02/08/2013 4:25PM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 6 - Feb. 8, 2013

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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

Last weekend displayed why handicapping is the greatest mental exercise on the planet. Speed players will love VERRAZANO (Todd Pletcher), trip handicappers REVOLUTIONARY (Pletcher) and speculators FLASHBACK (Bob Baffert). And while we twist and turn on that tantalizing trio, a hundred or more other options will emerge before the first Saturday in May.

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. As is custom, I’ll outline some undercard races of note before diving into the stakes analysis and selections. This week, I’ll also look at the first of three Kentucky Derby Future Wager parimutuel pools.

Saturday’s Donn Handicap Day card at Gulfstream includes four interesting sophomore events on the undercard. A race 5 allowance sprint includes LITTLE DISTORTED (Darrin Miller), who scratched from last week’s Grade 2 Hutcheson; PARK CITY (Todd Pletcher), returning from his debut win at Saratoga last summer; and ALMOST ENGLISH (Nick Zito), fifth in the Gulfstream Park Derby. The latter adds blinkers for the first time for owner Toby Keith of country music fame.

Race 6 Saturday at GP is a promising 1 1/16-mile maiden event where sharp debuter WAR DANCER (Kenny McPeek) moves from turf to dirt. TAPULOUS (Todd Pletcher) stretches out in distance after disappointing as the 9-5 favorite in his debut when beaten by the talented INTEGRITY (Chad Brown). DYKER BEACH (Nick Zito) could be overbet after a second-place finish in a race that did not prove key at all when the first and third finishers returned to action here last Saturday. FREEDOM CHILD (Tom Albertrani) is terribly drawn outside, but his second to ORB (Shug McGaughey) in the fall hints of class. WABBAJACK (Jimmy Toner) didn’t seem comfortable inside horses last time and could appreciate the No. 5 post. He finished on the hip of DOHERTY (Todd Pletcher) last month and that runner came back to whistle last weekend in style.

Gulfstream’s race 7 turf allowance route Saturday should have a major impact on the forthcoming Polytrack preps. That’s because highly impressive local maiden winners JACK MILTON (Todd Pletcher) and PLAY IT LOUD (Michelle Nihei) are part of a very deep and promising field. FIRE GUARD (Bill Mott) deserves a long look at rebounding off of a herky-jerky effort in the Kitten’s Joy Stakes. His maiden win at Tampa was too good to dismiss off one loss. Meanwhile, SNAKEPIT (Tony Dutrow) will give us a better line on his Jan. 5 conqueror which I’m super-fond of named RYDILLUC (Gary Contessa). SAYAAD (Kiaran McLaughlin) stretches out in distance for the first time as this Street Sense colt is half-brother to the very good sprint-type performer Coronet of a Baron. This race screams out with Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes implications.

Race 12 Saturday at Gulfstream is for maiden turf routers and features the career debut of THE MAN HIMSELF (Bill Mott), a $525,000 son of Distorted Humor-Words of War, which makes him half-brother to E Dubai. Another blue-blood is unveiled with the Ghostzapper-Honey Ryder colt HANDSOME TIGER (Chad Brown).

To Honor And Serve’s little brother ELNAAWI (Kiaran McLaughlin) seeks to pair up Aqueduct wins when he headlines a race 4 route allowance Saturday at the Big A. His maiden victory didn’t wow me late in the going, so this will be the tell-tale race. He’s found a weak cast of four rivals, three of which have run for claiming tags and the other has yet to run outside of the statebred ranks. No excuses here for ELNAAWI if he’s a Grade 1 Wood Memorial candidate.

Santa Anita’s race 4 maiden turf route on Saturday interests me because of the presence of SYNDICATED (Michael Pender), third at long odds Jan. 18 against what I feel is a rising star in CURLY TOP (Bob Baffert). We’ll see if he can follow-up that effort and flatter the form of CURLY. The horse to beat likely will be EXAMEN (Tom Proctor), fourth in his Arlington debut last July behind eventual stakes winner BROWN ALMIGHTY (Tim Ice), but absent since. A race 7 dirt sprint maiden offers much more to digest as solid debut third BENCH PRESS (John Sadler) exits one of the better maiden sprints of the meet behind CABALLO DEL CIELO (Steve Asmussen). JOELITO (Sadler) has been away since Del Mar, and when last seen was second behind multiple-stakes-placed performer DEN’S LEGACY (Bob Baffert). And speaking of Baffert, he debuts sprint-pedigreed ZEE BROS off a sharp workout tab.

At Fair Grounds, Saturday’s race 7 maiden turf route gives Hansen’s little brother GUNDERSON (Mike Maker) a fourth chance at breaking his maiden, though I’m more interested in the Awesome Again-Confessional second-timer CRUZADO (Tom Amoss) moving to what should be a preferred turf surface. This race should be a good barometer on what I view a talented Jan. 19 winner in GROUND TRANSPORT (Mike Stidham) as three of his pursuers return. Race 10 Saturday at FG appears to be a light dirt allowance sprint on paper. CARSON’S CROWN (formerly John Sadler, now Mike Stidham) makes his first appearance for the new barn since his runner-up finish in the Hollywood Juvenile Championship in July.

Tampa Bay Downs offers a race 3 maiden route Friday devoid of any Triple Crown nominees, but look for BEYOND COMPARE (Tom Proctor) to make a statement following a solid return sprint try.

Sunday’s race 8 maiden sprint at Gulfstream Park features two pursuers of INTEGRITY (Chad Brown) from his impressive Jan. 10 score. RUFFALEX (Wesley Ward) removes blinkers and has been working lights-out since then. The race also features the return of SAINT X (Dale Romans), third in a big-time Churchill fall maiden sprint to eventual Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes victor OXBOW (D. Wayne Lukas) and LOOKING COOL (Carl Nafzger), the latter already a winner at the GP meet. Bettors beware of GO CANES GO (Michael Mareina), a Birdstone colt debuting off an extremely fast and limited public workout tab for a sneaky barn known to uncork a live one at this track.

We’ll get a feel for how good EDGE OF REALITY (Tony Dutrow) may be when three of his chasers return Sunday in a race 6 maiden sprint at Parx. Note that Dutrow has sent EDGE OF REALITY to his A-string at Palm Meadows since that Jan. 14 score, as he has with his razor-sharp Mid-Atlantic sprinter WHISKEY ROMEO.

Finally, Triple Crown nominee INO THEPATH (Henry Dominguez) debuts Sunday in a race 8 maiden sprint at Sunland Park. Owned by Leonard Blach of Mine That Bird fame, this Bluegrass Cat colt is half-brother to 2006 Queen’s Plate third-place finisher and graded winner Malakoff.

Miracle Wood Stakes (Saturday/Laurel Park)

The only stakes on the Countdown docket this weekend is the $125,000 Miracle Wood at seven furlongs. The Laurel Park feature is on Maryland’s road toward the Preakness, but offers no Kentucky Derby qualifying points. Three Triple Crown nominees are among the field of eight, including New York invaders VEGAS NO SHOW (Kelly Breen) and WEST HILLS GIANT (John Terranova). The former exits a fifth-place finish in the G2 Jerome, and he was runner-up in November in the Grade 2 Nashua behind highly regarded VIOLENCE (Todd Pletcher).

VEGAS NO SHOW drops in class after facing Grade 2 stakes competition in his last three starts. The last time he ran in listed company, he edged the field in Delaware Park’s Dover Stakes around two turns. The Miracle Wood will be a one-turn mile at Laurel, in which a massive 1,419-foot stretch awaits runners who compete through to a second finish line beyond the main wire.

One horse who will love that elongated stretch is Maryland-bred local ALPHA MIKE FOXTROT (Dickie Small), a keep-coming type who won the Maryland Juvenile Championship two starts back and may have been best last time out when second in the Frank Whiteley Stakes after a troubled trip. If VEGAS NO SHOW doesn’t bring his show on the road with a top performance, ALPHA MIKE FOXTROT rates a serious upset chance. Stablemate DYNAMIC STRIKE gives the Small barn a two-fisted attack in the Miracle Wood, and this Smart Strike colt is 2 for 2 over the course and distance, but will face his toughest test to date Saturday. Notably, jockey Forrest Boyce switches seats from ALPHA MIKE FOXTROT to DYNAMIC STRIKE while riding for the same barn, a decision she said was made by the owner and trainer. Jozbin Santana, longtime first-call rider for Small when in Maryland, returns from Florida to ride ALPHA MIKE FOXTROT.

WEST HILLS GIANT won the New York Breeders Futurity at Finger Lakes and a turf route statebred maiden race at Saratoga last September, but has been away four months since fading in the Grade 3 Pilgrim. The jury remains out on where he fits best.

VEGAS NO SHOW should be the horse to beat, but I loved the last effort from ALPHA MIKE FOXTROT and he exits a big workout and owns the local advantage. At what figures to be a better price, that’s the direction I will lean.

Miracle Wood Stakes selections: W) ALPHA MIKE FOXTROT; P) VEGAS NO SHOW; S) DYNAMIC STRIKE.

Kentucky Derby Future Wager (Friday-Sunday)

The season’s first of three Kentucky Derby Future Wager pools will be offered this weekend. Subsequent chances for parimutuel early birds come on March 1-3 and March 22-24. As in past years, there are 23 individual entrants in play and one “all other 3-year-olds” option that will garner the most attention for speculators.

My advice in Pool 1 of the KDFW hasn’t changed over the years. You still need to get 30-1 or 40-1 type of odds on a horse to consider it any value. Remember, there were only three horses in the entire Kentucky Derby field last year at post time that were less than 11-1 odds. Nearly three months out and with at least one or two more preps needed for each horse, there’s simply too much to go wrong between now and May to take anything less than 30-1. Last year’s Santa Anita Derby winner was 15-1 at post time, the Blue Grass winner 12-1 and the Spiral winner 30-1. They wound up first, third and fourth. So there’s no need whatsoever to take 10-1 or 15-1 at this stage.

That said, my approach in Pool 1 is not to look for the best horses, but rather the best value horses who could develop into prime candidates. You want the horse who is 30-1 today, but you project to be 8-1 on Derby Day if he’s as good as you think and can win a big prep or two later.

CODE WEST (Bob Baffert) at 50-1 in the KDFW morning line certainly fits that bill. He’s got all the pedigree you want, seems to be improving and he’s in the right hands. If Baffert is successful with this horse in the coming month or two, you know that he arrives in Louisville as one of the leading contenders. That’s how you want to look at this stage.

DELHOMME (Todd Pletcher) opens at 30-1 in the line set by Mike Battaglia, and here’s a forgotten horse to some extent because we haven’t seen him since a third in the Remsen. I’m not sold that he’s a 1 ¼-mile horse, however. But if you’re a fan, now is the time to invest.

DYNAMIC SKY (Mark Casse) arrives at the KDFW Pool 1 at a good time, coming off a loss in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis. His support likely has cooled, though he had plenty of excuses in defeat. A big rebound in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby and Grade 1 Blue Grass, races I project he’ll attempt, would put him at half the odds on Derby Day than his 30-1 KDFW offering. Similarly, it’s a good time to buy FRAC DADDY (Kenny McPeek) if you’re a fan. His minor foot injury suffices as a reasonable excuse for his Grade 3 Holy Bull flop and his odds have ballooned to 50-1. If McPeek can right the ship, there’s talent here for those with faith. The price is right.

HE’S HAD ENOUGH (Doug O’Neill) also sits at 50-1 in the line, and his recent defeats have dampened enthusiasm from me and most others. But this is an enigmatic horse with more mental deficiencies than lack of talent. At huge odds, you’re making a gamble that O’Neill gets him figured out in the next three months. That’s plausible, and if he has a breakout win somewhere, you know you’re going to see underlaid odds on Derby Day as the connections seek a repeat. Buying now and hoping for a wakeup call isn’t the worst gamble you’d ever make at those odds – but get the whole 50-1.

MYLUTE (Tom Amoss) intrigues at 30-1 and could be a type that runs the table in Fair Grounds’ Grade 2 Risen Star and Grade 2 Louisiana Derby. But 10 furlongs probably remains beyond his reach on damside pedigree. If he were to drift significantly higher than these odds, he’s worth a look; but demand a big price around 50-1 or more.

Some horses listed 20-1 would be strictly board-watching plays this weekend like NORMANDY INVASION (Chad Brown), OXBOW (D. Wayne Lukas) and REVOLUTIONARY (Todd Pletcher). I don’t think you’re going to see a rise in price in any of these, and likely a much shorter price on NORMANDY INVASION and REVOLUTIONARY. If any of the trio flirted with the bottom of my limit at 30-1, they demand attention. But I don’t foresee that happening in the betting.

My selections reflect a speculative gambling strategy intermixed with some handicapping insight, but not a listing of my three top Kentucky Derby prospects on this date in any manner. My top three prospects as of today are REVOLUTIONARY, OVERANALYZE and NORMANDY INVASION, but I don’t anticipate getting three-month-out value on any of that trio this weekend to entice a wager.

KDFW selections: 1) CODE WEST; 2) DYNAMIC SKY; 3) HE’S HAD ENOUGH.

Last week’s selections: 3: 2-1-0. Top choices REVOLUTIONARY and FLASHBACK scored as expected in the Withers and Lewis Memorial, while DYNAMIC SKY settled for a troubled second in the Sam F. Davis Stakes.

Season selections: 12: 4-3-3.

Everyone’s a critic

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

Stakes races

This season, Countdown will review the key Kentucky Derby “points preps” in further detail in the Countdown Rewind. Get more of my analysis on the G3 Withers, G2 Lewis Memorial, and G3 Sam F. Davis by clicking on the race names. If you made me rank those three winning performances, I’d go REVOLUTIONARY over FLASHBACK and FALLING SKY (Dominick Schettino).

The stakes calendar also included several events not on the “points path,” starting with the Grade 2 Hutcheson at Gulfstream Park on Saturday. There, HONORABLE DILLON (Eddie Kenneally) won the battle, but runner-up FORTY TALES (Todd Pletcher) made a late move to make it interesting. HONORABLE DILLON carved out a favorable trip and tackled UNDRAFTED (Wesley Ward) in upper stretch, but once again was shoddy in his lead changes just as he was in his comeback race. It will be interesting to see how he responds to two lead changes when stretching out around two turns next time, as trainer Kenneally indicated he was inclined to try. Runner-up FORTY TALES justified my love for his Parx allowance win, and the public jumped on board making him the favorite. Visually he looked to be flying late in the Hutcheson, but note it wasn’t a sustained run as he didn’t gallop out any better than his rivals. This tells me we might be looking at a closing sprinter, or a mile or 1 1/16-mile type who can make a winning burst. I still would love to see him in the Lexington at Keeneland on Polytrack with his pedigree. None of the Hutcheson runners impress me as horses who can get a true classic distance, but could win at 1 1/16 miles in the right scenario. MERIT MAN (Bob Hess Jr.) further showed that the form of the Spectacular Bid Stakes has been totally subpar.

MAC THE MAN (Jeff Greenhill) and BYE BYE BERNIE (Kelly Breen) overcame wide posts and still led a carousel cruise in Turfway Park’s 96 Rock Stakes on Saturday at one mile on Polytrack. MAC THE MAN, a son of El Corredor, now boasts back-to-back stakes wins en route to the Grade 3 Spiral Stakes in March. He also added the Turfway Prevue earlier in the meet. BYE BYE BERNIE was hard-used early and really reined in on the clubhouse turn so not to lose ground. This was a taxing effort that saw the top pair finish the last quarter-mile in just under 27 seconds. One has to think that the invaders will be squarely the ones to beat when the Spiral arrives.

Race favorites HERO FORCE (Bret Calhoun) and HEITAI (Sam Breaux) ran one-two Saturday night in the $125,000 Premier Night Prince at Delta Downs. The Louisiana-bred stakes had interesting open company lines to give us a barometer. The narrow loss by HEITAI failed to provide significant flattery to the Grade 3 Lecomte field at Fair Grounds in which he exited. HERO FORCE was second in the Big Drama Stakes vs. open company and probably earned himself a trip back to one of those open stakes at a middle distance.

Allowance races

I hinted here last week that VERRAZANO (Todd Pletcher) could steal the spotlight in Gulfstream Park’s race 5 allowance mile on Saturday. And boy did he ever. The son of More Than Ready turned in the most dazzling victory of the Countdown season regardless of race classification. The final time of 1:34.80 was phenomenal, and note his seven-furlong split time in this race while already gearing down was faster than the final clocking of the Grade 2 Hutcheson Stakes at that distance. The superlatives all are there for this younger brother to last year’s Grade 2 Risen Star winner El Padrino, and trainer Pletcher was right when he said this guy had even more talent. He lacks El Padrino’s foundation at this stage, and we’ve seen many a brilliant one-turn sophomore not deliver that next step. But if you’re confidently tossing VERRAZANO out of your Triple Crown trail considerations, you’re making that call too soon. The next race will tell us whether we have a Big Brown-brilliant type on our hands. I would highly recommend VERRAZANO be sent down Oaklawn’s Grade 2 Rebel-Grade 1 Arkansas Derby path as it fits nicely on his schedule and would give him one start in January, February, March and April to ready for the 10-furlong rigors. This horse will not be squeezed dry like El Padrino last year. He had more miles on his tires by this stage. ETON BLUE (Nick Zito) and GUNDERMAN (Mark Casse) were made to look pedestrian in this mismatch.

DEPARTING (Al Stall Jr.) harkened back a few years on the Triple Crown trail when he won last Friday night’s salty Fair Grounds race 6 allowance route in flashy style. The son of War Front reminded me of Ketchikan, the late-blooming 2007 sophomore for this same Stall barn that wound up second in the Louisiana Derby in his fourth lifetime start. DEPARTING exited his sprint maiden win with a splash around two turns in allowance company, just as Ketchikan did before tangling with Circular Quay in the Louisiana Derby. DEPARTING looked good enough to challenge that path in this win, boasting a gallop-out as good as you’ll see. The big disappointment was GENERAL ELECTION (Kellyn Gorder), who never looked into the race with blinkers added and offered a listless sixth-place run that makes you think something had to have gone amiss after two good efforts. Meanwhile, SUNBEAN (Al Stall Jr.) wheeled right back a half-hour later in FG race 8 over Louisiana-bred allowance routers in similarly impressive style. He has earned an open company shot in New Orleans or Hot Springs.

With the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby just 15 days later on the calendar, last Friday’s Golden Gate Fields race 7 route allowance likely will have to have an out-of-town impact. This result did not flatter top El Camino Real Derby local ZEEWAT (Jerry Hollendorfer), who saw two of his California Derby pursuers fail to deliver anything whatsoever in their allowance reappearances. Driving winner GREELEY AWESOME (Doug O’Neill) shipped north for the first time and earned his third straight win after maiden claiming and starter allowance wins in Southern California. He perhaps earned a date to Sunland Park for a stakes bid, where O’Neill has been a successful raider in recent years. Runner-up NINA’S DRAGON (Lloyd Mason) was an absolute handful for his rider in his two-turn stretch-out and still managed to run second while making two or three runs in the race. He bears watching from a betting standpoint next time. BROKERED (Craig Dollase) faltered on the lead in a disappointing return after his big maiden score.

Another Friday disappointment came when snazzy New York-bred debut winner I’M STOKED (Mike Hushion) completely tanked in an Aqueduct race 8 allowance sprint against statebreds. The even-money choice, he folded when headed in the stretch while wheeling back on three weeks’ rest.

Turf-bred MICELLI (Adam Kitchingman) scored a hard-earned victory over a weak cast of turf allowance milers in last Friday’s race 1 at Santa Anita. The race offered little promise for the trail, and was won on the class rise by a horse who previously had scored at Golden Gate and Turf Paradise. Also on the grass, Thursday’s race 3 allowance sprint provided a last-to-first rally for PROCUREMENT (Tom Proctor). The maternal grandson of Unbridled has now won two straight since racking up strong company lines against the likes of MYLUTE (Tom Amoss), GOLDENCENTS (Doug O’Neill) and the Bob Baffert-trained pair of TITLE CONTENDER and CODE WEST. With past solid 1 1/8-mile form, this Milwaukee Brew colt will get a chance to stretch out and probably has to do it in a stakes now that he’s cleared his first allowance condition. The fourth-place effort by Cal Derby alumnus WILL TRUE UP (Peter Miller) did not flatter the form of that stakes.

Finally, freshly blinkered RICO SUAVE (Tony Granitz) wired Thursday’s race 8 turf route at Tampa Bay Downs in taking his second grass allowance of the winter. The son of Suave capitalized on a slow pace and appears to have found a home on the green with scores at Gulfstream and Tampa. Not bad for a $1,000 yearling buy.

Maiden races

At Oaklawn, BIG LUTE (Steve Hobby) appears Grade 2 Rebel Stakes-bound following last Friday’s dominant debut win in a race 9 sprint. The son of hot young sire Midnight Lute rolled up three wide on the turn and powered home by nearly five lengths in 1:10.43 for six furlongs. He dusted a good-looking field on paper that included fellow well-bred rookie ONLY IN AMERICA (Eoin Harty), who finished a green but promising third. But BIG LUTE was the story for one of the Midwest’s most likable and respected trainers in Steve Hobby, the kind of conditioner the Derby Gods smile upon. I liked everything I saw from the physically formidable BIG LUTE from start to gallop-out in this race. His mama VVS Flawless was a route allowance winner at Monmouth, and they say Midnight Lute would have routed if not for a breathing problem. But we’ll have to see on pedigree for the routes; there is a lot of sprint in the female side of this pedigree. Still, he’s as exciting of a maiden winner I’ve seen at Oaklawn during the eight seasons of Countdown, and that includes the likes of Nehro and Summer Bird.

TIZ THE TRUTH (Bob Baffert) smoked a final quarter-mile Saturday at Santa Anita in 23.49 in crushing a race 1 maiden mile. The win puts Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens squarely in the spotlight with a promising Derby hopeful, so much so that Baffert himself tweeted that exact message in the days after the race. A monstrous gallop-out after the nearly eight-length score stamps this horse one to watch on the class rise. It also speaks volumes for his Jan. 13 conqueror DEMONIC (John Sadler) from their recent tussle of ballyhooed hotshots.TIZ THE TRUTH is younger half-brother to Notional, winner of the 2007 Risen Star and San Rafael, and runner-up in the nine-furlong Florida Derby. An injury put Notional on the shelf for nearly a year after the Florida Derby. This was a brilliant win over a field that looked decent on paper, but was rendered impotent.

Saturday’s Gulfstream card included a race 8 maiden mile with yet more from the TAP stable. DOHERTY (Pletcher) took command from the rail and took care of business against a field that didn’t appear to have any world beaters. A final quarter-mile in 25.62 didn’t elicit big-time vibes, but the 1:37.24 final clocking would have put him a clear second in the rearview mirror behind stablemate VERRAZANO earlier on the card. DOHERTY is a little better than I thought he was and one who can improve, but I correctly tabbed AIR SQUADRON (Chad Brown) as a false-hope hype horse after his troubled try Jan. 5. He was no better with a clean trip in third place here Saturday.

NORTH SLOPE (Kiaran McLaughlin) lived up to his Saratoga debut hype in his reappearance Saturday at Gulfstream in a race 11 turf mile maiden. The son of Elusive Quality pressed the pace and reeled in the regally bred Speightstown-Tweedside colt OISTIN’S TOWN (Todd Pletcher) despite a dawdling pace. NORTH SLOPE, a maternal grandson of the star mare Ajina, ran the final quarter-mile in just over 22 seconds to sizzle home. This one looks Keeneland bound to me.

GOMBEY DANCER (Eddie Kenneally) looked like a million bucks before his Sunday return win at Gulfstream Park in a race 3 maiden sprint. The Dixie Union colt ran to his looks and works following a second in his debut at Saratoga behind eventual Riley Allison Futurity winner SHOW SOME MAGIC (formerly Steve Asmussen, now Henry Dominguez). His pedigree says sprint, but a 23.90 final quarter-mile was sharp as he drew away to a three-length score Sunday over RETRIEVE (Jeremiah Engelhart), a solid horse who had exited pace-pressing losses to sharpies VERRAZANO (Pletcher) and VYJACK (Rudy Rodriguez).

At Fair Grounds on Saturday, fans of PROUD STRIKE (Steve Asmussen) had to be happy to see his third-place pursuer from Jan. 12, DOC ALMON (Bret Calhoun), come back to win a race 3 maiden sprint. While the winner probably rates best sprinting, keep an eye on debut runner-up ABSTRACTION (David Carroll). This Pulpit colt is out of Grade 2 Milady Handicap winner Andujar, and finished well after missing the start. He galloped out easily strongest of all.

MALACHITE (David Donk) rebounded from a resounding loss to REVOLUTIONARY (Pletcher) and flattered that rival’s form in race 4 Sunday at Aqueduct. The son of Notional didn’t impress on the clock in this six-furlong maiden, however, though he did upset 2-5 favorite BELLAMY STORM (Bill Mott), who couldn’t close the deal for the second straight race. By comparison, New York-bred sophomore GLOWING EMBER (Gary Contessa) went a half-tick quicker in his statebred score two races later.

Countdown readers who have been following how productive the races were at Churchill for SAYLER’S CREEK (Kenny McPeek) were not surprised to see Sunday’s Oaklawn race 5 maiden route go to FOR GREATER GLORY (Steve Hobby). Third in the key race at CD in November, this son of Afleet Alex made a successful two-turn debut Sunday by holding off a late blitz from the troubled-tripped MOON BACK MORE (Kenny McPeek). The result here did not flatter Jan. 19 Oaklawn maiden winner KALE’S KOURAGE (Kelly Von Hemel). But MOON BACK MORE won’t be a maiden long.

Sprint-pedigreed RAINBOW HEIR (Benny Perkins Jr.) made a sharp debut last Friday at Laurel Park in a race 3 maiden dash. The Wildcat Heir colt wired the field by nearly six lengths and put a dozen lengths between first and third. Perkins also trained the colt’s sprinting dam, Rainbow Pride, who was a win-early type and runner-up in the six-furlong Ruthless Stakes.

The form of well-bred Aqueduct maiden winner ELNAAWI (Kiaran McLaughlin) took a hit Sunday at Parx when his Jan. 12 pursuer BELLAMY BEACH (now John Servis, formerly Todd Pletcher) failed to deliver at 4-5 odds. The WinStar Farm trainee simply was second best to comebacking EXCHANGE PARTNERS (John Tammaro Jr.), who had been away since an October debut third at Parx.

And finally, BACK TO BAKO (Blake Heap) graduated Thursday in a Cal-bred turf maiden route that won’t have any impact on the trail. But handicappers should note that it did flatter the form of highly impressive and lightning-fast Jan. 26 maiden winner SATICOY (Gary Mandella) and further stamps that rival as a sprinter to eye.

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. TIZ THE TRUTH (Santa Anita, 2/2)
4. TRANSPARENT (Aqueduct, 1/26)
5. BIG LUTE (Oaklawn, 2/1)

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

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

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