02/03/2012 8:50AM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 5 - Feb. 3, 2012

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Barbara D. Livingston
Plonk's prediction: If he makes the starting gate, El Padrino is winning the Kentucky Derby.

Exclusive to DRF.com. 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 a Super Bowl halftime show featuring Madonna. One person’s old idea is another person’s version of retro.

1. I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse. EL PADRINO (Todd Pletcher), Spanish for “The Godfather,” will win this year’s Kentucky Derby if he makes the starting gate. How’s that for a top-of-the-week prediction? If you don’t like it, you can sleep with the fishes.

2. It’s not the first time you’ve entered February on the Triple Crown trail and said to yourself, “Boy, sure looks like Todd Pletcher in the East and Bob Baffert in the West.” But what makes this year different is that these two power brokers actually have horses who aren’t just speed merchants garnering the applause. This time around, don’t be shocked if it actually is as simple as those two barns come May.

3. Where were the last five Derby winners when the calendar turned to February? Animal Kingdom was still a month away from his season debut in a Gulfstream turf allowance; Super Saver was still six weeks away from his 3-year-old return in the Tampa Bay Derby; Mine That Bird was 28 days away from his return in the Borderland Derby; Big Brown was just over a month away from his turf allowance return at Gulfstream; and juvenile champ Street Sense was more than six weeks away from his return in the Tampa Bay Derby. If you haven’t seen your Derby winner yet, don’t fret.

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. The deepest week of 3-year-old stakes so far this year takes place with a trio of graded dirt events from New York to Florida to California, as well as listed action on the turf and Polytrack. We’ll begin with a look at the weekend’s undercard races.

On Friday, RACOUNTEUR (Todd Pletcher) and TWO SEVENTEEN (Bruce Levine) take on winners for the first time in what appears to be a pretty solid Aqueduct allowance route in race 5. At Oaklawn, we should get a good feel for how strong the Jan. 14 maiden win by visually impressive NAJJARR (Dann Peitz) was when two of his closest pursuers return in a race 6 maiden route. MASTER RICK (Bret Calhoun) and GAMEDAY NEWS (D. Wayne Lukas) could give us that answer. Fair Grounds’s race 8 presents the debut of REVERE (Al Stall Jr.), a Claiborne blue-blood who is half-brother to both Congrats and Flatter. This exciting contest also debuts CIGAR STREET (Steve Margolis), a son of Street Sense out of a half-sister to Cigar.

Five runners exiting a key Oaklawn allowance return in Saturday’s race 5 allowance route, led by Countdown bet-back special RING IT UP (Chris Richard), who unfortunately won’t be near the 24-1 price he was Jan. 15 when racing gamely on the lead and re-breaking after the wire to gallop out strongly. Look for a stakes date next following this race for whoever wins.

Saturday’s race 3 at Gulfstream will be the $60,000 Needles Stakes for 3-year-old turf sprinters. Awesome debut finisher DIEZ (Darrin Miller) returns on 24 days’ rest, curiously with no workouts between starts. He’ll meet Fasig-Tipton Dash winner MUSICAL FLAIR (Salvatore Santoro), who has been away since Keeneland’s fall meet, and Birdonthewire Stakes champ HELLO PRINCE (Daniel Pita), also off a layoff. TOWN PRIZE (Darwin Banach) was third in the Spectacular Bid on dirt earlier in the meet and makes his turf debut with a pedigree to like it.

Also at Gulfstream on Saturday, race 9 is a 1 1/8-mile maiden test on dirt, which suits long-winded SUNS OUT GUNS OUT (Dale Romans) very well. I’m expecting graduation despite a tough wide draw and solid competition. BATTLE HARDENED (Eddie Kenneally) fell victim to the wide draw last time and just missed. WENT THE DAY WELL (Graham Motion) makes his US debut after being purchased overseas. Barry Irwin of Team Valor wrote that he liked the horse’s “dirt build” upon the acquisition. This race should give us a good line on maiden winners UNBRIDLED MINISTER (Ken McPeek) and BIG SCREEN (Frank Alexander) with several common opponents returning.

Sunday’s race 4 at Gulfstream, a mile maiden race on dirt, includes three horses cross-entered in the aforementioned Saturday race 9: AWAITED (James Chapman), who returns off a Saratoga vacation with an immaculate Unbridled’s Song-Secret Status pedigree; DYNAMICAL (Mark Casse), who exits one of the better maiden races all meet, albeit on turf; and TIZ YANKEE, a fast-working Tiznow colt who has failed to seal the deal late in two starts to date. Among the Sunday field also is BIG BLUE SPIRIT (Darrin Miller), a Countdown bet-back special coming out of the same race as DYNAMICAL.

Also at Gulfstream on Sunday, note a race 9 maiden sprint at six furlongs with some flashy first-timers. BAHAMIAN SQUALL (David Fawkes) is half-brother to current star sprinter Apriority; PLATED (Barclay Tagg) is a $500,000 Tiznow colt out of a half-sister to the great filly Flanders; and SPIN OUT (Nick Zito) is a half-brother to Breeders’ Cup Sprint runner-up Friendly Island, and this son of Hard Spun has been firing serious bullets in the a.m.

Turfers get a big 1 1/8-mile allowance test Sunday at Gulfstream in race 10, headed by EXOTHERMIC (Rusty Arnold), a debut winner that really caught my eye. By Empire Maker out of Irridescence, he could be a star in the making after a powerful finish Dec. 29. The Arnold barn is not known for unleashing one like that first out of the box and generally get much better in subsequent starts, which is scary. The competition includes G3 Pilgrim beaten favorite FANTASTIC SONG (Chad Brown) and Dale Romans’s recent turf maiden victors FINNEGANS WAKE and NEWS PENDING. This race likely produces a horse or two for the Polytrack stakes to come in Kentucky.

[ROAD TO THE DERBY: Kentucky Derby prep schedule, results, replays]

Saturday’s G3 Withers undercard at Aqueduct includes an interesting race 4 maiden sprint, headed by the improving Street Cry-Ashado colt STEELE ROAD (Kiaran McLaughlin). His second-start runner-up looked better after conqueror BEGGARTHYNEIGHBOR (Chad Brown) stepped up off that win to capture the Dancing Count Stakes at Laurel. INFLATION TARGET (Rick Violette) comes off a good debut third in that same race. Keep an eye on WILD TARGET (Eddie Kenneally), who exits a very good maiden sprint won by talented HARDENED WILDCAT (Chad Brown).

On Saturday’s big card at Tampa Bay Downs, race 3 is a turf mile allowance in which stakes-placed CAPTAIN WEBB (Todd Pletcher) meets Jan. 20 narrow local losers BURN THE MORTGAGE (Wayne Catalano) and SEEKING ROMANCE (Jonathan Sheppard). The big-name barns also invade a race 9 maiden sprint at seven furlongs on dirt, led by the career debut of HARRIS (Todd Pletcher), a son of A.P. Indy and G1 Ruffian Stakes heroine Pool Land, a filly who began her career with three straight wins.

We may get a better line on Jan. 16 maiden breaker AMERICAN ACT (Jack Carava) after Saturday’s race 1 at Santa Anita. Three of his pursuers return in this six-furlong sprint, including Distorted Humor-Folklore colt IMMACULATE (Eric Guillot). It’s an interesting pedigree race, with a grandson of the great Silverbulletday debuting in MILE HIGH MAGIC (Bob Baffert). Darley debuts the well-bred A.P. Indy-Burmilla colt STRATIFY, whose dam and grand dam both won the Honorable Miss sprinting at Saratoga. Speaking of well-bred Darley runners on this same card, G1 Santa Anita Derby winner Brother Derek’s little bro INDICATOR (Eoin Harty) makes his first dirt start in a Cal-bred maiden sprint in race 4 after two wretched synthetic tries at Hollywood.

Laurel has a pair of 3-year-old events Saturday in races 5 and 6, the latter an allowance where ROCKY GAP (Linda Gaudet) returns on seven days’s rest after finishing fourth in the Dancing Count Stakes. Debut winner COP A TUDE (Graham Motion) will garner a lot of attention. Two of the Officer colt’s closest pursuers from Jan. 4, HARD LINE (Tom Iannotti) and ST. JOHNSWOOD (Tim Tullock), rematch in a race 5 maiden at seven furlongs, so we’ll have a very good, immediate barometer on COP A TUDE before his allowance. This race 5 maiden includes ROMP CITY (Cathal Lynch) invading from Parx, where he faced some very strong company lines that included HOWE GREAT (Graham Motion), eventual winner of the Kitten’s Joy Stakes at Gulfstream.

We should get a snapshot of the Turfway Prevue alumni who are contesting Saturday’s WEBN Stakes at Turfway in the race prior when a race 9 maiden route features CIRCUS CLOWN (Walter Bindner), fourth in the Prevue while still a maiden. Meanwhile, Saturday’s night’s Delta Premier Night card for Louisiana-breds features unbeaten BEANWAH’SMACHINE (Al Stall Jr.) looking to go 5-for-5 from a tough draw in the seven-furlong Premier Prince Stakes. That’s a two-turn event on the bullring, marking the first such trip for the likely heavy favorite.

G2 Robert Lewis Memorial Stakes (Saturday/Santa Anita) [PPs and Live Video]

The G2 Robert Lewis has four of the top five finishers from the G1 CashCall Futurity in its eight-horse lineup. LIAISON (Bob Baffert) and ROUSING SERMON (Jerry Hollendorfer) have been separated by a neck and a half-length in a pair of previous route stakes match-ups. When we raise the ante with Eddie Logan Stakes winner CHIPS ALL IN (Jeff Mullins), G2 Best Pal runner-up I’LL HAVE ANOTHER (Doug O’Neill), and New Mexico speedball ISN’T HE CLEVER (Henry Dominguez), we wind up with the most intriguing stakes of the year so far in California.

ROUSING SERMON and a few others get a five-pound shift in the weights from the CashCall Futurity compared to LIAISON. Instead of all carrying 121 once again, LIAISON now totes 123 while his rivals get in at a feathery 118. This is pretty significant, but even more glaring when you compare the two common rivals from the Real Quiet Stakes. That day, ROUSING SERMON carried 123 when falling a half-length short to LIAISON, who carried only 117 pounds. In essence, we’re looking now at an 11-pound swing in the weights in favor of ROUSING SERMON.

Both LIAISON and ROUSING SERMON look to be long-term players on the California path to the Triple Crown. I have a lot of respect for their styles, foundation, trainers, and accomplishments. Separating them is not easy. While you could argue they got a very good pace setup in the CashCall Futurity, notice how much slower the pace was in the Real Quiet when they both turned in nearly identical efforts. Neither appears pace dependent. LIAISON has a bit more tactical speed, which helps him in terms of trip and not losing ground, while ROUSING SERMON is the stronger finisher of the pair.

CHIPS ALL IN really impressed me in the one-mile Eddie Logan on turf and he’s won on dirt, turf, and synthetic to date. He would be dangerous in this race if none of the sprint-types forces the issue, given the main favorites are come-from-behinders. The key for CHIPS ALL IN will be how aggressive Corey Nakatani is with rail-drawn sprinter ISN’T HE CLEVER, and just how fresh might I’LL HAVE ANOTHER be after such a long layoff. He was :45-flat fast at Del Mar last summer. There’s enough pressure here, I surmise, that CHIPS ALL IN would surprise me to handle it all and stave off the closers to win. But he could certainly outlast the other speed and hold a share.

GROOVIN SOLO (Myung Kwon Cho) adds blinkers after a victory, which requires special permission from the stewards, and his maiden score has been flattered by a pair of very impressive, next-out winners. I actually bet him in the G1 CashCall Futurity at 87-1 while a maiden (his reins broke in the race), which might be the biggest-priced horse I’ve ever bet to win. This is a talented horse who continues to work very fast in the mornings.

SKY KINGDOM (Bob Baffert) was fourth in the G1 CashCall Futurity, but handled his dirt unveiling with total ease Jan. 12 when blowing away three overmatched rivals in allowance company. Baffert indicated afterward that he actually wished jockey Martin Garcia would have let the horse run more through the lane to get more out of it. He’s got a run-all-day pedigree and is another who will be finishing up very well Saturday.

EMPIRE WAY (Mike Harrington) has been an underachiever after winning his debut. The well-bred son of Empire Maker-Delta Princess wasn’t beaten that far when moving wide in the G1 CashCall Futurity. A turn-around would not be a stunner, but sometimes you just prefer others.

Lewis Stakes selections: W) ROUSING SERMON; P) LIAISON; S) GROOVIN SOLO.

G3 Withers Stakes (Saturday/Aqueduct) [PPs and Live Video]

Wisely moved from May to February on the NYRA stakes calendar, this G3 race can now take advantage of its $200,000 purse in attracting Triple Crown hopefuls looking to accrue all-important graded stakes earnings. The move has paid immediate dividends with a quality field for this 1 1/16-mile race, including ALPHA (Kiaran McLaughlin), winner of the Count Fleet and runner-up in the G1 Champagne last fall.

HOW DO I WIN (Todd Pletcher) and SPEIGHTSCITY (Gary Contessa) also return from the Count Fleet, but neither appears capable of turning the tables on ALPHA unless the favorite goes awry physically. If anyone is to challenge ALPHA, a highly legitimate threat on the Triple Crown trail, it would have to be a rising commodity whose ceiling we don’t yet know, such as HAKAMA (Mike Trombetta) or TIGER WALK (Ignacio Correas).

HAKAMA has a sense of class about him, already having faced some quality opponents shipping around from his Maryland home base. Trombetta is very crafty picking his spots on the Aqueduct inner dirt and he knows his way around a rising 3-year-old, having developed Sweetnorthernsaint to Kentucky Derby post-time favoritism in 2006 and a Preakness runner-up finish.

KING KID (Dale Romans) came up empty late in the Gulfstream Park Derby on Jan. 1 and wisely comes north trying to find an easier spot. The alumni from the GP Derby have failed to flatter the race whatsoever so far, but this horse won’t be embarrassed. SWAG DADDY (Rick Dutrow) has won back-to-back route stakes on the inner dirt this winter vs. New York-breds, but this clearly is the toughest field he’s faced. Never say never when a barn is winning everything in sight like his, but I don’t see this one pulling an upset.

Withers Stakes selections: W) ALPHA; P) HAKAMA; S) KING KID.

G3 Sam F. Davis Stakes (Saturday/Tampa Bay Downs) [PPs and Live Video]

Only one of the top three sharpies from the Jan. 14 Pasco Stakes returns to attempt the stretch-out around two turns, but PROSPECTIVE (Mark Casse) appears more than capable at a distance in which he’s already won Woodbine’s G3 Grey Stakes. The post draw was not kind to him, however, as the son of Malibu Moon begins in post No. 11, just outside of Gulfstream Park Derby champ REVERON (Agustin Bezara). Those two January stakes winners meet a field that includes last year’s G2 With Anticipation victor STATE OF PLAY (Graham Motion), as the connections of last year’s Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom are eager to once again see if they have a turf performer capable of making Triple Crown noise.

It wouldn’t be a major prep -- and with $250,000 in graded stakes earnings up for grabs, it qualifies -- without Todd Pletcher. He saddles ECABRONI, a speedy son of champion sprinter Smoke Glacken who almost certainly will be dictating the pace in his first two-turn attempt. ECABRONI did not excite me in his win at 2-5 odds on Jan. 14 nor flash a signal that he’s ready to route at this level. Meanwhile, we should know more about streaking HOLY HIGHWAY (Derek Ryan) after Saturday’s race 3 allowance in which his recent pursuers return to action.

A horse you had better keep an eye on is MOROCCAN BREW (Dennis Ward), who was vastly underworked coming into the seven-furlong Pasco Stakes and accordingly tired. High-percentage local trainer Dennis Ward has since put two workouts into this horse in the three weeks since his sprint comeback “giveaway” race. I expect a vast improvement, and this could be the kind of horse who juices up the bottom of a trifecta or superfecta at 30-1 odds.

BURNING TIME (David Fawkes) remains a tough read following his fourth in the Pasco. I’m not sure if he’s a closing sprinter or a legitimate router with his mixed-vibes pedigree and set of performances. He galloped out nicely last time, but I think he’s going to prefer a one-turn mile best of all. You could put him anywhere on your tickets or leave him out altogether, and I’d have a hard time making a good case pro or con against you.

On the win end, this race should legitimately come down to just two horses, namely PROSPECTIVE or STATE OF PLAY. I’ve been uninspired by the Gulfstream Derby alumni since that race, so REVERON didn’t beat much and I find it interesting they came west for a seemingly easier spot this weekend.

STATE OF PLAY is a son of War Front, and those runners almost universally want to be given their heads and be given permission to roll from the start. Jockey Alan Garcia will have to play an interesting hand from the rail with a speedball like ECABRONI to his outside to tempt STATE OF PLAY along too fast. Despite the wide post draw, PROSPECTIVE has my respect and his closing style may allow him to drop back and tuck in some before the first turn.

Davis Stakes selections: W) PROSPECTIVE; P) STATE OF PLAY; S) MOROCCAN BREW.

WEBN Stakes (Saturday/Turfway Park)

Turfway’s first two-turn prep for the G3 Spiral next month comes in Saturday’s one-mile WEBN Stakes, which features the top three finishers from the Jan. 7 Turfway Prevue. How those runners translate from one-turn to two-turn racing is part of the discussion for sure, but new shooter PHANTOM FURY (Mike Lauer) might render that point moot.

Hands down, PHANTOM FURY has been the most impressive member of the 3-year-old class in Florence, Ky., this winter, winning his last two starts by eight and 10 3/4 lengths. The effortless way he’s done it indicates there’s much more in the tank for this gelded son of Devil His Due. While a big field of 10 could provide more challenges, he draws absolutely perfectly in post 2 with a short run to the first turn, and there really isn’t another dedicated speed-burner among those horses who may have faced tougher competition to date. FRANKIE IS ROCK (Rafael Flores) could very well sit second if he can get into position from post No. 9. I think he has a sneaky-good chance to win either this race or the Battaglia Memorial next up on the local path.

MR. PRANKSTER (Mike Maker) was much, much the best in the Turfway Prevue and has returned with a bullet workout since then over the Turfway course. From post 10, carrying four more pounds than his chief rivals, he probably will be an underlay price given the new challenges he faces going back around two turns. He’s to be respected, but not revered, in this spot. Stablemate MAGICAL SEASON (Mike Maker) is a difficult read as I’m not certain he’s best as a deep-closing sprinter, or maybe a miler on turf. A mile on Polytrack puts him in the crosshairs to be either, perhaps. If he’s 11-1 again like the Prevue, you’ll want to include him in the gimmicks.

WEBN Stakes selections: W) PHANTOM FURY; P) FRANKIE IS ROCK; S) MR. PRANKSTER.

Last week’s selections: 2: 2-0-0. A clean sweep ensued for Countdown as ALGORITHMS scored as the top choice in the G3 Holy Bull at Gulfstream, upsetting unbeaten champion HANSEN, while BEGGARYTHYNEIGHBOR also tallied as top pick in the Dancing Count at Laurel. That’s the way we like it.

Season selections: 10: 4-1-2.

Everyone’s a critic

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

G3 Holy Bull Stakes (1/29, GP-10)

You can’t help but feel positive about both ALGORITHMS (Todd Pletcher) and runner-up HANSEN (Mike Maker) following Sunday’s Grade 3 Holy Bull at one mile. Over a sloppy track, the more accomplished HANSEN succumbed to a rival who already had started at the meet, but not before the reigning 2-year-old champion had overcome a rocky start and showed the kind of speed that we remembered from last fall.

HANSEN may not be Easy Goer or Affirmed, but his performance Sunday indicates that he’s not Capote either, who was bound to a front-running juvenile campaign and was never heard from again. For a first outing of the year, you’d hope HANSEN would have avoided the veering in and stumbling at the start, but you’re also thankful that he didn’t grab a quarter and cut himself. The ability of HANSEN to rate and handle top-quality competition beyond 1 1/16 miles will come later. For now, this was a good enough place to start out. Keep an eye on HANSEN out of the gate in future races. Going back and studying his previous starts, he’s so eager to bust out of the gate that he kind of leaps and jumps a stride or two before settling into a fluid stride. If he’s merely a one-style horse who needs the lead, then little things like that can be a big issue when a field of 20 lines up at Churchill.

While it might seem disrespectful to talk HANSEN before ALGORITHMS, we’ll give the champ his due. Now it’s time to talk about the Holy Bull victor, and just how impressive ALGORITHMS was on this day. A perfect 3-for-3, he’s stretched out from five furlongs to 6 1/2 furlongs and now one mile, all around one turn. Pedigree suggests the next step around a pair of bends should not be a major hurdle since he’s by Preakness and Travers winner Bernardini, and out of multiple route winner Ava Knowsthecode, a Cryptoclearance mare. ALGORITHMS’s mama has produced super-fast sprinter/milers like Keyed Entry, Justin Phillip, and Successsful Mission, but those were all by sprinter/miler sires. The way he finished up on the back end of this one-turn mile, reaching out nicely and smoothly, he looks genuine in taking the next, natural step to routing at the very least.

MY ADONIS (Kelly Breen) and CONSORTIUM (Kiaran McLaughlin) bumped together at the start and then had HANSEN veer in front of them a stride or two later. Both settled off the pace a bit farther than expected because of it. John Velazquez sent CONSORTIUM more aggressively in search of recovery into the far turn while three-wide and came up totally empty in the stretch. CONSORTIUM clearly was the race’s big disappointment. Meanwhile, Elvis Trujillo wisely bided his time in last with MY ADONIS after the rough start, got his horse out into the middle of the track once straightened out to avoid any kick-back in the slop, and ran on solidly for third. This was a promising return for a horse who was chewed up in the G3 Delta Jackpot pace duel. He showed professionalism in overcoming the trip and a new-found ability to sit and make one run that will serve him well down the line. FORT LOUDON (Stanley Gold) was one-paced throughout when fourth in a modest seasonal debut.

It’s fair to note this was the slowest Holy Bull edition contested at one mile (from just four all-time), almost a full second behind what Dialed In clocked last year and also behind the times posted by Winslow Homer and Nobiz Like Shobiz. Over a sloppy/sealed track, the fractions were 23.64 seconds, 45.67, 1:10.21, 1:23.02, and a final time of 1:36.17, easily the fastest mile of three run on the program. But with a final quarter-mile barely shading :26, it’s a visually satisfying performance that leaves an inkling of doubt with a fast-early, slow-late race shape. But that’s why it’s January and not May, and still leaves this as the best stakes performance of the Countdown season to date.

Dancing Count Stakes (1/28, Lrl-8)

Jockey Malcolm Franklin put the favorite BEGGARTHYNEIGHBOR (Chad Brown) into a drive for the final three furlongs of this $100,000 sprint and worked hard for the money in Maryland’s first major stakes on the Preakness path. The New York invader showed class in running straight and true in the lane and fought back to edge a drifting TRIPPI’S SECRET (Ollie Figgins) and late-running ILL CONCEIVED (John Servis). No doubt in my mind ILL CONCEIVED was best of all on this day, but had his momentum stymied on a few occasions through the turn and in the lane in a ride Abel Castellano would like to have back. Based on pedigrees, I’d like to see ILL CONCEIVED try Keeneland’s 1 1/16-mile G3 Lexington later this spring. His sire, Spanish Steps, is a full brother to Unbridled’s Song, the most prolific Keeneland Poly sire of all time. BEGGARTHYNEIGHBOR also has a pedigree to relish that same surface and may be able to get that distance vs. the right field. The final time of 1:09.80 was very sharp over a Laurel surface not known for big times.

One company line note from this race: A very dull run by New York invader BROOKLYN RED (Gary Contessa) did nothing to flatter the form of this Saturday’s G3 Withers contender SWAG DADDY (Rick Dutrow), who beat him soundly in the Restrainor Stakes at Aqueduct.

Allowances

Gulfstream Park’s Sunday race 7 allowance at 1 1/16 miles absolutely stole the show from the G3 Holy Bull Stakes as EL PADRINO (Todd Pletcher) wowed me like no other horse on the trail so far this Countdown season. The G2 Remsen third-place finisher made a sparkling return to the races by running down a high-quality opponent in TAKE CHARGE INDY (Patrick Byrne) and doing it with style. The top pair put more than 15 lengths on the rest of a quality allowance field that included three other listed-stakes-placed performers in a deep field of nine, a rarity among early-season allowance lineups. Calvin Borel appeared to have taken the race over mid-turn on TAKE CHARGE INDY and looked ready to call his winning margin. But EL PADRINO was just getting his pure-route form in motion, and by the quarter pole was making one of those moves in which you knew he had the measure. Javier Castellano barely moved in a hand ride aboard EL PADRINO, who has that all-important A.P. Indy bloodline (by his son Pulpit) that we talked about a few weeks ago in Pletcher’s Triple Crown success stories. On the damside, he has turf route influence from Giant’s Causeway, another major pedigree point we’ve discussed at length over the past year in Countdown. All signs indicate to me that this is one of Pletcher’s best Triple Crown prospects ever, if not his best. If looking for a knock, and that’s more than fair, he’s 2-for-2 on off tracks, though his 0-for-2 fast track record is by a combined 1 1/2 lengths and he was finishing fantastically in both losses. TAKE CHARGE INDY ran extremely well on only four works this winter, was much more professional in the lane, and will be a legitimate force on the trail throughout with a similarly dynamite pedigree. A side note in this race is that A BOY NAMED EM (Eddie Kenneally) was far back and did nothing to flatter the form of DISCREET DANCER (Todd Pletcher), whom he chased in allowance company last time.

Another big-time allowance run last week came in Sunday’s race 8 sprint at Oaklawn Park, where SCATMAN (Mike Lauer) looked like a serious player in upcoming stakes by scoring his second straight win. When last seen, he ran the second-fastest six furlongs on Keeneland’s Polytrack ever by a 2-year-old when breaking his maiden in 1:09 last October. His juvenile company lines included horses like MOTOR CITY (Ian Wilkes) and HERE COMES FRAZIER (Ken McPeek), who would be high-quality stakes runners. On Saturday, this son of Scat Daddy rolled to a 3 1/2-length victory in 1:11.20, a sharp time over a very dull Oaklawn strip where no other race at the distance broke 1:12 all day. SCATMAN may not be distance-limited as there’s some Strawberry Road stamina influences on the dam side. He’s a very intriguing player in the G3 Southwest on Feb. 20 if sent that way on three weeks’s rest, even if this allowance field was light on quality behind him.

Maidens

FILM SHOT (Bill Mott), a son of one of my all-time favorite turf mares, Film Maker, scored impressively on the front end in a maiden turf mile Wednesday at Gulfstream. The Distorted Humor colt ran each quarter of the race in 23.90 or less, coming home in a sharp 23.72 despite visually appearing that he was slowing down. FILM SHOT kicked clear in the gallop-out as much the best. This was a sensational turf effort, one of the best maiden performances of the year at Gulfstream Park (or anywhere). Sire Distorted Humor does exceptionally well on the Polytrack, and owner Don Adam had some Poly success with Adriano a few years back, so don’t be surprised if you see this one land at Turfway or Keeneland this spring. Tab the runners-up, AL’S UNCLE (Roger Attfield) and SCAT HAPPY (Jonathan Sheppard), as rather easy graduation candidates next time out on the lawn.

Even in defeat, Sunday’s race 7 maiden sprint at Santa Anita was very good news for Bob Baffert. Sure, his entrant STIRRED UP fell short of victory despite a feverish finish and gallop-out that suggests we were spot-on tabbing this future star. But Baffert’s upcoming stakes player FED BIZ got some very positive reinforcement as his Dec. 30 closest pursuer ZACKN’MAT (Marty Jones) returned to win this quality seven-furlong event. While the top two rallied from next-to-last and last, STIRRED UP was another time zone behind ZACKN’MAT heading into the far turn. The winner held by a comfortable 1 1/2 lengths, but it was STIRRED UP who makes your mouth water to see him try two turns next time. By Lemon Drop Kid, the half-brother to G3 Comely winner Hot Summer was gobbling up ground and galloped out about 15 lengths to the good. You can now see why this colt took such action in Las Vegas before even starting a race, as noted in last week’s Countdown. If Baffert runs this horse back quickly in the maiden ranks within the next 14 to 21 days, you’ll know he’s serious about trying to make the big dances later this spring. STIRRED UP showed much promise at Del Mar last summer in the a.m., so it’s not as though he’s a late comer to the racetrack, but rather one working himself back after a summer setback.

SEVE (Dale Romans) finally graduated in start No. 8, capturing a race 5 maiden sprint Sunday at Gulfstream Park over a sloppy/sealed track in determined fashion. He outdueled first-timer UNBRIDLED FIRE (Kiaran McLaughlin) and then galloped out much better of the pair. By Giant’s Causeway, the half-brother to millionaire mare You always hinted to have more and it was nice to see SEVE put it together. Mama was best around one turn, and that appears to be the case with her son. A couple of notables from this race include third-place finisher TREND SETTER (Chad Brown), who will benefit greatly with another start and getting away from the rail. Once clear in the lane he was extremely green, but this $300,000 Tapit colt looks to have some real talent when the lightbulb flips on. Late-running fourth PUSHINGONASTRING (Bill Mott) ran about as well as a firster can for a barn that simply doesn’t push its rookies. Odds-on favorite MORDI’S MIRACLE (Todd Pletcher) continues to be his own worst enemy as a headcase who’s becoming a bettor’s money pit.

Also at Gulfstream, QUICK WIT (Dale Romans) was a sharp, three-length winner of a Saturday race 2 maiden special weight at the elongated 7 1/2-furlong sprint distance. He was runner-up last time to impressive SPRING HILL FARM (Todd Pletcher), and this quick turn-around win on two weeks’ rest really flatters the performance of his rival from Jan. 14.  Pedigree-wise, don’t expect QUICK WIT to go much farther than a mile. Runner-up MONARCHIC (Eoin Harty) is one to watch -- breaking badly, rushing up, and holding on nicely for the place in just his second lifetime start. The sharp a.m. worker made the kind of second-start improvement you like to see, especially for a patient trainer like Harty. By Forestry out of a Woodman mare, the damside of the pedigree screams distance as MONARCHIC is half-brother to 1 1/4-mile Grade 1 E.P. Taylor winner Miss Lindsay.

Aqueduct had a pair of maiden contests last Saturday in races 5 and 7 where the outcomes were probably reversed from what folks expected on paper. Race 5 heavy chalk TERM LOAN (Rick Violette) fell apart late in a visually terrible race at 1-5 odds and was collared by SIDE ROAD (Kiaran McLaughlin), who looked to have more of a turf stride than a fluid action on dirt. As these horses stumbled home in :26.06 for the final quarter despite a moderate pace, the 3-year-old who caught the eye instead would come vs. New York-breds in race 7. THE LUMBER GUY (Mike Hushion) romped by 9 1/4 lengths in a sharp 1:10.20, getting the final quarter-mile in just over :24 flat. He’s out of New York-bred blue hen mare Beltono, who is producing with everything she foals, but likely will be a sprinter/miler like the rest of his family. You might get this one at a price in something like the G3 Bay Shore on Wood Memorial Day.

Around the horn in other maiden races last week, SMOKING G (Peter Miller) scored a Saturday turf sprint at Santa Anita that flattered the form of fellow recent maiden breaker AMERICAN ACT (Jack Carava) … Former maiden claimer CORPORATE CHAPEL (Stanley Mankin) upset an Oaklawn maiden special weight mile in Saturday’s race 5 as speedy DOUBLE RAH RAH (Jinks Fires) just failed to hold late for the second time at the meet … FARETTI (Christophe Clemente) rallied late to win a Gulfstream turf sprint maiden on Thursday by a nose in a modest time … RANSOM CANYON (Tom Proctor) debuted a winner Thursday in a Tampa Bay Downs turf mile. The son of Purim is out of the mare Poise, who was a local Tampa turf mile specialist for the same barn. RANSOM CANYON came home in a very sharp final quarter-mile of about :23 flat.

Quick Hitters

G3 Iroquois winner MOTOR CITY (Ian Wilkes), one of my highest-rated contenders this year, had his first workout of the year Tuesday at Palm Meadows, breezing a half-mile in :49.70. Look for him to take the two-prep path a la his daddy Street Sense, and note their eerily similar 2-year-old campaigns … CREATIVE CAUSE (Mike Harrington) rocketed a bullet six furlongs Saturday in 1:11.60 at Hollywood Park and continues to be spot-on for his return bid in the Feb. 19 G2 San Vicente … UNION RAGS (Michael Matz) breezed an easy five furlongs Tuesday in 1:02.74 at Palm Meadows as he readies for the Feb. 26 G2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park .... The prep calendar next week includes the Feb. 11 G2 Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream, expected to feature the 2012 return of G2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes runner-up EVER SO LUCKY (Jonathan Sheppard). He drilled five furlongs Monday at Gulfstream in :59.19 with Julien Leparoux aboard.

High Fives

Jeremy Plonk’s top five 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. FILM SHOT (Gulfstream, 2/1 * TURF *) * NEW *
4. CONSULADO (Santa Anita, 1/7)
5. NAJJAAR (Oaklawn, 1/14)

Allowance Race
1. EL PADRINO (Gulfstream, 1/29) * NEW *
2. DISCREET DANCER (Gulfstream, 1/7)
3. SKY KINGDOM (Santa Anita, 1/12)
4. ATIGUN (Oaklawn, 1/15)
5. STAR CHANNEL (Gulfstream, 1/8 * TURF *)

Stakes Race
1. ALGORITHMS (Gulfstream, 1/29) * NEW *
2. OUT OF BOUNDS (Sham, SA, 1/7)
3. MIDNIGHT TRANSFER (San Pedro, SA, 1/22)
4. ALPHA (Count Fleet, Aqu, 1/7)
5. PROSPECTIVE (Pasco, Tam, 1/14)

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!