02/24/2012 9:54AM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 8, Feb. 24, 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 Mardi Gras beads. If you can’t remember how or where you got them, they’re not worth keeping.

1. Before you hate on Breeders’ Cup Juvenile third-place finisher  CREATIVE CAUSE (Mike Harrington) for losing Sunday’s Grade 2 San Vicente at 1-2 odds, let me remind you of the 1986 Juvenile show finisher who would later finish fourth in his 1987 return in the mere allowance ranks. Alysheba didn’t turn out too bad, even if he lost his 3-year-old unveiling at 3-5 odds to Barb’s Relic, who wound up being a $6,500 claimer at Fairplex. Nobody’s saying CREATIVE CAUSE is the next Alysheba; just hold the phone before dialing 911.

2. Oaklawn Park made one of the more significant, bold ,and startling decisions this past Monday, not for splitting its wildly popular Grade 3 Southwest Stakes into two divisions, but rather for doubling-down on the purse and making both races worth $250,000. That’s all-important when graded stakes earnings are the qualifier to making the Kentucky Derby field. Rest assured, vocal and local horsemen had to be up in arms for seeing another quarter-million go into one race on the stakes calendar, especially when Bob Baffert carpet-bagged both purses and took them back to California. But Oaklawn’s unsurpassed 3-year-old stakes program since 2004 has done more to help the national reputation of that track’s betting signal than anything a group of local horsemen could ever muster.

3. Raise your hand if you had Scat Daddy in your pool to become the next coming of Storm Cat or A.P. Indy in the breeding world. It’s unbelievable how versatile and prolific his winning offspring have become. You won’t believe your eyes as you read this week’s recaps.

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. Two major graded stakes dot the marquee along with a supporting cast of four regional listed stakes worth visiting this weekend. It’s the most jammed stakes weekend of the season so far!

Let’s touch first on the quartet of regional listed stakes. Laurel’s $100,000 Miracle Wood Stakes at seven furlongs on Saturday could have some Preakness implications down the road. Triple Crown nominee FRISCAN (Graham Motion) was third in last summer’s Grade 3 Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs and returned running with a daylight win at Laurel on Jan. 20. The competition includes flashy New York-bred debut winner THE LUMBER GUY (Mike Hushion), who totally caught this eye in his Aqueduct unveiling.  And ROMP CITY (Cathal Lynch) was an eye-catching Laurel maiden winner upon his raid from Parx last time.

Both last seen in California, ZACKN’MAT (Marty Jones) and ISN’T HE CLEVER (Henry Dominguez) appear to be in a veritable match race in Saturday’s $150,000 Borderland Derby at Sunland Park. The stepping-stone to next month’s Grade 3 Sunland Derby figures to be a homecoming for ISN’T HE CLEVER, who showed speed before tiring vs. the big boys in the Grade 3 Sham at Santa Anita. He will set the tone Saturday and play catch me if you can. ZACKN’MAT just won his maiden last time, but has faced very classy runners like STIRRED UP and FED BIZ from the Bob Baffert posse. Expect ISN’T HE PERFECT to utilize his pace and local experience edges.

The well-bred IMMACULATE (Eric Guillot) leaves California for listed stakes competition in the $75,000 Turf Paradise Derby on Saturday. The Distorted Humor-Folklore colt, and the challengers in the field, could use a race like this as a springboard to the regional Grade 3 Sunland Park Derby next month in neighboring New Mexico. And finally on the West Coast, Santa Anita’s Sunday card includes the $70,000 Baffle Stakes for 3-year-old turf sprinters. BRIGAND (Bob Baffert) is the lone Triple Crown nominee and hasn’t been out since picking up minor checks in two graded stakes sprints last summer.  Grade 3 Generous winner STONEY FLEECE (John Sadler) rates the one to beat on the cut-back in distance.

As for undercard races on a busy weekend, I simply can’t wait to see Gulfstream Park’s race 7 on Saturday, a turf allowance where FILM SHOT (Bill Mott) returns off a visually impressive score Feb. 1. The son of Distorted Humor-Film Maker threw four straight 23-and-change quarters on the board and appears to be a future stakes star to this eye. Unfortunately, he’s way out in post No. 12. The smashing field includes OUR ENTOURAGE (Todd Pletcher), an equally well-bred son of Street Cry-Sand Springs, making his first start since a good try in the Remsen on dirt. ARGENTINE TANGO (Stanley Gold) should also appreciate the return to turf.

You’s baby brother SEVE (Dale Romans) will try to pair up victories when he returns in a competitive Sunday race 6 allowance sprint at Gulfstream on the Fountain of Youth undercard. Debut winner LIBERTY BOUND (Todd Pletcher) may go favored, while FORWARD MARCH (Shug McGaughey) makes his first start since a dominant Monmouth Park debut score last September. This Distorted Humor colt cost $2,050,000 as a yearling. FORWARD MARCH is out of the Storm Cat-Miesque mare Angel’s Nest. Also at Gulfstream on Sunday, a race 8 maiden sprint gives SPIN OUT (Nick Zito) a second chance to make a first impression. He was much ballyhooed in his debut before flattening out to be fourth. The regally bred Giant’s Causeway-Spain colt PRINCE OF SPAIN (Pat Byrne) debuts off a modest workout tab, while the Giant’s Causeway-Sightseek colt NIGHT SITE (Bill Mott) debuts after a bit quicker morning regimen. I love seeing the blinkers go on Countdown bet-back special TREND SETTER (Chad Brown), who was a bit quirky in his debut but flashed some signs of talent.

On Friday, Oaklawn race 8 is a must-see allowance route where deep-closing NAJJAAR (Danny Peitz) must overcome facing older horses and the short stretch run of a mile race that ends at the sixteenth pole finishing line. If he turns in a big late run, you’re looking at a real Grade 2 Arkansas Derby type of player.

Saturday’s Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes undercard at Fair Grounds includes a race 2 maiden sprint that could give us a great line on highly impressive local winner BOURBON COURAGE (Kellyn Gorder). A pair of runners who were bombed by him Feb. 3 return to action. Ever-present hot young sire Scat Daddy will be represented by rookie MADRIS (Steve Margolis), while the well-bred Street Sense-Shaconage colt PARABELLUM (Tom Amoss) debuts off a strong set of works. His mama was quite a turfer.

At Oaklawn on Saturday, ON THE LOOSE AGAIN (Donnie Von Hemel) takes on straight 3-year-olds after a solid runner-up debut against elders on Feb. 10.  H will rematch in this route event with SKYRING (D. Wayne Lukas). Oaklawn also has a race 10 maiden sprint Saturday where hoop fans will be all over well-bred rookie JIMMER (Shannon Ritter). The $385,000 son of Elusive Quality is half-brother to graded stakes-winning sprinter Everyday Heroes.

Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes (Saturday/Fair Grounds)

The Risen Star puts us firmly into the mid-season prep mode this weekend, making Fair Grounds’s second key stop en route to the Louisiana Derby. With $300,000 in graded stakes earnings on the line, the Risen Star stretches out only 40 yards longer than the Lecomte Stakes in terms of distance.

The Lecomte obviously will be critical in your evaluation of the Risen Star field since six of the 11 horses entered Saturday exit that stepping-stone race. But the new face in the local crowd, EL PADRINO (Todd Pletcher), should go heavily favored after a razor-sharp allowance victory at Gulfstream against graded-stakes quality competition. The son of Pulpit ranks No. 1 currently in my list of Kentucky Derby contenders based on performance, pedigree, upside, and connections. Following his Jan. 29 return win, I declared in the next Countdown that EL PADRINO would win the Kentucky Derby if he makes the starting gate. I stand by the bold statement, but be sure to read the statement properly. He has to make the starting gate, which makes the assumption h will have developed throughout the spring in order for Pletcher to run him in the Derby. The next step in that development comes Saturday in a race he should not lose if he runs near his best.

[MORE: PPs and video previews for the Risen Star card at Fair Grounds]

The Lecomte alumni are led by MR. BOWLING (Larry Jones), Z DAGER (Steve Asmussen) and SHARED PROPERTY (Tom Amoss), who were separated by little more than r a half-length in a blanket finish Jan. 21. What I find extremely interesting in the five weeks since then is that MR. BOWLING has had at least one less work than his other rivals. It took 23 days for him to return to the workout tab after that hard-fought win, which came after a nearly three-month layoff. Z DAGER was back working in just nine days and has had three drills since, the same post-race pattern for SHARED PROPERTY. The fact that MR. BOWLING smoked a bullet five furlongs in 59.80 seconds breezing on Monday was a positive sign that he might be able to hold his form. Larry Jones tends to gallop his runners pretty hard, so maybe being short a work or two isn’t a big deal, but the time between the last race and the first work back is what piques my curiosity.

The Lecomte was a very slow race by any comparison, so the door may be open to the fresh faces. Z DAGER still gets a decent weight break from his common opponents and would seem to have upside with only three career starts. Once again, SHARED PROPERTY gets a lousy post draw and must overcome the 10-hole after breaking from an even-worse post 13 last time. I expect him to turn the tables on his Lecomte brethren Saturday and w will see how he stacks up with the fresh faces.

Outside of EL PADRINO, the newcomers to the local stakes scene that interest me most are MARK VALESKI (Larry Jones), a sharp sprint winner at the meet with a pedigree that should stretch to 1 1/16 miles; AFFORD (Greg Geier), a late-running allowance winner with a true router’s gene pool; and OPTIMIZER (D. Wayne Lukas), who wisely invades from Oaklawn and will benefit from the long Fair Grounds stretch.

Lukas avoided Monday’s split divisions of the Grade 3 Southwest at Oaklawn with OPTIMIZER for good reason since those races ended at the sixteenth-pole finish line based on the track configuration for one-mile races. The added distance, and extra real estate in the stretch, absolutely are critical if OPTIMIZER is to have his best chance to lengthen his stride late. I was very impressed by this horse at Keeneland last fall, and he’s dangerous in a race where he gets a fast pace.

Unfortunately for OPTIMIZER, the Risen Star doesn’t shape up as a blistering pace. Expect HERO OF ORDER (Genadi Dorochenko) to once again set the tempo, with MARK VALESKI, Z DAGER, and EL PADRINO in fairly close pursuit. Given that pace setup, you would expect those closest pursuing the longshot front-runner to have every chance to win this and a decided tactical edge. When the most talented horses in the race also get the pace setup, that’s tough to topple. I’m not expecting prices.

Risen Star Stakes selections: W) EL PADRINO; P) MARK VALESKI; S) SHARED PROPERTY.

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

UNION RAGS (Michael Matz) and ALGORITHMS (Todd Pletcher) deservedly sit among the top five in anyone’s current list of Kentucky Derby hopefuls. Union Rags was the most accomplished juvenile last year, but won neither the Breeders’ Cup nor the Eclipse Award. Algorithms  owns 2012’s most impressive prep win so far when beating 2-year-old champ HANSEN (Mike Maker) by five  lengths in the Grade3 Holy Bull Stakes. Sounds like a match race, huh?

The eight-horse Fountain of Youth Stakes offers $400,000 in graded stakes earnings and will be run at 1 1/16 miles around two turns, the new configuration, at Gulfstream Park. Because these races end at the sixteenth pole finish line, the stretch run will only be 568 feet. Consider that versus the 1,346-feet stretch in play for Saturday’s Risen Star at Fair Grounds.

[MORE: PPs, previews, and live video for the Fountain of Youth card at Gulfstream]

The miniscule stretch run could really benefit the lightning quick DISCREET DANCER (Todd Pletcher), unbeaten in two starts and barely headed at any stage of the game to date. He’s half-brother to a pure sprinter in Travelin Man, and I have no expectations whatsoever of this horse getting 1 1/8 or 1 1/4 miles. But with this track configuration, and his principal pace rival being stablemate ALGORITHMS, the scenario for winning a graded stakes route could not be any more achievable for this fast colt.

Rightly so, most everyone expects this race to come down to ALGORITHMS making that first-run pounce like he did in the Holy Bull, and UNION RAGS picking up the tempo late from midpack. The fly in the ointment would be a horse like CASUAL TRICK (Nick Zito) or FORT LOUDON (Stanley Gold) to commit to the pace scrum early and quicken the likely scenario.

If that happens, the sneaky player in the Fountain could be NEWS PENDING (Dale Romans). He sizzled home in slightly more than 11 seconds flat in his runner-up try on the turf Feb. 5. His pedigree doesn’t demand that he’s all turf. Though his mama is by the turfer Lear Fan, note that this dam is half-sister to Adore the Gold, who relished the Gulfstream dirt in winning the Grade 2 Swale and finishing fourth by one length in this very Fountain of Youth Stakes in 2007. If DISCREET DANCER is forced to take them along too quickly, here’s the benefactor in the lane, but a short stretch does him no favors.

Fountain of Youth selections: W) ALGORITHMS; P) DISCREET DANCER; S) UNION RAGS.

Last week’s selections: 2: 0-0-1. Second-choice DADDY NOSE BEST scored the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby while we whiffed on DRILL in the Grade 2 San Vicente. Top picks RUSSIAN GREEK (fifth) and CREATIVE CAUSE (third) ran modestly in those two races, respectively.

Season selections: 17: 5-3-3.

Everyone’s a critic

This section reviews the week that was in the 3-year-old ranks. Pull up a cot and welcome to Bob Baffert’s world.

Grade 3 Southwest Stakes - Division 1  (2/20, OP-7)

The drive-by analysis of Monday’s first division of the $250,000 Southwest Stakes is that it was the much slower race on the clock, and therefore the weaker performance. But sometimes the eyeballs and the Teletimer don’t always agree. For fans of time-unfriendly CASTAWAY (Bob Baffert), there’s no reason to hide on a remote island and start talking to your Wilson volleyball just yet. There’s more to his mile than 1:38.09 on the clock.

From the far outside post 11, CASTAWAY nearly was able to clear the entire field by the start of the clubhouse turn and was perfectly placed in the two-path outside the front-running sprinter MAJESTIC STRIDE (Jeff Bonde). Remember this: horses from post 11 don’t receive perfect trips; they make them. That’s part of the appreciation process for this win. What impressed me about CASTAWAY was his patience after being hustled early. This is a fantastically bred horse who always has hinted of talent; he finally has the light bulb at full wattage.

While the clock didn’t hint at this being the stronger division, the past performances certainly did. JUNEBUGRED (Steve Hobby) and RECKLESS JERRY (Kenny Smith) returned from a 1-2 finish in the Smarty Jones Stakes, and as expected, RECKLESS JERRY turned the tables with a better post position draw. He ran a solid third and continues to be a good middle-distance threat. JUNEBUGRED finished in a three-way dead heat for sixth in what amounted to a blanket finish of horses behind the runaway CASTAWAY, who was  3 3/4 lengths in front  at the wire.

Disappointments in the race included West Coast raider LONGVIEW DRIVE (Jerry Hollendorfer), the Grade 3 Sham third-place finisher who was a bit of a lost soul in the race after removing blinkers. He’s stylistically a confusing horse to evaluate and this race did not move him forward. UNBRIDLED’S NOTE (Steve Asmussen) was hammered on the tote board as many shared the same excitement I had for his dominant maiden win at Churchill last fall. But his race was nearly doomed from the start with an awkward break and chasing the entire pack, in a race where the eventual top five finishers all were among the leading six horses early on.

CASTAWAY got the final quarter-mile in 25.49 and final furlong in 12.56. While many behind him are difficult to read coming out of this race, I think this was a very good win-end performance and a serious horse to consider moving forward. Remember this about Bob Baffert’s Triple Crown success stories – nearly all of them were not the horses known for their speed and fast times. Horses like Real Quiet, Silver Charm, Point Given,  and Lookin At Lucky weren’t always busting stopwatches, but could turn it on when it counted.

Grade 3 Southwest Stakes - Division 2 (2/20, OP-8)

The second division of Monday’s Southwest ran almost exactly how it looked on paper. A field that was three or possibly four horses deep in promise played out that way as Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint winner SECRET CIRCLE (Bob Baffert) chased and overcame impressive local allowance winner SCATMAN (Mike Lauer) in a satisfying performance for both. ADIRONDACK KING (John Servis) came into the race as the best route prospect in the lot, and ran on well enough for third to make you want to see him again in the Grade 2 Rebel next month. For all intents and purposes, mission accomplished in a truly run race.

No doubt this was the faster division of the Southwest from start to finish. The top pair set a solid tempo in 46.81 for the first half-mile, then came home in 25.83 the final quarter (12.85 final furlong). The come-home splits weren’t far off what CASTAWAY finished up in after a much easier opening set of fractions. That combination makes for a much higher speed figure for SECRET CIRCLE, and from a pure speed scale, deservedly so. He’s a faster horse than CASTAWAY going a mile.

The question with SECRET CIRCLE is what happens when he gets into deep waters of 1 1/8 miles or 1 1/4 miles races. While his pedigree doesn’t suggest he’s terribly limited, his running style does. Fast early, he once again drifted a bit late in the Southwest as he did on the back end of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint. That’s a sign of a horse who’s tired after putting in a hard day’s work. Could he punch home and win at 1 1/16 miles next? Yes. But he reminds me much more of a horse like The Factor or Conveyance on the Bob Baffert alumni tour, than, say, a Real Quiet or Lookin At Lucky.

SCATMAN ran too good to lose in his first route attempt, but didn’t fold up the tent late. Given his sensational run on the Polytrack at Keeneland and pair of sprint/mile runs on the dirt at Oaklawn, his options are pretty open moving forward. Like SECRET CIRCLE, I like his chances more at 1 1/16 miles than the more pounding distances of nine  or 10 furlongs in the big events. What a prospect SCATMAN would be for the Lexington at Keeneland!

If the Rebel winner is to come from this race, it certainly could be SECRET CIRCLE or SCATMAN. But if you made me bet the Arkansas Derby at 1 1/8 miles today from this lineup, well-beaten third ADIRONDACK KING interests me most with that pedigree and grind-it-out style.

Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes (2/19, SA-7)

A textbook lesson in form cycles and flexibility, Sunday’s seven-furlong San Vicente was quite the learning tool even if it only featured four horses for its $150,000 purse. The end result was that DRILL (Bob Baffert) upset his old rival CREATIVE CAUSE (Mike Harrington), the latter drilled to 1-2 odds on the tote board. But how they got there was the real story.

CREATIVE CAUSE toyed with DRILL and others in last October’s Grade 1 Norfolk Stakes routing at Santa Anita, then went on to a solid third-place finish in what appears to be a fair renewal of the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He had been brought along all winter at Hollywood Park with this seven-furlong sprint as his first prep of 2012. Talented and accomplished, handicappers banked on CREATIVE CAUSE being able to win this race on class more so than current form.

DRILL, on the other hand, won the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity last summer at this same seven-furlong distance. But he struggled to handle two-turn tests at the end of last year, and looked to be terribly off form. Physically, he didn’t give the impression in his races that he was too interested in giving maximum effort.

But when Sunday’s field for the San Vicente stepped onto the track, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that DRILL was ready to run. His body language and physicality made him a standout runner in the visual department as I noted during an online chat. This was the DRILL we expected to see late fall and winter. Coincidence or not, everything Bob Baffert sent out during the week ran out of its skin, so DRILL flexing his powerful chest pre-race and looking like a million bucks did not come without some warning.

DRILL had every reason to bounce back, and did. CREATIVE CAUSE had every reason to overlook this race, and he did as well. When speedball AMERICAN ACT (Jack Carava) set the tempo as expected, it was DRILL who made the first run at him and forged by in the final yards for a game victory. AMERICAN ACT, in his stakes debut, hinted of gameness and quality as well, battling back and running hard through the wire and beyond.

So while DRILL and AMERICAN ACT were battling up front, CREATIVE CAUSE tried to commence a rally from striking distance about two to three  lengths off the lead. But some ring rust appeared as the favorite didn’t transition his leads smoothly in upper stretch and appeared to be in big trouble. Late in the going, however, Joe Rosario got CREATVE CAUSE moving the right way and he finished with good energy to be beaten by a length. In the gallop out, CREATIVE CAUSE blew by everyone and looked like a horse who got plenty out of this true prep race. This was not his Derby Day, not even close.

DRILL will remain sprinting, Baffert indicated afterward, and that’s a smart move. I would also expect AMERICAN ACT to do his best running around one turn or a middle distance at this stage.

CREATIVE CAUSE lost the form cycle battle, needing the race and having not sprinted around one turn since last summer. That as much as anything could have resulted in his lead change issues, having been trained to transition around two turns all last fall. I fully expect him to move forward off this race. Meanwhile, DRILL gave us a lesson in visual handicapping. It was a rewarding race for a horseplayer, even if you didn’t make a bet.

Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby (2/18, GG-8)

The West’s first graded-stakes prep of the season at 1 1/8 miles, Saturday’s Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby turned out to be a most exciting and well-played contest. Only a nose separated DADDY NOSE BEST (Steve Asmussen) and LUCKY CHAPPY (Graham Motion) at the end of this $200,000 showcase. The classy turf runners both transferred their form exceptionally well to the Tapeta synthetic surface, but also showed their stamina influences over a distance that separates Triple Crown trail contenders and pretenders.

By Scat Daddy out of a Thunder Gulch mare, DADDY NOSE BEST would appear the better-suited of this pair to translate his form to dirt racing if you consider pedigree only. Plus, he has already finished second on dirt sprinting at Churchill Downs in his debut, so there’s some history to go on. But do note that LUCKY CHAPPY is a lightly made, adept horse who could catch lightning in a bottle sometime if he caught a sloppy dirt track, ala Mine That Bird.

Neither horse appears best on a fast dirt track, but there’s a lot to be said for stamina these days with surface affinity not necessarily a prerequisite for success. Few would argue that Animal Kingdom is best on dirt, for a prime, recent example.

Strangely enough given its turf influence at the top of the chart, the El Camino Real Derby actually played out very much like a dirt race. Each quarter-mile was slower than its predecessor as we often see on dirt. Splits were 23.31, 24.26, 24.71, 25.79, and then 12.39 the final furlong. Given that race favorite HANDSOME MIKE (Doug O’Neill) set the pace and was coming off a fourth-place finish on dirt in the Grade 3 Sham, this could explain the splits. LUCKY CHAPPY rallied about five to six  lengths the final three furlongs, so he came home in a lively 37-and-change considering the dirt-like tempo and distance of this race. He put his head in front, but DADDY NOSE BEST was extremely game under strong handling from Julien Leparoux after being covered up in a tough spot for a good deal of the running.

HANDSOME MIKE was beaten 3 1/2 lengths while holding third after being hounded by a 94-1 shot for much of the first mile. It was a pretty good effort for him, and a very good day for sire Scat Daddy, whose offspring ran first-third. He continues to build on a tremendous young stallion career that saw him as the leading freshman sire of 2011. We will see if Scat Daddy can continue that run with his son SHARED PROPERTY (Tom Amoss) in this Saturday’s Grade 2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds.

RUSSIAN GREEK (Jerry Hollendorfer) did not deliver the kind of late run we’ve grown accustomed to seeing, which was disappointing given the way this race shape unfolded. It certainly was not counter-productive to his style. He will need a major bounce-back next time to regain interest as a Triple Crown prospect.

Expect to see HANDSOME MIKE on the Derby trail on dirt (perhaps at Sunland Park where O’Neill usually raids), but I would keep DADDY NOSE BEST and LUCKY CHAPPY on the synthetics for another run. If they continue to progress, the will earn the right to see if they can handle the big boys on dirt on Derby Day. LUCKY CHAPPY may reappear next in the Grade 2 UAE Derby in Dubai on the Tapeta surface.


It was nice to see POINTS OFFTHEBENCH (Tim Yakteen) return in style last Friday at Santa Anita, winning a California-bred allowance sprint in flashy fashion despite a rocketing fast pace duel. He’s following in the footsteps of big brother Bench Points, who was more than capable of transitioning into open company. Don’t expect him to route a major distance any time soon, however. But this is a serious Cal-bred sprint/miler prospect. He outslugged another legit Cal-bred stakes sprinter in THREE VASES (Robertino Diodoro) in this showdown.

TIZPOINT (Richard Mandella) got away with a very easy second-quarter mile in winning Saturday’s race 2 allowance turf mile at Santa Anita. The wire-to-wire winner then professionally picked it up with a 23.88 final quarter to earn a stakes date on the Santa Anita Derby trail. The half-brother to Stormy Temper has plenty of Overbrook Farm dirt influences on the dam side of the pedigree and is by Tiznow, so he deserves the chance.

Around the horn in other allowances, PATRIOTIC DREAM (Lori Smock) won a very weak renewal of a Tampa Bay Downs turf route allowance on Sunday, but in doing so did flatter the form of BURN THE MORTGAGE (Wayne Catalano), who defeated him in a solid Feb. 4 performance … Turfway Prevue Stakes pacesetter JASIZZLE (Tommy Mills) wired a Turfway allowance sprint cast Saturday, but gives no indication of getting a route distance … Aqueduct maiden claiming winner DANCE WITH MONARCH (now Joe Martin, formerly Matthew Peebles) won his Oaklawn relocation Monday by upsetting an allowance mile in dominating fashion. Runner-up MY SILVER BEAR (John Cox) set the pace in his first route attempt but settled for second best. The time of 1:38.92 was 4-5 lengths slower than either division of the same-day Southwest Stakes.


PAYNTER (Bob Baffert) debuted a sharp dash winner Saturday at Santa Anita, part of an amazing run by the barn. By Awesome Again, he’s half-brother to stakes winners Tizkalitty and Tizwest, a graded winner at nine  furlongs. We will learn much more about this horse  when he faces more than three rivals. The Baffert barn also ran roughshod over a Golden Gate maiden mile on Saturday with MIDNIGHT CROONER, full brother to 2011 Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby hero Midnight Interlude, who also was a bit of a late starter and bloomer. MIDNIGHT CROONER is expected to be pointed toward the Grade 1 Blue Grass at Keeneland as Baffert looks to divide and conquer.

At Oaklawn Saturday, SLAMIT (now Tim Ice, formerly Eoin Harty) struck a chord for the Gulfstream Park crowd when he changed addresses and upset a 1 1/1- mile allowance at 22-1 odds. Racing on Lasix for the first time in his fifth start, the Grand Slam colt had kept tough company lines in Kentucky and Florida prior. Not only did SLAMIT exit a Jan. 19 GP maiden behind STEALCASE (Mark Casse) to win, but so did that race’s runner-up WINDSURFER (Todd Pletcher). Windsurfer returned Saturday to beat a strong cast of Gulfstream route maidens in race 8, finishing up well despite not having much pace help for his midpack style. By champion sprinter Speightstown, he’s got some strong Maryland route influence with some John Alden blood on the dam side. Mark this event down as a key race moving forward as I predict you’ll see a few next-out winners from it.

SCATTER JOY (Eddie Plesa) contributed to the ludicrously hot week for sire Scat Daddy when he debuted a romping maiden sprint winner Sunday at Gulfstream Park. Despite a fast pace, he widened through the lane to win by seven-plus lengths in front-running fashion. His mama was a debut winner with a short-lived career, so we will have to see how he develops. Sunday’s Gulfstream card also included a nine-furlong turf maiden in race 9, where 6-5 chalk IRISH SEA (Chad Brown) showed much more early interest in the second lifetime start after trouble leaving the gate in the debut. The English Channel colt looks to be a real distance player and could factor on the Polytrack at Keeneland, but is not Triple Crown nominated at this stage.

Well-bred COLD CAST (Tom Albertrani) debuted a winner Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs in a maiden dirt route. By Bernardini out of Shadow Cast, this is a pure router who probably should not have been a win-early candidate. He beat a pair of Atlantic Coast Floridians in PLATFORM (Christophe Clement) and AWAITED (James Chapman), so this was a pretty classy maiden route by Tampa standards. COLD CAST got up late despite zero pace help and this is one rates the most impressive Tampa maiden race winner of the winter.

Just to cap the Scat Daddy grand daddy of all weeks, SCAT HAPPY (Jonathan Sheppard) rallied without any pace help to win Thursday’s race 8 Gulfstream maiden turf route at 1 1/8 miles, beating a deep and talented field. He was third in his debut behind my very promising Gulfstream  turfer FILM SHOT (Bill Mott), whom we mentioned earlier and will be returning to action on Saturday. This was a resume booster.

Quick Hitters

Coincidence? On the same Wednesday that LIAISON (Bob Baffert) turned in what appeared to be a very weak workout, his trainer committed stablemate FED BIZ for the Grade 2 San Felipe next. That’s not necessarily a good sign for LIAISON ... GEMOLOGIST (Todd Pletcher) continues preparations at Palm Meadows toward a return in next month’s Grade 2 Rebel at Oaklawn, the likely same race target as Oaklawn allowance winner ATIGUN (Ken McPeek) ... Grade 3 Iroquois winner MOTOR CITY (Ian Wilkes) had his best work of the winter Thursday at Palm Meadows, breezing five  furlongs in 1:01.88, fourth fastest of 13 drills that morning. He’s possibly headed to the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby next month … Grade 2 Lewis Memorial upsetter I’LL HAVE ANOTHER (Doug O’Neill) returned to the workout tab for the first time since then on Thursday with a half-mile drill in 48.60, 19 days after his comeback tally …. Grade 2 Sham winner OUT OF BOUNDS (Eoin Harty) continues to work superbly like clockwork every seven days in preparations for the Grade 2 San Felipe next month. He should work again Monday on schedule … San Pedro Stakes champ MIDNIGHT TRANSFER (Carla Gaines) continues on a weekly workout pattern out west as well, expected to drill again Sunday in his fourth work since his stakes tally … Next week’s races to circle include Saturday’s Grade 3 Gotham at Aqueduct, as well as the listed Saturday duo of the Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park and the Gazebo Stakes at Oaklawn for sprinters.

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)

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 ( 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!