01/25/2013 12:33PM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 4 - Jan. 25, 2013

Hodges Photography/Alexander Barkoff
Oxbow won the Lecomte by a wide margin on Jan. 19 at Fair Grounds.

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

Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winners are 15: 1-0-2 in the Kentucky Derby all-time, which means only 54 percent of Juvenile winners have made it to the Derby starting gate and 11 percent have finished in the money on the first Saturday in May. SHANGHAI BOBBY (Todd Pletcher) opens his 2013 candidacy Saturday in the Grade 3 Holy Bull at Gulfstream, but history shows he’s only a 50/50 proposition at even being discussed come Louisville.

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. As is custom, we will outline some undercard races of note before diving into the stakes analysis and selections.

Turfway Park has a pair of sprints on the Friday night card in races 7 (allowance) and 8 (maiden). Turfway Prevue runner-up SOMKININDABOYSROOM (Mike Maker) looks like a 1-10 shot in the allowance after doing all the dirty work in a fast-paced stakes last time and not wilting.

All eyes will be on the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Saturday, but the undercard spills over with intrigue as well. Races 3, 5, 7 and 9 are for 3-year-olds and some of the biggest names I’ve been aching to see return. Races 3 and 5 are split divisions of a 1 1/8-mile allowance, both with fields of seven. Note that most early season races at this distance are carousels and horses rarely change place during the running to any significance, especially in short fields. Race 3 appears the decidedly weaker of the pair, where Keeneland rivals TAKEN BY THE STORM (Kenny McPeek) and EL DURO (Todd Pletcher) are rematched against Team Valor Italian import CERRO (Graham Motion). Race 5 boasts SAYLER’S CREEK (McPeek) and ORB (Shug McGaughey), two horses that I think match up well if they had run in the Holy Bull. My DRF Formulator stat of the week shows that horses SAYLER’S CREEK beat in his Nov. 18 maiden win at Churchill are a sparkling 8: 3-3-1 since then and all 8 starters finished in the superfecta, including Grade 3 Lecomte runner-up GOLDEN SOUL (Dallas Stewart). ORB has faced a special group of horses  in his young career, including VIOLENCE (Todd Pletcher), TITLETOWNFIVE (D. Wayne Lukas), VYJACK (Rudy Rodriguez), CLAWBACK (Rick Violette) and REVOLUTIONARY (Pletcher) -- three of whom  since have become stakes winners. The race 5 field also includes MOUNTAIN EAGLE (Nick Zito), but note three alumni from his Dec. 8 score failed to deliver a top two placing in their reappearance at GP last Saturday.

Gulfstream’s Saturday card also includes a pair of 1 1/8-mile turf tests, a race 7 allowance and race 9 maiden. My winter BFF has been BOLD DANCE (Bill Mott) since his rousing Dec. 1 maiden win on grass. Younger brother to Horse of the Year Saint Liam, BOLD DANCE meets the Dania Beach Stakes third-place finisher NEWFOUND ZAPPER (Wesley Warm), whose recent effort was flattered when Dania Beach runner-up CHARMING KITTEN (Pletcher) came back here last Sunday to win the Kitten’s Joy Stakes. The race 9 maiden route includes impeccably bred Bernardini-Beautiful Pleasure colt COWDRAY PARK (Mark Casse) looking to finally win. FEDERAL AGENT (Angel Penna Jr.) exits the same race as COWDRAY PARK and this is a Curlin colt with a sterling female family. PARNELLI (Kiaran McLaughlin) makes his grass debut as a half-brother to multiple Grade 2-winning turfer Casino Host.

Sunshine Millions Day at Santa Anita on Saturday includes a pair of 3-year-old maiden sprints early in the card. Race 2 features STORM FIGHTER (Bruce Headley) in a Cal-bred affair that will give us an early barometer to the strength of his debut conqueror OMEGA STAR (John Shirreffs), who returns in the same-day Cal Breeders Champions Stakes. Race 3 is a turf sprint in open company where CERVARO (John Sadler) and BUCKLEBERRY GREY (Ben Cecil) are bet-back specials from a Countdown review of their common Jan. 4 race.

At Aqueduct on Saturday there are two races of note. A race 3 maiden route features TRANSPARENT (McLaughlin) and INMYFATHERSIMAGE (Gary Contessa), the 2-3  finishers in one of the season’s absolute best maiden performances by REVOLUTIONARY (Pletcher). This loaded race also includes the return of the regarded BUDDY’S TIZ (Bruce Levine). Race 4 is a New York-bred sprint where MY TEDDY BEAR (Gary Sciacca) exits a third-place finish behind a very impressive debut winner and potential stakes sprinter named I’M STOKED (Mike Hushion).

Oaklawn’s Saturday card includes a race 5 maiden mile where the nine entrants hail from nine different last-out prep locations. RED WINGS ( Lukas) runs back on 15 days’ rest off a late-running sprint try in what looks to be a rather weak field by OP standards. A race 7 allowance mile offers far more intrigue. BOSS MAN ROCKET (Tim Glyshaw) wheels back on short rest as the $800,000 War Front colt ships in from Fair Grounds off a nice score. TWIN ENGINE (Carl Bowman) continues to sizzle in the a.m. after missing a chance to run earlier in the meet and his past running lines are filled with quality competition in Kentucky.

Turf sprinters are in the spotlight twice at Fair Grounds on Saturday, a race 5 maiden dash and the $75,000 Van Berg Stakes in race 7. In the Van Berg, ANIMAL STYLE (Mike Maker) exits a win three weeks ago that did not impress. A freshened STRIKE THE NOTE (Bret Calhoun) looks armed and dangerous in his return to sprinting, while PARTY LAD (Mike Pino) ships west off a Gulfstream allowance win for a barn that’s among the very best with turf sprinters.

Saturday’s huge Ladies Classic Night at Sam Houston includes the $50,000 Allen’s Landing Stakes for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs. TOUR GUIDE (Calhoun) exits a romp in the Sugar Bowl at Fair Grounds and figures a short-priced favorite.

Gulfstream Park has split divisions of a seven-furlong maiden sprint in Sunday’s races 7 and 9. ACCLAIM (Terri Pompay) is back after the misfortune of having faced the rising star VERRAZANO (Pletcher) in a New Year’s Day party for one. Race 7 is a pedigree smorgasbord with maternal grandsons of star mares like Listening, RUBLE (Ian Wilkes), and Sabin, GORGUI (Zito). A half-brother to fleet May Day Rose tries the dirt for the first time in MAY DAY CASH (Steve Klesaris). Meanwhile, SEVEN OAKS (Bill Mott) debuts off a fast workout tab and this Mizzen Mast colt is from a female family that boasts the likes of Aptitude, Slew o’ Gold, and Coastal. Race 9 appears the weaker of the divisions and lacks performance and pedigree sizzle. PERSONAL DELIVERY (Tim Hamm) comes from a very strong win-early female family, but modest works.

One of the more intriguing allowance races of the early season comes Sunday at Sunland Park of all places. The race 8 route matches Jeff Mullins’s ex-patriot DRY SUMMER (Joel Marr), winner of the Oak Tree Juvenile Turf, against Steve Asmussen’s ex-patriot SHOW SOME MAGIC (Henry Dominguez), winner of the Riley Allison Futurity and alumnus of the Grade 2 Hopeful and Grade 3 Delta Jackpot. This is a no-conditions local prep for the Feb. 23 Mine That Bird Stakes, a stepping-stone to the Grade 3 Sunland Park Derby in March.

Holy Bull Stakes (Saturday/Gulfstream Park) [GET PPs]

Anytime the 2-year-old champion makes his 3-year-old debut it is big news. But when that champion is undefeated like SHANGHAI BOBBY (Pletcher), there’s extra pep in the step. Everybody loves a streak, from fans to bettors, both those for and against a horse. As impressive as his resume appears with victories in the Hopeful, Champagne, and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, SHANGHAI BOBBY hasn’t scared away the masses. A dynamite field of contenders is set for this Holy Bull, its $400,000 purse, and 10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points (10-4-2-1 to the top four).

SHANGHAI BOBBY ran up the score in each of his first four wins around one turn, either holding his lead or expanding it late. In the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile around two turns, it was a different story. Yes, he dug in and held off the troubled-trip runner HE’S HAD ENOUGH (Doug O’Neill), but the field walked home and he was visibly tired. What I find interesting is that the connections didn’t stop on SHANGHAI BOBBY for any length of time, and he has had six workouts for this January start dating back to Dec. 17. If you thought you really had a 10-furlong Kentucky Derby horse, would this be your approach? The devil is in the pedigree perhaps as he’s a grandson of two sprinters, Harlan and Orientate.

The 1 1/16-mile configuration at Gulfstream really plays well to horses with early speed like the inside-drawn SHANGHAI BOBBY. The short run to the first turn and sixteenth pole finish line both could help the favorite accomplish his task on Saturday. They are important enough factors to still think SHANGHAI BOBBY will win this race, even if you’re like me and skeptical he’s cut out for a real Derby chase.

Luckily for horseplayers and fans there are attractive alternatives. FRAC DADDY (McPeek) and DEWEY SQUARE (Dale Romans) exit a 2-3  finish in Churchill Downs’s Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and hail from respected barns. DEWEY SQUARE has had six works since the break compared to four for FRAC DADDY and may be a bit further along for the return. Pedigree-wise, FRAC DADDY’s sire Scat Daddy relished the Gulfstream surface, winning the 2007 Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby. And it may be worth noting that Somethinaboutbetty, the outstanding racemare and dam of DEWEY SQUARE, ran the worst race of her career in her only Gulfstream Park appearance when last of six in the 2006 Old Hat Stakes.

BERN IDENTITY (Kelly Breen) ran a good second in the Grade 3 Delta Jackpot closing over a bullring track behind GOLDENCENTS (Doug O’Neill). The Jackpot since has proven to be a very key race, including (but not limited to), the subsequent Grade 3 Sham Stakes win by GOLDENCENTS. A classy winner of the Grade 2 Sanford at Saratoga, BERN IDENTITY ran a solid third to SHANGHAI BOBBY in the seven-furlong, Grade 2 Hopeful. But it’s also fair to question his route pedigree for trips much longer than this. He, too, will benefit from this course configuration helping horses accomplish a distance of ground.

Comebacks have been the topic of those listed above, but we already know what ITSMYLUCKDAY (Eddie Plesa Jr.) and SR. SQUIQUEYANO (Luis Olivares) can do over this Gulfstream strip this meet. They ran 1-2  in the Jan. 1 Gulfstream Park Derby at the one-turn mile distance. ITSMYLUCKYDAY attended the fast pace and ran everyone off their feet en route to a dominant score, albeit over five rivals and no documented late runners. So we need to take that win with a wait-and-see approach in my estimation. Respect him, but understand this task will be infinitely tougher.

This is no easy handicapping chore, but it’s a wonderful challenge and a race I can’t wait to see.


California Breeders Champions Stakes (Saturday/Santa Anita Park) [GET PPs]

Before you turn your nose up at this race based on the statebred nature of its conditions, note the Cal Breeders Champions Stakes has produced the likes of Caracortado, General Challenge, Snow Chief, and Jaklin Klugman over the past few decades. And I wouldn’t include it this week if not for a special 3-year-old I see in OMEGA STAR (John Shirreffs). His maiden win Dec. 31 grabbed my attention and made me excited to see what he could do next time. The son of Candy Ride was sharp in open company at Aqueduct in his debut behind eventual Winkfield Stakes champ CLAWBACK (Violette). But he was devastatingly good in his Santa Anita unveiling for Shirreffs after being transferred from Jimmy Jerkens. His win reminded me a lot of Caracortado, and now he will get the shot to show that sleek turn of foot around two turns. The way he got in and out of spots and accelerated was visually inspiring.

Admittedly, there’s not much here in the way of OMEGA STAR if he’s nearly as good as I think. The top six finishers from the King Glorious Stakes at Hollywood stretch out in distance and move to the dirt, headed by WEEWINNIN (Brian Koriner) and FIGHTING HUSSAR (Hector Palma). Cal Cup Juvenile winner MONUMENT (John Sadler) was last in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and beaten favorite when third in the King Glorious.

Cal Breeders Champions Stakes selections: W) OMEGA STAR; P) FIGHTING HUSSAR; S) WEEWINNIN.

Last week’s selections: 3: 0-1-1. We turned around the top two picks in the Lecomte Stakes in an exacta box, while Smarty Jones Stakes choice ALWAYS IN A TIZ finished third to our third choice WILL TAKE CHARGE. Second pick CHARMING KITTEN scored the Kitten’s Joy as top pick FIRE GUARD became our first top pick of the season to finish off the board. Our picks in the Frank Whiteley at Laurel scratched.

Season selections: 7: 2-1-3.

Everyone’s a critic

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

Stakes Races

This season, Countdown will review the key Kentucky Derby “points preps” in further detail in the Countdown Rewind. Get more of Jeremy’s analysis on the Lecomte Stakes and Smarty Jones stakes by clicking on the race names. Meanwhile, we had six additional listed stakes over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. Two blaring sprinters announced their stakes presence on each coast.

Lecomte Replay

Smarty Jones Replay

At Aqueduct, CLAWBACK (Violette) proved why he has been a Countdown horse from key races with a five-length domination in Monday’s $75,000 Jimmy Winkfield Stakes. The son of Put It Back could not find a race at a distance of ground to test his Derby trail moxie, so he instead thumped his first stakes foes in a lively 1:09.75 for six furlongs. The dam side pedigree hints there could be some route in his future. WINNING CAUSE (Pletcher) stumbled badly at the start, but ran a decent second for his first start since Keeneland and certainly he’s a horse bred to run much farther than this. WINNING CAUSE galloped out much better than the winner and would be the more attractive route prospect, though CLAWBACK appears a brilliant sort.

Speaking of brilliant, DISTINCTIV PASSION (Jeff Bonde) ran Monday’s $75,000 San Pedro Stakes rivals off their feet at Santa Anita. The With Distinction colt notched his second win of the meet, and third in a row overall, by blazing six furlongs in 1:08.50 after leading every step. He’s a full brother to the 1 1/16-mile juvenile turf stakes winner Italo, but I don’t see route-race success in his future at this stage. His head came up in the lane and he lost a bit of his action with a modest gallop-out. Still, he’s awfully fast and there’s no shame in that. Runner-up HEAR THE GHOST (Jerry Hollendorfer) caught the jet stream late in this race and the debut winner by Ghostzapper appears talented. He reminds me a lot of the barn’s 2011 San Pedro champ Indian Winter, who also was lightly raced, talented, and sprinted his way to a Santa Anita Derby berth.

Odds-on favorite CHARMING KITTEN (Todd Pletcher) lived up to the public’s perception and his papa’s name as he won the Kitten’s Joy Stakes Sunday over the Gulfstream Park turf. After stakes placings in the With Anticipation and Dania Beach, he received a dream trip from John Velazquez and was a professional winner over the green and improving BAMBAZONKI (Chris Block). The Kitten’s Joy provided a rhythmic beat with splits of 24.09, 24.10, 24.41, 24.45 and 6.38, and that played nicely to the grinding style that CHARMING KITTEN possesses. He’s more of a router than a miler and will appreciate nine furlongs and beyond after galloping out best in this field. Our top choice FIRE GUARD (Bill Mott) had a strange journey after being shuffled back at the start. The impressive Tampa maiden breaker turned rank while in an unfamiliar pursuit role and fought Joel Rosario, then moved nicely to contention at the sixteenth pole where you would have bet every nickel he was going to run third. But he stopped in the final 70 yards and wound up fifth in a performance that perplexed, and yet makes me want to see him one more time at a big price.

Three scratches diluted Saturday’s $125,000 Frank Whiteley Stakes at Laurel Park, but professional winner ORE PASS (Mike Trombetta) rebounded nicely off an inexplicable retreat at Parx just 14 days prior. In the Whiteley, ORE PASS looked much more like the dominant horse who debuted a 10-length winner at Laurel, sitting a professional third behind a fast speed duel and pouncing in this seven-furlong test. But 38.31 over the final three furlongs (13.15 final split) doesn’t scream that this son of War Pass wants to go too much farther just yet. Maryland Juvenile Championship winner ALPHA MIX FOTROT (Dickie Small) broke out badly from the widest post, raced 5-6 wide on the turn and still was a clear-cut second while cutting into the win margin late. He may have been best in defeat.

While Saturday night’s $50,000 Groovy Stakes for Texas-breds at Sam Houston isn’t exactly a big deal on the Triple Crown trail, it was a key point of study -- as we indicated it might be last week -- when analyzing Monday’s Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn. That’s because WORLDVENTURER (Calhoun) dominated the Groovy cast and flattered the form of his Springboard Mile conquerors TEXAS BLING (Danele Durham) and WILL TAKE CHARGE (Lukas). As you read in the links above or saw for yourself, that duo ran 1-2  in the big one at Oaklawn -- and that’s exactly why we follow the common opponents and potential key races in Countdown each week. WORLDVENTURER is a son of Louisiana Derby winner Wimbledon, and as a two-time, stakes-placed router, he likely earned himself a shot at something on the trail at Fair Grounds or Oaklawn.

Finally, Saturday’s Pepsi Cola Stakes at Sunland Park probably derailed the Sunland Park Derby hopes of a few horses as DEVONS CA CHING (Ray Ashford) stepped up in class off back-to-back wins in maiden and allowance company to win  his initial stakes try. In his wake were the top four finishers from the Red Hedeman Mile, indicating that cast isn’t ready for the primetime invaders to come in the open stakes at Sunland Park.

Allowance Races

One of Las Vegas’ most-steamed Triple Crown trail hopefuls reappeared Saturday at Gulfstream in race 1 when PALACE MALICE (Pletcher) made his first start since a Saratoga maiden win  in August. Crushed to 35-1 odds at Wynn Las Vegas prior to the return, this $200,000 son of Curlin was unable to match sprint strides in the slop with a sharp MAJESTIC HUSSAR (Eddie Kenneally), who had the benefit of a race at the meeting. The top pair put eight lengths between them and the rest of what appeared a pretty soft race on paper and confirmed the weakness of the Spectacular Bid Stakes when its runner-up CITY OF WESTON (Antonio Sano) proved no threat in third. MAJESTIC HUSSAR wired the field and maintained a two to three-length edge throughout. PALACE MALICE chased throughout as the duo posted an impressive time of 1:22.53. Consider the six-furlong split of 1:09.77 proved markedly faster than the final times of the Sunshine Millions Sprint (1:10.27) and Filly and Mare Sprint (1:11.07). Both have pedigree to make you think they will route with success. This rates the best allowance performance I’ve seen in America during the Countdown season (Dec. 26-present), even if the race was only two-deep in talent and contested on a wet track. But, I say “no thanks” to the 35-1 offering for PALACE MALICE to win the Kentucky Derby at this point in time, even if he’s up to 40-1 this week.

Oaklawn race 8 last Friday was a re-written allowance sprint that was canceled the week prior. Jean Lafitte Stakes pace casualty MANEWAL (Cody Autrey) appreciated the cut-back in distance and scored by more than two lengths in 1:11.39, despite running four-wide on the turn. ONLINE POKER (Chris Richard) was a clear second. Neither screamed for more distance, but the big takeaway here may be the poor performance by Fair Grounds allowance winner LOOSENTHESECONDARY (Mike Stidham). It’s early in the season, but between this poor road trip to Oaklawn and the successful Fair Grounds raid by OXBOW (Lukas) in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes, early exit polls show that the OP crowd may be stronger than the FG lot this spring. It’s something to keep an eye on as these circuits have horses shipping back and forth.

Gulfstream’s Spectacular Bid Stakes received continued bad reviews Wednesday when fourth-place finisher ROCKYSHOMERUN (Rowan Dixon) failed to deliver as an odds-on, loose leader in a Tampa Bay Downs race 2 allowance sprint and finished second.

Finally, DYNAMIC STRIKE (Dickie Small) won the cat-and-mouse game Thursday at Laurel Park when beating a field of just three allowance milers. The Smart Strike colt has now won two in a row since adding blinkers, and was able to toy with heavily favored HEAT PRESS (Graham Motion), who scratched from Saturday’s $125,000 Whiteley Stakes for this seemingly easier spot.

Maiden Races

CURLY TOP (Bob Baffert) proved a rising star last Friday in Santa Anita race 4 when the son of Curlin toppled the highly respected second-time starter FOOTBRIDGE (Eoin Harty) in a very strong maiden mile. CURLY TOP was professional with a strong gallop-out and final quarter-mile in a decent 24.98 to collar FOOTBRIDGE. Both exited key races and ran to those credentials. FOOTBRIDGE was slow to gather in the debut and screamed for more distance. But few would have expected the Street Cry colt to go barreling to the lead as he did in 22.83 and 46.81. He didn’t give way in the lane, but rather was reeled in after idling a bit, making this a performance that was solid for the top two. We’re going to see both in major stakes this spring. Keep an eye on fourth-place finisher COLBURN (O’Neill), who had a rough start, struggled to corner in his two-turn debut, but ran on nicely and galloped out well. He received a good education to route.

Also at Santa Anita last week, LET EM SHINE (Adam Kitchingman) turned serious heads sprinting in race 2 on Saturday. The Songandaprayer colt rocketed through 21 flat and 43.23 splits en route to a sprite 1:08.36 for six furlongs. Consider the same-day Grade 2 Palos Verdes Handicap for top older sprinters went only three lengths faster. But there was zero gallop-out after this 7 1/2 length blitzkrieg and the pedigree may get a mile at most. Long-strider GOVENOR CHARLIE (Baffert) was second-best and slow to gather, and may want more distance. Keep an eye on this son of Midnight Lute and grandson of Silverbulletday.

One sprint race that could play at a longer distance was last Friday’s race 5 at Tampa Bay Downs, a six-furlong event won by MR. D’ORO (Jason Servis). The Medaglia d’Oro colt outdueled two rivals and still had enough to hold off a promising BEYOND COMPARE (Tom Proctor) in what was probably the best dirt maiden race for 3-year-olds of the meet at Tampa. MR. D’ORO broke sharp but settled, which is a real credit for a horse away since August. His debut third to eventual stakes winner PURPLE EGG (Jane Cibelli) hinted that this is a nice horse. MR. D’ORO is out of a sprint dam, but BEYOND COMPARE’s mama is full sister to the spectacular turf route mare Voodoo Dancer. Both ran strong races and galloped out very well in a sharp race.

On the Lecomte Stakes undercard Saturday at Fair Grounds, race 4 maiden route winner GROUND TRANSPORT (Stidham) posted a legitimate score in a good time. His 1:44.64 for 1 mile and 70 yards was faster than the Silverbulletday Stakes and probably would have put him in the mix for the runner-up in the Lecomte. The son of Big Brown has a very turfy female side pedigree, which I like to see in a Derby prospect. With only two starts, I would hope he can get an allowance route prior to the Louisiana Derby instead of going into the Risen Star. Runner-up SMOOTH STONE (Neil Howard) galloped out very nicely and should run all day. GROUND TRANSPORT’s win flatters the form of DEPARTING (Al Stall Jr.), a well-bred debut winner for Claiborne who has continued with a trio of workouts this month in search of his next move.

Gulfstream’s 1 1/8-mile maiden route in Saturday’s race 3 is difficult to trust given the sloppy track and early season factor for this type of distance. Speed usually carousels at 1 1/8 miles early in the year, and wet tracks most often result in blowout win margins. We got both with ELMUTAHID (McLaughlin), who skipped wire-to-wire in the slop by more than four lengths. The Street Cry colt is out of the star turf mare Alwajeeha, but had missed in four prior turf attempts. He came home in 26.66 the fourth quarter and 13.68 the last furlong, which tells you there wasn’t much behind him. At least this win flatters my highly regarded Dec. 1 maiden winner BOLD DANCE (Mott) a little bit.

Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin also had a maiden winner Sunday at Aqueduct when NOW AND THEN wired a race 4 sprint in his debut. The $375,000 Tiznow colt is out of the win-early mare Holiday Runner, who opened her career with three straight wins (two stakes) back in 2002. NOW AND THEN completed the six furlongs in 1:11.66, which clocked slightly more than two lengths faster than a New York-bred maiden sprint for 3-year-olds went two races prior.

BALANCE OF POWER (John Terranova) shipped to Tampa Bay Downs on Thursday from his Palm Meadows home base to win a slowly run maiden route in his second start. The son of BC Sprint winner Silver Train was last of 11 in his Churchill Downs debut on turf, but appreciated the change in scenery and surface.

WINNING NOTE (Wayne Catalano) paid a generous $7.80 in Thursday’s Race 8 maiden route at Fair Grounds, considering his debut second was behind next-out Grade 3 Lecomte runner-up GOLDEN SOUL (Dallas Stewart). The Grand Slam colt won essentially wire to wire, but had to battle back in the lane after giving up the lead. The time of 1:45.36 for 1 mile and 70 yards was a solid time for the day at an oft-run distance. WINNING NOTE beat what appears a very solid field on paper while showing toughness on the inside, but it was hard work and it wasn’t pretty. Mixed vibes.

Finally, odds-on favorite RUSSDICULOUS O’Neill) folded after a huge early lead Saturday in a race 8 maiden sprint at Golden Gate Fields. The Southern California raider failed to graduate in search of an easier spot and was beaten by eighth-time starter NORTH PACIFIC (Len Sasmerski) while finishing third. Named for part-owner Rick Pitino’s University of Louisville basketball star  Russ Smith, this performance was a brick.

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. CURLY TOP (Santa Anita, 1/18)

Allowance Race
1. MAJESTIC HUSSAR (Gulfstream Park, 1/19)
2. MYLUTE (Fair Grounds, 12/26)
3. FORTY TALES (Parx, 1/5)
4. RYDILLUC (Gulfstream Park, 1/5 * TURF *)
5. DISTINCTIV PASSION (Santa Anita, 12/28)

Stakes Race
1. OXBOW (Lecomte Stakes, Fair Grounds, 1/19)
2. DYNAMIC SKY (Pasco Stakes, Tampa Bay Downs, 1/12)
3. ITSMYLUCKYDAY (Gulfstream Park Derby, Gulfstream, 1/1)
4. VYJACK (G2 Jerome, Aqueduct, 1/5)
5. WILL TAKE CHARGE (Smarty Jones, Oaklawn, 1/21)

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!