02/10/2012 9:36AM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 6 - Feb. 10, 2012

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Benoit & Associates
Lightly raced I'll Have Another will get just two preps for the Derby. Whatever happened to fitness and foundation?

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 a Super Bowl post-game press conference with Mrs. Tom Brady, a.k.a. supermodel Gisele Bundchen. Some are better off seen than heard.

1. While the HBO series “Luck” paints the dark picture of horse racing as sleazeballs and cons, pardon the Mr. Rogers in me for smiling fondly on the connections of HANSEN (Mike Maker), who announced recently that they may let racing fans pick which hue to color the unique-looking horse’s mane and tail in upcoming races. Neither one is going to save racing, but they serve two very different fan bases, and last I checked we had a few seats to offer. It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, unless you’re on the bad side of Chester “Ace” Bernstein, that is.

2. After a dazzling win last Saturday in the G2 Bob Lewis Memorial, the connections of I’LL HAVE ANOTHER (Doug O’Neill) announced that they’ll only have one more Derby prep, the G1 Santa Anita Derby on April 7. For a horse who had not started since September, taking a two-prep campaign in February and April speaks to the fragility of the horse and the obsessive nature it’s become just to reach the Derby. Whatever happened to fitness and foundation?

3. Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool one opens Friday and runs through Sunday at a betting outlet near you. I’ll set the morning line at 1-9 on two items. First, “all other 3-year-olds” will be favored, and secondly, many in the racing media and blogosphere will complain that we still haven’t advanced beyond the tote limitations of having just 24 betting interests.

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. It’s a light week on the stakes menu, but a buffet-style set-up on undercard races. Let’s jump in line for those first.

Later today (Friday, Feb. 10), Oaklawn race 7 is a promising 1 1/16 miles maiden route, featuring SPIN ZONE (Steve Hobby), half-brother to G2 West Virginia Derby and G3 Iowa Derby winner Concord Point. SPIN ZONE was a good second to one of Oaklawn’s most talked-about maiden winners of the meet MAJESTIC STRIDE (Jeff Bonde). English Channel colt SKYRING (D. Wayne Lukas) should improve around two turns as a maternal grandson of $1.1 million earner and Spinster champ Top Corsage. He chased lightning-quick APPREHENDER (Ingrid Mason) in his Jan. 27 debut.

I’m drooling to see Saturday’s race 3 maiden mile at Santa Anita, where Countdown heartthrob STIRRED UP (Bob Baffert) wheels back on short rest and stretches out in distance off a scintillating debut rally and gallop-out. You may recall two weeks ago when I mentioned here that if STIRRED UP is wheeled back quickly by Baffert it will be a tell-tale sign that he’s super-serious about getting this horse on the Derby trail. He’ll get his chance, but it won’t come for free Saturday. $1 million purchase WELTER WEIGHT (Steve Asmussen) makes the necessary stretch-out in distance and a quirky debut sprint try on Jan. 7. He chased a runaway train that day in CONSULADO (Mike Puype), but never looked like a fleet sprinter at any point and appears to want this route. In what’s likely the best maiden race in California this season, the field also includes the impeccably bred UNMARKED BILLS (Richard Mandella), half-brother to stars Devil May Care and Regal Ransom. This colt had the misfortune of hooking EMPIRE WAY (Mike Harrington) and MIDNIGHT TRANSFER (Carla Gaines) in his first two starts, both of whom have gone on to proven stakes form since. The field also includes upset possibility FLEET EAGLE (Paula Capestro), who will relish the return to sprinting, and BODEMEISTER, an always dangerous “other Bob Baffert” in the field.

Gulfstream Park’s Saturday undercard is nothing short of Countdown bliss. Races 2,3,4 and 5 all are sophomore showcases before we get into the G2 Hutcheson or the other major events and the Donn Handicap card. We’ll try to pick them off one-by-one.

Race 2 Saturday at GP is a 7-furlong maiden sprint where second-time starters Z VILNA (Todd Pletcher) and DESERT STORM (Bill Mott) exit solid debut placings. Z VILNA benefits from a race at the meet. First-timer SENSOR (Tom Albertrani) could be a win-early candidate as he’s a Street Sense colt out of Minister Wife, a filly who won the G2 Demoiselle as a juvenile.

Race 3 Saturday at GP is a 1-mile allowance event around one turn. SPRING HILL FARM (Todd Pletcher) turned heads with a razor-sharp debut win that looked even better when runner-up QUICK WIT (Dale Romans) returned to win next time out. He figures to be well-backed in a field that also includes G1 Hopeful third-place finisher BIG BLUE NATION (also Todd Pletcher) in his 2012 return bid. UNBRIDLED MINISTER (Ken McPeek) didn’t dazzle me in his debut win, but I may have underestimated it since runner-up TEETH OF THE DOG (Michael Matz) scratched out a return win here last Saturday. Speaking of Matz, he’ll have talented SPACE RACE in this event, last seen finishing second to eventual G2 winner GEMOLOGIST (Todd Pletcher) during the Churchill fall meet.

Race 4 Saturday at GP is the split division to race 2, another 7-furlong maiden sprint. First-time starter PORT CONWAY (Kiaran McLaughlin) is an interesting debut artist being a half-brother to $1.3 million earner Request For Parole. Older bro was a stakes winner at age 2, fifth in the Derby at 3 and went on to become a G1 winner on turf later in life. This appears the slightly weaker of the two divisions on paper.

Race 5 Saturday at GP takes us to the turf for a 1 1/16 miles maiden special weight. OLD TIME HOCKEY (Tom Proctor) should relish the move to turf being by Smarty Jones out of a listed turf stakes winner named Grat. RAGAZZI (Kiaran McLaughlin) showed nothing in his dirt sprint debut and now the half-brother to G1 Ashland winner Little Belle tries to change things up. BRIDGE LOAN (Todd Pletcher) had a horrible draw in his turf unveiling Jan. 1 and should be the horse to beat from the rail as a son of Empire Maker and grassy G3 Modesty Handicap winner Bridge Game.

Four Belmont Stakes-winning trainers have horses entered in Saturday’s race 5 at Aqueduct, a maiden race at 1 mile and 70 yards. When you see Pletcher, Zito, McPeek and Breen compete on the inner-dirt in February, that $65,000 slots-juiced purse says all you need to know. UNYIELDING is the Zito charge, coming north after tiring in his debut in one of the most productive Gulfstream maiden races of the meeting. This is a full-brother to G3 winner and G1 Haskell runner-up Coal Play. Meanwhile, Pletcher also comes north from Gulfstream with BIG CREEK.

Saturday’s Aqueduct program also includes the New York-bred minor stakes called the Sweet Envoy. The 1 mile and 70-yard affair looks to be a rather easy spot for SWAG DADDY (Rick Dutrow) to pick up a third straight route stakes win vs. state-breds. Challengers include Damon Runyon Stakes closest pursuer PRETENSION (Chris Grove), who ships from his Bowie Training Center base in Maryland. Debut turf winner SUMMER BREEZING (Christophe Clemente) moves to dirt for the first time. He’s half-brother to last year’s Dania Beach turf stakes victor Adirondack Summer.

Fair Grounds cards what appears to be an awfully weak race 7 allowance sprint on Saturday. More than half the field has competed at some point for a claiming price. HERO OF ORDER (Gennadi Dorochenko) drops in class and distance after finishing a decent fifth in the G3 Lecomte from a tough draw. LAKE VICTOR (Steve Asmussen) may go favored after beating just three rivals in a Jan. 12 maiden sprint.

G2 Hutcheson Stakes (Saturday/Gulfstream Park) [Get PPs and watch live]

Pardon Jonathan Sheppard if he’s not your typical Triple Crown trail quote. The veteran Englishman is known for his jumpers and turfers, and this whole Derby Fever thing is lost on the conditioner of EVER SO LUCKY. To read and hear Sheppard all winter, he has provided 47,000 reasons why EVER SO LUCKY will NOT be in the gate on the first Saturday in May. It’s almost as if it happens that it will be in spite of his best inclination.

I don’t claim to be Sheppard’s intellectual equal, but I, too, have real reservations whether EVER SO LUCKY, runner-up in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at 1 1/16 miles, really is a route performer. Despite a moderate pace, he didn’t come home particularly quick that day. Now some two-plus months later, he’ll kick off his campaign sprinting 7 furlongs in what looks like the right move for development. Sheppard also has contemplated scratching Saturday and just waiting for next month’s Swale Stakes, also sprinting. His workout at Gulfstream in the slop on Monday didn’t offer much, Sheppard said, so just exactly where this horse is on Saturday is a bit of a guess. At short odds, a bettor should shop.

THUNDER MOCCASIN (Todd Pletcher) missed my official Countdown cut-off to start the season by two days, racing on Dec. 24 while you sipped egg nog and spread Yuletide cheer. But just because you haven’t heard of him here yet doesn’t mean he’s not a serious player. The son of A.P. Warrior will let us all know what kind of horse he can become when he makes his stakes debut in the G2 Hutcheson. Not only did he win the way you like to see, straight and strong, in the debut, but the second, third and fourth-place finishers all returned to win maiden special weight races at next asking.

WILDCAT CREEK (Eddie Plesa) earned a ton of respect from me with his patient, second-place finish in a very good renewal of the Pasco Stakes at Tampa. Winner PROSPECTIVE (Mark Casse) returned to run a solid second in the G3 Sam Davis despite a wide trip. Upon review of the Pasco, I noted that WILDCAT CREEK would have a graded stakes sprint with his name on it this year. It may come sooner than later for the well-bred half-brother to elite sprint filly Pomeroy’s Pistol.

IL VILLANO (Susan Crowell) would give a major reputation boost to ALPHA (Kiaran McLauglin) if the Count Fleet third-place finisher were to make this class rise to score. He’s fast enough to be a pace force sprinting or routing. Trainer Dale Romans wheels not one, but two horses back on short rest in TARPY’S GOAL, 21 days between starts, and QUICK WIT, 14 days between starts. For TARPY’S GOAL its actually 3 starts in 26 days, which is a lot to ask. QUICK WIT appears the more dangerous of the two off of a nice win at 7 1/2 furlongs over a track he obviously likes, as did his daddy, Sharp Humor.

It’s a coin flip for me between THUNDER MOCCASIN and WILDCAT CREEK, so the value shopper always goes with the better price when other things appear equal.

Hutcheson Stakes selections: W) WILDCAT CREEK; P) THUNDER MOCCASIN; S) EVER SO LUCKY.

Last week’s selections: 4: 1-2-0. ALPHA scored easily as the top selection in the G3 Withers, while our top choices PROSPECTIVE and PHANTOM FURY finished second in the G3 Sam F. Davis and WEBN Stakes, respectively. Top pick ROUSING SERMON ran a clunker in the G2 Bob Lewis Memorial.

Season selections: 14: 5-3-2.

Everyone’s a critic

This section reviews the week that was in the 3-year-old ranks. Huge stakes from sea to shining sea were in order.

G2 Bob Lewis Memorial Stakes (2/4, SA-8)

If you had never heard of jockey Mario Gutierrez before the winner’s circle presentation of Saturday’s G2 $200,000 Bob Lewis Memorial, consider yourself among the throng that caused a 43-1 toteboard shocker. His mount, I’LL HAVE ANOTHER (Doug O’Neill), exploded off a 12-1 morning line when horseplayers universally dismissed his chances off of a five-month layoff. Not so much for his credentials, as he was a good second in the G2 Best Pal Stakes last summer at Del Mar; more so because you can’t bring yourself to bet Mario Gutierrez in a G2 stakes at Santa Anita.

And don’t think for a second that the connections didn’t “bank” on that and smile brightly both in the winner’s circle and at the mutuel line soon after.

Gutierrez notched his biggest win outside of British Columbia’s Hastings Park while taking a seat aboard an O’Neill trainee for the first time in a race. Will he continue on to the Kentucky Derby with I’LL HAVE ANOTHER? That’s a tough call for the connections to make moving forward. A swarm of high-caliber jockeys’ agents will be putting the trainer on speed-dial. With the G1 Santa Anita Derby next up in April, we’ll have plenty of time to wait and see.

As for the race itself, I’LL HAVE ANOTHER was a legitimate powerhouse in the running. He tracked speedy New Mexico tablesetter ISN’T HE CLEVER (Henry Dominguez) nicely for most of the running and then exploded by in the stretch to win with authority by 2-3/4 lengths. He shaded just under :24 flat the fourth quarter despite pressing a solid pace and finished up in :06.32 the final sixteenth. The son of Flower Alley looked good visually in victory and it’s just a matter if he can keep sound enough to replicate this kind of effort again. It was eerily reminiscent of Premier Pegasus’ score in last year’s San Felipe, and we haven’t seen him run again since.

Runner-up EMPIRE WAY (Mike Harrington) ran to his stunning pedigree and potential while clearly second-best. The younger full brother to champion filly Royal Delta rallied from last and avenged a pair of disappointments at Hollywood Park in previous stakes. You certainly could project this under-achiever to remain a force moving along the trail. The top pair in the Lewis galloped out in complete tandem alongside each other and both seemed capable of more.

Not much had gone wrong for Bob Baffert all winter long, so Saturday’s double no-show by LIAISON and SKY KINGDOM hardly came with advanced warning. Both easily had won their only previous starts over the track, so the old surface excuse goes out the window. Both also were multiple winners around two turns, so nix that off your reasons for failure. If you have not watched the race replay yet, don’t let the clipped heels situation for LIAISON fool you into drawing a line through this race. He already was finished running at that point was not going to be placing.  The horse was fine after the race and the incident likely won’t be a factor moving forward, according to comments from the barn. SKY KINGDOM simply was flat. Watch the workout tab for clues on how soon both of the Baffert trainees return to serious conditioning, and as a handicapper you’ll have to take a wait-and-see approach in their next starts. These two are up in the air.

Other than the incident inside the furlong pole involving GROOVIN SOLO and ISN’T HE CLEVER coming together and tightening the space on LIAISON, this was an extremely clean race with hardly a trip note to be found in full review. It was fundamentally sound and simply a case of who fired and who didn’t.

ROUSING SERMON (Jerry Hollendorfer) was only about 3 1/2 lengths off the lead after a solid opening half-mile, and simply did not have the closing kick late that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from him. That’s tactical and correctable, and I think you’ll see more good things from this stretch-runner down the line. The camp learned something about him and jockey Joe Talamo likely did as well: take him back off the pace and make one run.

GROOVIN SOLO (Myung Kwon Cho) finished third, but had his number taken down for the incident with LIAISON, which placed him last. Regardless of the placing, this was a decent effort as he exited a mile maiden win with a much more stern test. Moving in the right direction, he’s a horse who would not be a surprise to see peaking around the Santa Anita Derby.

G3 Withers Stakes (2/4, Aqu-8)

ALPHA (Kiaran McLaughlin) won like a 1-5 shot should, but in the process got exactly what he needed. You can’t always say that about an overmatched, small-field stakes with a prohibitive chalk. First, he handled his business in the starting gate professionally, which has been his Achilles’ heel. Second, ALPHA was forced to overcome some first-turn jostling and ground loss, providing just the right level of difficulty for an early February stakes bid. Not too easy, not too taxing.

Jockey Julien Pimentel was intent aboard HAKAMA (Mike Trombetta) to get that runner off the rail some heading into the clubhouse turn and he took ALPHA with him after they brushed. That move would wind up keeping ALPHA three or four paths off the rail for most of the run. Still, the favorite switched off nicely at the top of the stretch and went on to a cozy score of more than 3 lengths. The son of Bernardini got a great education and passed the test with relative ease. Next up, a tough decision between the G3 Gotham or awaiting the G1 Wood Memorial. I could make a strong case either way as to which route I’d take, so I’m glad I don’t have to make that call. Either way, this appears to be one of the more legitimate contenders on the Triple Crown trail this year with lots of respect from this camp. Sure, he’ll have to beat better horses down the line, but he’s learning in a good environment right now and building his skill set.

Runner-up SPEIGHTSCITY (Gary Contessa) outran his 44-1 odds, and even though I picked him unwisely to upset ALPHA last time out in the Count Fleet, at least this effort justified some of that unrewarded confidence.

G3 Sam F. Davis Stakes (2/4, Tam-10)

Admittedly, I didn’t give BATTLE HARDENED (Eddie Kenneally) as much as a mention in my Davis Stakes preview last week, instead opting to note him in his “other” potential race at Gulfstream. But the public was far smarter than I, making this then-maiden the third betting choice by post time. Cross-entered in a same-day maiden race at Gulfstream Park, the connections made the obvious right move in hindsight while looting $120,000 in graded stakes earnings from the initial career score.

Flat late in all three career starts prior, BATTLE HARDENED lived up to his name as his 1-1/8 miles race Dec. 31 and subsequent training put enough stamina in him to finish this project at 1 1/16 miles. The son of Giant’s Causeway was not brilliant and didn’t blow anyone away visually, but if you’re not happy with the progression you see from a horse like this then you’re being way too picky for February.

Runner-up PROSPECTIVE (Mark Casse) arguably was best on this day, but was hung wide on both turns from a terrible post position draw and still kept fighting through the lane to secure second prize money. He’s a genuine closer around one turn or two and better than the 20-length drubbing he took in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Horses who handle Tampa Bay Downs’ surface generally transfer that well to Churchill Downs’ dirt track in the spring, so his effort on a cuppy autumn Churchill track might be a different situation. Those who follow CD racing know that the track you see in the spring and fall are two different products. With his surface versatility, there are many ways PROSPECTIVE could go from here, so don’t lose faith.

The top seven finishers all were within six lengths of one another at the wire in a race that slowed down decidedly each quarter-mile. The second quarter was two lengths slower than the first; the third quarter three lengths slower than the second; the fourth quarter about four lengths slower than the third. It’s difficult to say you saw something remarkable in that situation, but the pedigrees of the top two are promising for respected horsemen.

Gulfstream Park Derby winner REVERON (Agustin Bezara) had his three-race win streak snapped, but only after he totally collapsed in the final sixteenth of a mile. He looked like an easy winner coming off the turn and just hit the wall. It’s hard to like him going any farther. He is now six races into an uninterrupted form cycle and not necessarily one who is building toward more in the next start like others on the trail.

NECK N’ NECK (Ian Wilkes) looked about as good as a horse possibly could look in the post parade, but was without any speed and only passed some horses mildly while very wide. He might improve next time as he’s obviously in good fettle for a patient horseman. STATE OF PLAY (Graham Motion) failed to hold onto the lead despite a reasonable pace set-up and I’d have to see this son of War Front improve greatly next time to get re-interested on dirt.

WEBN Stakes (2/4, TP-9)

When super-impressive winter flash PHANTOM FURY (Mike Lauer) was hooked long and hard on the front end by a 41-1 longshot , favored MR. PRANKSTER (Mike Maker) had to be licking his chops while biding his time. After a blazing-by-Turfway-standards opening half-mile in :46.62, PHANTOM FURY was left vulnerable in the stretch and MR. PRANKSTER not only took advantage of it, he also made it perfectly clear that he’s holding onto his Turfway Prevue Stakes-winning form as well. In the end, MR. PRANKSTER widened to a laughable margin of 7 1/2 lengths, something you rarely see in a last-to-first move at any class level going a mile.

The son of It’s No Joke has now finished first or second in five of six starts, but it’s that one blemish that’s hard to overlook. It’s kind of like a super-model who turns her cheek and exposes a three-inch wart with hairs growing off of it. MR. PRANKSTER was last by 29 lengths in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, and that’s important for several reasons. One, it was his toughest competition. Two, it was his only dirt route to date. And three, it was at Churchill Downs, where he’ll be pointed if he continues his Turfway dominance. Unfortunately, we’re going to have a very hard time evaluating this horse unless he hits the road, and I see no reason on earth to do that if I’m the connections.

PHANTOM FURY did not diminish himself in defeat by a great deal, still holding for a clear-cut second-place finish. The Devil His Due colt deserves a fair look back in the next Polytrack route stakes, whether it’s the Battaglia Memorial or straight into the G3 Spiral. I’d like to see him get another chance to harness his speed some before the tough 9 furlongs of the Spiral.

Around the horn in other stakes, Saturday’s Gulfstream turf sprint stakes winner MUSICAL FLAIR (Sal Santoro) may try a stretch-out next in the G2 Fountain of Youth, according to his connections. The son of Songandaprayer got a clean trip in a roughly run Needles Stakes to score his 2012 unveiling … Fair Grounds invader and previously unbeaten BEANWAH’SMACHINE (Al Stall Jr.) saw his 4-for-4 mark scarred badly when finishing well back in the $125,000 Premier Night Prince Stakes at Delta Downs on Saturday. Locally based CAJUN CHARLIE (Brian House), by Afternoon Deelites, romped to his second straight daylight stakes win around two turns vs. Louisiana-breds.

Allowances

Thursday’s action was loaded with national allowance intrigue and FED BIZ (Bob Baffert) lived up to all the billing in a big-time one-mile score at Santa Anita in race 2. The son of Giant’s Causeway collared speedy and promising CONSULADO (Mike Puype) and drew away to a 5 s3/4 lengh romp while geared down. Despite a field of five, FED BIZ got a little education on the first turn with a rank horse between him and CONSULADO, and then settled into a nice spot. He was only a length off the :45.50 blazing opening half-mile from his sprint counterpart. FED BIZ still came home in a decent-enough 24.71 final quarter-mile while not asked fully. These are two high-quality horses who finished one-two, and jockey Rafael Bejarano immediately declared FED BIZ his “Derby horse” heading into the winner’s circle. CONSULADO can be a sprint force.

Come-backing MAAN (Eddie Kenneally) continued a dynamite winter for the barn, winning a 6 1/2 furlongs allowance Thursday in Gulfstream race 8. He ran only about 3 lengths slower than outstanding stakes-class sprinter Travelin Man did at the same distance earlier on the card. MAAN appeared to be fighting the off track and won despite that fact, albeit a dream run up the rail helped the cause. STAT (Todd Pletcher) blew the start in his first race back since running second in the G2 Saratoga Special in August and labored to contention, settling for fourth. MAAN’s mama Ambition Unbridled was a sprinter of stakes caliber.

AFFORD (Greg Geier), half-brother to active stakes winner Fast Alex, scored a thrilling nose victory Thursday in a Fair Grounds 1 mile and 70-yard allowance. A solid pace set-up helped the late-running colt. When you see the second-quarter mile of a route race go faster than the first, it’s generally a good sign for the closers to have every chance to get there. AFFORD saved ground for most of the running, then tipped out 6 paths at the top of the lane to commence his rally. It appeared AFFORD would go by favorite TIZ MOE (Bret Calhoun) with some comfort, but that rival drifted out into his path some and changed the momentum. AFFORD gathered and continued to grind out the victory in a professional effort. The Street Sense colt has pedigree and showed class when third in the Sugar Bowl Stakes sprinting at a distance that won’t be his best. He appears to be a decent prospect.

Earlier in the week, EXOTHERMIC (Rusty Arnold) proved our respect of his maiden score correct when he returned Sunday to impressively score a 1 1/16 miles turf allowance at Gulfstream Park. Now 2-for-2, the impeccably bred son of Empire Maker-Irridescence likely will be headed to stakes competition. His daddy won the Florida Derby over the dirt at GP, and I’d be inclined to give him that same chance with a style and pedigree that suggest 1-1/8 miles will be to his benefit. You could also see him land on the G1 Blue Grass path at Keeneland. Trakus indicates runner-up NEWS PENDING (Dale Romans) came home in a a very sharp  11.44 final furlong. He just ran into a tough horse and a slow pace that didn’t help his chances. NEWS PENDING should score next time out.

RACONTEUR (Todd Pletcher) seems to have put it together now, stringing together successive wins that include a route allowance victory Friday at Aqueduct over heavily favored TWO SEVENTEEN (Bruce Levine). The well-bred son of A.P. Indy isn’t particularly fast or brilliant, but he’s a grinder who keeps plugging along and improving. Look for him in a stakes next if for no other reason than he won’t find a second-level allowance. There’s some turf on the damside, so perhaps a Polytrack date is in order in something like the 9-furlong Spiral at Turfway.

CYBER SECRET (Lynn Whiting) turned in a dazzling 1 1/16 miles route allowance win Saturday at Oaklawn Park, stopping the clock in 1:45.43, a little over 2 lengths within the clocking of G2 winner Alternation later that day in the $100,000 Essex Handicap for older horses. CYBER SECRET broke his maiden at Belmont in October before finishing seventh in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill while racing wide. Leading throughout on Saturday for the first time in his career, the Broken Vow colt ran like a powerhouse and widened in the lane to score by more than 5 lengths over a very well-meant foe in RING IT UP (Chris Richard). Both of these horses exited the same Jan. 15 event against ATIGUN (Ken McPeek), as did three others in the field, and did nothing but flatter that common rival. Expect to see the top pair in stakes company next with CYBER SECRET already targeting the G3 Southwest on President’s Day.

Around the horn in other allowance races last week, Tampa Bay Downs turfer BURN THE MORTGAGE (Wayne Catalano) avenged narrow defeats at 2-5 and 3-5 odds this meet with a neck escape in a mile grass allowance Saturday over stakes-placed Gulfstream raider CAPTAIN WEBB (Todd Pletcher). The top pair flew home in23.18 the final quarter (:11.35 final furlong). By Kitten’s Joy and owned by Ken Ramsey, you can expect to see BURN THE MORTGAGE on the G1 Blue Grass or G3 Lexington path at Keeneland … Officer colt COP A TUDE (Graham Motion) remained unbeaten Saturday at Laurel with a solid 6-furlong allowance victory over ROCKY GAP (Linda Gaudet), the latter exiting a fourth in the Dancing Count Stakes just a week prior. COP A TUDE is out of Emotional Storm, a Mid-Atlantic allowance-type also trained by Motion who could get a sprint or mile distance … New York-bred PANTRHO (Stan Hough) rolled to a second straight Aqueduct score since leaving the tough confines at Gulfstream, blowing away a 6-furlong cast by 5 1/2 lengths Thursday. The win is yet another feather in the cap of Saturday’s G2 Hutcheson hopeful THUNDER MOCCASIN, whom PANTHRO chased in Florida.

Maidens

BOURBON COURAGE (Kellyn Gorder) debuted a romping 4 1/4 lengths winner last Friday at Fair Grounds in a 6-furlong maiden special weight, stopping the clock in easily the day’s fastest time of 1:09.28. Stuck down on the rail and breathed on heavily early on, this was a sharp sprint win with a spirited gallop-out. By Lion Heart out of a Carson City mare, you’d assume speed and stamina optional. But there are sneaky-good stamina influences on the dam side of this pedigree. He’s an interesting late bloomer for something like the G3 Lexington at Keeneland, where trainer Gorder typically has a horse or two ready to go at that meet. REVERE (Al Stall Jr.) debuted a wide third in this race and the half-brother to Congrats looks like a one-paced type who will appreciate two turns. This was the best maiden win of the week to these eyes and made my Top 5 maiden performances of the season.

Oops, he did it again. Todd Pletcher unleashed another blowout winner Sunday at Gulfstream Park when new recruit ENDER KNIEVAL smashed a 1-mile maiden special weight cast by nearly 8 lengths. The former Rusty Arnold trainee by Distorted Humor should stretch out to at least a middle distance as his mama Ender’s Sister won the Florida Oaks routing and was second in the G2 Cotillion at 1 1/16 miles. ENDER KNIEVAL was ridden out with some strong hand motions from John Velazquez and allowed to gallop out with some extra, so look for him to try two turns shortly. Runner-up TIZ YANKEE (Nick Zito) was no match and has not finished up his races the way you want to see from a Triple Crown hopeful. BIG BLUE SPIRIT (Darrin Miller) simply wasn’t fast enough to play in a one-turn dirt sprint and needs a route return. He has some talent when placed properly.

Also Sunday at Gulfstream, BAHAMIAN SQUALL (David Fawkes) announced that he’s going to be a sprinter to watch. A half-brother to top national dasher Apriority, he rallied strongly to win his 6-furlong unveiling, with Trakus catching his final quarter-mile in 24.60, a bit slower on the clock than it looked to the eye. BAHAMIAN SQUALL galloped out nicely. The disappointment in the race was the well-backed and ballyhooed rookie SPIN OUT (Nick Zito), as the half-brother to Breeders’ Cup Sprint runner-up Friendly Island was hung wide around the bend but had no excuse while tiring from the quarter-pole home to be fourth.

TEETH OF THE DOG (Michael Matz) led a 9-furlong carousel Saturday at Gulfstream Park, courtesy of slow fractions. He then picked it up very nicely when needed, running a fourth quarter in a sensational 24.24 and a very good final furlong in 12.90 to stave off challenges from DYNAMICAL (Mark Casse) and SUNS OUT GUNS OUT (Dale Romans). Fourth-place WENT THE DAY WELL (Graham Motion) handled dirt just fine in his US debut, but his late run was totally compromised by the pace and lost ground. Ask me which horse to play back and I’ll tell you WENT THE DAY WELL, especially on only four published workouts. DYNAMICAL’s good second here further underscores the quality of EXOTHERMIC (Rusty Arnold), discussed above in the allowance recaps.

INFLATION TARGET (Rick Violette) scored a popular sprint maiden victory Saturday at Aqueduct as the half-brother to G1 Travers runner-up Rattlesnake Bridge stopped the clock in a solid 1:10.82. Third in his debut to next-out Dancing Count Stakes winner BEGGARTHYNEIGHBOR (Chad Brown), the $200,000 son of Tapit was much more professional in start No. 2.  INFLATION TARGET did not give the impression visually that he’s quite yet ready to step up to a two-turn stakes while failing to change leads, but he’s moving the right direction. Runner-up WILD TARGET (Eddie Kenneally) won’t be a maiden long after facing two pretty talented runners in his first two attempts.

Regally bred IMMACULATE (Eric Guillot) lived up to his gene pool Saturday at Santa Anita, breaking his maiden in his second start with a determined win over well-meant firster and fellow blue-blood MILE HIGH MAGIC (Bob Baffert). By Distorted Humor out of the champion filly Folklore, IMMACULATE dueled a wicked pace and was all out to hold on while understandably slowing down late. He does not appear to be a router at this stage.

GAMEDAY NEWS (D. Wayne Lukas) got a gift placing from the stewards Friday at Oaklawn when DOWNTOWN GHOST (Jinks Fires) had his number taken down for interference inside the sixteenth pole. No doubt it was an infraction, but it’s also no doubt that DOWNTOWN GHOST already had put his rival away and was drawing clear a length when he swerved in front. The top pair received dream trips in this two-turn maiden route, but neither was overly impressive late in a very slow race. As much as I liked NAJJAAR (Danny Peitz) in victory here Jan. 14, this race didn’t go a long ways in flattering him.

Around the horn in other maiden races last week, Todd Pletcher had yet another debut maiden winner Wednesday at Gulfstream with HEAVY BREATHING, who scored an off-the-turfer at 7-1/2 furlongs on a good main track. The full-brother to G1 Suburban winner Frost Giant galloped by nearly 8 lengths. Off-the-turfers usually wind up in blowouts, so we’ll see what this one really has next time … ROMP CITY (Cathal Lynch) couldn’t have been much more impressive in winning a Laurel Park 7-furlong maiden Saturday despite some greenness. He overcame a wide run and bad start to explode late with a12.20 final furlong and stout gallop-out. He had faced serious company lines at Parx prior … Short-priced CIRCUS CLOWN (Walter Bindner) failed Saturday in a four-way photo at Turfway following his fourth-place finish in the Turfway Prevue … HARRIS (Todd Pletcher) failed to live up to his A.P. Indy-Pool Land pedigree upon debut Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs, settling for a distant third after a slow start from the rail. He’ll want two turns next. Proud Citizen colt BELLEFIRE (Leo Azpurua) was a rather easy winner while also making his debut ... ZETTERHOLM (Rick Dutrow) registered a two-turn maiden win vs. New York-breds Saturday at Aqueduct. He’s half-brother to multiple stakes winners Wishful Tomcat and Uncle T. Seven.

Quick Hitters

SABERCAT (Steve Asmussen) had his first workout Monday at Santa Anita since winning the G3 Delta Jackpot, going a half-mile in 48.60. He’s aiming for a March 10 return in the G2 San Felipe … Mike Welsch had a pair of health updates this week in that fleet two-time Gulfstream winner DISCREET DANCER (Todd Pletcher) missed a scheduled workout with a fever, and DULLAHAN (Dale Romans) has been absent from serious training with a lingering cough ... DULLAHAN, younger brother of 2009 Kentucky Derby stunner Mine That Bird, is still projected to take the March 11 G3 Palm Beach and April 14 G1 Blue Grass path to the Derby, ala Paddy o’ Prado two years ago ... G3 Iroquois champ MOTOR CITY (Ian Wilkes) had his second work of the winter in as many weeks when he breezed another half-mile Monday at Palm Meadows Training Center ... G2 Kentucky Jockey Club champ GEMOLOGIST (Todd Pletcher) finally made his first published work of the winter Sunday at Palm Meadows, breezing a very light 3 furlongs in 39.88, slowest of 11 moves at the distance.

High Fives

Jeremy Plonk’s top-five 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. FILM SHOT (Gulfstream, 2/1 * TURF *) Count
4. CONSULADO (Santa Anita, 1/7)
5. BOURBON COURAGE (Fair Grounds, 2/3) * NEW * 

Allowance Race
1. EL PADRINO (Gulfstream, 1/29) 
2. DISCREET DANCER (Gulfstream, 1/7)
3. FED BIZ (Santa Anita, 2/9) * NEW *
4. CYBER SECRET (Oaklawn 2/4) * NEW *
5. SKY KINGDOM (Santa Anita, 1/12)

Stakes Race
1. ALGORITHMS (Holy Bull, GP, 1/29) 
2. I’LL HAVE ANOTHER (Lewis Memorial, SA, 2/4) * NEW *
3. OUT OF BOUNDS (Sham, SA, 1/7)
4. MIDNIGHT TRANSFER (San Pedro, SA, 1/22)
5. ALPHA (G3 Withers, Aqu, 2/4) * NEW *

Jeremy Plonk is owner of the handicapping-based website HorseplayerNOW.com and Countdowntothecrown.com. You can E-mail Jeremy your Top 20 contenders list, or any questions about the 3-year-old or national racing scene, at Jeremy@Horseplayernow.com. Your Top 20 may be published in Countdown to the Crown!