02/01/2013 1:09PM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 5 - Feb. 1, 2013

Barbara D. Livingston
Even with six stakes on the Countdown radar this Saturday, the return of Verrazano in a Gulfstream allowance could steal the show.

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

While FLASHBACK (Bob Baffert) may be playing catch-up to some degree when he makes his second career start and stakes debut in Saturday’s Grade 2 Bob Lewis Memorial at Santa Anita, you don’t have to flash back far to see the possibilities. Last year, his stablemates Bodemeister and Paynter did not win their maidens until Feb. 11 and 18, respectively. They wound up second in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont – so Flashback actually is ahead of their racing schedules. Now he just needs to be that good.

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.

The weekend gets off to a fast start Friday when Fair Grounds race 6 features route allowance players GENERAL ELECTION (Kellyn Gorder) and DEPARTING (Al Stall Jr.) as serious Grade 2 Louisiana Derby aspirants. Both come out of key races in my estimation and GENERAL ELECTION benefits from a prior route in his foundation. On the same FG card, Louisiana Futurity winner SUNBEAN (Stall) stretches out around two turns for the first time in a race 8 statebred allowance route.

Also Friday, impressive maiden winner I’M STOKED (Mike Hushion) tops a New York-bred allowance sprint in Aqueduct race 8. He could be set up for a Grade 3 Gotham attempt with another step forward or continue to build toward the Grade 3 Bay Shore sprinting in April. Also in the sprint ranks Friday, a Gulfstream race 7 maiden event for Florida-breds will give us a little barometer on the Pasco Stakes alumni when fourth-place finisher OTB BOB (Jimmy DiVito) drops in class at what figures to be a short price. An expected win would help boost the stock of DYNAMIC SKY (Mark Casse), who topped the Pasco Stakes and headlines Saturday’s Grade 3 Sam F. Davis at Tampa.

Dubai World Cup winner Well Armed’s younger brother ONLY IN AMERICA (Eoin Harty) debuts Friday in a race 9 maiden sprint at Oaklawn Park. The son of Tiznow exits a solid gate drill for a barn that rarely asks much from a first-time starter. Comebacking BOSTON PROPER (Ron Moquett) was competitive in two starts at Saratoga and rates a big shot on the barn change from Bill Mott. At Golden Gate, Friday’s race 7 mile allowance matches SoCal raider BROKERED (Craig Dollase) in his second trip north against first-time traveler GREELEY AWESOME (Doug O’Neill). With 15 days until the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby, several past NoCal stakes-placed runners are dropping in class to avoid another tango with ZEEWAT (Jerry Hollendorfer). Santa Anita counters Friday with a race 1 turf mile allowance that doesn’t immediately invoke any Triple Crown trail threats on paper.

Even with six stakes on the Countdown radar this Saturday, the clamor for a Gulfstream Park race 5 allowance mile could steal the spotlight. That’s because flashy debut dominator VERRAZANO (Todd Pletcher) returns to the races in this spot and not the stakes bill. He owns the nation’s best maiden win of the Countdown season and his runner-up came back to win at Gulfstream this past Sunday to bolster his stock. The younger brother to last year’s Grade 2 Risen Star winner El Padrino did not find an easy spot. ETON BLUE (Nick Zito) exits a popular maiden win that backers of his Giant’s Causeway-Bird Town pedigree were fond of, but left me a little empty. But the maiden win by MR. D’ORO (Jason Servis) at Tampa Bay Downs was visually pleasing and against a good fellow shipper BEYOND COMPARE (Tom Proctor) who made him run hard. Pasco Stakes runner-up SKY COMMANDER (Casse) winds up here, but this allowance may be a tougher date than had he returned to Tampa with his stablemates to contest the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis. As for a race 8 maiden mile on this Gulfstream card Saturday, AIR SQUADRON (Chad Brown) figures to be a huge buzz horse following his troubled third to the aforementioned ETON BLUE. Note how ETON BLUE runs back in race 5 before going all in on AIR SQUADRON, who likely was best that day but I don’t think it was a key race. RIVER BOSS (Eddie Kenneally), well-beaten fourth to VERRAZANO last time out, could actually be the race 8 horse flattered by what you see in race 5. Stay tuned and flexible. Gulfstream’s race 11 turf mile maiden appears a wait-and-see race with nothing remarkable jumping out on paper.

Santa Anita kicks off its Saturday program with a must-see maiden mile in race 1, featuring a showdown between TIZ THE TRUTH (Bob Baffert) and my upset special COLBURN (O’Neill). Baffert appears very serious with TIZ THE TRUTH in winning his maiden, putting two works in him since his Jan. 13 near-miss to the ballyhooed first-timer DEMONIC (John Sadler). But COLBURN comes out of a tough race in which he finished well and galloped out strong and should corner more efficiently than he did last time when making his two-turn debut. Regally bred Giant’s Causeway-Surfside baby IRISH SURF (Dan Hendricks) provides nice depth to a field that numbers only five and will be making his dirt debut in start No. 5.

At Fair Grounds in Saturday’s race 3 maiden sprint, BERT’S BAR (Josie Carroll) and STOURBRIDGE LION (Steve Asmussen) both exit tough debut sprint races with Bert’s Bar exiting a sneaky-good third with a hidden middle-move. Saturday’s race 6 maiden mile at Turfway Park ought to be graduation day for KITTEN GOES PRO (Mike Maker), who has tussled with much tougher and really only has PLENTY ELUSIVE (William Hickey) to contend with in this spot. Plenty Elusive was a good second going 1 1/8 miles here Jan. 13 and is a classy $210,000 colt out of 2000 Grade 1 Spinster winner Plenty of Light.

There are three stakes Saturday on the trail that do not offer any points in Kentucky Derby qualifying. The Grade 2 Hutcheson goes as Gulfstream Park race 10, and Spectacular Bid winner MERIT MAN (Bob Hess) will be a complete play-against for me. The race failed to impress and has not been flattered since by comparing performances of common opponents. FORTY TALES (Pletcher) was visually stunning in his Parx victory Jan. 5 in allowance company and could be this level. UNDRAFTED (Wesley Ward) makes a smart return to sprinting and his third to ITSMYLUCKYDAY (Eddie Plesa) in the Gulfstream Park Derby looks even better after last Saturday’s Grade 3 Holy Bull masterpiece by that rival. Grade 2 Nashua third REALLY SHARP (Ian Black) gives us a line on VIOLENCE (Pletcher) to some degree in his return. Look for HONORABLE DILLON (Kenneally) to run a big one based on works if he changes leads this time after struggling to do so in his Jan. 4 return.

Turfway Park’s $50,000 96 Rocks Stakes, formerly the WEBN Stakes, is the first two-turn local test en route to March’s Grade 3 Spiral. MAC THE MAN (Jeff Greenhill) has crushed two sprint fields at the meet, including the Turfway Prevue Stakes, but his pedigree won’t get much more than this mile. I DO BELIEVE (Maker) has been the best 3-year-old I’ve seen in Florence this winter and probably goes as a clear second choice in the betting, but the one to beat from this eye.

At Delta Downs, Saturday night’s $125,000 Premier Prince Stakes for Louisiana-breds has some interesting open company ties. HEITAI (Sam Breaux) was the pace chaser to OXBOW (D. Wayne Lukas) before fading the final sixteenth of a mile in the Grade 3 Lecomte. You would expect a rebound since he is back in versus statebreds. The field includes LATTIN DEVIL (Jorge Lara), who can give us one of our first barometers to big-time Fair Grounds allowance winner MYLUTE (Tom Amoss) after chasing that one home third on Dec. 26. Disqualified $100,000 Big Drama Stakes winner MR. BANDINI’S BAND (E.D. Nelson) looks to take the money and keep it this time over his home track.

Parx offers a race 6 maiden route on Sunday where BELLAMY BEACH (John Servis) makes his first start since WinStar Farm moved him from Todd Pletcher’s shed row. He will get a rematch with REVOCATION (Ed Coletti Jr.) after that pair finished on the heels of impressive Aqueduct maiden winner ELNAAWI (Kiaran McLaughlin) last time out. Also in this race is the debut of the well-bred Smarty Jones-Dynamist colt HOTCHA DO IT (Servis), who will wear the familiar blue and white colors of Someday Farm.

Sunday’s Gulfstream card includes a race 3 maiden where RECALLING MEMORIES (Ian Wilkes) makes his first start since a good third at Churchill in his debut to promising GENERAL ELECTION (Gorder). The dam of RECALLING MEMORIES is half-sister to Preakness winner Shackleford. The field also includes RETRIEVE (Jeremiah Englehart), beaten favorite behind VERRAZANO (Pletcher) in that one’s impressive debut. Meanwhile, the sharp debut runner-up BELLAMY STORM (Bill Mott) returns Sunday at Aqueduct in a race 4 maiden sprint after a gutty and sustained second to MALEEH (McLaughlin).

Grade 2 Robert Lewis Memorial Stakes (Saturday/Santa Anita Park) [GET PPs + WATCH LIVE]

Four-horse fields don’t and won’t tell us much of anything, so let’s get that out of the way. And when that four-horse field has a lone speed horse the likes of FLASHBACK (Baffert), we really are denied any sort of barometer in accomplishment. What we will see Saturday in this 1 1/16-mile event is a brilliant debut sprint winner get the easiest possible test known to horse when making the rise to the graded stakes level. There’s simply no one in the Lewis to push FLASHBACK enough early for us to understand his true abilities to get a route distance.

That said I still can’t wait to see the return of this Tapit colt even if it has the feel of an NFL preseason game that doesn’t really matter. The younger brother to star filly Zazu should handle extra distance to some extent, we just won’t find out about that on Saturday. My only cause for pause down the road is that I think Zazu tapped out a bit when asked beyond 1 1/16 miles, even though she is a high-class filly of whom I’m a massive fan.

What I want to see from FLASHBACK is a brilliant first quarter, a relaxed second and third quarter that shows he’s manageable to jockey Julien Leparoux, and then a nice stretch gear to get something out of this race. Coasting home semi-pulled up won’t build much foundation. Remember, Bodemeister and Paynter both had very hard races in their route debuts in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby, respectively. When playing catch up, you need to get something out of these races. At least FLASHBACK is ahead of their timing schedules and if this race doesn’t require a big effort, he could be called upon for that later in another stakes date.

As for the others in the Lewis, HE’S HAD ENOUGH (O’Neill) was one of the most enigmatic juveniles I’ve ever scouted. He has shown a burst of talent somewhere in each of his races except the CashCall Futurity. Believe it or not, he even had a few stop-and-go spurts when running 11th the majority of his race at Keeneland. He was best to my eyes in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile if he had gotten out at any point before his momentum was completely broken. Sure, he hung once he came to SHANGHAI BOBBY (Pletcher) in the stretch, but with a continued run in the clear outside horses the script easily could have flipped. A fast workout Jan. 25 before the races at Santa Anita continues the mixed signals that define this horse. The time was fast, but he was all out in company to keep up with barnmate Handsome Mike. I expect him to run along for second on Saturday, but he should have no business catching FLASHBACK. A good, hard-running second sets him up nicely. Anything less and the enigma ensues.

DEN’S LEGACY ( Baffert) makes his seventh straight stakes start and jockey Garrett Gomez had the late-running stakes upset knack last weekend at Santa Anita. His second to GOLDENCENTS (O’Neill) in the Grade 3 Sham was a solid effort and this horse nearly always brings his game. The best part of the Sham was that he erased the memory of his only poor career performance, which had come in his only other try on the Santa Anita dirt. Now we know he can handle the footing. LITTLE JERRY (Richard Baltas) appears vastly overmatched and filler for the race.

The Lewis, along with Saturday’s Withers and Sam F. Davis, offer Kentucky Derby qualifying points on a 10-4-2-1 scale for their top four finishers.

Grade 3 Bob Lewis Memorial Stakes selections: W) FLASHBACK; P) HE’S HAD ENOUGH; S) DEN’S LEGACY.

Grade 3 Withers Stakes (Saturday/Aqueduct) [GET PPs]

I’m no numbers handicapper, but when the numbers guys and the “eyes guys” like me agree on a horse, it’s usually a good sign. REVOLUTIONARY (Pletcher) caught the attention of handicappers from any ilk with a dominant maiden win Dec. 28 at Aqueduct where he did everything you want to see. He reached out for more and ran with fluidity, backing up his promise and pedigree as the son of an Alabama winner. And the Beyer Boys tabbed him with a 102 on their scale, a phenomenal number for a 2-year-old routing.

While Saturday’s Grade 3 Withers at 1 1/16 miles would seem a step up in class, REVOLUTIONARY is a well-bred colt who has kept strong company lines in the maiden ranks and already has faced challengers that I would rank ahead of his Withers competition. I fully expect to see a star performance on Saturday and one that puts this colt in everyone’s leading lists of Triple Crown contenders. In fact, he’s already No. 3 on my list before stepping into the stakes ranks.

I concede the Withers to REVOLUTIONARY from a horseplaying standpoint and would make him a clear single in any multi-race wagers. None of the other contenders incites any strong feelings from me except the two-three finishers in the Grade 2 Jerome Stakes on Jan. 5, those being SIETE DE OROS (Ramon Preciado) and AMERIGO VESPUCCI (Tim Tullock). How those horses fare will give us a better line on Jerome winner VYJACK (Rudy Rodriguez), who is awaiting the Grade 3 Gotham next month.

AMERIGO VESPUCCI was stuck down inside throughout in the Jerome and never could get out in his first two-turn attempt. He’s a horse who had finished well in all of his previous starts behind better-than-you-think competition in Maryland. The addition of blinkers could make a huge difference from the way he ran in the Jerome and I fully expect him to flip the placings with SIETE DE OROS this time.

LONG RIVER (McLaughlin) adds Lasix for the first time after a fourth in the Jerome. The son of A.P. Indy-Round Pond has the regal bloodlines, but a very one-paced kind of style from my observation. Horses he competed against in previous outings have failed to deliver the goods in subsequent starts and have not flattered his resume.


Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes (Saturday/Tampa Bay Downs) [GET PPs + WATCH LIVE]

An afternoon of standout favorites in the big Countdown preps figures to continue at Tampa Bay Downs when odds-on Pasco Stakes winner DYNAMIC SKY (Casse) returns to the scene of his special victory three weeks ago. The Sky Mesa colt answered the question about handling a dirt surface that day when overcoming traffic and a questionable ride to win with style. That seven-furlong comeback should set him up nicely for the 1 1/16-mile Grade 3 Sam F. Davis, which failed to attract any heavyweight new faces.

DYNAMIC SKY ran coupled with SKY COMMANDER (Casse) in the Pasco, and Saturday gets a new tag team partner when Casse sends NORTHERN LION into the Davis off of a wire-to-wire allowance score at Gulfstream. Inside speed and a slow pace made NORTHERN LION a lock in that race at GP, and this test will be a truer race for his evaluation. Still, he looks to be a legitimate top three threat Saturday on paper.

SILVER DAY (Bill Kaplan) is the “other” Pasco Stakes alumni I think that bears the most consideration. Throw out much of the Pasco after being squeezed at the start. While the running lines don’t show it, nor do the past performance comments, no horse ran better late or through the wire in the gallop-out. That suggests he should appreciate a return to a route race after his sprint prep followed a two-month layoff.

The new shooters to the Tampa stakes scene to watch are SPEAK LOGISTICS (Eddie Plesa), from a barn that’s hot right now with stablemate and two-time Gulfstream stakes winner ITSMYLUCKYDAY. This High Cotton colt does his best running on or near the lead and the pace could be very quick, which makes his post-Breeders’ Cup Juvenile return test even tougher. To boot, he will give away four pounds and carry top weight of 120. FALLING SKY (John Terranova) has been battling in sprints, and the way MAJESTIC HUSSAR (Kenneally) came back out of their Dec. 15 showdown to win like a good thing, that certainly flatters his form. FALLING SKY is a maternal grandson of 1993 Derby winner Sea Hero, but he’s cross-entered in the Grade 2 Hutcheson and may stay home. And finally, watch out for the well-bred Unbridled’s Song-Island Sand colt MIDNITE POPPA (Nick Zito). He was one of the most impressive Tampa maiden winners I’ve seen this winter in his Dec. 26 score. But a 19-day gap in the workout tab in January makes you wonder if he’s on point for this contest.

The wild card for me is MY NAME IS MICHAEL (now with Bill Mott), developed nicely in Canada at age 2 by David Cotey, the same conditioner who kickstarted the career of 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird. I will take a wait-and-see approach as to how he handles the dirt, but he has worked strongly on the deep Payson Park training center, which could translate well to Tampa’s surface.

Sam F. Davis Stakes selections: W) DYNAMIC SKY; P) SILVER DAY; S) MIDNIGHT POPPA.

Last week’s selections: 2: 0-1-0. It was a whiff-job in the Grade 3 Holy Bull on my part with DEWEY SQUARE, while OMEGA STAR disappointed with a runner-up in the Cal Breeders’ Champions.

Season selections: 9: 2-2-3.

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 with Countdown Rewind. Get more of Jeremy’s analysis on the G3 Holy Bull Stakes, a dazzling track-record performance by ITSMYLUCKYDAY (Plesa) and SHANGHAI BOBBY (Pletcher), by clicking on the race name.

I have to admit deflation seeing OMEGA STAR (John Shirreffs) flounder in the final furlong of Saturday’s $300,000 California Breeders’ Champion Stakes at Santa Anita. The dazzling maiden winner failed to punch out the competition in his first start around two turns as a drying-out and tiring racetrack took its toll. Late-running TIZ A MINISTER (Paul Aguirre) rallied past the heavy favorite and popped a hole in what I really felt was a rising balloon. OMEGA STAR can and should improve off that first route attempt, but if he’s a real Santa Anita Derby threat as I thought he was, he should have handled business. At the quarter pole, he looked like he would go on and win by daylight, but totally faltered in the lane. The son of Candy Ride must get back on the beam in a big way in something like the Grade 2 San Felipe or head out of town, where the Grade 2 Risen Star on Feb. 23 would fit the calendar, but not the style of trainer Shirreffs. He also could go back to Aqueduct for the Grade 3 Gotham on March 2.

Heavily favored TOUR GUIDE (Bret Calhoun) notched back-to-back stakes wins when surviving a tougher-than-expected battle in Saturday night’s $50,000 Allen’s Landing Stakes at Sam Houston. In receipt of a perfect trip while sitting third behind a speed duel, the Sugar Bowl Stakes champ by Broken Vow pounced to the lead in the stretch and had to hold off HARDROCK ELEVEN (David Banks), yet another alumnus of the Springboard Mile at Remington who is outrunning his odds. TOUR GUIDE did gallop out well enough and his four wins have come at Monmouth, Churchill, Fair Grounds, and now Sam Houston, so he’s not short on class. But a 38.22- second clocking over the final three furlongs does not beg for a stretch-out in distance. His mama Homefortheholidays did win a two-turn mile at Oaklawn in her career finale but was disqualified for interference. Logically, you would expect TOUR GUIDE to be pointed toward that same trip at Oaklawn for the Grade 3 Southwest.

ANIMAL STYLE (Maker) exploded late for his second straight Fair Grounds win when taking Saturday’s $75,000 Van Berg Stakes at 5 1/2 furlongs on turf. The one-time $30,000 claim now is 3: 2-1-0 for Maker and 2 for 2 since adding blinkers. He flew home near the outside rail in European style. The time, however, was identical to a maiden 3-year-old sprint earlier on the card and a fast early pace by longshots set it up for a closer. ANIMAL STYLE impressed me more than he did in his maiden win and has a pedigree to be interesting on the Polytrack if given the chance. PARTY LADY (Mike Pino), the 6-5 favorite off a fast Gulfstream allowance win, never factored.

Allowance Races

SUPER NINETY NINE (Baffert) stretched out to a mile in Thursday’s Santa Anita race 6 allowance feature and did it in style, overtaking APPEALING TALE (Peter Miller) at will on the turn and finishing up strongly. For my money, this miler punched his ticket to Oaklawn’s Grade 3 Southwest or Grade 2 Rebel, where Baffert has had great success with this type of speedy runner in recent years. SUPER NINETY NINE galloped out nicely, finished the last furlong in 12-and-change and looked good doing it over CODE WEST (Baffert). The runner-up was making his first start since October and acquitted himself well. Baffert had a really nice bounce in his step after this win, and probably has a better Triple Crown prospect in CODE WEST on distance ability and more brilliant prep trail runner in SUPER NINETY NINE. This was one of the top allowance races this Countdown season.

Saturday’s Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes undercard at Gulfstream Park included a trio of allowance races at the 1 1/8 miles distance, two on dirt and one on turf. While race 3 appeared the least intriguing of the trio going into the day on paper, it may have stolen the show coming out of the afternoon.

CERRO (Graham Motion) utilized a heady ride by jockey Javier Castellano to wire the race 3 GP allowance route and notch his first win since being imported from Italy. The son of Mr. Greeley is out of a half-sister to Irish Derby runner-up Dr Johnson and gets his stamina on the dam side. After setting realistic splits of 23.69 and 23.95, CERRO completed the nine furlongs in a very solid 1:50.29, about four lengths quicker than the split division of this race. The score flattered the Jan. 1 allowance win by BRADESTER ( Kenneally). As we’ve mentioned many times, early season 1 1/8-mile races often are won in this carousel fashion; it just wasn’t noticeable before the race that CERRO had that kind of early gas to take the race to his competition. CERRO reminds me a bit of Howe Great, a three-time stakes winner for these same connections last year. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps is part of the Team Valor partnership on this horse, so ready yourself for the hype if he gets closer to Louisville.

You can’t argue against the clock as Gulfstream’s race 5 split division on Saturday finished in 1:51.05. And because ORB (Shug McGaughey) rallied to win race 5, you would expect his final furlong to be faster than the front-running CERRO had posted just two races prior. But, alas, CERRO out-clocked ORB 13.19 to 13.36 on the come-home meter. ORB owns as good of a set of company lines as any 3-year-old in America even if he only was making his first start against winners. And while racing on Lasix for the first time, ORB had every right to improve. I just wish he would have looked better doing it. This was a lumbering-type win from a horse who didn’t look brilliant or polished. But I think he’s going to be a pretty good one, regardless of the visuals or clocking. It just may not be by May. Runner-up DUKE OF THE CITY (Kelly Breen) is a spectacular looker and probably ran out of dam side pedigree late. I’m not sure he can beat top horses at 1 1/8 miles but he could be a very strong miler in the future. MOUNTAIN EAGLE (Zito) failed to menace as the favorite, as hinted by the poor performances from his maiden-winning rivals since his last win. SAYLER’S CREEK (Kenny McPeek) was eased and never looked comfortable in the race, showing why I should have been more leery of his six-week gap in the workout tab this winter.

Countdown readers know I’m the last guy to bash jockeys, but Saturday’s race 7 turf allowance route rates an exception to my kindness. In a race devoid of any pace and a field of six, BOLD CHALLENGER (McPeek) looked to be lone speed if his usually fast-hustling rider David Cohen wanted it.  Instead, Cohen and BOLD CHALLENGER idled away from the gate, and left heavily favored BOLD DANCE (Joel Rosario) in unfamiliar territory on the lead. So instead of letting the slow-paced turf race play out like it should, with a mad dash to the wire with everyone quickening, Cohen decided three furlongs from the wire that it was time to sprint with BOLD CHALLENGER. That forced Rosario to ask BOLD DANCE way too soon. And while he rebuked the challenge of BOLD CHALLENGER, who wound up fourth after taking the lead in upper stretch, BOLD DANCE was left vulnerable to a late-running, wide closer in HOLIDAY STAR (Motion). Yes, I’m partial to BOLD DANCE, the younger brother of Saint Liam, because I’ve been touting him as a future star. And, yes, he should have been able to win this race Saturday despite a three-week gap in his workout tab. But there were too many spotty runs within the race for BOLD DANCE, and it’s notable he galloped out best even in defeat. This was a “herky jerky” race if ever one was concocted. But note that trainer Mott in a pre-race interview did not sound as if he had much interest in moving BOLD DANCE back to dirt anytime soon. Both the loss and surface situation are disappointments to this camp, but “In Mott I Trust.” Meanwhile, HOLIDAY STAR gave Graham Motion a second 1 1/8-miles win on the card with a 3-year-old.

A week after Remington Park’s Springboard Mile produced two stakes winners and a runner-up, its last-place finisher CHANNEL ISLE (Lukas) rebounded to win Saturday’s race 7 allowance mile at Oaklawn. The Churchill turf maiden winner scored his first dirt win as the son of English Channel rallied last-to-first with the benefit of a run-off pace. Recent Fair Grounds maiden winner BOSS MAN ROCKET (Tim Glyshaw) rocketed through a ludicrous 46.99 half-mile and stopped to finish last. This was yet another Fair Grounds flop when matched up against the Oaklawn crop of 3-year-olds early this season. The advantage goes to OP horses in the region. But CHANNEL ISLE was the only horse in the staggerfest to shade 27 seconds the final quarter-mile in. Runner-up TWIN ENGINE (Carl Bowman) appears a high-quality animal based on his Kentucky performances last year, so this was at least a classy solid field, just not fast.

Sunday’s victory by DRY SUMMER (Joel Marr) at Sunland Park should serve notice that the “locals” are going to be tough in the upcoming Mine That Bird Derby and Grade 3 Sunland Park Derby. The race 8 no-conditions allowance route provided the transplanted Californian DRY SUMMER with a stern test against the one-two finishers in the Riley Allison Futurity. Winner of the Oak Tree Juvenile Turf at age 2, the former Jeff Mullins trainee flattered the form of GOLDENCENTS (O’Neill) while exiting a fourth in the Grade 3 Sham at Santa Anita. DRY SUMMER moved nicely three-wide behind STORMDRIVER (Kevin Eikleberry) and SHOW SOME MAGIC (Henry Dominguez) and leveled out well in the stretch in a visually pleasing score. Splits of 24.68, 23.98, 24.18, and 24.14 were very impressive for the 1 mile and 70 yard test. There’s plenty of pedigree and back class here to compete with the invaders that are sure to come in the next two stakes. If SHOW SOME MAGIC sounds familiar, he should. He was in the Grade 2 Hopeful and Grade 3 Delta Jackpot while under Steve Asmussen’s care last season.

Finally, 1-5 favorite SMOKININDABOYSROOM (Maker) never looked comfortable in Friday night’s race 7 allowance feature sprint at Turfway Park. The Turfway Prevue runner-up couldn’t keep pace three-wide in a duel and cornered awkwardly -- to be kind -- before an ugly loss to maiden claiming victor INDIO MORO (Adolfo Macias).

Maiden Races

The most incredible maiden winner of the Countdown season came Saturday at Aqueduct when TRANSPARENT (McLaughlin) took the way, way, way overland route to win a race 3 route. As the field turned onto the backstretch, ABLE BAKER CHARLIE (John Hertler) blew the turn and carried TRANSPARENT from the three path to what I counted on the head-on replay as the 15-path. Yes, that’s 15 path. Do not let the regular, pan-shot replay fool you as to how bad this incident was; watch the head-on and you will be stunned how different it looks than the pan shot. Jockey Irad Ortiz kept his cool on the heavy favorite and worked back into contention while still five-wide on the far turn. But TRANSPARENT had a full head of steam and romped by the field with a strong fourth quarter in 24.81. In the end, it was 11 lengths from first to third and he whipped a solid runner-up named INMYFATHERSIMAGE (Gary Contessa), who should be an easy winner next time. The win by TRANSPARENT should not only be remarkable for the obstacle overcome, but this is a well-bred Bernardini colt who had faced rising players ORB (McGaughey) and REVOLUTIONARY (Pletcher) and was not embarrassed. This was a big-time race from a horse getting good and I rate it among the best maiden wins I’ve seen all season.

Sunday’s race 7 maiden sprint at 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita delivered a fantastic score by TREASURY BILL (Ron Ellis), who rallied wide to win going away and then under wraps late. Third in his debut when breaking slow, he once again spotted the field early but benefitted from a fast pace set by the rank rookie INTOCLASSYMISCHIEF (O’Neill), who refused to settle on the lead. TREASURY BILL looked to be shot out of a cannon in midstretch and has a pedigree to drool over. Sire Lemon Drop Kid was a Belmont Stakes winner and dam Wow Me Free was a 10-furlong winner of the Ladies Handicap and 1 1/8-mile winner of the Grade 3 Next Move Handicap. Jockey Joe Talamo didn’t let the gorgeous colt gallop out at all after wrapping up late, so we’ll let the pedigree tell us that distance won’t be an issue. Runner-up PURE LOYALTY (Mark Glatt) ran an otherwise winning race with a rail-skimming ride from Gary Stevens in his first start since a troubled trip in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity last summer. INTOCLASSYMISCHIEF held third in a race that’s much better than it will look on paper given his inability to relax on the front. I loved this win and also rank it among the better maiden races of the Countdown season to date.

Saturday’s mega-card at Gulfstream included a 1 1/8-mile maiden turf route in race 9. OFFLEE FAST (Ron Pellegrini) rebounded from a non-descript debut in a maiden claimer to rock the field wire-to-wire and post a 28-1 upset. The regally bred Bernardini-Beautiful Pleasure baby COWDRAY PARK (Casse) once again came up just short in his eighth start.

In Sunday’s race 7 maiden sprint at Gulfstream, ACCLAIM (Terri Pompey) showed why his Jan. 1 conqueror VERRAZANO (Pletcher) shines so bright on so many radar screens, winning his seven-furlong return in 1:23.37. That time was about seven lengths faster than the race 9 split division of this race, won by FINN’S QUEST (Dale Romans). ACCLAIM dueled first-time starter OCEAN CITY (Pletcher) into submission, widened through the stretch and then drifted out terribly in the final yards to make it interested as RUBLE (Ian Wilkes) was the only horse cutting into the margin. ACCLAIM became exceptionally rank throwing his head just as they crossed the wire and jockey Luis Saez didn’t even make it to the clubhouse turn before ACCLAIM was pulled up really throwing his head about. Don’t be surprised if there’s something amiss physically here on a clearly talented colt, or if there’s a report of an issue with the bit. Check the workout tab for clues. RUBLE ran very strongly in his first start since the Churchill fall meet and won’t be a maiden long. As for the race 9 division, FINN’S QUEST, a half-brother to Grade 1-winnning sprinter Pomeroy, returned to a sprint distance with success in a race that looked much weaker on paper and turned out that way.

Seventh-time starter RED WINGS (Lukas) capitalized on his first career dirt route try Saturday at Oaklawn with a rail-skimming victory in race 5. The time of 1:40.52 was within two lengths of stablemate and fellow 3-year-old CHANNEL ISLE (Lukas), who won an allowance mile two races later on the card. But 26.07 and 26.20 over the final half-mile don’t elicit Arkansas Derby dreams, though this is a certain router’s pedigree by English Channel and out of the Grade 3 Wilshire Handicap winner Heavenly Ransom. RED WINGS was hard to pull up afterward, which is a good sign, but he didn’t face much in this soft field.

Sloppy conditions wreaked havoc on Saturday’s action at Santa Anita. Cal-bred rocketship SATICOY (Gary Mandella) blasted his debut rivals by more than four lengths in 1:08.55 over the sealed track. It’s hard to know how fast or good this stylish win was, given later the track became chewed up, started to dry and became deep and slow further into the day. Don’t expect SATICOY to stretch out on pedigree or style, but he appears a talent. In the very next race, an off-the-turf maiden sprint at 6 1/2 furlongs was won wire-to-wire by ROSENGOLD (Julio Canani), who, if nothing else, flattered the form of his very impressive Jan. 5 conqueror CABALLO DEL CIELO (Asmussen).

ANYRIDERILL DO (Ronny Werner) returned from a seven-month layoff Saturday at Fair Grounds to win a race 5 maiden turf sprint by angling out and finishing well over a bog of a turf course. The time was nearly identical to ANIMAL STYLE (Maker) two races later in the Van Berg Stakes for fellow 3-year-olds. There wasn’t a lot of gallop out or pedigree to suggest ANYRIDERILL DO will want big-time routes.

Turfway Park’s 96 Rock Stakes entrant I DO BELIEVE (Maker) had his form flattered when last Friday night’s Turfway race 8 maiden sprint winner CARLINGFORD BAY (Joe Deegan) scored a wire-to-wire upset. The Afleet Alex colt was well-bet against I DO BELIEVE in a trouble-filled debut and rebounded at 24-1 odds in his return.

Finally, Thursday’s race 2 maiden mile at Laurel Park did no favors to the form of Grade 3 Withers entrant VALID (McLaughlin). His Dec. 31 runner-up GAME EFFORT (Tony Dutrow) was smashed to 1-5 favoritism and could only muster a plod-along, third-place finish in his Laurel return. ARRIVE (Motion) scored wire-to-wire, holding on late, and appears to be a one-turn horse on pedigree and style.

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. TRANSPARENT (Aqueduct, 1/26)
4. TREASURY BILL (Santa Anita, 1/27)
5. OMEGA STAR (Santa Anita, 12/31)

Allowance Race
1. MAJESTIC HUSSAR (Gulfstream Park, 1/19)
2. SUPER NINETY NINE (Santa Anita, 1/31)
3. MYLUTE (Fair Grounds, 12/26)
4. FORTY TALES (Parx, 1/5)
5. RYDILLUC (Gulfstream Park, 1/5 * TURF *)

Stakes Race
1. ITSMYLUCKYDAY (Holy Bull, Gulfstream, 1/26)
2. OXBOW (Lecomte Stakes, Fair Grounds, 1/19)
3. DYNAMIC SKY (Pasco Stakes, Tampa Bay Downs, 1/12)
4. ITSMYLUCKYDAY (Gulfstream Park Derby, Gulfstream, 1/1)
5. VYJACK (Grade 2 Jerome, Aqueduct, 1/5)

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!