01/27/2012 10:04AM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 4 - Jan. 27, 2012


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 football legend Peyton Manning waiting around to be replaced by Andrew Luck. No matter how much reliable stuff you consistently put out there, eventually someone always winds up ogling the new idea.

1. Johnny Avello, odds-maker to the stars at the Wynn Las Vegas, tells Countdown that Sunday’s newborn Curlin-Rachel Alexandra baby has been installed as a 60-to-1 proposition bet to make the 2015 Kentucky Derby starting gate (1-to-1000 proposition he doesn’t). Meanwhile, renowned odds whiz Roxy Roxborough says he’d make the wonder-kid 500-to-1 to actually WIN the roses, with a caveat. “Well, the issue here is with anything 500-to-1, the liability gets serious,” Roxy explains. “Suppose somebody bets $1,000 to win the Derby. The liability is $500,000. If you are the bettor, you sleep eight hours a day. If you are the bookie, you don't sleep that easily for the next three years!”

2. Trivia: First female trainer to win the Derby? Hasn’t happened yet, though Shelley Riley came closest with Casual Lies in 1992 when second to Lil E Tee, and Kristin Mulhall was third with Imperialism in 2004 to Smarty Jones. Another California-based lady just may have the goods in Carla Gaines. Now, if she can just develop another half-mile out of the uber-talented MIDNIGHT TRANSFER.

3. Super Sundays aren’t just reserved for pigskin and over-the-top commercials. The 2012 Triple Crown trail boasts this coming weekend’s G3 Holy Bull on a Sunday, as well as the Feb. 19 G2 San Vicente, Feb. 26 G2 Fountain of Youth, March 25 G3 Sunland Derby and the April 1 G2 Louisiana Derby. The latter will stagger beautifully between New Orleans’ hosting of the NCAA’s Final Four basketball tournament.

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. While champion HANSEN (Mike Maker) returns Sunday in a star of stars situation for the G3 Holy Bull, we have, hands-down, the best allowance race seen anywhere on the trail this year in Sunday’s race 7 at Gulfstream. As is custom, let’s kick off with a few undercard races of note.

Sunday’s 1 1/16-mile entry level allowance looks like a much tougher race than the G3 Holy Bull if you take away HANSEN’s presence in the Sunday feature. G2 Remsen third-place finisher EL PADRINO (Todd Pletcher), regally bred Breeders’ Cup Juvenile fifth-place runner TAKE CHARGE INDY (Patrick Byrne) and Gulfstream Park Derby runner-up CASUAL TRICK (Nick Zito) are just some of the hot shots to note. For my money, EL PADRINO is trainer Pletcher’s best prospect this year, and perhaps one of his better of recent years. I love everything about the pedigree and past performances to date. TAKE CHARGE INDY has had only 4 works back since the Breeders’ Cup and might be in need of a race for fitness. Let’s hope he runs straight and true after being green at age 2. CASUAL TRICK’s pedigree will only shine brighter the longer he goes and he’s got the advantage of a race at the meet. ARGENTINE TANGO (Stanley Gold) has been one of the more impressive turf winners of the winter, and returns to a dirt surface where he’s had stakes success. What a race!

Sunday’s GP program also includes a race 5 maiden special weight sprint. First-timer MR. SEGRETTO (Nick Zito) is an Unbridled’s Song colt from a wonderful female family that includes the likes of Menifee and Desert Wine. His mama is sister to unbeaten 1999 European champion 2-year-old Fasliyev. The works suggest Zito has a runner. ROCKFIELD (Todd Pletcher) is a $500,000 yearling buy debuting by Malibu Moon out of Be My Prospect. His mama is half-sister to Away, dam of none other than Eight Belles. SEVE (Dale Romans) tries one more time to break his maiden in start No. 8 for the half-brother to superstar race mare You.

At Santa Anita on Sunday, I can’t wait to see STIRRED UP (Bob Baffert) debut. I’ve had my eye on this horse all winter since he took a huge drop in odds in Las Vegas despite not starting to that point. Somebody whispered something and somebody responded with a sizable play in the futures. The $420,000 son of Lemon Drop Kid lands in a tough 7-furlong maiden special weight that includes stablemate BRANNAMAN, fourth to next-out G3 Sham winner OUT OF BOUNDS (Eoin Harty), and first-timer VERNE (Steve Asmussen), a well-bred colt out of the very versatile stakes mare Somethinaboutbetty.

Gulfstream Park’s Sunshine Millions Saturday card has only one race for the sophomore set, an elongated sprint at 7 1/2 furlongs around 1 turn in race 2. A debuting half-brother to G3 winner Colizeo, COLONY STRIKE (Todd Pletcher) figures to be a first-timer to watch given his pedigree and works. Another rookie worth a look is STEREO IN MOTION (Nick Zito), a half-brother to Zito’s 2009 Federico Tesio Stakes winner Miner’s Escape, who had a cup of coffee in that spring’s Belmont Stakes. The Ghostzapper colt fired a bullet workout Jan. 19 for the unveiling. Among those who’ve already started, QUICK WIT (Dale Romans) exits a clear-cut second two weeks ago to impressive debut winner SPRING HILL FARM (Todd Pletcher), GOLDEN TICKET (Ken McPeek) returns to dirt after a series of races with solid company lines, and MORDI’S MIRACLE (Todd Pletcher) comes back 17 days after dumping John Velazquez out of the gate when bet to favoritism in his debut. MORDI’S MIRCALE also is cross-entered Sunday at GP.

Saturday’s Santa Anita card on Sunshine Millions Day caps with a race 10 maiden turf sprint down the hill at 6 1/2 furlongs. Two horses who challenged UNUSUAL HEATWAVE (Alexis Barba) in a good turf sprint Dec. 31 return, including runner-up CHICKIE CHARMS (Peter Eurton) and THE ROAN RANGER (Mike Puype). Neither appears a big-time distance threat, however. AQUA REVELATION (Bob Baffert) debuts as a son of BC Turf winner English Channel out of G1 Del Mar Oaks third-place finisher Alozaina. As for great pedigrees with no results to show for it, the A.P. Indy-Wild Spirit colt ARABIAN SPIRIT (now Neil Drysdale) makes his first West Coast start after beating only one horse in two races while trained by Michael Matz.

Race 5 Saturday at Oaklawn is a 1 mile maiden route that features the quick comebacks of DOUBLE RAH RAH (Jinks Fires) and SPEED SCORE (Donnie K. Von Hemel), both of whom ran two weeks ago. DOUBLE RAH RAH came out of the MUCH faster split division of that common race on Jan. 14.  Interestingly, both trainers entered first-time starters in the field conceivably to help the racing office fill it with 7 entries, so they both must really want to run back this weekend.

TERM LOAN (Rick Violette) tops a race 5 maiden mile Saturday at Aqueduct for a red-hot barn at the meet. Note TERM LOAN was second two starts back to JUNEBUGRED (now Steve Hobby), who re-emerged from that race to win the $100,000 Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn. The Big A also has a race 7 maiden sprint for New York-breds which has the ex-Doug O’Neill trainee SHY HUMOR (now Mark Hennig) making his east coast debut. He was sixth to eventual G3 Sham Stakes winner OUT OF BOUNDS (Eoin Harty) when last seen on the West Coast.

Dancing Count Stakes (Saturday/Laurel Park)

We don’t anticipate much here on the Preakness path, but it’s a light stakes weekend and we need some Saturday action, right? This $100,000 event at 6 furlongs has lured some “name” barns to Laurel Park, including New Yorkers Chad Brown with BEGGARTHYNEIGHBOR and Gary Contessa with BROOKLYN RED, while John Servis brings ILL CONCEIVED over from his Philly homebase.

But the locals have been emboldened in the Dancing Count over the years. The last New York invader to score came in 2001 with Sea of Green. Dale Capuano aims for a third win in this race with COSTAS FIFTIETH, while the Eddie Gaudet barn looks for a second Dancing Count Trophy when the recently retired trainer’s wife, Linda, saddles ROCKY GAP.

BEGGARTHYNEIGHBOR figures to be a toteboard underlay as you rarely get fair value on Chad Brown trainees, but he also appears more than capable of taking this field. It should come down to him and Pennsylvania Nursery third-place finisher ILL CONCEIVED with ROCKY GAP the strongest of the locals.

Dancing Count Stakes selections: W) BEGGARTHYNEIGHBOR; P) ILL CONCEIVED; S) ROCKY GAP.

G3 Holy Bull Stakes (Sunday/Gulfstream Park)

On paper, reigning 2-Year-Old Champion and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile hero HANSEN (Mike Maker) should lay over the field in this one-mile test to kick off his campaign. His five rivals include only two listed stakes winners, MY ADONIS (Kelly Breen) and FORT LOUDON (Stanley Gold), and neither appears in his league. If someone is to rise up and challenge HANSEN, it would appear to be common allowance rivals ALGORITHMS (Todd Pletcher) and CONSORTIUM (Kiaran McLaughlin).

HANSEN has had five workouts in Florida since his Breeders’ Cup glory at home in Kentucky. He’s very fast if need-be, witnessed by his second quarter in the two-turn Kentucky Cup Juvenile. This field looks to challenge him early and throughout, though there doesn’t appear to be that sneaky closer capable of taking advantage. FORT LOUDON may wind up passing some horses late out of default based on his style. Given that HANSEN will be a very short-priced favorite, the bettor in me may attempt the upset.

If HANSEN brings that kind of heat he did in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile, look out. I actually think he was more brilliant that day, regardless of competition, than he was in the Breeders’ Cup. At Churchill, he showed he also had class and guts to go with his prior brilliance.

Pletcher’s milers at Gulfstream typically are spot-on and the running style ALGORITHMS displayed when pressing and pouncing Dec. 16 would serve him well Sunday. None of the alumni from that race has come back to do anything whatsoever, but the feeling here is that both ALGORITHMS and CONSORTIUM are of some quality. That duo each gets a six-pound weight break, which isn’t quite as big of a deal around one turn, but still a decent spread. ALGORITHMS galloped out much better of the pair after the last start, but CONSORTIUM adds Lasix for the first time in the Holy Bull.

SILVER MAX (Dale Romans) wheels back on two weeks’ rest after wiring a turf mile. The move back to dirt, one turn and the short rest are a lot to ask. Give credit where deserved if he fires well.

HANSEN probably wins, but I’m not one to strut for $3.40, so I’ll try to land a $7 or $8 winner with ALGORITHMS if the toteboard obliges.

G3 Holy Bull Stakes selections: W) ALGORITHMS; P) HANSEN; S) FORT LOUDON.

Last week’s selections: 3: 1-1-0. Top choice MIDNIGHT TRANSFER (Carla Gaines) won the San Pedro, while we turned around the exacta in the Kitten’s Joy with Graham Motion’s duo of HOWE GREAT and LUCKY CHAPPY. No dice on the Lecomte as top choice SEVEN LIVELY SINS (Al Stall Jr.) was off target in a race won by our third choice, MR. BOWLING (Larry Jones).

Season selections: 8: 2-1-2.

Everyone’s a critic

This section reviews the week that was in the 3-year-old ranks. One runner clearly stood out this week in what, all in all, was a pretty quiet run on the trail. The G3 Lecomte Stakes was the headline race, but didn’t deliver the lead story.

San Pedro Stakes (1/22, SA-4)

Doubts of just how good MIDNIGHT TRANSFER (Carla Gaines) was admittedly crept in as horses who had chased him in his maiden victory failed to deliver on a few occasions upon their reappearances. You never know how strong a maiden winner is until the class question is answered. While his company lines didn’t tell the tale, MIDNIGHT TRANSFER took care of business on his own in Sunday’s highly impressive victory in the $75,000 San Pedro Stakes. He had no business reeling in Cal Breeders Champion Stakes winner GOT EVEN (Peter Miller) at this short, 6 1/2-furlong trip. But he did. And he did with some flair.

Race splits went in 21.92, 44.00 and 1:07.70 before stopping the clock in 1:14.25. That means they ran the third quarter in a robust 23.70 despite flying early, with MIDNIGHT TRANSFER zipping nearly 23 flat during that span while rallying. Joel Rosario had to completely let off the gas about 3 furlongs from the wire, trapped along the rail behind horses. His charge angled out nicely in upper stretch for room and reached out nicely through the wire. The only knock is that there wasn’t much gallop-out and with a miler’s pedigree on the dam side, it’s fair to wonder if this son of Kentucky Derby runner-up Hard Spun will get the classic trips. He looks plenty dangerous trying 1 1/16 miles next in the G2 San Felipe. Now we’ll see how Carla Gaines develops his stamina when he meets the likes of a well-bred router like OUT OF BOUNDS (Eoin Harty). Color me a big fan with wishful route optimism until proven otherwise.

San Pedro fifth-place finisher DRILL (Bob Baffert) wasn’t able to keep pace early while coming out of route races and looks to be a horse of a few different possibilities. He was either a win-early candidate who matured quicker than most, is a horse a bit over-raced with 8 starts since July, or a horse who’s just an in-betweener in terms of distances. Any way you slice the possibilities, none of that adds up to a Triple Crown trail contender based on the calendar, condition or distance.

G3 Lecomte Stakes (1/21, FG-11)

At first blush, I liked what I saw from the Lecomte, an honestly run race in which the more accomplished horses on paper delivered with performances that made sense. MR. BOWLING (Larry Jones) and SHARED PROPERTY (Tom Amoss) exited the strongest races of anyone in the field from their 2-year-old campaigns, and the former had 4 more workouts during their layoff and a much more favorable post position draw. When the two of them hit the wire together, with Z DAGER (Steve Asmussen) sandwiched between, the Lecomte looked like a legit race to a commonsense handicapper.

If you never looked at the clock, you could put a period on your story and look forward to a rematch in the G2 Risen Star on Feb 25. But that’s where this race gets sticky.

I’m not a speed proponent or a numbers guy as many of you readers know, but a slow race is a slow race sometimes. When you run 1 mile and 70 yards in 1:43.49 with a 26.47 fourth quarter, it’s hard to muster more than a golf clap. Slow tracks make slow times as much as slow horses, but we have as several comparables from this racing day. Take a look:

1:42.34, G3 Silverbulletday Stakes (3-year-old fillies)
1:43.42, maiden special weight, 3-year-olds
1:43.49, G3 Lecomte Stakes
1:44.93, N2L $12,500 claimers

We can’t say definitively that this was a bad race, but reserving judgment until after another stop on the Fair Grounds’ trail is fair discourse. SHARED PROPERTY figures to improve mightily off of this race and be clearly the local horse to beat in the Risen Star from my eye. MR. BOWLING reemphasized my high opinion of his G3 Iroquois conqueror MOTOR CITY (Ian Wilkes) and should be a handful if he improves at all between now and the Risen Star. Z DAGER had never faced winners, much less stakes horses, before this and would have to be considered on the right trajectory. Note Z DAGER was in receipt of a six-pound allowance from his two photo-finish pals.

As for the others, EXFACTOR (Bernie Flint) showed nothing whatsoever while beating just 2 rivals among these 13, and perhaps a mulligan is offered in that he reportedly kicked his stall last week and was iffy to make the race. SEVEN LIVELY SINS (Al Stall Jr.) was even worse, finishing next-to-last, and continues an unflattering run of G3 Delta Jackpot alumni. This is not good news for SABERCAT (Steve Asmussen) or BASMATI (Doug O’Neill) when they return. TED’S FOLLY (Wilson Brown) saw his 6-race win streak snapped as he failed to deliver any real late kick while ninth. He might be best-served as a closing sprinter based on evaluation of his personal splits we discussed last week.

Horses who could improve from this race include HAMMERS TERROR (Mike Stidham) and DAN AND SHEILA (Todd Pletcher), both in solid hands while lightly raced and on the improve.

Kitten’s Joy Stakes (1/21, GP-10)

HOWE GREAT (Graham Motion) took advantage of an easy early pace set-up to wire this $100,000 turf stakes at 1 1/16 miles, giving us perhaps a grandson of the great Sunday Silence to cheer for on the road to the Triple Crown. A maiden winner on dirt at Parx, he’s now rattled off three straight victories and passed the class test by beating more fancied stablemate LUCKY CHAPPY, a proven stakes commodity even before this match-up.

Given splits of 24.64 and 48.01 to open, with only six rivals in the gate, it’s nearly impossible to run down a quality opponent in this scenario. Credit to HOWE GREAT, the son of Hat Trick widened on the end and wasn’t merely surviving the rally of LUCKY CHAPPY. This was a sharp effort even if not that terribly difficult and taxing. After all, for both Team Valor-owned runners, why lay it all out there in listed stakes in January? It served the purposes of building for the future. Both have to be considered serious candidates for the G3 Spiral at Turfway, a race Animal Kingdom won last year en route to the roses, or the Polytrack stakes at Keeneland like the G1 Blue Grass or G3 Lexington. Both possess that foreign stamina in the pedigree that will bode well down the line.

Fourth-place finisher COZZETTI (Dale Romans) was a major disappointment to most, sent away the clear 2/1 second choice in the betting. As mentioned here last week, his lone good try came in an off-the-turf race at Churchill, and that suspicious feeling appears more confirmed that it was not a trustworthy race.

Also in minor stakes last week, THAT’S WHO (Joel Marr) continued his march toward the G3 Sunland Derby by taking Saturday’s $110,000 Pepsi Cola Stakes at Sunland Park. He’s now a three-time stakes winner vs. New Mexico-breds and 5-for-8 overall. Also on Saturday in the southern region, odds-on choice SOUTHERN TRICK (Bret Calhoun) nabbed stablemate CANIGOTOO in the final strides to win the $50,000 Groovy Stakes for Texas-breds. The two needed 13.33 the final furlong to complete the 7 panels and are purely sprinters.


WAYWARD SAILOR (Mike Maker) registered his second straight win of the Gulfstream meet Wednesday when he posted a front-running turf mile allowance win. The Kitten’s Joy colt, a former $35,000 maiden claimer, came home in a robust 23 flat running each quarter faster with the benefit of an easy early pace. GOLD MEGILLAH (Graham Motion) was a good second after being bombed on dirt in the Gulfstream Park Derby.

LOUKAS (Darrell Vienna) rallied last to first to win a turf sprint allowance Thursday at Santa Anita at 23-1 odds, overtaking fellow late runner UNUSUAL HEATWAVE (Alexis Barba) in the final sixteenth. Expect the runner-up to stretch out in distance next like older brother Alphie’s Bet did in his 3-year-old season. Favorite TENACIOUS THOMAS (Melody Conlon) stopped in the lane after dueling and bumping with CHAMPIONS GATE (Mike Machowsky). Also on Thursday, TIZANEXPENSE (Mike Maker) got a heady ride by Miguel Mena to win a Fair Grounds route allowance in a visually unimpressive manner. Originally slated for turf, the surface change proved a struggle for most who labored through the lane. SKY ALERT (Vickie Foley) just failed late to hold the win after facing heavyweights like HANSEN (Mike Maker) and GEMOLIGIST (Todd Pletcher) last year.

Odds-on favorite CHRISTOPHER’S JOY (Tony Dutrow) scored virtually wire-to-wire Sunday in winning an entry level allowance sprint at Parx. Despite fast 21.93 and 44.95 opening splits, he still came home in a respectable 24.95 final quarter-mile. The time was at least 7-8 lengths faster than the day’s other races at 6 furlongs. Unbeaten in two starts, the $50,000 juvenile sales buy is a son of Elusive Quality out of an unraced Joyeux Danseur mare who is half-sister to a Group 1 French One Thousand Guineas winner. CHRISTOPHER’S JOY is from the same female family as Poni Colada, who won the 2008 Borderland Derby at 1 1/16 miles. While he most likely earned a date to Aqueduct for a stakes attempt, this colt wouldn’t be a bad Polytrack player at Turfway on pedigree. Tony Dutrow has gone the Turfway route before with lightly raced 3-year-olds.

TARPY’S GAL (Dale Romans) out-sprinted a soft Saturday Gulfstream allowance cast in which three of his seven rivals had prior claiming attempts on their resumes. Wheeled back quickly on five days’ rest, last year’s G2 Futurity third-place finisher was much more into this assignment moving off the turf.

Around the country in other allowances last week, 21-1 longshot COACH BOB (Reina Gonzalez) invaded from Golden Gate to upset a Cal-bred Santa Anita allowance sprint last Friday in wire-to-wire fashion, despite a final quarter in just 25.36. The victory came over two Cal Breeders Champion Stakes alumni and didn’t flatter that stakes at all …Another 21-1 shot rocked the tote at Tampa Bay Downs in Sunday’s race 9 turf sprint allowance. NORTHERN YANKEE (Craig Smith) raided from Canada’s Northlands Park to steamroll to a nearly 5-length win in 57.82, running the last eighth in 11-and-change while closing from ninth to win. By Yankee Gentleman, he lacks a classic-distance pedigree. At Aqueduct on Wednesday, QUIET FAVORITE (Leah Gyarmati) rebounded from a poor effort in the Restrainor Stakes to capture a two-turn route allowance vs. New York-breds, boosting the form of SWAG DADDY (Rick Dutrow).


The west coast’s big maiden winner of the week was CASTAWAY (Bob Baffert), who took advantage of a speed bias and tepid early pace in toying with a 1 1/16 miles cast on Saturday. The half-mile split of 46.94 was almost comical compared to $8,000 route claimers in the next event that scooted to that point in 45.19 over a wet-fast/sealed track. Regardless of the pace, it was rewarding to see this talented underachiever finally put it all together. He’s got a very nice female family of turf route influences that serves him well, including names like Al Mamoom, Lost Solider and La Guierere close by on the pedigree page. His dam is half-sister to classy dirt handicap runner Master Command as well. CASTAWAY’s win flatters the form of his Dec. 30 conqueror GROOVIN SOLO (Myung Kwon Cho). Runner-up HOLY CANDY (John Sadler) won’t be a maiden long after being up against the race set-up. This Saturday result did not flatter G3 Sham winner OUT OF BOUNDS (Eoin Harty), however, as his Dec. 10 closest pursuer FLEET EAGLE (Paula Capestro) finished last of five after chasing the pace.

Northern California invader MAJESTIC STRIDE (Jeff Bonde) announced his candidacy for Feb. 20 G3 Southwest Stakes by winning Sunday’s race 9 Oaklawn maiden sprint in big style. Geared down late by Carlos Marquez, he easily handled a field that included older horses in 1:12 flat for 6 furlongs. The track played very slow throughout the day and this time was only about 3 or 4 lengths off what good older fillies and mares ran in the American Beauty Stakes in the race prior. MAJESTIC STRIDE is out of a mare who was certainly a sprinter and by sire Trippi, best known for producing sprinters as well. At a mile with the right pace scenario, he’s dangerous. But it’s hard to project him as a serious G1 Arkansas Derby threat at 9 furlongs at this point, though there seems to be a fair amount of hype.

Oaklawn had another impressive maiden winner this past week when first-time starter APPREHENDER (Ingrid Mason) crushed a 5 1/2 furlong sprint cast by more than 7 lengths on Thursday. He’s by Posse out of the Grade 1-winning mare Missy’s Mirage, who won the Shuvee and Hempstead up to 1  1/16 miles. In his wake were a few horses carrying solid company lines from around the country. APPREHENDER relaxed nicely on the lead and absolutely exploded late. Tab him going short, but with an eye on something middle-distance in due time.

At Fair Grounds Saturday, 31-1 shocker ATLANTIC TITAN (Bernie Flint) scored wire-to-wire in a 1 mile and 70-yard maiden event that actually clocked .07 quicker than the G3 Lecomte Stakes. Both races were slow by comparison, however, more than a full second slower than 3-year-old fillies went in the G3 Silverbulletday Stakes. Out of Grade 1 Matron runner-up Lokoya, ATLANTIC TITAN was making his first route attempt after 7 unsuccessful sprints. Runner-up FLASHY SUNRISE (Dallas Stewart) lost ground on both turns from post 12. Meanwhile, 6-5 favorite PROPER EMPIRE (Tony Richey) did not fire on two weeks’ rest after chasing TETRADRACHM (Paul McGee) on Jan. 6, and RADIANT TALENT (Steve Margolis) prior to that.

Most of those taking the 1 1/8-mile turf test Saturday at Gulfstream in race 6 failed it miserably, no matter what curve you’re grading on. Despite a very comfortable pace, the front-runners wound up eighth, 10th and 11th in this 11-horse field as GODARD (Tom Proctor) and PUNCTUAL JEFF (Chad Brown) rallied from absolute last to comprise both ends of the exacta in a scrum finish. Meanwhile, Animal Kingdom’s little brother THURSBY (Graham Motion) was mildly better on turf than he was in his dirt duds, finishing seventh, though beaten less than 3 lengths. The winner , GODARD, might be one to watch for the Keeneland Polytrack forays with surface sire stalwarts Unbridled’s Song and Dynaformer prominent in his pedigree.

Around the horn in other maiden races of note last week, CORNER OFFICE (John Sadler) scored a late-running, popular win Friday at Santa Anita in a 1-mile route for Cal-breds. An improving son of Bertrando out of a Deputed Testamony mare, note he needed the better part of 27 to complete the final quarter-mile … LIBERTY BOUND (Todd Pletcher) rolled to a 4 1/4-length debut victory Saturday at Gulfstream in 1:10.95, nearly identical on the clock to maiden claimers earlier on the card. This race featured 7 rookies among 9 entrants, strung out badly front to back and didn’t appear strong.

Quick Hitters

Shackleford’s younger brother STEPHANOATSEE (Graham Motion) won’t get to follow in his Preakness-winning footsteps, sidelined this week with an injured pastern. He is expected to be back for the mid-summer races if all goes well …UNION RAGS (Michael Matz) had his biggest work of the spring on Tuesday, drilling five furlongs in 1:00.82 at Palm Meadows, the second-fastest of 29 moves at the distance. He’s gearing up for the Feb. 26 G2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream … G1 CashCall Futurity winner LIAISON (Bob Baffert) smoked six furlongs Thursday at Santa Anita in a bullet 1:11.80 as he prepares for the G2 Bob Lewis Memorial on Feb. 4 … Fans of Churchill’s big two fall meet juvenile stakes victors are still waiting for those stars to return to the workout tab. As of Thursday, there was no serious workout news yet from GEMOLOGIST (Todd Pletcher) and MOTOR CITY (Ian Wilkes), heroes of the Kentucky Jockey Club and Iroquois Stakes, respectively. Both returned to training earlier this month after some R&R … Next week’s preps to circle on the calendar include Saturday’s trio of the G2 Bob Lewis at Santa Anita, G3 Sam Davis at Tampa Bay Downs and G3 Withers at Aqueduct. It marks the biggest day on the trail so far this year.

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) 

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

Stakes Race
1. OUT OF BOUNDS (Sham, SA, 1/7)
2. MIDNIGHT TRANSFER (San Pedro, SA, 1/22) * NEW *
3. ALPHA (Count Fleet, Aqu, 1/7)
4. PROSPECTIVE (Pasco, Tam, 1/14) 
5. REVERON (Gulfstream Park Derby, GP, 1/1)

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!