02/17/2012 10:15AM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 7 - Feb. 17, 2012


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 fashion at the Grammys. The more peculiar they are the more attention you get. Just don’t expect me to show up in a fishnet veil like Lady Gaga.

1. Want to know the main reason why legendary trainers like Jonathan Sheppard probably will never win a Kentucky Derby? They won’t be beholden to a calendar. Sheppard’s patience and caution with EVER SO LUCKY is a warming example that there’s still an antidote for Derby fever: it’s called practicality. If EVER SO LUCKY makes the starting gate on the first Saturday in May, you had better pay attention ala Mack Miller and Sea Hero in 1993, or Charlie Whittingham and Sunday Silence in 1989. These legends only danced if/when everything fell into place properly.

2. Almost daily, people ask me for an over/under on the number of starters Todd Pletcher will have in this year’s Kentucky Derby, most often citing to me five or six as the hot number. I’ll say 3 1/2 is the total to debate when it comes to actual horses who leave the starting gate. Remember, speed burns out before the first Saturday in May, most often by April’s nine-furlong preps. And, natural attrition is unavoidable in many cases.

3. You don’t think Thoroughbred trainers are lemmings and follow the crowd? Monday’s G3 Southwest Stakes could split into two divisions since the race has become so popular. These guys and gals haven’t missed the fact that success of Oaklawn’s Triple Crown prep alumni over the past eight years has been unmatched.

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. Monday’s G3 Southwest Stakes won’t draw until Saturday afternoon. Please visit Countdowntothecrown.com for a full G3 Southwest Stakes wagering guide, which should be posted by Sunday evening.

It’s nice to see 2011 Kentucky Derby champion Animal Kingdom back this Saturday at Gulfstream Park. All three Triple Crown race winners from last spring racing within a week of one another the following season is a dream, even if Shackleford and Ruler On Ice melted down in the Donn Handicap. Now onto the current crop of sophomores …

Later today (Friday, February 17), Santa Anita race 2 is a quality California-bred allowance sprint in which Triple Crown nominees THREE VASES (Robertino Diodoro) and SPIRIT RULES (Paul Aguirre) await the return of POINTSOFFTHEBENCH (Tim Yakteen). The latter is younger brother to Bench Points, a G3 winner a year ago and third in the G2 San Felipe on the Derby trail.

Saturday’s race 8 Gulfstream Park maiden route includes no less than three horses we’ve been waiting to return to action in Countdown. MONARCHIC (Eoin Harty) has a damside pedigree begging to route and ran huge last time despite the troubled start, running on well and improving the right way for a patient barn. PUSHINGONASTRING (Bill Mott) closed nicely in his debut for a stable that doesn’t ask much early on and pursued a pair of front-end duelers who held throughout on a speed-friendly track. ENTRAINMENT (Brendan Walsh) ran into a dominant and repeat winner SPRING HILL FARM (Todd Pletcher) in his unveiling, but figures to improve with a stretch-out in distance since he’s out of a half-sister to champion Lawyer Ron.

Oaklawn presents a race 8 maiden route Saturday where DOWNTOWN GHOST (Jinks Fires) tries to seal the deal after being disqualified in a clear debut victory for a questionable interference take-down Feb. 3. Rookie TIZAWONDERFUL LIFE (Steve Hobby) is a Tiznow colt who is half-brother to multiple stakes-winning filly Class Included, who was the top 3-year-old filly in the Pacific Northwest a year ago.

Fair Grounds offers an entry level turf route allowance in race 9 Saturday, where last-out winner TETRADRACHM (Paul McGee) and ALL STORMY (Greg Geier) are the Triple Crown noms competing. TRAVEL ADVISORY (Kellyn Gorder) is one to watch after big-time excuses of late and a return to a grass surface he’ll love. El Joven Stakes runner-up QUIET ACCELERATION (Danny Pish) also favors the return to the sod.

Sunday’s Gulfstream race 2 maiden sprint lacks a standout runner based on performances or pedigree. WISE GUY CHARLIE (Nick Zito) has been working strongly for the unveiling and is a $270,000 son of Indian Charlie. The race could give us a barometer on Jan. 21 maiden winner LIBERTY BOUND (Todd Pletcher), whom two contenders in this race were well-beaten by last time out. A race 9 maiden route on the same Gulfstream card has more intrigue. The field includes Animal Kingdom’s little brother THURSBY (Graham Motion) on the stretch-out to 9 furlongs. Trainer Chad Brown offers up a strong pair in IRISH SEA and PUNCTUAL JEFF, both exiting good second-place runs. If AL’S UNCLE (Roger Atfield) draws in off the also-eligible list, look out. He was second in his most recent try behind the horse that I feel is Gulfstream’s best turf maiden winner of the meet, FILM SHOT (Bill Mott).

Sunday’s G2 San Vicente Stakes undercard at Santa Anita includes a race 4 turf sprint maiden.  ONLY THE GOLD (Richard Mandella) exits a decent third in what looks to be one of the better maiden races at the meet and has held some stakes-class company lines while in the maiden ranks.

At Tampa Bay Downs this weekend, Saturday’s race 3 maiden route features the impeccably bred Unbridled’s Song-Secret Status runner AWAITED (James Chapman). He’s been outrun twice at Gulfstream and looks for an easier spot, but lands against first-time starters COLD CAST (Tom Albertrani) and PLATFORM (Christophe Clement). The former is a son of Bernardini and G1 winner Shadow Cast, who earned nearly $1 million in her career. The latter is half-brother to G2 stakes winner Kathmanblu. Sunday’s race 6 turf route allowance at Tampa lacks any Triple Crown nominees or major notables.

G3 El Camino Real Derby (Saturday/Golden Gate Fields)

A pretty cool edition of the G3 $200,000 El Camino Real Derby is on tap at 1 1/8 miles. A slick mix of turf, dirt and synthetic surface colts take on an upstart filly at a distance that starts to separate the haves and have nots.

Florida raider LUCKY CHAPPY will be using this as a prep/proving ground for the G2 United Arab Emirates Derby in Dubai over the same Tapeta footings. He rematches with fellow Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf late-runner DADDY NOSE BEST (Steve Asmussen). Neither may go favored, however.

Northern California kingpin Jerry Hollendorfer saddles both the California Derby and Oaks winners in RUSSIAN GREEK and LADY OF FIFTY. They’ve combined to win 7 of 9 lifetime starts, including 5 wins over this Golden Gate main track. RUSSIAN GREEK will carry five more pounds than the filly, but LADY OF FIFTY breaks from a much tougher post in the 10-hole. Those factors probably balance out. RUSSIAN GREEK was thoroughly dominant in the Cal Derby, even more so than it looks on paper, and if he’s to be beaten it should come from one of the new faces who was not in that race.

DADDY NOSE BEST never looked comfortable at any point in the Eddie Logan on the Santa Anita turf, but I love that Julien Leparoux remains loyal enough to ride and give up a day’s mounts at Gulfstream Park. This is a horse with real talent and his workout Feb. 6 might indicate that a big-time bounce-back is in order. Note that Asmussen shipped Silver Medallion north following an Eddie Logan Stakes prep to win last year’s El Camino Real Derby.

LUCKY CHAPPY absolutely should love 1 1/8 miles based on pedigree and running style. He makes an all-important second start after a freshening and fits nicely in this race. They will have to run to beat him, because he’ll bring his best in the lane.

HANDSOME MIKE (Doug O’Neill) is the real X-factor in the race. Fourth in the G3 Sham on dirt last time, he adds blinkers and returns to a synthetic surface and distance that his pedigree suggests may well suit. Style-wise, however, he’s not shown an ability to get 9 furlongs at this time, but the surface could improve his bottom line.

El Camino Real Derby Stakes selections: W) RUSSIAN GREEK; P) DADDY NOSE BEST; S) LUCKY CHAPPY.

G2 San Vicente Stakes (Sunday/Santa Anita Park Park)

All eyes will be CREATIVE CAUSE (Mike Harrington) when the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile third-place finisher makes his return to action in this 7-furlong race worth $150,000. Firmly planted on most any top 10 Derby contenders’ list, CREATIVE CAUSE posted his signature career score last fall at Santa Anita when blowing away DRILL (Bob Baffert) in the G1 Norfolk. That duo renews acquaintances Sunday while taking on highly impressive Jan. 16 maiden dash winner AMERICAN ACT (Jack Carava) and three others.

With a sizable string of workouts, including four straight at 6 furlongs, you wouldn’t expect fitness to be the issue with CREATIVE CAUSE given his route experience and pedigree. Harrington should have him fit enough to win at this trip, it’s merely a matter if he returns sharp enough to score. I would be shocked if DRILL turned the tables, especially given that rival’s recent poor performances.

If CREATIVE CAUSE is knocked off, AMERICAN ACT seems the logical horse to do it. His razor-sharp win last time out looked even better when runner-up BODEMEISTER (Bob Baffert) returned to absolutely run off the screen and crush a tough maiden race last weekend. CAPTAIN OBVIOUS (Ben Cecil) should appreciate a return to sprints since he was a sprinter in Ireland before coming Stateside and his sire Choisir was a great Aussie sprinter. If this runner looks sharp on the track pre-race, give him a chance to light the exacta at a price. Cecil’s horses often tip their hands by exceptional physical appearance before running a representative race.

LET’S GET CRACKIN (Craig Dollase) is a battle-tested sprinter who was a solid third in the San Pedro behind future star MIDNIGHT TRANSFER (Carla Gaines). A repeat of that effort might be good enough to land yet another piece as he’s already four times stakes-placed.


Last week’s selections: 1: 0-0-0. We swung for the longshot upset in the G2 Hutcheson with WILDCAT CREEK to no avail (finishing fourth), while second choice THUNDER MOCCASIN was an easy, odds-on winner.

Season selections: 15: 5-3-2.

Everyone’s a critic

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

G2 Hutcheson Stakes (2/11, GP-8)

When favorite EVER SO LUCKY (Jonathan Sheppard) was scratched from the race due to the sloppy/sealed track conditions, the G2 Hutcheson became an entry level allowance race on proven form. Following his debut win Dec. 24, few considered THUNDER MOCCASIN (Todd Pletcher) merely an allowance horse, so he wound up a deserving favorite in this 7-furlong test. The son of A.P. Warrior absolutely delivered on the promise.

Smashed to 1-5 on the toteboard, THUNDER MOCCASIN stalked speedy Philly invader IL VILLANO (Susan Crowell) and went by at the moment asked by John Velazquez. In the end, he widened to a margin of 6 3/4 lengths vs. a field that wound up strung out from front to back. Going into the race, trainer Pletcher indicated that THUNDER MOCCASIN was most likely a sprinter, and afterward reiterated that point saying that he’ll likely keep him running short for the immediate future. Given the barn’s embarrassment of riches this spring with horses who have route pedigrees and proven performances, this appears a wise move to this eye. THUNDER MOCCASIN is out of a dam who won the Dade Turf at one mile at Ellis Park, so he may get a distance some day. But as Pletcher indicates, he runs like a sprinter at this stage.

IL VILLANO held for second, a performance that doesn’t hurt the reputation of his Count Fleet Stakes conqueror ALPHA (Kiaran McLaughlin). No one else did much running honestly. WILDCAT CREEK (Eddie Plesa) was a big disappointment in fourth, but at 22-1 odds, you could surmise I overrated him and the public had it right. His lackluster try certainly did not embolden the form of the stakes horses who have been competing at Tampa Bay Downs this winter, and since the maiden BATTLE HARDENED (Eddie Kenneally) shipped west from Gulfstream to win Tampa’s Sam F. Davis Stakes, maybe there’s more to it.

EVER SO LUCKY may return in the G2 Swale on March 10 and re-try his 2012 unveiling. Don’t be surprised if he gets another look at THUNDER MOCCASIN there.


Sweet Envoy Stakes (2/11, Aqu-9)

The Preakness may have picked up a contender when Maryland-based Triple Crown nominee PRETENSION (Chris Grove) shipped north to upset SWAG DADDY (Rick Dutrow) in this 1 mile and 70-yard test for New York-breds. Grove was the conditioner of 2011 Preakness starter Norman Asbjornson, and this $75,000 son of Bluegrass Cat is out of a Street Cry mare and appreciates a route distance. PRETENSION is a big, well-put-together racehorse. Professional in victory, though not flashy, he turned the tables on rival SWAG DADDY, who saw this two-race stakes win streak snapped when a late-running second.


On Saturday’s mega-Donn Handicap Day card at Gulfstream Park, SPRING HILL FARM (Todd Pletcher) earned a stakes date by winning his second straight race to open his career. The son of G2 Shuvee winner Colonial Minstrel added to his 7-furlong debut victory by winning this 1-mile allowance in a similar, wire-to-wire fashion. He’s yet to be tested through strong fractions, but proved best on this day while defeating what looks to be a strong allowance lineup. Given his pedigree by Smart Strike, I’d like to see both he and runner-up UNBRIDLED MINISTER (Ken McPeek) given a chance at making Keeneland’s G1 Blue Grass by April. The latter is by Unbridled’s Song, the leading Keeneland Polytrack sire all-time, and we know McPeek’s success there. BIG BLUE NATION (Todd Pletcher) chased and tired in his first start since finishing third in the G1 Hopeful last summer. His damside pedigree suggests sprints anyway.

Around the horn in other allowance races last week, the G2 Tampa Bay Derby might have picked up a pace player Friday when TELL ALL YOU KNOW (Chad Stewart) won his second straight sprint at the meet, following up on a 9 ¾-length maiden win by taking this 7-furlong allowance by 3 lengths. The opposition didn’t appear strong whatsoever in this race, however, and this one’s bred to sprint ... At Fair Grounds on Saturday, LAKE VICTOR (Steve Asmussen) edged out his second straight win, holding off both parts of the Gennadi Dorochenko entry to score a 6-furlong win a pretty solid 1:11.32 over a track playing slow all day. HERO OF ORDER, fifth in the G3 Lecomte, managed third money in the three-way photo.


BODEMEISTER (Bob Baffert), named for the trainer’s young son Bode, showed his youthful exuberance in a commanding score Saturday in race 3 at Santa Anita. Leading from start to finish, the son of Empire Maker torched what appears to be the best maiden field in California this season, one that included $1 million purchase WELTER WEIGHT (Steve Asmussen) and Team Baffert stablemate STIRRED UP. Granted, the track favored speed all day Saturday, but this 1-mile performance deserves applause. Look at the fractions! After a 23.09 opening quarter-mile, BODEMEISTER continued to toss out 23s around the course, clipping off 23.86, 23.77 and 23.73 splits through the wire. He actually ran faster each quarter-mile after getting a mini-breather on the backstretch. No matter what the track condition, you simply don’t beat horses like WELTER WEIGHT and STIRRED UP by 9-1/4 widening lengths without giving a horse his due. This was America’s most impressive maiden performance so far on the Countdown season. The kicker for Baffert becomes what to do next. Horses who run this fast like BODEMEISTER typically aren’t your Triple Crown contenders. Stylistically it’s just too hard for most runners to run away and hide from large fields of Grade 1 horses at classic distances. And STIRRED UP continues to be a hot prospect that the barn thinks a lot of, so I wouldn’t be shocked to see him appear in a stakes next time (even as a maiden), adding blinkers and still trying to make his way into the trail discussion. WELTER WEIGHT isn’t far off and ran a much improved race routing for the first time. He still could be heard from late in the spring stakes talks.

GOOD MORNING DIVA (J. David Braddy) posted the quicker 7-furlong time in Saturday’s split divisions of a Gulfstream Park maiden event, going about 2 lengths quicker in race 2 than a similar cast went in race 4. The clocking also was only about 2 lengths slower than the G2 Hutcheson at the same distance later on the card. Third in his debut behind the since-injured GENTLEMENS BET (Wayne Catalano), GOOD MORNING DIVA beat what appeared to be a modest field by GP’s lofty maiden standards while slowing down through the final 3 furlongs over a sloppy/sealed track. He’s bred to sprint. The subsequent race 4 division slowed similarly late as MAJESTIC NUMBER (Todd Pletcher) exited the same Jan. 5 race vs. GENTLEMENS BET to score. Again, he appears short on any serious route pedigree.

And how good of a day was it for that GENTLEMENS BET race when you also consider that STREET LIFE (Chad Brown) rebounded from a debut eighth in that race to win a two-turn Aqueduct maiden route on Saturday as well? The Derby pedigree shines by Street Sense out of a Grindstone mare with this one. Despite a very slow pace, STREET LIFE rallied last-to-first in an 8-horse field despite a horrendous trip to win by daylight. This looked like one of the deeper maiden races at Aqueduct this winter and STREET LIFE gets the award for “Best Winner in a Drama” so far this season.

On the same Saturday card at Gulfstream, race 5 was washed off the turf and moved to 1 1/16 miles on the main track. GOLDEN TICKET (Ken McPeek) tapped some of his Churchill dirt experience from last fall to win a race that really slowed to a 25.86 fourth quarter. Runner-up OLD TIME HOCKEY (Tom Proctor) had a nice run through inside but could not sustain his bid in his first route attempt. Pedigree-wise, I’m still wanting to see him get a turf chance next time. BRIDGE LOAN (Todd Pletcher) inherited the lead over a surface he doesn’t prefer and shouldn’t be a maiden long with a return to turf or synthetic.

ON THE LOOSE AGAIN (Donnie K. Von Hemel) made a solid debut last Friday in a 1 1/16 miles Oaklawn maiden route, overcoming trouble and rallying from last to be second in a race for 3-year-olds and older, losing only to a 4-year-old. He’s a half-brother to Bashford Manor Stakes winner Deputy G, who won that stakes in his second career start. Tab this one for next time. The top three finishers in this race, regardless of age, all chased MAJESTIC STRIDE (Jeff Bonde) on Jan. 22 and they certainly flattered his form to a good degree here.

Around the way in other maiden races last week, OFFICERANDAFOOSE (Gary Contessa) flattered the form of rising New York-bred sprinter PANTRHO (Stan Hough) when he scored a 6-furlong victory Saturday at Aqueduct after chasing that rival on Jan. 14. Keep an eye on $340,000 Tale of the Cat runner-up THE THINKER (Chad Brown), who blew the start, rallied decently for third and galloped out best of all. He might be one for Keeneland … BRAVO HABIBI (Steve Asmussen) overcame trouble to beat a weak-on-paper maiden turf sprint cast Sunday at Fair Grounds and appears to have found a home on grass.

Quick Hitters

Two-Year-Old Champion HANSEN (Mike Maker) will be sent north from his Florida winter base to compete next in the G3 Gotham on March 3 at Aqueduct … MARK VALESKI (Larry Jones) worked 6 furlongs Monday in a bullet 1:12.60 at Fair Grounds, preparing for Saturday’s G2 Risen Star, while stablemate and G3 Lecomte champ MR. BOWLING drilled 5 furlongs the same morning in 1:01.20 … Fellow G2 Risen Star possible EL PADRINO (Todd Pletcher) had his first breeze since an impressive Jan. 29 allowance score when he posted a half-mile in 48.28 on Monday at Palm Meadows. Javier Castellano is booked to ride next week in New Orleans … G2 Kentucky Jockey Club winner GEMOLOGIST (Todd Pletcher) is up to half-mile breezes, working that distance Monday at Palm Meadows in 49.77, his second breeze of the winter … G3 Sham winner OUT OF BOUNDS (Eoin Harty) has continued to drill like total clockwork since his signature score. He’s breezing every 7 days on cue at Hollywood Park as he awaits the G2 San Felipe on March 10 … G3 Iroquois winner MOTOR CITY (Ian Wilkes) continues on a six-day pattern of breezes at Palm Meadows, including a five-eighths move in 1:02.42 on Sunday. I look for him to follow daddy Street Sense’s path of the G2 Tampa Bay Derby and G1 Blue Grass if all goes well … Next week’s races to circle include Saturday’s G2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds, as well as the listed Saturday duo of the Borderland Derby at Sunland Park and Turf Paradise Derby in Arizona.

High Fives

Jeremy Plonk’s top-5 rated performances by class so far this year (Dec. 26-present).

Maiden Race
1. BODEMEISTER (Santa Anita, 2/11) * NEW *
2. MIDNIGHT TRANSFER (Santa Anita, 12/26)
3. FED BIZ (Santa Anita, 12/30)
4. FILM SHOT (Gulfstream, 2/1 * TURF *) 
5. CONSULADO (Santa Anita, 1/7)

Allowance Race

1. EL PADRINO (Gulfstream, 1/29) 
2. DISCREET DANCER (Gulfstream, 1/7)
3. FED BIZ (Santa Anita, 2/9) 
4. CYBER SECRET (Oaklawn 2/4) 
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) 
3. OUT OF BOUNDS (Sham, SA, 1/7)
4. MIDNIGHT TRANSFER (San Pedro, SA, 1/22)
5. ALPHA (G3 Withers, Aqu, 2/4)  

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!