03/01/2013 1:33PM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 9 - March 1, 2013

Tom Keyser
Transparent begs for attention in Saturday's Grade 3 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.

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 injury news regarding VIOLENCE (Todd Pletcher) reminds us that the Triple Crown trail certainly is a day-to-day situation. But for those wanting to finger-point that the trail itself causes the injuries, we must consider that VIOLENCE had not competed in more than two months, likely would have had only one more start before the Derby, and his four career starts to date spanned more than six months. He is no "casualty" of 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.

Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager wheels back quickly this weekend at wagering outlets nationwide and online. Given the point of the season, many horses are down to one prep left on their schedules. I still want at least 20-1 or more on any plays this far out from the race given that there only should be two or three horses less than 10-1 on Derby Day itself.

We will get one of our few barometers to the class of ballyhooed allowance winner VERRAZANO (Todd Pletcher) in Saturday’s race 4 allowance route at Gulfstream Park. The field includes GUNDERMAN (Mark Casse), third in the wake left behind VERRAZANO in his Feb 2 allowance matchup. Impressive second-start winner DOHERTY (Todd Pletcher) provides the big threat with inside speed and a nice performance in his maiden breaker.

Saturday’s Race 9 maiden route at Oaklawn could produce a latecomer on the Arkansas trail with two significant entrants in the mix. ONLY IN AMERICA (Eoin Harty) chased the impressive BIG LUTE (Steve Hobby) in a solid debut sprint third, and this brother to Dubai World Cup winner Well Armed is well meant. MOON BACK MORE (Kenny McPeek) closed like an express last time and is sitting on a win if he can overcome a bad post and ONLY IN AMERICA.

The listed stakes docket Saturday includes the $75,000 Black Gold at Fair Grounds, scheduled for about 7 1/2 furlongs on turf. Keep an eye on the course conditions as many grass races have been transferred to dirt this season. None of the major players entered are Triple Crown nominees, but ANIMAL STYLE (Mike Maker) brings a two-race winning streak to the table and six of the seven entrants were last-out winners. Top performers in the Black Gold could be candidates for the Grade 3 Lexington at Keeneland.

Saturday night’s $50,000 Texas Heritage Stakes at Sam Houston picked up some luster in the past week after unbeaten DEPARTING (Al Stall Jr.) scratched from the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes when his connections were unsatisfied with a wide post draw. The timing of this one-mile race gives the War Front colt a nice alternative at what figures a very short price. WORLDVENTURER (Bret Calhoun) rates the main danger off back-to-back stakes wins at the meet following his third in the very productive Springboard Mile at Remington Park. This race could produce a Grade 2 Louisiana Derby player in four weeks.

STORM POWER (Tim Yakteen) returns in Santa Anita’s Saturday race 11 maiden sprint for the first time since a debut third at Del Mar behind eventual graded stakes winner GOLDENCENTS (Doug O’Neill). The $200,000 Tiz Wonderful colt is a Triple Crown nominee, but way behind the eight ball, although working very strong.

Grade 3 Gotham Stakes (Saturday/Aqueduct) [GET PPs]

Saturday’s $400,000 Gotham Stakes matches the winners of New York’s Grade 2 Remsen and Grade 2 Jerome as well as the two-three-four finishers in the Grade 3 Withers. Simply put, most of the leading players on the NYRA scene are here, except Withers hero REVOLUTIONARY (Todd Pletcher), who awaits one late-season prep while training in Florida. What may be very significant in the Gotham are the weights. Remsen champ OVERANALYZE (Todd Pletcher) and Jerome winner VYJACK (Rudy Rodriguez) give seven pounds to the rest of the field with a 123-116 spread. Around two turns and with young horses coming off significant respites, that kind of weight can make a difference.

You probably can tell I’m looking for something outside the favorites in the Gotham. I’m a big fan of OVERANALYZE and have him ranked No. 2 in my latest rankings this week behind REVOLUTIONARY. But those are for Derby prospects, not the Gotham, and when you have a horse giving seven pounds, coming off a three-month layoff and hung out widest in post 11, you have to play against at what figures to be lower odds. Look for OVERANALYZE to get a good education and experience in the Gotham and then parlay that into a bigger race next time. If he can win in this situation, OVERANALYZE deserves anyone’s No. 1 or 2 ranking for Derby hopefuls. While it was not his fault, it is notable to consider that the two horses he beat in his two signature wins, NORMANDY INVASION (Chad Brown) and CARRIED INTEREST (Rick Violette), both came back to lose their 2013 returns at short odds last weekend.

For wagering purposes, if you like OVERANALYZE, and I do, you want him to run a decent race in defeat Saturday and bet him in the KDFW Pool 2 at inflated odds. If he were to come back and win a major final prep, he’d be one of the favorites in Louisville.

VYJACK has done nothing wrong in three victories, each a natural progression in distance just as the Gotham will be. His pedigree likely will trip him up soon, but there’s no reason he can’t win at 1 1/16 miles based on anything we’ve seen from him so far. His bigger challenge Saturday will be a much more contested pace than he faced in the Jerome, and the fact that the Jerome alumni have not done anything to flatter his form since. The pace figures to be lively with Marylander ORE PASS (Mike Trombetta) one of three entrants stretching out off of sprints.

Where do we turn if the deck appears stacked against very talented favorites? Two appealing alternatives include ESCAPEFROMREALITY (Dominick Schettino) and TRANSPARENT (Kiaran McLaughlin). The more I watch and study the Grade 3 Withers, won by REVOLUTIONARY in headline-grabbing fashion, the more I’m also impressed by the runner-up ESCAPEFROMREALITY. In a race remembered for its tight finish, this Read the Footnotes colt scored clearly second-best to me in visuals and the clock. He’s got a bit of pace versatility, which could come in handy in a big field that likely won’t spread out too far, given a lack of deep closers signed on.

TRANSPARENT begs your attention after a remarkable maiden win Jan. 26. The Equibase chart callers who failed to give him a short comment after he was carried 12 wide heading onto the backstretch should be admonished. This was a remarkable performance and devastatingly easy late despite that scare. This $725,000 son of Bernardini previously chased ORB (Shug McGaughey) and REVOLUTIONARY, and all they’ve done since is register a 3-for-3 mark with two graded stakes wins. The one caution is that McLaughlin’s barn has struggled in the past stepping up horses off maiden wins into this kind of graded stakes, but I like the race shape, the seven-pound allowance from the favorites, and everything about the way he dominated his last test.

As for the others, Withers Stakes three-four finishers SIETE DE OROS (Ramon Preciado) and AMERIGO VESPUCCI (Tim Tullock) need to move forward to beat ESCAPEFROMREALITY, and even that might not be enough to get a placing in a much deeper field than they saw last time. Neither will be embarrassed and are very honest racehorses, but I prefer others this time. SKY CAPTAIN (Mark Casse) scratched from last Saturday’s Fountain of Youth Stakes for this spot, but note his recent form was not flattered when CERRO (Graham Motion) and MAJESTIC HUSSAR (Eddie Kenneally) both finished off the board in the FOY. Finally, To Honor And Serve’s little brother ELNAAWI (McLaughlin) adds Lasix off of a fast-early, slow-late maiden cruise on a sealed muddy track. We’ll learn what we need to know about him Saturday, but I trust the form of his stablemate TRANSPARENT more.


Grade 3 Swale Stakes (Saturday/Gulfstream Park) [GET PPs]

FORTY TALES (Todd Pletcher) has been as impressive as any sprinter we’ve seen on the 3-year-old trail this Countdown season, and Saturday’s 7-furlong trip of the Grade 3 Swale suits him perfectly. While the son of Tale of the Cat may get a stretch-out chance down the road – I’d love to see him at Keeneland based on pedigree – this looks to be superb placement by the Pletcher barn. If he comes running the way he did at the end of the Grade 2 Hutcheson in his local debut Feb. 2, the others will be running for second money.

CLEARLY NOW (Brian Lynch) put in an admirable effort in the Grade 3 Holy Bull when shuffled around in a chain-reaction start, then had to do all the dirty work chasing the classy SHANGHAI BOBBY (Todd Pletcher). On the cut-back in distance, and with others to tackle the speed, he figures to sit a dynamite trip and be a major threat.

A hot pace in the Swale makes FORTY TALES and CLEARLY NOW even stronger presences. If playing the multi-race wagers, it’s a single or two-deep only race to me. Others involved are UNDRAFTED (Wesley Ward), who figures to gun from the fence and be part of the pace heat, but enjoys a good fight and can hang tough; GOMBEY DANCER (Eddie Kenneally), perhaps the sharpest maiden sprint winner of the meet at Gulfstream in the 3-year-old male category; and RES JUDICATA (John Servis), a son of Smarty Jones owned and trained by the folks who stole our hearts in 2004.

Swale Stakes selections: W) FORTY TALES; P) CLEARLY NOW; S) UNDRAFTED

Gazebo Stakes (Saturday/Oaklawn Park) [GET PPs]

A $60,000 sprint in March doesn’t lead to a Triple Crown performance often, but I truly think TITLETOWN FIVE (D. Wayne Lukas) can be among this crop’s best, and he’s well placed in his 3-year-old debut in Saturday’s six-furlong Gazebo Stakes at Oaklawn. The race once known as the Mountain Valley was used by Afleet Alex in his 2005 run to the Arkansas Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes wins.

TITLETOWN FIVE, part-owned by Green Bay Packers legends Paul Hornung and Willie Davis, took VIOLENCE to the hilt at Saratoga before a dominant, bust-out maiden win at Churchill Downs in the fall, where he beat subsequent winter winners BRADESTER (Eddie Kenneally) and PROUD STRIKE (Steve Asmussen). The Tiznow colt had a minor knee chip removed and got back on the workout tab a month ago, so he’s short of his best, and smartly spotted at six furlongs for the return.

If TITLETOWN FIVE has not returned to his fall form, the Gazebo runs through horses like KING HENNY (Steve Asmussen), wisely returned to his best trip around one turn and with some talent; STORMY HOLIDAY (Mac Robertson), a late-running fourth in the Smarty Jones and one who would benefit from a pace duel to chase; and possibly MALIBU HIGH (Cecil Borel), another sprint-bred sophomore who failed around two turns but will appreciate this trip.

Unbeaten GET HAPPY MISTER (Kelly Von Hemel) was the Arapahoe Park rage last summer when going 4 for 4 by a total margin of more than 30 lengths, including three stakes wins.  His style is to go to the front, and he could make things difficult for TITLETOWN FIVE in any scenario, but who really knows how good he could be on class.


John Battaglia Memorial Stakes (Saturday/Turfway Park) [GET PPs]

Turfway Park’s third and final prep for the March 23 Grade 3 Spiral lured a capacity field of 12, but noticeably absent from the lineup is MAC THE MAN (Jeff Greenhill), winner of the first two legs of the series by a combined six lengths. He’ll await the big-money date in three weeks as this $75,000 purse falls to an eager cast.

BYE BYE BERNIE (Kelly Breen) improved significantly in his second start at the meet when second-best to MAC THE MAN in the 96Rocks Stakes on Feb. 2. Drawn wide that day in post No. 10, he’ll start the Battaglia only one spot closer in the nine-hole if there are no scratches. He figures to be part of a solid pace and hard used early from his starting spot. But BYE BYE BERNIE is moving the right direction, and it’s noteworthy that it took him four races to break his maiden, so a third start in his form cycle could be another big move forward.

As for wide-drawn speed, the Californian AVARE (Doug O’Neill) is harpooned in post 11. Avare was a tired seventh at Oaklawn in the Smarty Jones Stakes, and alumni from that race didn’t come back well. All six runners to run back from that race have finished fifth or worse, five of those on a sloppy track in the Southwest. And note O’Neill has shipped to Turfway with little to show for it, finishing off the board in the past two Spiral editions with Handsome Mike and Thirtyfirststreet.

Another barn that has seen some struggles at Turfway ships in STAR CONTENDER (Mark Casse). The Casse shippers are 0 for 11 at Turfway the last 5 years with three of those losses coming in recent editions of the Battaglia (3rd, 9th, 11th). STAR CONTENDER should appreciate the return to Polytrack based on his pedigree and past performances, but he, too, is drawn wide in post 10.

A curious horse in this spot is FOR GREATER GLORY (Steve Hobby), who ships in from Oaklawn to separate from stablemate BIG LUTE. It will be Hobby’s first starter at Turfway in more than four years since his turf ace Telling tried the Polytrack. I liked his maiden win Feb. 3 and he ran well in a very key November race at Churchill Downs prior to that. Unfortunately, his Feb. 3 pursuer MOON BACK MORE (Kenny McPeek) returns to action at Oaklawn about an hour later than the Battaglia Memorial, so we won’t get that early barometer. Perhaps FOR GREATER GLORY’s performance will work in reverse to help us with Oaklawn race 9 on Saturday in that regard.

GIANT FINISH (Tony Dutrow) rates a total wild card after wiring New York-bred allowance horses, but a wide post draw in the 12-hole makes it easier to look away from him. But one horse you can’t look away from is ADMIRAL KITTEN (Mike Maker), unbeaten in two starts after taking the El Joven Stakes on turf at Retama last fall. He debuted a two-turn route winner on the Keeneland Polytrack, and let me tell you that’s only happened a precious few times in the history of that surface at any class level. A debut route win at Keeneland is significant. The DRF.com Formulator Stat of the Week also purrs for ADMIRAL KITTEN. Maker wins 38 percent of his races at Turfway Park when moving horses turf to Polytrack over the last five years (41 for 107), including past Derby trail local stakes winners like Twinspired and Dean’s Kitten.

John Battaglia Memorial Stakes selections: W) ADMIRAL KITTEN; P) FOR GREATER GLORY; S) BYE BYE BERNIE.

Palm Beach Stakes (Sunday/Gulfstream Park)

Last week CERRO (Graham Motion) was re-routed away from the Grade 3 Palm Beach in favor of the Fountain of Youth in a move that didn’t work out too well. The pursuit of Kentucky Derby points has had an impact on this race, even if there will be none awarded at race’s end. The Palm Beach, at 1 1/8 miles on turf, has become a very important stop en route to the Grade 1 Blue Grass at Keeneland in recent years, and I’d expect this race to send two or three that way this year.

CHARMING KITTEN (Todd Pletcher) won the local lead-in Jan. 20 when grinding out a victory that hinted he’ll excel the farther he goes. The Kitten’s Joy colt lacks a fast burst and prefers to sustain his run. He galloped out best in the race named for his sire and will be a deserving favorite for the third straight time at the meet.

The new face to the GP turf stakes scene worth watching is that of RYDILLIUC (Gary Contessa), a razor-sharp visual winner here Jan. 5 with this race in mind ever since. His workout tab gives off nothing but positive vibes, and this one looks like a serious opponent for CHARMING KITTEN.

HOLIDAY STAR (Graham Motion) comes off back-to-back wins since coming south, but he may have taken advantage of a strange race shape in his Jan. 26 win. That race took a bit of a reputation hit when its fourth-place finisher came back to run poorly last weekend. In fact, you may be more interested in REPORTING STAR (Kathleen O’Connell) if looking for an allowance riser. He was a good third in a Feb. 9 race that I think was led by two future graded stakes winners in FIRE GUARD (Bill Mott) and JACK MILTON (Pletcher).

DEWEY SQUARE (Dale Romans) seeks a familiar path to Louisville by doing the Palm Beach-Blue Grass two-step. The pedigree for the son of Bernardini would project out nicely on turf as his mama Somethinaboutbetty was a graded stakes performer on the lawn. This is a horse with more ability than he showed in the Grade 3 Holy Bull for no apparent reason, and remember this stable turned around a mystifying race by Shackleford about this time two years ago on the trail. 

Palm Beach Stakes selections: W) RYDILLIUC; P) CHARMING KITTEN; S) DEWEY SQUARE.

Last week’s selections: 3: 1-1-0. Top choice DRY SUMMER (Joel Marr) won the Mine That Bird Derby, 7-1 selection CODE WEST (Bob Baffert) was a nose runner-up in a tough-beat Grade 2 Risen Star, and stretch-out sprinter MAJESTIC HUSSAR (Eddie Kenneally) cooked too fast when tiring to fourth in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth. Overall, it was a good handicapping week.

Season selections: 19: 6-4-3.

Everyone’s a critic

This section reviews the week that was in the 3-year-old ranks. Again, a note that the allowance and maiden coverage will only include highly impressive or significant movers from this point forward on the trail.

Stakes races

This season, Countdown will review the key Kentucky Derby “points preps” in further detail in the Countdown Rewind. Get more of Jeremy’s analysis on the Fountain of Youth Stakes and Risen Star Stakes by clicking on the race names.

We had a trio of listed stakes races last week that did not involve the Kentucky Derby points system, but still could have some impact on the trail. We head south for the Mine That Bird Derby at Sunland Park, the Turf Paradise Derby at Turf Paradise and the Gentilly Stakes at Fair Grounds.

Saturday’s $120,000 Mine That Bird Derby at Sunland Park went to script as DRY SUMMER (Joel Marr) followed up on his highly impressive local allowance prep score. The Del Mar grass stakes winner at age 2 has settled in nicely in the high altitude of greater El Paso, twice winning routes en route to the Grade 3 Sunland Park Derby on March 24 and its potential 50 qualifying points. The shippers had better come with some serious game to beat this horse. The pedigree is there by Any Given Saturday out of a Street Cry mare, and he continues to finish races with a want for more.

Another potential Grade 3 Sunland Park Derby prep took place Saturday with the $75,000 Turf Paradise Derby, a race won by California shipper PERSUASIVE PAUL (Doug O’Neill). The Olmodavor colt broke his maiden on turf at Santa Anita in January and transitioned well to dirt with a smooth run from off the pace. His sustained rally saved ground and split horses nicely without losing any momentum to win by three-plus lengths. Runner-up BROKERED (Craig Dollase) also came in from California and was hung wide most of the trip, but continued to run on gamely, one-paced as if he’s a horse who will like more distance.

SUNBEAN (Al Stall Jr.) tossed his hat in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby picture with an authoritative score in Saturday’s $60,000 Gentilly Stakes at Fair Grounds. Sure, he beat Louisiana-breds in this contest at 4-5 odds, but the Brahms colt did it in fast fashion in 1:42.72 for 1 mile and 70 yards. The damside pedigree leans toward sprints, but Stall wisely has placed this colt so far and was shrewd to scratch from the bad post in the Grade 2 Risen Star for this spot.

Allowance and maiden races

The Louisiana Derby scene picked up another major player Saturday on the Risen Star undercard when impressive GROUND TRANSPORT (Mike Stidham) captured his second straight route since a debut sprint second. The Big Brown colt drew away by three lengths and continues to rise toward the top of that circuit’s sophomore class. This one has a rich turf pedigree on the damside and the sky is the limit. And speaking of Big Brown, his New York-bred colt REACHING OUT (Rudy Rodriguez) decimated state-bred allowance routers in race 6 Saturday at Aqueduct, hinting at open company ability. His dam is half-sister to super fast Comedero.

Many eyes were on a race 7 turf allowance Saturday at Gulfstream on the Fountain of Youth undercard. British import CROP REPORT (Graham Motion) brought some intrigue to the table, while the public leaned slightly to the first-time turfer TESSERON (Josie Carroll), runner-up in the Grade 3 Grey and second in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes on synthetic and dirt last season. Like many Europeans, CROP REPORT did not leave the gate clean or quick, and took much of the race to figure this American racing scene out. But once he did, he closed nicely, showed some athletic ability between horses and will be a horse of considerable buzz next time. TESSERON stayed wide throughout and likely got a lot out of this comeback even in defeat. Oddly enough, the one-two finishers in this race, BLACK ONYX (Kelly Breen) and REDWOOD KITTEN (Wesley Ward), may produce less fanfare. Both are turf-bred and potential candidates for the Polytrack stakes to come. In fact, you could see the top four here all aim to a Turfway or Keeneland stakes next.

CARRIED INTEREST (Rick Violette), runner-up in the Grade 2 Futurity at Belmont to OVERANALYZE (Todd Pletcher) when last seen in September, failed to hold his speed Sunday in his Gulfstream race 3 allowance bid at six furlongs. The Henny Hughes colt set the tempo, but was edged late by CITY OF WESTON (Antonio Sano), runner-up in the Spectacular Bid Stakes in January. The time of 1:09.23 was very sharp over this particular track.

RUBLE (Ian Wilkes) blitzed a lightly raced field wire to wire to take a Gulfstream Park race 5 maiden sprint Saturday in a sharp 1:09.89. The Triple Crown nominee by Exchange Rate would seem to be progressing as a possible Derby Trial candidate. This is a maternal grandson of Listening, a multiple Grade 1 route winner of the Hollywood Oaks and Milady among others.

Where are they headed?

This section returns to Countdown this week as I project the possible fields in upcoming major stakes. The information is a cross-section of interviews, news and track reports, and some good, old-fashioned projection of good fits. The list is by no means official or representative of the racing offices of the individual tracks.




Spiral Stakes (Turfway, March 23): UNCAPTURED (or Rushaway), FEAR THE KITTEN, CHANNEL ISLE, CERRO (possible), CROP REPORT (possible), BAMBAZONKI (possible), ZEEWAT (possible), DICE FLAVOR (possible), FRAC DADDY (possible)

Sunland Derby (Sunland Park, March 24): DRY SUMMER, PERSUASIVE PAUL, POWER BROKER (possible), SHAKIN IT UP (possible), DEN’S LEGACY (possible), SHOW SOME MAGIC, STORM DRIVER

Florida Derby (Gulfstream Park, March 31): ITSMYLUCKYDAY, SHANGHAI BOBBY, BERN IDENTITY, MY NAME IS MICHAEL, SPEAK LOGISITCS (possible), ORB (possible)


Later to come: Wood Memorial (Aqueduct, April 6), Santa Anita Derby (Santa Anita, April 6), Arkansas Derby (Oaklawn Park, April 13), Blue Grass (April 13), Lexington (Keeneland, April 20), Illinois Derby (Hawthorne, April 20) and Derby Trial (Churchill Downs, April 27).

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. ORB (Fountain of Youth, Gulfstream, 2/23)
4. OXBOW (Lecomte Stakes, Fair Grounds, 1/19)
5. SUPER NINETY NINE (Southwest Stakes, Oaklawn, 2/18)

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!