01/20/2012 8:46AM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 3 - Jan. 20, 2012

Keeneland/Coady Photography
Seven Lively Sins gets in light in the Lecomte at Fair Grounds and has been facing good horses.

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 an American Idol tryout. You have to sift through a lot of clowns before finding one who can actually sing.

1. If an HBO series could glamorize and kick-start an industry, as some are hoping the upcoming launch of "Luck" will do for horse racing, then why didn’t we see a major run on morticians after the five-season run of "Six Feet Under"? Okay, sorry for the too-close-for-comfort comparison.

2. Put down the sharp objects and belts, Louisiana sports fans. I know Saturday’s Lecomte isn’t exactly LSU being demolished in the national title game or the Saints being bounced from the NFL playoffs. But at least you don’t have to wait eight months after this race to get over a tough beat. The G2 Risen Star will only be five weeks away.

3. In a fantasy sports world, who do you like between mail-bag stuffers Barbaro and Smarty Jones? Maybe this year we’ll get a trainers showdown of that duo with Michael Matz’s UNION RAGS and John Servis’ ADIRONDACK KING. While we’re at it, we might as well invite Funny Cide’s Barclay Tagg to the reunion.

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. We have a big one Saturday at Fair Grounds in the G3 Lecomte on dirt, and what could turn out to be an important turf race Saturday at Gulfstream Park in the listed Kitten’s Joy Stakes. Sunday’s menu includes some rapid runners in Santa Anita’s San Pedro Stakes.

As is tradition, let’s first get into a busy weekend of undercard events.

[MORE: Road to the 2012 Kentucky Derby]

Gulfstream has a trio of races on the Saturday undercard to watch, races 6, 7 and 9. In race 6, maiden turfers are extended to a demanding, 1-1/8 miles test. BIG BLUE SPIRIT (Darrin Miller) exits a dynamite second in what I think was the best maiden race of recent weeks at Gulfstream. The field also includes the return of Animal Kingdom’s little brother, THURSBY (Graham Motion), who has been totally demolished in 2 career starts to date but adds blinkers and travels a 2-turn distance for the first time. Race 7 looks like a weak allowance group by GP’s historically lofty standards. This 7-furlong affair sees half of its field littered with at least one prior claiming attempt. ANGEL’S TUNE (Todd Pletcher) should appreciate the return to sprinting based on pedigree, while BET ON JACK (Tino Attard) takes the class rise while 3-for-3 in the claiming ranks. G2 Futurity third-place finisher TARPY’S GAL (Dale Romans) wheels back on 5 days rest after a non-effort on turf, a move I like to see a good trainer make. The race 9 maiden sprint at 6 furlongs boasts seven first-time starters among the nine entrants.  The rookies include Street Sense’s $350,000 colt OXFORD STREET (Kiaran McLaughlin) and STORM ON THE LOOSE (Wayne Catalano), a half-brother to top graded sprinter Riley Tucker. Z VILNA (Todd Pletcher) is bred to be fast out of Bob Baffert’s quick stakes sprint mare Resplendency.

Saturday’s race 6 at Santa Anita could be quite the barometer as we see several alumni of the meet’s best maiden races to date trying to graduate at 1-1/16 miles. Horses who have chased OUT OF BOUNDS (Eoin Harty), CONSULADO (Mike Puype), MIDNIGHT TRANSFER (Carla Gaines), FED BIZ (Bob Baffert) and GROOVIN SOLO (Myung Kwon Cho) all are in the gate. CANDY’S JEWEL (Jerry Hollendorfer) might be most ready to score, having also faced impressive recent allowance winner SKY KINGDOM (Bob Baffert) two starts back. Sire Candy Ride also is represented in this race by HOLY CANDY (John Sadler), who returns off a two-month freshening since a strong debut second.

If you like stamina in your maiden winners, check out race 8 Saturday at Fair Grounds. No less than 6 entrants are sired by Belmont Stakes winners, namely Lemon Drop Kid, Empire Maker and Birdstone. CONGENIAL (Al Stall Jr.), BEER GARDEN (Steve Asmussen) and DONOHARM (Bret Calhoun) could give us a quick line on G3 Lecomte contender Z DAGER (Steve Asmussen), as that trio all exits a pursuit of that winner Dec. 15.

Race 3 Saturday at Aqueduct provides a powerful Klaravich Stables entry of ECONOMIC FORECAST (Rick Violette) and CAPITAL GOODS (Dale Romans), both looking to finish the deal going 6 furlongs after solid debut tries. Come-backing WELL SPELLED (Ben Perkins) rattled off a trio of nice efforts last summer at Monmouth, while $430,000 yearling buy GOT WHAT (Kiaran McLaughlin) re-matches after similar finish vs. CAPITAL GOODS.

We have a couple of state-bred stakes races in the south of note on Saturday. Trainer Bret Calhoun saddles four of the starters in Sam Houston’s $50,000 Groovy Stakes on Texas Champions Night, including two-time Texas Stallion Stakes winner SWORD TRICK. At Sunland Park Saturday, the $110,000 Pepsi Cola Stakes for New Mexico-breds features two-time local stakes winner THAT’S WHO (Joel Marr).

Later today (Friday, Jan. 20) at Santa Anita, a race 7 California-bred allowance sprint features Cal Breeders Champions Stakes runner-up EXOTIC SLEW (Ed Moger, Jr.). On Sunday at Parx, easy debut winner CHRISTOPHER’S JOY (Tony Dutrow) lands in what appears to be a fairly soft entry-level allowance sprint for his first taste of winners.

Lecomte Stakes (Saturday/Fair Grounds)

With $175,000 in graded stakes earnings on the line, this Grade 3 contest at 1 mile and 70 yards lured a field of 13 with 11 wagering interests. The cast includes G3 Arlington-Washington Futurity champ SHARED PROPERTY (Tom Amoss) and G3 Bashford Manor winner EXFACTOR (Bernie Flint), as well as listed stakes winners TED’S FOLLY (Wilson Brown) and MR. BOWLING (Larry Jones). With nine last-out winners, ranging from Fair Grounds to Oaklawn to Remington to Gulfstream, it’s a daunting handicapping challenge. It’s especially daunting when the horse I think has the most natural talent, SHARED PROPERTY, has been harpooned out in post 13. And will just four published workouts be enough to get SHARED PROPERTY ready to handle this hurdle? Consider that MR. BOWLING has had 8 drills for this and his layoff is actually 22 days less than SHARED PROPERTY.

Even without any blinding sprint types on a wing and prayer, the pace for the Lecomte still looks pretty solid, and a 13-horse field will force some riders to use more horse early to garner clubhouse turn position. EXFACTOR reportedly hurt his hind end slightly by kicking his stall earlier this week and is on the fence for making the race. Any set-back before a big test, which would be his first around 2 turns, is not a positive.

TED’S FOLLY (Wilson Brown) looks for his seventh straight win, and first away from Remington Park, when he makes his first venture into graded stakes company. The worth of his score in the $315,000 Springboard Mile in December was validated Monday when runner-up RECKLESS JERRY (Kenny Smith) and third-place finisher PEE H DEE (Chris Richard) both came back to run bang-up races at Oaklawn. He’s won around 2 turns and in open company, so this isn’t a Cinderella story anymore. Interestingly, though, DRF.com’s Formulator software indicates that TED’S FOLLY hasn’t run as fast late as it might appear on paper. His second-quarter splits actually have been his quickest in most all races. He should appreciate the long Fair Grounds stretch if others tire and he just throws out another :25 final quarter.

Weight could be a key factor in the Lecomte as the race’s more accomplished runners spot anywhere from 4 to 6 pounds over a 2-turn distance. A horse like SEVEN LIVELY SINS (Al Stall Jr.) gets in at just 116 pounds despite being G3 stakes-placed and possessing company lines as strong as anyone in the field. HAMMERS TERROR (Mike Stidham) looks dangerous at 118 in his stakes unveiling after an easy local allowance route win and supreme set of drills coming out of that race. CAPETOWN DEVIL (David Carroll) got a great dress rehearsal in a local route allowance win vs. a big field of 12 on New Year’s Eve. He should be running late to try and crash this party, too.

Recent maiden winners DAN AND SHEILA (Todd Pletcher) and Z DAGER (Steve Asmussen) didn’t dazzle in their graduations, but both appear to be training quite forwardly for the major class test and are in capable hands.

Lecomte Stakes selections: W) SEVEN LIVELY SINS; P) TED’S FOLLY; S) MR. BOWLING.

[MORE: Derby Contenders by graded stakes earnings]

Kitten’s Joy Stakes (Saturday/Gulfstream Park)

As we’ve noted in earlier editions of Countdown, the success of turf/synthetic performer Animal Kingdom in 2011 will send the lemmings over the cliff this year trying to find similar success. That means races like this $100,000 Gulfstream grass stakes on Saturday become as important as ever. The very team that brought you Animal Kingdom, Team Valor and trainer Graham Motion, has two bullets in this year’s Kitten’s Joy, LUCKY CHAPPY and HOWE GREAT. Uncoupled in the wagering, they appear to be a wonderful good cop-bad cop in terms of pace as deep-closing LUCKY CHAPPY will benefit from his front-running stablemate HOWE GREAT setting the table in what appears to be a lone-speed situation.

Italian import LUCKY CHAPPY ran a pair of very credible races in the G3 Bourbon and G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf last fall. He’s got a run-all-day pedigree and style and leading rider Javier Castellano, the best turf rider in America today, on board. If he’s fit and ready, he’ll be tough. Note he’s only had 2 workouts published since December 10, however, with travel from Maryland to Florida in-between.

ARGENTINE TANGO (Stanley Gold) was so good on Dec. 26 that I was floored he didn’t factor in his next outing Jan. 8. That day, STAR CHANNEL (Todd Pletcher) looked like a star winning wire-to-wire, so maybe the race shape just didn’t play to TANGO’s suit. He’ll be making his fourth start in 37 days as the connections jam the entry box once again. The price should be solid and he’s worth giving another chance.

COZZETTI (Dale Romans) will vie for favoritism dropping out of the G1 CashCall Futurity, but his only placing in 4 starts came in an off-the-turf race on a sloppy track. I ignore those races completely as they nearly always result in a blowout win by someone. COZZETTI is training well for a horseman I respect, but I’ll take a pass until proven otherwise. The same goes for ITALO (Wesley Ward), another from a barn that needs no introduction. I’m not sure what he is just yet as a racehorse and skeptical that he was a win-early kind of juvenile.

Kitten’s Joy Stakes selections: W) ARGENTINE TANGO; P) LUCKY CHAPPY; S) HOWE GREAT.

San Pedro Stakes (Sunday/Santa Anita)

I’m not sure there are any Triple Crown contenders in the gate for this 6-furlong gathering of blazers. But we certainly have a dynamite field of sprinters/milers lining up for $75,000. G1 Del Mar Futurity winner DRILL (Bob Baffert) makes his first sprint appearance since his signature score last summer. Cal Breeders Champion Stakes winner GOT EVEN (Peter Miller) has won his last 3 sprints, while PASSING GAME (Gary Sherlock) looks to avenge his only career loss to that rival.

The horse I’m most interested in has yet to attempt a stakes, but I was blown away by MIDNIGHT TRANSFER (Carla Gaines) when he won by nearly 5 lengths on opening day of the Santa Anita meeting. It was the top-rated maiden score in Countdown this season to date, and we’ll find out next about this Hard Spun colt’s class. His ability to rate and pounce in that win will come in handy in a race loaded with horses who can motor early.

The Golden Nugget Stakes at Golden Gate on Nov. 12 has turned out to be a highly productive race, so COACH SICKIE (Jeff Mullins) and PASSING GAME certainly have credentials to outrun some of the bigger-named runners in the field. The biggest name, of course, is DRILL, who has been well beaten in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Delta Jackpot and CashCall Futurity at season’s end. He seemed almost in need of a break as much as a distance adjustment upon his most recent tries. He’s working out fast in the a.m. in the Baffert regimen, but I’ll try to beat him on the class drop.

San Pedro Stakes selections: W) MIDNIGHT TRANSFER; P) COACH SICKIE; S) GOT EVEN.

Last week’s selections: 2: 1-0-1. Top choice RUSSIAN GREEK (Jerry Hollendorfer) scored in the California Derby, while our Pasco Stakes top choice ADIRONDACK KING (John Servis) ran third to our second choice PROSPECTIVE (Mark Casse). That’s a much better week in the handicapping department.

Season selections: 5: 1-0-2

Everyone’s a critic

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

Smarty Jones Stakes (1/16, OP-8)

When you get 12 horses going a two-turn mile with little serious pace to spread the field out, the race most often comes down to trip as much as talent. We saw a prime example of that in Monday’s $100,000 headliner at Oaklawn Park, first of four races en route to the G1 Arkansas Derby. JUNEBUGRED (Steve Hobby) saved ground to win, while RECKLESS JERRY (Kenny Smith) went terribly wide throughout as the runner-up. The difference at the wire was negligible despite a huge disparity in trips. A clear summation here is that RECKLESS JERRY was much the best in the Smarty Jones, and appears to be as serious a racehorse as Kenny Smith has saddled since Silver Goblin scorched the Midwest in 1994 and 1995. How cool would it be to see RECKLESS JERRY’s owner, country music superstar Toby Keith, two-step toward the Triple Crown?

JUNEBUGRED was recently transferred from David Fawkes to Steve Hobby, a longtime successful Midwestern trainer maybe best known for his recent work with turf router Telling. JUNEBUGRED’s maiden win at Aqueduct was totally unflattered by those rivals exiting it, but what he may have lacked in reputational boost, he made up for in guts. Despite saving ground, he was repeatedly checked early and throughout the going. JUNEBUGRED was deft enough to get around a tiring horse on the rail and then reclaim a wide-open rail path once straightened out. It wasn’t a dream trip, but you wouldn’t trade it with hardly any other horse in the race to be honest. I’ve known Hobby since his days with stakes stalwarts Brush With Pride and Belle of Cozzene when we crossed paths working at Remington Park in the 1990s. There’s not a more deserving guy on the like-ability meter.

The one-two finishers galloped out much the best from the rest of the field, including third-place finisher and tote underlay ON FIRE BABY (Gary Hartlage), who was facing males for the first time. Granted, she was four-wide on the first turn and three-wide turning for home, but RECKLESS JERRY was even farther out on the track on both bends and rallied by her in the lane. ON FIRE BABY will return to the filly ranks and be a contender in the G2 Fantasy series.

As for the also-rans, the big disappointment was OPTIMIZER (D. Wayne Lukas), typically a deep closer who was kept a bit closer to the pace than usual and was flat. He didn’t figure to have much of a winning chance at this trip and pace scenario, but I would have preferred to see a late-running fourth that moved him forward. Instead, he was a listless sixth and took a step back from his solid run in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill. JAKE MO (Allen Milligan) ran decent in fourth, but did nothing to flatter the continued so-so form of the G3 Delta Jackpot alumni. LAURIE’S ROCKET (Dallas Stewart) ran on gamely from the lead and held with the first flight to the wire in an effort that shines decently on Sugar Bowl winner EXFACTOR (Bernie Flint).

The Smarty Jones time was about 9 lengths faster than a good 3-year-old allowance the race prior, so it stacks up as a pretty solid event. The 25.72 final quarter-mile is not divine by raw time, but remember these Oaklawn miles end at the sixteenth pole, so much of a final-quarter mile is run around a turn. The final furlong in 12.61 isn’t too shabby. The aforementioned allowance prior came home in :13.42 by comparison. The 1:38.45 clocking was much quicker than notable past Smarty Jones champs like Caleb’s Posse and Flat Out, but track conditions often make times as much as horses, so don’t dwell on that; just note it.

Pasco Stakes (1/14, Tam-10)

Rarely will I look at a race and come away with a positive impression of the top four finishers, but the $100,000 Pasco at Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday did just that. Race winner PROSPECTIVE (Mark Casse), runner-up WILDCAT CREEK (Eddie Plesa), third-place finisher ADIRONDACK KING (John Servis), and fourth-place finisher BURNING TIME (David Fawkes) all are horses who should excite you to see them again next time. Clearly the futures for PROSPECTIVE and ADIRONDACK KING will be proceeding on the route path, while WILDCAT CREEK, younger brother to super-quick Pomeroy’s Pistol, hints toward a razor-sharp sprinter.

PROSPECTIVE earned the victory on a cut-back in distance that likely should have been merely a prep for the next stop, given he had not run since the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. But he showed he could handle the dirt and the G3 Grey Stakes winner on Polytrack now has to be considered a very intriguing prospect. He reached out nicely in the lane to win Saturday despite a loose leg wrap.

WILDCAT CREEK was able to settle and not run off on the lead, a promising trait for a sprinter, from an outside, stalking position. When challenged by the seasoned router in the lane, the son of Wildcat Heir did not buckle. Tab him for a big sprint score or two this year.

ADIRONDACK KING may have been a slight disappointment in that he didn’t deliver the victory as predicted here, but he showed to me that he’s much more of a router than a sprinter in his performance. He held his position okay from the rail, steadily grinded through the turn and seemed to find his best gear late in the going. This was a step forward, indicating a desire to route for his well-bred son of millionaires Lawyer Ron and Jostle.

BURNING TIME won a two-turn stakes at Calder last year, but given his pedigree and way he finished up nicely and galloped out so strongly in the 7-furlong Pasco, he looks like a dangerous closing sprinter to me. I’d love to see him try a 1-turn mile at Churchill in the spring in the Derby Trial.

The Pasco’s final time of 1:23.88 was accomplished .26 quicker than 3-year-old fillies in the Gasparilla Stakes on the same card. Do note that unplaced SEVEN KIND didn’t flatter what appeared to be a key GP allowance headed by ALGORITHMS (Todd Pletcher) and CONSORTIUM (Kiaran McLaughlin) from Dec. 16.

California Derby (1/14, GG-8)

Several contenders in the 1-1/16 miles California Derby appeared to have distance-challenged pedigrees, and when a fair pace ensued, the race pretty much melted down. The horses dueling on the lead wound up last, fourth and fifth in a field of seven, as the very logical closer RUSSIAN GREEK (Jerry Hollendorfer) mowed everyone down to score. For Hollendorfer it marked his fourth win in this race in the past six years. Note his previous Cal Derby champs during that streak (Chocolate Candy, Bwana Bull and Cause to Believe) all marched on to make starts in the Kentucky Derby. That’s impressive considering it’s a listed race in January.

The fourth quarter of this race clocked only :26.22, but given the ground he made up, RUSSIAN GREEK came home in about :25 flat, while carving up more than a 3-length deficit in the final half-furlong. That’s not too bad for this stage of the game, but he’ll obviously need to pick up brilliance to beat the best of the division.

The Cal Derby lacked depth and there’s not much more to take from this race other than the winner, who has a wonderful pedigree to keep advancing in distance this spring if good enough.

Jimmy Winkfield Stakes (1/16, Aqu-8)

Winning a stakes race three days after running in allowance company is quite a racing feat. But when you run one-two in a stakes race with TWO horses exiting the same race three days ago, well, the conspiracy theorists raise red flags when the trainer is the embattled Rick Dutrow. It’s difficult to come out of Monday’s $75,000 six-furlong Winkfield talking about the horses and not the trainer. But, whoomp, there it is. The thousand-pound gorilla in the room is Dutrow winning like it’s going out of style while he trains under a stay of his 10-year ban for medication violations.

KING AND CRUSADER, recently disqualified from his win in the Maryland Juvenile Championship for receiving Lasix too close to the race, punched out another victory in the Winkfield when receiving a perfect trip stalking in third behind a pace duel. Fractions of the Winkfield slowed badly on the back end, stopping the clock in :22.48, :22.94 and then just :26.30 (13.57 final furlong). Stablemate RESERVED QUALITY once again finished solidly but galloped out only on even terms with the winner and was never a threat to nab KING AND CRUSADER before the wire. Neither appears a serious contender to challenge heavier hitters in races like the G3 Gotham later in the meet.

Allowance races

ATIGUN (Ken McPeek) turned in a visually impressive allowance route score Sunday at Oaklawn Park, rallying past the field under a hammer-lock despite having no pace to close into. The fifth-place finisher in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club appears to be a major player on the G3 Southwest-G2 Rebel path toward the G1 Arkansas Derby. Professional with an efficient stride, ATIGUN has a very nice damside pedigree to route and handle many surfaces. This was a strong event where runner-up RING IT UP (Chris Richard) set the pace, battled gamely to the wire, and then re-broke past the wire to gallop out much the best. He’s a bet-back special. WHISTLE INCLUDED (Steve Asmussen) made a pre-mature, wide move down the backstretch and still managed a good placing in a positive performance.

Monday’s 1-mile allowance at Oaklawn featured a two-way throwdown between PEE H DEE (Chris Richard) and Z ROCKSTAR (Donnie K. Von Hemel). The duo separated from their rivals in the stretch after a race that looked like a rodeo on the first turn. PEE H DEE nearly unseated Terry Thompson in traffic on the clubhouse turn, but was at his best in the clear in a gutty stretch duel. Z ROCKSTAR looked amazing in the flesh pre-race and ran to his looks. PEE H DEE’s victory was a feather in the cap of the Springboard Mile alumni at Remington Park, a race in which he had previously finished third in. BASALT (Steve Asmussen) was a washed-out mess pre-race and broke through the gate before starting. The impeccably bred son of Giant’s Causeway and Fleet Renee was his own worst enemy.

At Fair Grounds last Friday, MARK VALESKI (Larry Jones) marched toward a possible start in the G3 Risen Star with a determined, 6-furlong allowance sprint win over equally sharp RADIANT TALENT (Steve Margolis). The pair flew home the final quarter-mile in :23.85 after pace-maker SEEKER (Steve Asmussen) chucked in the towel. MARK VALESKI validated his strong company lines from Delaware Park last summer, facing future stakes winners UNION RAGS (Michael Matz) and ANCIENT ROME (Tony Dutrow) in his two prior starts. Pedigree-wise, both MARK VALESKI and RADIANT TALENT would appear to tap out around 1 mile, but they have earned the right to try a 2-turn stakes next. Talent is not questioned, but stamina.

One runner who passed his first 2-turn test with flying colors was PHANTOM FURY (Mike Lauer) at Turfway Park last Friday, cruising to his second straight blowout win in a 14-day span. Unchallenged on the lead in this 1-mile allowance, the son of Devil His Due absolutely cantered to the wire and galloped out perhaps 20 lengths to the good. The race didn’t dazzle on the clock, but Turfway races often don’t. This should be a legitimate local hope in the G2 Spiral pursuit.

Rick Dutrow had a big week with the sophomores in addition to his one-two sweep in Aqueduct’s Jimmy Winkfield Stakes, saddling ARTEST to a sharp turf sprint allowance win Monday at Gulfstream Park. The son of Hard Spun took over with a furlong to go and finished full of energy even with a slight drift out in the lane.  He’s run well short and long on dirt, and now sprinting on turf, and has plenty of possibilities. Runner-up CLIP THE COUPONS (Chad Brown) finished sharply in his turf debut after dabbling in dirt stakes last fall.

Maiden races

Todd Pletcher did it again, sweeping both divisions of last Saturday’s maiden 7-furlong sprints at Gulfstream Park. Rookie SPRING HILL FARM outran his mediocre workouts for a convincing score in race 3, benefitting from a very soft early pace while making all the running. By Smart Strike out of G2 Shuvee winner Colonial Minstrel, expect to see him stretching out soon after this pretty solid try. QUICK WIT (Dale Romans) was a clear second in a race that simply didn’t look like it had much in behind the runaway winner. In the race 7 division, Pletcher’s ECABRONI was a short-priced winner in his second lifetime start over RISE AGAINST (Rick Dutrow), a clear second. Once again, there didn’t appear to be much behind the winner. ECABRONI, by Smoke Glacken, didn’t gallop out with great energy and came home nearly a full second slower the final furlong than stablemate SPRING HILL FARM did in the earlier division. Dubai World Cup winner Well Armed’s little brother ARM FORCE (Eoin Harty) did not show much in his unveiling.

Southern California shipper COALTOWN CAT (Jeff Bonde) disappointed on Oaklawn’s Monday card, finishing third on class alone at short odds in a 6-furlong maiden sprint. A debut fourth to highly impressive MIDNIGHT TRANSFER (Carla Gaines) at Santa Anita, he never seemed into this race, won by a super-game MY SILVER BEAR (John Cox). The winner battled between horses and galloped out decently, looking like he’ll stretch back out nicely after a route second at Churchill in the fall. Rookie SILVER DANDY (Donnie K. Von Hemel) ran on nicely at the end after being squeezed at the start and won’t be a maiden long.

Oaklawn had split divisions Saturday of a 1-1/16 miles maiden route in races 2 and 5. The first division went more than 2 full seconds faster than the latter, making it almost too hard to believe or a situation of a vastly changing track condition.  Late-running NAJJAAR (Danny Peitz) looked like he was shot out of a cannon late in winning race 2, and then galloped back to the winner’s circle looking like a million bucks. The son of Jazil rallied despite an opening 6 furlongs in 1:14.09 and did this all on his own. It didn’t appear like he beat a special field on paper, however. Race 5 looked stronger on paper, but impeccably bred stakes veteran CHALYBEATE SPRINGS (D. Wayne Lukas) had to work hard for the money at short odds. Wide on both turns, the son of Dynaformer and Chaposa Springs was all out to beat an even wider VINDICATION NOW (Ron Moquett), who galloped out much the best of the two.

AMERICAN ACT (Jack Carava) and BODEMEISTER (Bob Baffert) locked up in a sharp stretch battle Monday in a maiden dash at Santa Anita. The winner is a big, leggy gelding by Quiet American not built like a sprinter and should stretch out. BODEMEISTER, named for Baffert’s young son Bode, also appears to have a future routing (sired by Empire Maker), but he was a bit green in this debut sprint. On the same Santa Anita Monday card, CLOUD HOPPER (Art Sherman) galloped out strongly after winning a 1-mile turf maiden. The Stormello colt flattered the form of Dec. 30 maiden winner GROOVIN SOLO (Myung Kwon Cho).

HARDENED WILDCAT (Chad Brown) looks like a very promising sprinter after Saturday’s impressive Aqueduct score at 6 furlongs. The son of Hard Spun-Wild Snitch looked sharp as a tack in a final quarter-mile of :24 flat to outrun a talented foe in ROCKIN BOOGIE (Bruce Levine). Aqueduct’s same Saturday card saw New York-bred PANTHRO (Stan Hough) ship north from Gulfstream Park to pull away to a 6-furlong maiden win that didn’t impress visually and included virtually no gallop-out.

Around the horn in other maiden races last week, SILVER MAX (Dale Romans) and SHAUN WASHINGTON (Jimmy Jerkens) ran one-two throughout in a Friday turf maiden route at Gulfstream Park. They came home nicely in :23.32 after walking early. COMMON BOND (Bill Mott), To Honor And Serve’s little brother, did not factor … TWO SEVENTEEN (Bruce Levine) added blinkers and stepped up from a maiden claimer to win a 2-turn Aqueduct MSW on Sunday vs. what appears a very soft cast … SCUDERO (Dennis Manning) wired a Tampa Bay Downs turf route maiden last Friday, showing a lot of late energy when re-breaking in the stretch. The Scat Daddy colt was demolished in 2 dirt tries last year at Monmouth, but was a different horse upon the reappearance.

Quick hitters

Churchill Downs has established Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pools on Feb. 10-12, March 2-4 and March 30-April 1 … Newly crowned 2011 Champion 2-Year-Old HANSEN (Mike Maker) worked 5 furlongs Saturday in 1:01.10 at Gulfstream Park in preparations for the Jan. 29 G3 Holy Bull … CREATIVE CAUSE (Mike Harrington) continued his preparations at Hollywood Park for his 3-year-old season, working five furlongs last Friday in 1:01, his third straight week back on the tab … UNION RAGS (Michael Matz) had his second work since his return to serious training, breezing a half-mile in :49.63 Wednesday at Palm Meadows … G3 Sham Stakes winner OUT OF BOUNDS (Eoin Harty) wasted no time getting back to work, breezing 3 furlongs on Monday, just 9 days after his signature G3 score … G1 CashCall Futurity champ LIAISON (Bob Baffert) fired a bullet 6 furlongs Thursday at Santa Anita in 1:11 flat, preparing for the G2 Bob Lewis Memorial … Baffert’s BC Juvenile Sprint champ SECRET CIRCLE worked Thursday as well, going 5 furlongs in company in :59.40 with an eye perhaps toward the G2 San Vicente … Next week’s preps to circle on the calendar include Saturday’s Dancing Count at Laurel and Sunday’s G3 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park.

[MORE: Hansen's road to the Kentucky Derby

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)
4. EXOTHERMIC (Gulfstream Park, 12/29 * TURF *)
5. NAJJAAR (Oaklawn, 1/14) * NEW *

Allowance Race
1. DISCREET DANCER (Gulfstream, 1/7)
2. SKY KINGDOM (Santa Anita, 1/12)
3. ATIGUN (Oaklawn, 1/15) * NEW *
4. STAR CHANNEL (Gulfstream, 1/8 * TURF *)
5. MARK VALESKI (Fair Grounds, 1/13) * NEW *

Stakes Race
1. OUT OF BOUNDS (Sham, SA, 1/7)
2. ALPHA (Count Fleet, Aqu, 1/7)
3. PROSPECTIVE (Pasco, Tam, 1/14) * NEW *
4. REVERON (Gulfstream Park Derby, GP, 1/1)
5. JUNEBUGRED (Smarty Jones, OP, 1/16) * NEW *

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!

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