02/15/2013 12:54PM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 7 - Feb. 15, 2013

Vassar Photography
Zeewat figures to sit an excellent trip just off the early speed in Saturday's El Camino Real Derby.

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

The biggest cheer you’re hearing each time Gary Stevens rides another winner likely is coming from the home of Jerry Bailey. The closer Stevens gets to a Kentucky Derby 139 comeback mount, the closer Bailey gets to moving to the NBC Sports main announcers' table opposite Tom Hammond and Randy Moss. Stevens rode the first two stakes winners of his comeback last weekend at Santa Anita.

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.

With the Presidents Day holiday weekend featuring the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes on Monday at Oaklawn, I won’t be able to preview that race here due to deadlines and entry schedule. The field for the Southwest will assemble Saturday.

Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile third-place finisher CAPO BASTONE (Todd Pletcher, formerly John Sadler) makes his East Coast and 2013 debut in Saturday’s race 9 allowance route at Gulfstream Park. It’s one of three two-turn events on the GP docket Saturday that could have future stakes implications.

Saturday’s race 9 allowance at Gulfstream is at 1 1/16 miles, a course configuration that totally favors inside speed, which plays against late-running CAPO BASTONE. In a thorough review of his juvenile form, I felt he was a closing sprinter who does not deliver a sustained run routing. He’ll be a play-against for me Saturday on both counts. One horse totally in the right place appears to be DUKE OF THE CITY (Kelly Breen), a gorgeous specimen who ran a dynamite second to ORB (Shug McGaughey) last time out at a distance a tad beyond what I think is his best. DUKE OF THE CITY draws post 2, has speed and this son of Bernardini should be long gone as one of the best bets of the Countdown season. SKY COMMANDER (Mark Casse) returns off a second-place finish in the Pasco at Tampa Bay Downs, but has had a sketchy workout tab since that big effort. EDGE OF REALITY (Tony Dutrow) exits a blowout debut win at Parx, but that race’s alumni have failed to flatter the form since then.

Race 4 at Gulfstream Saturday is a 1 1/8-mile maiden route on the dirt, and hot-shot ABRAHAM (Todd Pletcher) likely will be an odds-on favorite after a debut second at 1-2 odds. The Distorted Humor colt is well drawn with inside speed and he’s out of a half-sister to Arkansas Derby champ Sir Cherokee, so two turns should be within reach. THE CANDIDATE (Nick Zito) walked out of the gate last time and will appreciate more distance while performing in a pair of pretty key races in his first two starts. He figures the only challenger to warm up ABRAHAM.

Gulfstream’s race 5 maiden turf route Saturday at 1 1/8 miles has only BOUNDLESS HEART (Kenny McPeek) as a Triple Crown nominee. But I’m curious to see this race because of ALL ALEX (Rudy Rodriguez) and how he performs coming out of his Jan. 12 fourth behind JACK MILTON (Todd Pletcher) and WAR DANCER (Kenny McPeek), two horses who underperformed to expectations here last Saturday. Will ALL ALEX continue to dampen that form? I’m also curious to see the second start for Pulpit’s baby brother PONTIFF (Dale Romans), who lost all chance at the start of his debut and has worked well since.

Bob Baffert has them surrounded Saturday in a race 7 Santa Anita maiden sprint at seven furlongs when he sends out OKAAD and heavily favored DEL MAR SUNSET. This pair chased two of the absolute best maiden winners we’ve seen on the West Coast this year in TREASURY BILL (Ron Ellis) and DEMONIC (John Sadler). Of course, DEL MAR SUNSET’s debut third to DEMONIC on Jan. 13 looked even better when runner-up and stablemate TIZ THE TRUTH (Baffert) returned to Santa Anita with a crushing maiden breaker around two turns. DEL MAR SUNSET boasts the more route-conducive pedigree of the Baffert duo entered Saturday in terms of being a trail prospect, but at seven furlongs, OKAAD could give him a run for his money.

Saturday’s race 8 maiden route at Fair Grounds appears to be one of that meet’s strongest to date. Horses who ran admirably against the likes of PROUD STRIKE (Steve Asmussen), GOLDEN SOUL (Dallas Stewart), WINNING NOTE (Wayne Catalano) and GROUND TRANSPORT (Mike Stidham) all are pitted in this competitive race. I’d still prefer to see the regally bred Awesome Again-Confessional colt CRUZADO (Tom Amoss) on the turf, but he’s got talent. Triple Crown nominee SEEKING AN EMPIRE (Steve Margolis) has a run-all-day pedigree and adds blinkers for a barn that is phenomenal on that equipment change. This Empire Maker colt could be Louisiana Derby bound with a big performance. But first-time starters GAMEKEEPER (Steve Asmussen) and SONG TO YOU (Mike Stidham) both have intriguing work patterns and win-early pedigrees while given the tough debut assignment at 1 1/16 miles. Also at FG on Saturday, a race 9 Louisiana-bred allowance sprint could give us some barometer on next week’s Grade 2 Risen Star contenders MYLUTE (Tom Amoss) and SUNBEAN (Al Stall Jr.), as alumni of their past races make reappearances.

Oaklawn race 10 on Saturday is a maiden sprint where well-bred rookie GIANT’S TIME (D. Wayne Lukas) will try to keep his barn hot in the 3-year-old ranks. This $400,000 colt by Giant’s Causeway is out of Grade 1 Alcibiades winner Westerly Breeze. JOJO’S REVENGE (Helen Pitts) returns for the first time since a troubled start and midpack finish against ultra-impressive Oaklawn maiden breaker BIG LUTE (Steve Hobby), giving us our first line on that rising star rival.

Turfway Park’s race 9 route allowance Saturday could put someone on the path to March’s Grade 3 Spiral Stakes. GATEWOOD (Allen Crupper) wheels back on two weeks’ rest following a front-running score. He was well beaten at Churchill last fall in one of the year’s strongest 2-year-old maiden races that featured TITLETOWN FIVE (D. Wayne Lukas), BRADESTER (Eddie Kenneally) and PROUD STRIKE (Steve Asmussen).

While FORTY TALES (Todd Pletcher) showed he was trail worthy via a good second in the Grade 2 Hutcheson Stakes, his Parx maiden win form could take on some extra credence Saturday when runner-up SILVER MORGAN (Lupe Preciado) makes his return to action at Parx in a race 7 allowance sprint. The fast son of J Be K could put his name in the sprint stakes discussion soon.

A couple of Sunday races bear watching. In an Aqueduct race 3 maiden route, INMYFATHERSIMAGE (Gary Contessa) finds the easiest spot by far in his three-race career and should find graduation day after tackling eventual Grade 2 Jerome winner REVOLUTIONARY (Todd Pletcher) and remarkable Jan. 26 maiden breaker TRANSPARENT (Kiaran McLaughlin). This looks like a two-horse race on paper against the A.P. Indy-Octave blueblood INCOGNITO (McLaughlin).

Finally, Santa Anita’s San Vicente Stakes undercard on Sunday includes split divisions of a maiden mile in races 3 and 5. The latter appears the much tougher of the two events, led by FOOTBRIDGE (Eoin Harty), a ballyhooed maiden by Street Cry who has trained smartly at Hollywood since a strong second start on Jan. 18. Others to watch in race 5 include COLBURN (Doug O’Neill), a horse who has shown bursts of talent, and the addition of blinkers may really help; MAJOR AFFAIR (Ron Ellis), a nice-closing fourth in what’s turning out to be a very key Jan. 13 maiden sprint won by DEMONIC (John Sadler); PURE LOYALTY (Mark Glass), a fantastic second in his 2013 return bid behind San Vicente hopeful TREASURY BILL (Ron Ellis); and GOVERNOR CHARLIE (Bob Baffert), a long-striding son of Midnight Lute who appeared to want more distance in his debut when behind rocketship sprinter LET EM SHINE (Adam Kitchingman). This race will have a stakes impact in the coming weeks, be warned. The race 3 division gives deep-closing sprinters HANDSOME DENNIS (Doug O’Neill) and DEAD EASY (Richard Rosales) a chance to stretch out against turf-to-dirt mover WINE LIST (Ron Ellis) and the improving MISDEED (Richard Mandella).

Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby (Saturday/Golden Gate Fields)

Northern California pops the cork on its one major Triple Crown trail prep Saturday when the Grade 3 $200,000 El Camino Real Derby offers Kentucky Derby qualifying points on the 10-4-2-1 scale for its top four finishers. Local star ZEEWAT (Jerry Hollendorfer) aims for his third straight stakes win at the meeting since adding blinkers. But the Southern California invasion includes a pair of Bob Baffert trainees, Grade 3 Sham Stakes third-place finisher MANANDO and listed Real Quiet Stakes winner CARVING. Those three Triple Crown nominees appear to make this a very top-heavy race in which I’d be surprised if the winner has not been mentioned.

Cal Derby runner-up WILDCAT MOON (Jeff Bonde) provides rail speed and almost swiped the local prep over ZEEWAT here on Jan. 12. But the pace was much easier that day than it will be in the El Camino Real Derby and the additional half-furlong in distance appears to tap out the sprint pedigree for WILDCAT MOON. Plus ‘MOON got a six-pound weight break in the Cal Derby that evaporates here as all runners carry 121 pounds. WILDCAT MOON certainly should have a say in the outcome from a pace standpoint, but MANANDO brings a different kind of speed element to this party than they’ve seen in NoCal this winter.

ZEEWAT figures to sit an excellent trip just off of the early speed but not too far back. The son of Florida Derby and Blue Grass winner Harlan’s Holiday would appear capable of the 1 1/8-mile distance the way he finished up the California Derby. His mama, Delizia, is half-sister to the fast sprinter Lexicon, but also to talented route stakes winner Cozi Rosie. In the Cal Derby, ZEEWAT got a real education after a step-slow start and being sawed off by WILDCAT MOON and shuffled back some. He came wide and proved best, and I expect he will do so again Saturday. Hollendorfer has won the El Camino Real Derby a record five times and Russell Baze owns the event with eight riding victories, most all-time.

The kicker to consider is the DRF.com Formulator Stat of the Week, however. Horses exiting the California Derby have lost all four subsequent attempts and only one of those came in the stakes ranks.

No doubt a Baffert duo deserves respect, but unless MANANDO simply is too brilliant for these horses, I haven’t gotten a sense that he’s a shoo-in to handle distances at nine furlongs or more. He’s clearly the race’s top talent and has handled Polytrack, Cushion Track and dirt with similar results, so Tapeta shouldn’t be a giant hurdle. But with pace pressure sure to come from WILDCAT MOON, it’s fair to take a chance against him Saturday at this distance.

CARVING, co-owned by Olympic skier Bode Miller and Baffert’s wife, Jill, rates a cut below the barn’s absolute best sophomores and that’s why he’s here. Still, he’s a listed stakes winner around two turns twice, at Fairplex and Hollywood, and he, too, has handled all racing surfaces with success. CARVING may be a bit more pace versatile than stablemate MANANDO, which could come in handy over this distance and potential setup.

I find it notable that jockey Martin Garcia remains at Santa Anita on Saturday and rides the Baffert maiden DEL MAR SUNSET after riding both of the barn’s El Camino Real Derby entrants in each of their last four starts. That’s enough to put me deeper into the ZEEWAT camp, and I had a foot in the door there anyway.

El Camino Real Derby selections: W) ZEEWAT; P) CARVING; S) MANANDO.

Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes (Sunday/Santa Anita Park)

Because of its seven-furlong sprint distance, Sunday’s Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita was ignored in terms of point production toward the Kentucky Derby. But that doesn’t mean it can’t and won’t be a launching pad toward the West Coast’s bigger races in March and April. Most of the pedigrees in this race call for more distance, so we’re not looking at a field limited to dashers.

Trainer Bob Baffert sends out half of the six-horse field with BELVIN, SHAKIN IT UP and WAR ACADEMY. For those of you scoring at home, that means the white-haired one has five representatives on the West Coast stakes trail between this race and the same-day El Camino Real Derby. All three have pedigrees to continue down the trail with any positive results Saturday. BELVIN is by Belmont winner Empire Maker; SHAKIN IT UP is all Baffert by Midnight Lute and a maternal grandson of Kentucky Oaks heroine Silverbulletday; and WAR ACADEMY is by Giant’s Causeway out of an A.P. Indy mare.

Two of the Bafferts own decisions over San Vicente rivals from previous meetings in the fall. WAR ACADEMY had the measure of TREASURY BILL (Ron Ellis) in both colts’ debut on Nov. 9, but the race didn’t set up well for TREASURY BILL’s late move and I thought both horses ran sparkling that day and galloped out equally strong. When TREASURY BILL came back to win in dazzling fashion at Santa Anita on Jan. 27, it made them both look good. Meanwhile, SHAKIN IT UP blew past CABALLO DEL CIELO (Steve Asmussen) when those two last met Oct. 27 during the Santa Anita fall meeting. Since then, SHAKIN IT UP has gone on to finish third in the Grade 3 Hollywood Prevue, and CABALLO DEL CIELO returned here Jan. 5 with one of the most visually impressive maiden wins of the season. Again, both horses have been flattered since their fall showdowns.

Handicapping the San Vicente is an exercise in evaluating which Baffert is best, and which of the rematches stands a chance to be reversed? WAR ACADEMY’s workout tab hints at some vulnerability. He had a 16-day gap in the tab in January (reportedly due to an illness) and when he did return, he worked on the turf. That sometimes can be a foot issue. If he’s right, this is a big-time runner. But off the layoff and going seven furlongs with some missed training last month, this might be the one to give a slight lean against and watch for marked improvement next time. But that’s a tough call in a very tough race. SHAKIN IT UP also has had some issues since his last start. It took him a full month to return to the workout tab after the Hollywood Prevue and then after two works back, he missed more than three works on the tab into late January. He would appear to be playing catch-up.

BELVIN has been firing fastballs in the morning since his SA opening day win, and he appears to me the most talented of the Baffert three. He’ll need to break better than he did in his first two starts given that he’s drawn inside, but a short field size and long run to the only turn make that assignment easier in the event he doesn’t flash from the gate. I really like his chances, and I make no bones about my preference to jockey Rafael Bejarano over Martin Garcia on the Baffert charges.

CABALLO DEL CIELO appears the fastest of all these runners from the gate and should be the one to catch turning for home. But you know a race with three Bafferts never will have a free lunch early, so that bodes very well for TREASURY BILL from off the pace. Expect him to come rolling when it counts and love the seven furlongs.

The only horse I just can’t see in the San Vicente is MUDFLATS (Doug O’Neill), whose lone win in four starts came on a sloppy track that’s not trustworthy at Aqueduct. His West Coast works have left a bit to be desired, too.

Even if Baffert fails to deliver here, he got some good news this week when Grade 1 winner POWER BROKER had his first workout since the Breeders’ Cup, breezing three furlongs Thursday at Santa Anita.

San Vicente Stakes selections: W) BELVIN; P) TREASURY BILL; S) CABALLO DEL CIELO.

Last week’s selections: 1: 0-0-0. Sadly, top choice ALPHA MIKE FOXTROT suffered catastrophic injuries in the Miracle Wood Stakes, a race won by his stablemate and our third choice DYNAMIC STRIKE.

Season selections: 13: 4-3-3.

Everyone’s a critic

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

Stakes races

Only one domestic stakes dotted the marquee last week, Saturday’s $125,000 Miracle Wood Stakes at Laurel Park. All six runners in the field lined up across the track with a sixteenth of a mile to go, battling within 1 1/4 lengths of the lead. In the end, it was a bittersweet win for DYNAMIC STRIKE (Dickie Small), who proved best late while stablemate and Maryland Juvenile Championship winner ALPHA MIKE FOXTROT broke down nearing the finish and had to be euthanized. The highs and lows of racing were just seconds apart for the Small stable.

Triple Crown nominee DYNAMIC STRIKE now has won three straight at Laurel, all at the one-turn mile distance. This is a well-bred colt by Smart Strike and out of the stakes-winning mare Dynamic Deputy. You may recall his mama running second to Fleet Indian in the 2006 Grade 2 Delaware Handicap at 10 furlongs.

But the Miracle Wood victory was anything but brilliant. A too-fast second quarter of 23.26 left everyone gassed and this mile came home in sundial-slow final quarters of 26.27 and 27.03. When you see an entire field lined up across the track in deep stretch, it’s usually a sign of a slow and uninspiring race.

Odds-on favorite VEGAS NO SHOW (Kelly Breen) tanked late, beaten more than nine lengths when fading to the wire in fifth. Runner-up in the Grade 2 Nashua last fall to top Derby hope VIOLENCE (Todd Pletcher), this one clearly has gone in the wrong direction in his three races since. The performance certainly didn’t flatter the form of his Grade 2 Jerome conqueror VYJACK (Rudy Rodriguez).

Overseas, Thursday’s Group 3 UAE 2000 Guineas included a lackluster return to action for last year’s Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile fourth-place finisher FORTIFY (Mahmoud Al Zarooni, formerly Kiaran McLaughlin). The Distorted Humor colt raced wide throughout the mile event over the Meydan Racecourse Tapeta surface and tired in the lane to be sixth. FORTIFY had posted second-, third- and fourth-place runs last year behind champion 2-year-old SHANGHAI BOBBY (Todd Pletcher). Unbeaten UAE 2000 Guineas winner Soft Falling Rain is a Southern Hemisphere-bred 4-year-old and not eligible for our Triple Crown.

Allowance races

Saturday’s race 7 turf allowance at Gulfstream Park provided me my Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes early favorite in FIRE GUARD (Bill Mott), who handled a fantastic field with a return to the stardom he flashed at Tampa Bay Downs two starts ago. Following a herky-jerky trip in the Kitten’s Joy Stakes last time out by Fire Guard, the stride and space both were more fluid Saturday for this son of First Defence. The sharp final time of 1:42.53 clocked more than 10 lengths faster than a 3-year-old maiden special weight later the same day. FIRE GUARD has a wonderful turf route pedigree on the damside and is a paternal grandson of the razor-sharp mare Honest Lady. There is a lot to like about this colt after beating a field that included runner-up JACK MILTON (Todd Pletcher), who was coming off a smashing debut win. He, too, should be considered armed and dangerous for a run at a Polytrack stakes at Turfway or Keeneland. This was a strong allowance with four runners dropping from stakes company and one of the best allowance races of the Countdown season.

PARK CITY (Todd Pletcher) kept the TAP express rolling Saturday at Gulfstream with an allowance sprint win in race 5, but this was more chugging locomotive than high-speed light rail performance. The Harlan’s Holiday colt wore down a horse unplaced in six straight races, CAT FIVE HURRICANE (Barry Rose), and then staved off DECLAN’S WARRIOR (Nick Zito), a horse who may have been a race short of his best off the layoff after missing a workout in mid-January.  PARK CITY, to his credit, had been away since a debut win at Saratoga in July and hails from a solid female family. But he’ll need to be better than the 32 seconds-plus it took over the final furlong and a half in this sprint. DECLAN’S WARRIOR could beat the right bunch next time and should improve, but I wouldn’t take him vs. any heavyweights off this effort. Favorite LITTLE DISTORTED (Darrin Miller) never looked comfortable and his sketchy workout tab may have caught up with him physically in an awkward effort.

Triple Crown nominee and West Coast transplant CARSON’S CROWN (Mike Stidham, formerly John Sadler) lacked any flair in his Fair Grounds debut when an even fourth Saturday in a race 6 allowance sprint. Unraced since a second in the Grade 3 Hollywood Juvenile last July, he couldn’t quicken enough in a race won by Hoosier Park debut winner and subsequent allowance also-ran FAVORITE UNCLE (Tom Amoss).

SEVENTEENOHSIX (John Servis) comfortably galloped over a muddy track Tuesday at Parx to take a solid route allowance. The pacesetters completely caved in and the top pair opened a large gap back to third, where Team Valor recent purchase INTREPID CITIZEN (Graham Motion, formerly Gary Capuano) mustered a modest placing. SEVENTEENOHSIX is not Triple Crown nominated at this point, but was third to eventual Grade 2 Jerome Stakes runner-up SIETE DE OROS (Ramon Preciado) in allowance company in November.

Finally, Wednesday’s Tampa Bay Downs race 8 allowance sprint was marred by the breakdown of Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club alumnus TRACK ROCKER (Nick Zito). The seven-furlong race was upset by 14-1 shot RED ROCKET EXPRESS (Chad Stewart), now 2 for 2 after debuting a maiden claiming winner three weeks prior.

Maiden races

Saturday’s Gulfstream race 6 maiden route at 1 1/16 miles once again provided a carousel performance with inside speed dominating. Credit SAINT VIGEUR (Chad Brown) for a nice effort, but races at this configuration on this track have become embarrassing. The advantage to inside speed should draw no less a protest by horseplayers and horsemen than the worst synthetic track you can debate. Why fans and horsemen aren’t beside themselves over the carding of these races is beyond me. Soapbox aside, SAINT VIGEUR may have earned himself a spot in the Grade 1 Blue Grass with this performance. By Smart Strike out of a Giant’s Causeway mare, he’s as Poly-bred as you can be, and with the addition of blinkers in his 2013 return he showed a new dimension of early speed. The come-home splits of 25.51 and 6.73 weren’t abominable for a front-runner, but he did tire late while drifting. Runner-up WABBAJACK (Jimmy Toner) indeed ran better once able to get outside horses as we projected after his Jan. 5 performance and is moving the right way. FREEDOM CHILD (Tom Albertrani) was victimized by a wide post and maybe was best. Big disappointments here were WAR DANCER (Ken McPeek), who was a flat fourth moving turf-to-dirt off a big debut second, and TAPULOUS (Todd Pletcher), who failed to flatter the ballyhooed debut winner INTEGRITY (Chad Brown) in his reappearance.

Don’t say you didn’t get your Countdown money’s worth last week: “Bettors beware 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.” GO CANES GO obliged with a 10-1 upset in Sunday’s race 8 maiden sprint at Gulfstream Park over favored RUFFALEX (Wesley Ward). The runner-up also failed to flatter his Jan. 10 conqueror INTEGRITY (Chad Brown), a race that is becoming a negative key race in my eye. SAINT X (Dale Romans) ran well in his return despite a stumbling start and won’t be a maiden long. This race won’t excite speed pundits as the seven furlongs were completed about 13 lengths slower than the rising star 3-year-old filly Flashy Gray on the same program.

Main-track-only entrant PERFECT TITLE (Dallas Stewart) had everything fall into place Saturday in a race 7 maiden route at Fair Grounds. Runner-up to ballyhooed Jan. 12 maiden breaker PROUD STRIKE (Steve Asmussen) when last seen, favored PERFECT TITLE’s late-running, plodding style benefitted from easily the day’s fastest route pace. The 47.42 opening half-mile cooked the speed when a 95-1 shot hooked the race’s second choice on the engine. A deceptive close showed him make up six lengths during the fourth quarter, but he was running only in the mid to upper 25s to do so. The form of Jan. 19 maiden breaker GROUND TRANSPORT (Mike Stidham) was not flattered, however, by his pursuers running back in this race.

KID LIGHTNING (Kiaran McLaughlin) captured a modest Gulfstream Park turf maiden route Saturday in race 12, but did so by overcoming plenty of trouble. The Lemon Drop Kid colt was making his first route attempt after two sprints in New York last fall, but did not appear to beat much in this cast. Also on the turf Saturday, EXAMEN (Tom Proctor) overcame a wide trip to win a 1 1/8 miles grass maiden route in Santa Anita race 4. It was the Giant’s Causeway gelding’s first start since debut fourth against eventual stakes winner BROWN ALMIGHTY (Tim Ice) last summer at Arlington.

Fleet sprinters SALUTOS AMIGOS (Eric Guillot) and ZEE BROS (Bob Baffert) locked horns Saturday in a race 7 maiden dash at Santa Anita. SALUTOS AMIGOS had the benefit of two previous starts, including a pace-pressing gut-wrencher Jan. 19 behind the impressive dasher LET EM SHINE (Adam Kitchingman). That paid dividends as the Salute the Sarge colt withstood the pressure from the even-money rookie ZEE BROS. After a half-mile in 43.55, they put more than nine lengths between first and third, running 1:08.56 for six furlongs. ZEE BROS graduates at odds-on next time sprinting.

NORTHERN LION (Mark Casse) had his form bolstered some when one of his maiden pursuers DO THE ROAR (Juan Arias) returned to win Wednesday’s race 8 maiden turf sprint at Gulfstream Park.

MISTER WOOLMAN (Nick Zito) outdueled BEYOND COMPARE (Tom Proctor) in a lengthy battle last Friday at Tampa Bay Downs to win a race 3 maiden route. The winner, by Stephen Got Even, primarily had been a maiden claiming customer before the circuit change. BEYOND COMPARE disappointed, and this $375,000 colt obviously is not ready for the prime time.

Triple Crown nominee TIZ FITTING (O.J. Jauregui) finally graduated in his eighth start last Friday in a Golden Gate Fields race 7 maiden mile. He had been second in two straight against Craig Dollase shippers from SoCal, but earned a game victory against the locals this time.

The Grade 3 Sunland Park Derby trail may have picked up a local participant Sunday when a race 8 Sunland maiden sprint introduced HARDLINER (Henry Dominguez). The son of Rock Hard Ten, out a Dixieland Band mare, flew late to score a narrow decision in a fast 1:10.11, putting more than eight lengths from first to third.

Finally, a turf player to watch emerged Thursday in a Gulfstream Park race 7 maiden mile when MIDDLEBURG (Christophe Clement) graduated in his second start. The half-brother to turf route stakes star Winchester was well bet in his even debut behind JACK MILTON (Todd Pletcher) and carved out a very nice trip in his return. Built like a miler, the pocket rocket showed a nice acceleration through the seam. But runner-up BALTHAZAR (Dale Romans) ran a big one in his debut from a tough post that saw him four and five wide on both turns. This son of Red Giant also is one to watch and won’t be a maiden long.

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. FIRE GUARD (Gulfstream Park, 2/9 *turf*)
5. MYLUTE (Fair Grounds, 12/26)

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!