02/22/2013 2:23PM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 8 - Feb. 22, 2013

Barbara D. Livingston
Majestic Hussar's pedigree suggests he'll handle the Fountain of Youth's 1 1/16-mile distance.

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

As sire Midnight Lute continues to sizzle the landscape in recent weeks, keep in mind we were saying the same thing about Scat Daddy a year ago. Unless you count last week’s El Camino Real Derby winner DICE FLAVOR (Paddy Gallagher) as a heavyweight title contender, there hasn’t been much “Scat Chat” of late. Even pedigrees can be fleeting on the Triple Crown trail.

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. Do note: Countdown annually follows only the most significant maiden and allowance developments once the calendar flips to March next week.

Friday’s Gulfstream card opens with a race 1 maiden sprint where RETRIEVE (Jeremiah Englehart) gets some class relief after facing GOMBEY DANCER (Eddie Kenneally), VERRAZANO (Todd Pletcher), and VYJACK (Rudy Rodriguez) in his last three starts. Given as well as OFFLEE FAST (Ron Pellegrini) ran last Saturday, his Jan. 26 pursuer TIMELESS INDY (Bill Mott) could be a punctual player in Friday’s race 8 turf marathon maiden at 1 3/8 miles, a race for 3-year-olds and older.

Saturday’s Fountain of Youth Day card at Gulfstream bursts at the seams with 3-year-old races to follow. A race 5 maiden sprint provides the debut for the impeccably bred Unbridled’s Song-Sweet Catomine colt DISTRIBUTION (Bill Mott), making him a son of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies winners. Race 7 is a turf route allowance that boasts the North American debut of the hyped Team Valor import CROP REPORT (Graham Motion), who will meet Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes fourth-place finisher TESSERON (Josie Carroll), sharp recent maiden winner NORTH SLOPE (Kiaran McLaughlin) and Kitten’s Joy Stakes third-place finisher REDWOOD KITTEN (Wesley Ward). Also note the rider upgrade to Javier Castellano on BOLD CHALLENGER (Kenny McPeek), who was given one of the worst rides of the season last time out. And for more on the Gulfstream grass, Saturday’s race 12 is a maiden mile where $1 million juvenile purchase FOREVER THING (Todd  Pletcher) makes his debut. SEVENOAKS (Bill Mott) should appreciate the stretch-out in distance and turf trip, being from a phenomenal Juddmonte female family of routers.

The 3-year-old cup runneth over at Fair Grounds on Saturday as the Risen Star has lured an overflow field of 15, and we also get a two-turn 3-year-old allowance in race 4. This field includes some of the more impressive maiden winners of the FG winter, led by GROUND TRANSPORT (Mike Stidham) and WINNING NOTE (Wayne Catalano). Grade 3 Hollywood Juvenile Championship runner-up CARSON’S CROWN (Stidham) makes his second start off a layoff and must improve off that return bid to beat these.

If SUNBEAN (Al Stall Jr.) doesn’t go in the Grade 2 Risen Star, his fall-back option is Saturday’s $60,000 Gentilly Stakes for Louisiana-breds in race 3. The turf mile also includes JOHNNY HANDSOME (Leo Gabriel), second recently to Risen Star entrant DEPARTING (Stall), and might give us an early card barometer of what to do with that class riser later in the day. Fair Grounds also has a race 6 maiden sprint on the Saturday card devoid of any Triple Crown nominees, but includes the comebacking PASS THE PICO (Steve Asmussen) in his first start since Saratoga.

At Oaklawn, expect ROYAL DEHERE (David Vance) to be a standout in a Saturday race 9 maiden sprint following his runner-up performance behind the highly impressive Feb. 1 winner BIG LUTE (Steve Hobby). Turf sprinters collide in Saturday’s race 9 maiden dash at Santa Anita, where THUNDER’S ROLLIN (Steve Asmussen) is the lone Triple Crown nominee. He’s half-brother to grassy Virginia Oaks winner Art Fan.

Saturday’s $75,000 Turf Paradise Derby brings a quartet of California invaders to the Arizona desert. The 1 1/16-mile contest is headed by Santa Anita maiden winner PERSUASIVE PAUL (Doug O’Neill) and Golden Gate maiden winner BROKERED (Craig Dollase). Both are Triple Crown nominees. Late-running traveler GLENCO KID (Sandi Gann) ships back to Turf Paradise from his Santa Anita winter base after capturing the Lost In The Fog Juvenile in late December.

Sunday’s Gulfstream race 3 allowance sprint pits a pair of Henny Hughes comebackers, CARRIED INTEREST (Rick Violette) and PRO PROSPECT (Eddie  Plesa). Both posted 1-for-2 career marks last summer with their only losses coming to eventual graded stakes winners OVERANALYZE (Todd Pletcher) and ITSMYLUCKYDAY (Plesa), respectively. Triple Crown nominee ALMOST ENGLISH (Nick Zito) will try to get back on the beam after a dismal fade in the Gulfstream Park Derby.

Fair Grounds offers a race 6 maiden turf mile Sunday that includes HARD ACES (Larry Jones), WESTERN SADLER (Steve Asmussen) and SMOOTH STONE (Neil Howard), all exiting quality maiden placings against respected winners.

Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes (Saturday/Gulfstream Park)

The dynamics of Saturday’s $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes present themselves quite clearly. It’s a battle of the inside speed bias of Gulfstream Park against the 2013 return of Grade 1 CashCall Futurity winner VIOLENCE (Todd Pletcher). And, if VIOLENCE manages to find himself on or near the lead from his inside draw, he may answer both halves of the equation on his own. That’s the storyline in the season’s first 50-20-10-5 “points prep” en route to the Kentucky Derby.

VIOLENCE did everything asked of him at age 2, winning all three starts and each time adding distance to the mix. He won around one turn and two, over dirt and Cushion Track, and on both coasts. The $600,000 son of Medaglia d’Oro has plenty of pedigree to like and would seem the complete package. Since his race at Hollywood in December, he’s had a picture-perfect workout tab every seven days in Florida since rejoining the tab a month after his juvenile finale. Any sense that the West Coast trip and race took anything out of him has been erased in recent workouts, including a bullet drill at Palm Meadows on Sunday. There’s every indication he’ll fire a big race, and trainer Pletcher won off this nearly identical layoff in similar circumstances on the 2010 and 2011 Derby trails with Rule and Brethren, respectively.

Picking against VIOLENCE may seem foolhardy if not for a decided advantage held by inside speed horses at this Gulfstream Park trip. A short run to the first turn and usage of the first finish line in the home stretch conspire to make inside speed lethal. VIOLENCE has yet to break within two lengths of the front, but we’ve seen an aggressive Javier Castellano sense the urgency in these two-turn GP races in the past and put horses, apparently void of early gas, right to the front. Don’t be shocked if he does it again.

But to outbreak and outrun MAJESTIC HUSSAR (Eddie Kenneally) into the clubhouse turn should figure to be a tough task. This stretch-out sprinter was brilliant at seven furlongs Jan. 19 and his pedigree suggests he’ll handle this distance. In receipt of a six-pound weight break from VIOLENCE, he stands the best upset chance from this eye. Note that four straight Fountain of Youth winners from 2008-11 all rose in class off of Gulfstream allowance performances, before that streak was snapped last year by Union Rags. If it rains, MAJESTIC HUSSAR has proven a beast on wet tracks. And, to be fair in evaluation, has done his best running on a wet track with much less proof he can duplicate that on a fast track. A missed workout following a bullet Feb. 2 drill also raises a bit of concern, forcing a value player to demand more price to be fair. Still, I like him quite a bit.

Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes winner FALLING SKY (John Terranova) runs here most likely because buzzsaw VERRAZANO (Todd Pletcher) has been directed toward the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby. I’m never in favor of horsemen looking for easier spots. I prefer confidence to ducking. Because he is giving away four pounds to much of the field and has a wide post draw in the 10 hole, I’ll be against FALLING SKY on Saturday, and wouldn’t be surprised if troubled-trip runner SPEAK LOGISTICS (Eddie Plesa) doesn’t turn the tables on his Davis rival.

How you evaluate the Jan. 26 split division allowance races won by ORB (Shug McGaughey) and CERRO (Graham Motion) obviously goes a long way in how you see the Fountain of Youth’s depth. CERRO ran faster, came home faster and looked much better on visual inspection that day. Also note that ORB’s runner-up, DUKE OF THE CITY (Kelly Breen), came back last weekend and ran a clunker, deflating the form of ORB to some degree. Both shortening back to 1 1/16 miles, I’d lean to CERRO in that head-to-head on this particular day. SKY CAPTAIN (Mark Casse) exits that same race as CERRO, has worked twice since to CERRO’s one workout, and may be more pointed at this race than his rival. Don’t be shocked if SKY CAPTAIN makes himself known here.

Difficult reads in the FOY include ELMUTAHID (Kiaran McLaughlin), a colt totally bred on damside for turf, and HE’S HAD ENOUGH (Doug O’Neill), who is leaving California to avoid the brilliant speed and see how his style plays elsewhere. I’ve been one of HE’S HAD ENOUGH’s biggest supporters, but even I’ve worn thin in my support. He’ll have to earn his way back in my heart this weekend while my wallet takes a break. Certainly the race shape behind lone speed FLASHBACK (Bob Baffert) did him no favors in the Grade 2 Bob Lewis Memorial.

Despite his mostly wet-track form and gap in the workout tab, I’m giving the inside speed bias such an edge at Gulfstream that I’ll back MAJESTIC HUSSAR at fair odds of 6-1 or more. VIOLENCE obviously rates the horse to beat, but figures to be odds-on and chasing at least one or two speed horses early. Keying the chalk on top in exotics isn’t a bad way to go with a large field size and lack of a clear-cut second choice. No one else stands an upset chance to this eye except the potential inside speed heist.

Fountain of Youth Stakes selections: W) MAJESTIC HUSSAR; P) VIOLENCE; S) CERRO.

Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes (Saturday/Fair Grounds)

A capacity field of 14 starters is possible for the $400,000 Risen Star, the last major prep for the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby next month. With Kentucky Derby qualifying points distributed on a 50-20-10-5 scale, the popularity of this race reached both coasts with shippers from Florida, California and Arkansas. Any time you get a Pletcher-Baffert matchup in February, it’s good Triple Crown trail fun.

But PALACE MALICE (Pletcher) and CODE WEST (Baffert) are 8-1 and 6-1, respectively, in the morning line. It must be a good prep when you can say that, and this one is. NORMANDY INVASION (Chad Brown) is the 5-2 morning line favorite based on his keep-coming style at age 2. The Remsen Stakes runner-up hails from a barn that always takes money, and for good reason. Brown appears on the cusp of big things on racing’s biggest stages. His workout tab indicates great expectations for the first start back since late November. In a large field, it will be about pace setup and traffic for NORMANDY INVASION given his deep-closing style.

OXBOW (D. Wayne Lukas) looks to join Friesan Fire as the only horses in the past 15 years to win the Lecomte and Risen Star. His crushing front-end win in the Lecomte has been followed by a series of modest workouts that are part of his norm. He will pick up four pounds to 120 in the Risen Star and spot all of his rivals that same four pounds. From a pace standpoint, OXBOW rates as one of few legitimate front-end types in this field, along with the stretch-out sprinter PALACE MALICE. Give this son of Awesome Again a long look at repeating in his second road trip from Oaklawn. Lest we forget, he missed six days of training in the weeks leading up to the Lecomte because of bad weather and track conditions in Hot Springs, and still ran through the TV screen. The preparation has been much more steady this time.

CODE WEST strikes me as the kind of horse Baffert can do some serious damage with in the Triple Crown races. We clamor around his blinding speed horses annually, but it’s the long-winded types like Real Quiet, Lookin At Lucky and Pioneerof The Nile that are equally successful, if not more, than their speedy brethren. CODE WEST ran a sharp second in his 2013 return to stablemate SUPER NINETY NINE (Baffert) and has never misfired in five starts. That recent second looked awfully good when SUPER NINETY NINE came back Monday at Oaklawn to decimate the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes field. CODE WEST has a beautiful running style from just off the pace and could get first run at the pacemakers.

GOLDEN SOUL (Dallas Stewart) ran well enough in the Lecomte to be a distant second to OXBOW, and those pursuers can take some solace in the fact that third-place Lecomte runner FEAR THE KITTEN (Mike Maker) validated that race some by running second in Monday’s Grade 3 Southwest.  GOLDEN SOUL is much better-drawn than he was in the Lecomte, when wide on both turns, and has had two good works since then. Give him a big look to improve, and he may be the horse to watch by the time the Louisiana Derby rolls into town.

Fair Grounds maiden and allowance upstarts PROUD STRIKE (Steve Asmussen), MYLUTE (Tom Amoss) and DEPARTING (Al Stall Jr.) all exit commanding victories. A terrible post 14 draw for DEPARTING has the trainer considering a scratch. PROUD STRIKE overcame a wide draw to win an off-the-turfer with ease Jan. 12 and that’s turned out to be a key race since. I was not initially impressed by PROUD STRIKE in victory, but an open-minded handicapper sometimes has to let the facts play out. MYLUTE was much more visually impressive to me in his Dec. 26 score and I like how trainer Amoss has pointed him directly to this race since then without any hesitation in the preparation.

Despite my desire to tab MYLUTE, this is a very good Risen Star in which some very good horses are going to finish sixth or seventh. This rates a much deeper race than the Fountain of Youth, even if its Florida counterpart has the top-end star power.

Risen Star Stakes selections: W) CODE WEST; P) OXBOW; S) NORMANDY INVASION.

Mine That Bird Derby (Saturday/Sunland Park)

I knew which horse I wanted for this race the moment I saw DRY SUMMER (Joel Marr) capture the local allowance prep on Jan. 27. The ex-Californian was fluid and sharp that day, handled the new track and looked like a million bucks in victory. Given the lack of a serious out-of-town invasion, this $120,000 event appears at the mercy of DRY SUMMER. His allowance prep pursuers STORMDRIVER (Kevin Eikleberry) and SHOW SOME MAGIC (Henry Dominguez) both return, but neither has a legitimate excuse or license to turn the tables.

GREELEY AWESOME (Doug O’Neill) comes east on a three-race winning streak, but the barn wisely has picked its spots and run through conditions with this son of Mr. Greeley. O’Neill has been effective shipping horses to Sunland going back to Thor’s Echo, so he knows which ones to point this way. The third-place finisher in his Golden Gate allowance win earlier this month, NINA’S DRAGON (Lloyd Mason), did come back to run second in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby at a big price last Saturday. GREELEY AWESOME could win the Mine That Bird Derby, but not if DRY SUMMER also brings his best.

One local to keep an eye on is stretch-out sprinter IZE IN COMMAND (Weston Martin). The route-pedigreed gelding really caught my eye with a sharp sprint performance Jan. 11 in Countdown and could be front-end magic in his first try around two turns. If anyone makes DRY SUMMER sweat, look for it to be IZE IN COMMAND.

No Kentucky Derby qualifying points will be at stake in this listed event, but it serves as a prelude to the Grade 3 Sunland Park Derby on March 24.

Mine That Bird Derby selections: W) DRY SUMMER; P) IZE IN COMMAND; S) GREELEY AWESOME.

Last week’s selections: 3: 1-0-0. Top choice in the Southwest Stakes Wagering Guide SUPER NINETY NINE rolled home to win at Oaklawn. Meanwhile, a troubled trip kept top pick ZEEWAT off the board in the G3 El Camino Real Derby and my top choice BELVIN simply tired after setting the pace in the G2 San Vicente. It’s time to get hot!

Season selections: 16: 5-3-3.

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 with the Countdown Rewind. Get more of Jeremy’s analysis on the Southwest Stakes and El Camino Real Derby by clicking on the race names.

On paper, Sunday’s Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes looked to be the most contentious of the Santa Anita preps run so far this season. Despite its seven-furlong distance and lack of Kentucky Derby qualifying points, this race wasn’t the one or two-deep kind of preps we’ve seen in the Grade 3 Sham and Grade 2 Lewis Memorial Stakes. The depth of the San Vicente played out on the racetrack as all six entrants spread across the track in the final yards. The margin of defeat from first to last measured just 2 3/4 lengths. Favored BELVIN (Bob Baffert) set the tempo from the rail with pressure from CABALLO DEL CIELO (Steve Asmussen), but it was the comebacking, stakes-placed SHAKIN IT UP (Baffert) who proved best in a field comprising mostly sharp, recent maiden breakers. With an all-Baffert pedigree, this son of smoking-hot sire Midnight Lute is a grandson of Kentucky Oaks heroine Silverbulletday. SHAKIN IT UP showed guts between horses and finished up visually the way you want to see. He also showed some gears as he was moving nicely on the rail on the far turn and had to tap on the brakes and re-rally around stablemate BELVIN. Runner-up TREASURY BILL (Ron Ellis) almost was an apologetic entry by the trainer, who really wants to run his horse around two turns but is a patient-type by definition. TREASURY BILL ran on nicely and sets himself well for a road trip to Oaklawn for the Grade 2 Rebel in order to separate from owner Gary and Mary West’s top West Coaster FLASHBACK (Bob Baffert). Jockey Rafael Bejarano said afterward that BELVIN may have distance limitations, but interestingly after fading to last he galloped out best of all. It was a strange performance for BELVIN, who may not have liked being pressured on the rail, but for now falls way down the pecking order in the Baffert chain of command. SHAKIN IT UP gets two turns next time and impressed me more in this race than he had in his starts last year. This is a horse who missed workouts the first three weeks of January and still came back with a big effort. You can take mostly positives out of this race for all involved, including MUDFLATS (Doug O’Neill), who had a tough trip and outran my expectations.

Allowance races

Saturday’s Gulfstream Park race 9 allowance provided the comeback forum for Breeders’ Cup Juvenile third-place finisher CAPO BASTONE (Todd Pletcher, formerly John Sadler). Making his first start for a new barn, CAPO BASTONE was a deep closer at age 2, but at this 1 1/16-mile configuration at Gulfstream, that style simply doesn’t play. Everyone got the same memo apparently. Seven horses sprinted across the track into the clubhouse turn, showing the urgency for position at this trip. Front-running turfer OFFLEE FAST (Ron Pellegrini) carried his style over to the main track and blazed early with a 22.60 opening quarter-mile over a deep and drying-out racetrack that proved demanding. By the time CAPO BASTONE engaged him at the quarter pole, you’d expect the Grade 1-placed horse to barrel past. But CAPO BASTONE ran up and down through the stretch and forged past in the final yards in a performance that neither pleased the eye or the clock. In fact, the timer speaks harshly. Splits of 22.60, 24.06, 26.18, 27.96 and 7.36 for a final time of 1:48.16 tell the tale of an atrocious end to this event. CAPO BASTONE heads back to the stakes ranks next, and maybe he’s a Florida Derby bookend for speedy barnmate SHANGHAI BOBBY (Pletcher), giving the TAP Squad an early-late punch. I didn’t see any improvement to the late action with CAPO BASTONE that plagued him as a juvenile; he’s simply not a true route horse and more effective as a closing sprinter. DUKE OF THE CITY (Kelly Breen) was a huge disappointment for me after a good second to ORB (Shug McGaughey), and didn’t flatter the form of that Fountain of Youth hopeful with his dismal chase and fade in this allowance.

Another Breeders’ Cup Juvenile alumnus returned in the allowance ranks last week when TITLE CONTENDER (Bob Baffert) failed to finalize the deal Sunday in a race 7 allowance route at Oaklawn Park. The Pulpit colt set the tempo as expected and looked to be gone in upper stretch, but was chased down by recent $30,000 claim CARVE (Steve Asmussen, formerly Al Stall Jr.). TITLE CONTENDER now is 1 for 4 around two turns, but perhaps this loss could be blamed on the removal of blinkers. He idled a bit when in the clear and actually kicked back in when headed by CARVE and galloped out the better of the two. That usually means either the horse or jockey (Robby Albarado) fell asleep when a front-runner gallops out better than the horse who nabbed them on the wire. With blinkers back on against the right field, TITLE CONTENDER maybe deserves a second look at a big price, but he seems to need a lot to go his way. CARVE is not Triple Crown nominated, but did it the right way here with a dream trip and looked good in victory. But he obviously must have some physical limitations/ailments for Claiborne to put this homebred in for $30,000 claiming in a winning debut.

Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes contender MYLUTE (Tom Amoss), one of the most impressive allowance winners of the Countdown season, had his form validated Saturday at Fair Grounds when his Dec. 26 pursuer LATTIN DEVIL (Jorge Lara) returned to win a race 9 statebred allowance sprint in dominant fashion by six lengths. In other “form franking,” sharp sprinter SILVER MORGAN (Lupe Preciado) advanced to 2 for 3 lifetime Saturday when capturing a Laurel Park allowance sprint in race 7. The only loss for the J Be K colt was a good second at Parx Jan. 5 to eventual Grade 2 Hutcheson Stakes runner-up FORTY TALES (Todd Pletcher), and this effort in Maryland did nothing to hurt that resume. And finally, top Turfway Park stakes local MAC THE MAN (Jeff Greenhill) had his reputation boosted some Friday night when 96 Rocks Stakes also-ran COUNT ON SILVER (John Dyer) rebounded to win a Turfway mile allowance in race 9.

Speedy Sapling Stakes fourth-place finisher BOBCAT JIM (Kenny Smith) wired a field of allowance sprinters Monday at Oaklawn on a sloppy track in commanding fashion. The sprint-bred son of Sharp Humor is not Triple Crown nominated, but could run back in the Gazebo or Bachelor Stakes later in the meet, the latter giving Toby Keith’s charge more time to recoup. Those who put together speed figures liked this one quite a bit.

Finally, Countdown readers may have seen it coming, but the public went all-in for INTEGRITY (Chad Brown) at 1-5 odds in Thursday’s Gulfstream race 2 allowance sprint at 7 furlongs. But a negative key race from his maiden win had been brewing as I’ve noted in recent weeks, and the odds-on chalk was upset by stakes-placed DIVINE AMBITION (Darrin Miller) on a class drop. INTEGRITY couldn’t shake free of a three-way speed duel and had little to fend off his rival who was in receipt of a dream trip just behind the scrum. After chasing DYNAMIC SKY (Mark Casse) and FALLING SKY (John Terranova), this assignment proved much easier for DIVINE AMBITION, who could get a stakes date back at Turfway Park next or be aimed toward something like the Swale. Two races later on the Gulfstream Thursday card, a race 4 allowance sprint for Florida-breds went almost 3 lengths faster as private purchase RIVER ROCKS (now Wayne Catalano, formerly Michael Yates) showed that his big maiden breaker at Calder in October was no fluke. While he beat very little in this field, the Western Pride colt looked good doing it and ran fast in 1:21.95 for 7 furlongs. A Triple Crown nominee, River Rocks is a maternal grandson of Belmont Stakes and Travers winner Birdstone, so he will get a chance to route. Among those in RIVER ROCKS’s wake was UPTOWN ANTHEM (Bill Kaplan), a well-beaten third-place finisher who didn’t flatter his Jan. 26 conqueror ORB to any degree as the Fountain of Youth approaches this weekend.

Maiden races

The barn didn’t do much wrong last week, so pardon the mild disappointment with DEL MAR SUNSET (Bob Baffert) following Saturday’s Santa Anita race 7 maiden sprint loss at 1-5 odds. Exiting what appeared one of the year’s best maiden races on the West Coast behind DEMONIC (John Sadler) and next-out winner TIZ THE TRUTH (Baffert), DEL MAR SUNSET was expected to punch out what appeared a mild cast. Instead, it was comebacking SAINT PRADO (Jeff Bonde) who flew late in a visually eye-catching performance. The son of Kitten’s Joy, out of a Saint Ballado mare, isn’t bred to be this fast, but note he was stakes-placed at five furlongs last summer before going on the shelf. Honestly, his comeback form and past performances harken a bit back to I’ll Have Another from a season ago. Given his pedigree, you have to want to see this horse at Keeneland in April, either in the Blue Grass or Lexington. As for DEL MAR SUNSET, the Candy Ride colt probably missed his chance to join the Baffert stakes parade. But make no mistake: He won’t be a maiden long. DEL MAR SUNSET was caught by a pretty nice horse that capitalized on having first run into a pace duel.

It wouldn’t be a Saturday at Gulfstream without Pletcher power, and it was on display again in a race 4 maiden route at 1 1/8 miles as ABRAHAM stretched out in distance with potent, inside speed. The Distorted Humor colt made his second start of the season a positive step forward. On pedigree, he may be an interesting horse to send to Oaklawn since his dam, Tabarin, is half-sister to Arkansas Derby winner Sir Cherokee. But a wet track and weak field on paper make this a wait-and-see type of evaluation.

At Aqueduct, the week’s big maiden race came Sunday in a race 3 route. Triple Crown nominees MR PALMER (Bill Mott) and INCOGNITO (Kiaran McLaughlin) led the charge, but neither left a lasting impression. MR PALMER’s final time of 1:43.32 for 1 mile and 70 yards was two lengths slower than his stablemate ran later in the card when winning a $16,000 optional claimer. The A.P. Indy-Octave colt INCOGNITO chiseled the margin late but seems to lack a brilliant turn of foot like several of his McLaughlin stablemates in this sophomore class. He did gallop out much better than the winner. Noteworthy here, unfortunately, was a well-beaten fourth by INMYFATHERSIMAGE (Gary Contessa), whose finish reflects poorly on two former rivals whom I like quite a bit this season, REVOLUTIONARY (Todd Pletcher) and TRANSPARENT (Kiaran McLaughlin).

Sunday’s Santa Anita card featured split divisions of a mile maiden in races 3 and 5, and the latter looked far stronger on paper and also turned out that way. KID DREAMS (Neil Drysdale) cashed in on a perfect, stalking inside trip to win race 3, but the event came home terribly slow at nearly 13 seconds the final furlong. He’s got a run-all-day pedigree and the win here boosted the form of his debut conqueror FLASHBACK (Bob Baffert). Given his pedigree and lack of pure brilliance, KID DREAMS may be a good fit to try a 9-furlong Polytrack stakes at Turfway or Keeneland at the next stop. But no one can mistake that race 3 division for race 5 when evaluating the post-script. The race 5 division clocked 1:36.28, about 8 lengths faster than race 3, and was won by a determined GOVENOR CHARLIE (Bob Baffert) over ballyhooed maiden FOOTBRIDGE (Eoin Harty). GOVENOR CHARLIE owns an eerily similar pedigree to G2 San Vicente winner SHAKIN IT UP (Baffert), sired by Midnight Lute and a maternal grandson of the great Silverbulletday.  FOOTBRIDGE was a bit of a head case behind the starting gate and seems to not have his head where his abilities are yet. Someday the light bulb may flip on, but he continues to disappoint. This was a strong maiden race and figures to prove fruitful to handicappers who play horses coming out of it.

Oaklawn had a pair of maiden races of note on the holiday weekend. First, Saturday’s race 10 maiden sprint featured an adventurous debut closing win for SO RAISE YOURGLASS (Mac Robertson). The son of Bob and John is not Triple Crown nominated, but the win was eerily similar to the 2009 Oaklawn debut of his stablemate Win Willy, just before he went on to upset the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes 20 days later. Oaklawn’s Monday race 7 maiden route unfolded just prior to the rainstorms hitting and it featured a blowout victory for stretch-out sprinter TRANSYLVANIA FLASH (Donnie K. Von Hemel). What’s notable here is that ‘FLASH was no match when chasing  BIG LUTE (Steve Hobby) at OP on Feb. 1 and thrashed this field to flatter his former rival. While BIG LUTE did not fare as well in his massive class rise to the Grade 3 Southwest, the performance here by TRANSYLVANIA FLASH underscores his talents.

At Fair Grounds, Saturday’s race 8 maiden route went to second-time starter WINGS OF FORTUNE (Mike Maker), who dueled through a moderate pace and held sway to the wire in fending off SEEKING AN EMPIRE (Steve Margolis). The winner, by Fusaichi Pegasus, was a wide and even fourth in his debut to GROUND TRANSPORT (Mike Stidham) and flattered that one’s form with the return win. SEEKING AN EMPIRE continues to improve and won’t be a maiden long. Well-bred first-time starter SONG TO YOU (Stidham) offered a solid debut third here and his pedigree screams for a Keeneland Polytrack appearance in April. This was one of the better FG maiden routes of the season.

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. SUPER NINETY NINE (Southwest Stakes, Oaklawn, 2/17)
5. DYNAMIC SKY (Pasco Stakes, Tampa Bay Downs, 1/12)

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!