out as this fellow son of War Front finished clearly second and blew past the winner in the gallop-out with high energy. He, too, looks to be a miler or 1 1/16-mile type of horse on pedigree and explosiveness. My disappointment was VESPATO (Tom Proctor), who rejected a perfect trip and faded in the stretch in his first start since finishing second to BOLD DANCE (Bill Mott), a horse for which I have tremendous hopes. This performance did not flatter BOLD DANCE, unfortunately.

PERSUASIVE PAUL (Doug O’Neill) inherited a dream trip Saturday at Santa Anita in a race 6 maiden turf route, sitting second behind a run-off longshot who couldn’t keep up his tempo. He then rocketed home in a spirited duel with well-bred WINE LIST (Ron Ellis) through a final furlong in a zippy 11.95. The two put daylight between them and the rest of an overmatched cast that lacked further depth. Both horses exited strong prior races and brought big efforts to the table here and have pedigrees that could translate fine to the dirt. The win by ‘PAUL flatters the form of CURLY TOP (Bob Baffert), who returns to action in Friday’s race 4 at Santa Anita.

As good as Saturday’s race 4 maiden mile at Aqueduct looked on pedigrees, only one horse truly delivered on the track, albeit a wet-sealed track that often can distort outcomes. Blue-blooded ELNAAWI (Kiaran McLaughlin) lived up to his genes as the younger brother of G1 winner To Honor And Serve with a 4-length score. But the fast-early, slow-late race (23.17, 23.46, 26.62, 25.69) was a bit disconcerting when you consider that only four of the seven participants finished within 22 lengths of the winner. This field was speed-popped and fell apart, which is either an endorsement of this May 15 foal who won it, or an indictment on the others. The next race will tell the tale for ELNAAWI, a still-promising son of Street Sense. His McLaughlin stablemate LONG RIVER, who disappointed in the Jerome, had his reputation further sullied as two of his pursuers from Dec. 15 failed to muster much in their reappearances, though third-place finisher INGOGNITO (Kiaran McLaughlin) ran an improved second start and the son of A.P. Indy-Octave flew past the winner in the gallop-out and probably would have appreciated an unsealed track that doesn’t enhance early speedballs.

Washed off the turf and onto a main track that was listed as fast, Saturday’s race 5 maiden route at Fair Grounds was a MTO dream for PROUD STRIKE (Steve Asmussen). From post 10, the odds-on favorite crushed by 7-1/2 lenghths in a performance nowhere nearly as impressive as it sounds. With his head held high and moving in and out, a visibly tired PROUD STRIKE widened on a field that spanned 42 lengths front-to-back as jockey Brian Hernandez remained hard at work in the saddle. I love the Smart Strike-Colonella pedigree and past running lines in key races, but I would bet against PROUD STRIKE next time in allowance or stakes company. Give another shot to CRUZADO (Tom Amoss), the Awesome Again-Confessional baby probably bred to run a bit shorter. He was bumped at the start and then ran off with adrenaline on the lead before tiring. In between the bad start and bad finish, he showed there was some shorter-distance talent.

At Fair Grounds last Friday, $800k juvenile buy BOSS MAN ROCKET (Tim Glyshaw) outsprinted his six-furlong maiden foes and then lumbered home in 25.88 while drifting and being hard-ridden by Leandro Goncalves to stay on task. The former Bill Mott trainee is out of a half-sister to Grade 1-winning sprinter Pomeroy and gave no signs that he will route. Keep an eye on BERT’S BAR (Josie Carroll), who broke slowly, made a nice mid-race move and then ran evenly late while third. This rookie got an education over a wet track that was far closer to muddy than the good listing it was given.

March’s G3 Spiral at Turfway Park got a dress rehearsal of sorts Sunday when race 7 maidens went the stakes’ 1 1/8-mile trip. LET’S RUN (Mike Maker) needed 39.66 over the final three furlongs and saving every inch of ground to catch pace-setting PLENTY ELUSIVE (Bill Hickey). This duo exited quality races at Churchill won by BOLD CHALLENGER (Ken McPeek) and GENERAL ELECTION (Kellyn Gorder) and served to flatter those two to a mild degree.

SOUTHERN CELEBRITY (Tony Dutrow) won by a gaudy 8-length margin Monday at Parx in a maiden sprint as the 4/5 favorite in his debut. But the son of Lawyer Ron did not impress visually as he was hard-ridden and finished only about two lengths quicker than $7,500 claimers on the same card. Given the stable and win margin, he looks like one to play against at underlaid odds next time.

I’M STOKED (Mike Hushion) appears to be a nice New York-bred sprinter after last Friday’s Aqueduct race 1 debut win from the rail. Despite a slow break and quick recovery, he scored nearly wire-to-wire in a solid time. But the Hook and Ladder colt has no semblance of route in the pedigree. Another solid NY-bred maiden winner came Saturday at the Big A when GHOSTLY VISION (Dominick Schettino), a $100,000 son of Ghostzapper, overcame a wide trip to win handily around two turns. His mile split was about 4-5 lengths slower than fellow sophomore ELNAAWI (Kiaran McLaughlin), who scored the same day in open company.

NEVER THE END (Eddie Kenneally) led a carousel turf sprint maiden cast around the Gulfstream Park course Wednesday in race 7. The top 4 raced in place throughout, and the race failed to deliver any flattery to Dec. 27 blowout winner HAPPY FELLA (Ian Wilkes).

Trainer Gary Capuano (of Captain Bodgit fame) debuted a two-turn maiden winner, INTREPID CITIZEN, Wednesday at Laurel in race 6. The steady-grinding son of Proud Citizen drifted a bit in the stretch over a sloppy track, but anytime you unveil a two-turn winner in maiden special weight company, you’ve done good work.

FIDDLER BLUE (Ian Wilkes) rallied Thursday to nip odds-on rookie ABRAHAM (Todd  Pletcher) by a nose in what appeared to be a very soft Gulfstream Park race 2 maiden sprint. The race went about 2-3 lengths slower than a “non-winner of 2 lifetime” claimer later on the card, and only one horse finished within 10 lengths of the winner despite a slow time and finish. ABRAHAM laid down in the stretch and he succumbed to the 6-1/2 furlong debut distance.

High fives

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

Maiden race
1. VERRAZANO (Gulfstream Park, 1/1)
2. REVOLUTIONARY (Aqueduct, 12/28)
3. OMEGA STAR (Santa Anita, 12/31)
4. BELVIN (Santa Anita, 12/26)
5. JACK MILTON (Gulfstream Park, 1/12 * TURF *)

Allowance race
1. MYLUTE (Fair Grounds, 12/26)
2. FORTY TALES (Parx, 1/5)
3. RYDILLUC (Gulfstream Park, 1/5 * TURF *)
4. DISTINCTIV PASSION (Santa Anita, 12/28)
5. BRADESTER (Gulfstream Park, 1/1)

Stakes race
1. DYNAMIC SKY (Pasco Stakes, Tampa Bay Downs, 1/12)
2. ITSMYLUCKYDAY (Gulfstream Park Derby, Gulfstream, 1/1)
3. VYJACK (G2 Jerome, Aqueduct, 1/5)
4. GOLDENCENTS (G3 Sham, Santa Anita, 1/5)
5. ZEEWAT (California Derby, Golden Gate, 1/12)

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!