03/02/2012 8:55AM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 9 - March 2, 2012

Email

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 having a birthday on Leap Day. Every four years you deserve to celebrate something good.

1. In this corner, UNION RAGS (Michael Matz). In the far corner, EL PADRINO (Todd Pletcher). Touch gloves, come out boxing. Barring injury, I’m not sure I’ve seen a Triple Crown trail in Countdown’s seven years that has looked so much like a heavyweight showdown between just two horses as we approach the first weekend in March. Where’s referee Mills Lane when you need a “Let’s get it on!” belted out?

2. The ridiculously mild winter in the Northeast has made Aqueduct a usable path to the Triple Crown this year, and the timing couldn’t be better in the first season of the slots money grab. If the Big A can’t create a Gotham of significance this year, I’m not sure it can be done. Saturday’s $400,000 headliner already lured Eclipse Award winner HANSEN (Mike Maker). Now we’ll see how it plays out.

3. Shame on NYRA for barring HANSEN’s owners from dying the horse’s mane its color of choice for the Gotham. Horses run every day with checkerboard patterns shaved into their hind end and pom-poms tied into their manes. There’s no restriction on horrific silks colors either. Why put the kibosh on something that could deliver so much publicity and general good will from a younger and more female audience than you’re used to attracting?

This week’s fearless forecast

This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. The G3 Gotham has bumped up its purse and lured its best field in years. We’ll dive into that one, as well as a pair of listed stakes at Turfway and Oaklawn. First, let’s look at some undercard races of importance.

If you like big-time pedigree debuts, check out Sunday’s race 7 maiden sprint at Gulfstream Park. The lineup includes a full-brother to the great Eight Belles in UNBRIDLED’S WAY as well as a half-brother to G1 Hopeful winner Sky Mesa in BROOME STREET. They’re merely coupled in the betting for Darley Stable and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. How’s that for a cool debut entry? The field also includes the A.P. Indy-Exotic Wood blue-blood KEY TO POWER (Bill Mott).

Saturday’s Santa Anita Handicap undercard includes a must-see race 2 maiden route showdown between STIRRED UP (Bob Baffert) and HOLY CANDY (John Sadler). The winner moves directly into graded stakes if he delivers to potential. In a race 4 maiden sprint on the same program, I expect big improvement second time out from STRATIFY (Eoin Harty) in a match-up with Silverbulletday’s grandson MILE HIGH MAGIC (Bob Baffert).

:: LIVE VIDEO: Watch the Santa Anita Handicap card Live on DRF.com

Saturday’s Gotham Stakes undercard at Aqueduct includes a race 6 maiden route where first-time starter QUARTO (Tom Albertrani) will be in the crosshairs. He’s by A.P. Indy out of Octave, a dynamite pedigree to be sure. A trio of Gulfstream shippers makes this a deep test for local second-itis colt TERM LOAN (Rick Violette).

Later today (Friday, March 2), a couple of Southern allowance route tilts are of major note. At Oaklawn, race 8 is a 1 1/16-mile allowance for 3-year-olds and older, and one of only two sophomores in the gate is NAJJAAR (Danny Peitz), a late-running, run-all-day type who could use this as a springboard to the Arkansas Derby if he fires big. At Fair Grounds about an hour earlier, race 7 is a 1 mile and 70-yard allowance in which SIR BOND (Neil Howard) returns after a commanding maiden win in one of those “nibbler breaks out” performances I love to see. The lightbulb is on, we’ll find out how bright he is when he meets BOLD FRONT and TETRADRACHM, last-out maiden winners from the Paul McGee barn. TIZ MOE and FIRE ALARM team up for Bret Calhoun’s stable and exit a pretty good allowance Feb. 9. This may be the deepest allowance of the meet at Fair Grounds. Louisiana Derby implications are on the line.

Gulfstream has an interesting race 8 maiden turf route later today as well. In it, SHIPSHAPE (Bill Mott) kicks off his career after a solid set of works and pedigree to burn. The son of Empire Maker is half-brother to English Group 1 winner and US Grade 2 turf winner Etoile Montante. GOLDEN RIDGE (Mark Casse) debuts as a son of Distorted Humor-Indian Vale, while LORD TARZAN (Graham Motion) returns out of one of the best turf maidens of the meet and owns the experience edge.

Saturday’s Gulfstream action includes a race 2 maiden sprint for Florida-breds, which leads into an important 1 1/8-mile allowance route in race 3. The allowance includes dominant debut winner HEAVY BREATHING (Todd Pletcher) making a two-turn stretch-out. BIG SCREEN (Frank Alexander) makes his first start since a well-beaten fourth in the meet’s best allowance to date, chasing EL PADRINO (Todd Pletcher) and TAKE CHARGE INDY (Pat Byrne). The sophomores also follow up in race 4 when WENT THE DAY WELL (Graham Motion) tops a 1-1/16 miles route. The race could be Nick Zito’s last stand to uncork a Triple Crown threat this year as TIZ YANKEE stretches out in distance after a series of solid efforts around one turn. He’s not been a stellar finisher, however. PLATED (Barclay Tagg) may improve in his second start and stretch-out since he’s by Tiznow out of a half-sister to champion Flanders.

A Wood Memorial fringe player may come out of Sunday’s New York-bred route allowance at Aqueduct in race 7. The field includes Triple Crown nominee READYTODEFER (Bruce Levine) and his rival ZETTERHOLM (Rick Dutrow). From a betting standpoint, watch what PRETENSION (Chris Grove) does in Saturday’s G3 Gotham to get a better line on COALITION (Tom Bush) in this particular race.

G3 Gotham Stakes (Saturday/Aqueduct)

:: LIVE VIDEO: Watch the Gotham Stakes Live on DRF.com

I never like to mislead, so the first thing you should know about the G3 Gotham on Saturday is that I simply don’t know what to make of it. It should be just as easy as HANSEN (Mike Maker), last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Eclipse Award winner. But for some reason I can’t pull the confidence trigger. Maybe I’m over-thinking this 1 1/16-mile prep for the G1 Wood Memorial in April.

Maker removes blinkers for the first time in five races for HANSEN, who will carry 123 pounds and spot all but two horses in the race a 7-pound edge. MY ADONIS (Kelly Breen) and RACONTEUR (Todd Pletcher) will get a 3-pound allowance. HANSEN breaks from post 12 in a baker’s dozen lineup with a moderate run to the first turn. Given his tremendous gate speed and lack of another absolute early gas burner to his inside, I don’t look at the post as much of a challenge in this particular set-up. The weight could be a different story.

Even without blinkers, I don’t expect HANSEN to lose his speedy brilliance. But in order for him to become a legitimate threat to beat 19 other horses at 1 1/4 miles on Derby Day, trainer Maker has to start finding some other qualities in his champion than just speed. He didn’t find that at all in the G3 Holy Bull around one turn, where HANSEN turned on the jets and cooled late. From a betting standpoint, you don’t want to put together a $50 pick four ticket and not use HANSEN, but I certainly could see a contrarian bettor trying to knock him off in the majority of plays. That’s how I will approach.

So where to go for alternatives? There are many.

MY ADONIS (Kelly Breen) finished only a half-length behind HANSEN in the G3 Holy Bull and reasonable minds could gather that he would have blown by had that race been the Gotham’s 1 1/16-mile distance. But what makes this horse a question is running style. He closed like a rocket in the Holy Bull only because he had a disastrous start. His natural speed usually puts him in the early fractions of a race with the leaders. If he tries to chase HANSEN early, I doubt seriously he has that same kind of kick late. It took MY ADONIS nearly 3 weeks to return to the workout tab after the Holy Bull and trainer Breen’s charges have been susceptible to bounces after huge efforts in the past. My gut says to keep looking for another alternative this Saturday, but he’s definitely a horse who will move up on the presumed wet track that is forecasted.

STEALCASE (Mark Casse) has been well-meant since his debut when hammered on the tote at Saratoga. You don’t see Canadian trainers like Casse debut horses at 8-5 at the Spa without some serious buzz. But the race that matters most to me for STEALCASE was his route attempt at Gulfstream on Jan. 19 where he was very professional and efficient in beating WINDSURFER (Todd Pletcher), who returned to win his next outing. STEALCASE has worked very well out of that race and is well-drawn to save ground for a closing kick. He’s faced stakes winners THUNDER MOCCASSIN (Todd Pletcher) and OFFICER PRADO (Steve Asmussen) already in the maiden ranks, so this might not be as huge a step up in class as it looks on paper.

Todd Pletcher sends out two shots with DAN AND SHEILA and RACONTEUR, the former coming off a fourth-place finish in the G3 Lecomte, a race that was slow on the clock and didn’t exactly flatter itself with its alumni coming back in the G2 Risen Star last weekend. That said, RACONTEUR has a much more route-sturdy pedigree and running style, and while he’s not brilliant whatsoever, he’s a grinder that has run well over the Aqueduct surface. I prefer RACONTEUR of the Pletcher pair. I find it very interesting that the barn has been working RACONTEUR in company with its elite sprinter Calibrachoa, a significant positive.

Dale Romans also doubles down with FINNEGANS WAKE and SUNS OUT GUNS OUT, one a turfer, the other a maiden. On dirt, I prefer the maiden of the duo, SUNS OUT GUNS OUT. He’s a son of Empire Maker I’ve been waiting to bust out all winter, but he just hasn’t. A smashing workout Feb. 26 might be the sign the lightbulb has gone on. If he runs big, I won’t be surprised.

DONE TALKING (Hamilton Smith) will get a decent amount of chatter leading into the Gotham and deservedly so. He finished up fastest of all in the G2 Remsen last fall and veteran Maryland horseman Hamilton Smith has a legitimate, long-range Kentucky Derby hopeful here for 10 furlongs. But the patient trainer likely won’t have DONE TALKING cranked for this contest, and I look for him to run on well and be dangerous in the G1 Wood Memorial.

The Gotham has some rather off-the-wall options that intrigue me as well. PRETENSION (Chris Grove) has a track-able style for a barn that finished second in this race last year with 47-1 shot Norman Asbjornson. He may be able to save a little ground from his draw and if he’s not as rank early as he’s been in some races, I promise you he will be fit. Grove is one of the better stamina trainers around the region and coming off the deep Bowie Training Center, I don’t think PRETENSION will back up much. Another Marylander of intrigue is TIGER WALK (Ignacio Correas), from Kevin Plank’s Under Armour camp at Sagamore Farm. Every time I watch this horse on tape, I make another note about him being green, wanting to do more, making the jockey ride every single step. His third to ALPHA (Kiaran McLaughlin) in the G3 Withers was a good effort. If not for a terrible post 13 for his running style, I might have tabbed him as the upset win special.

Gotham Stakes selections: W) STEALCASE; P) HANSEN; S) TIGER WALK.

John Battaglia Memorial Stakes (Saturday/Turfway Park)

The locals have seen enough of MR. PRANKSTER (Mike Maker) and obviously don’t find his shtick too funny anymore. Only five challengers have shown up to contest the $75,000 John Battaglia Memorial at 1 1/16 miles, the final major prep for the Grade 3 Spiral in three weeks. Of the five challengers, only two are locally based, WEBN Stakes runner-up PHANTOM FURY (Mike Lauer) and a recent maiden winner who appears to be helping fill the field.

After dominant scores by MR. PRANKSTER in the Turfway Prevue (3 1/2 lengths) and WEBN Stakes (7 1/2) lengths, who can blame them? His late-running style doesn’t make him susceptible to the extra sixteenth of a mile in distance on Saturday. He will carry co-top weight of 124 pounds along with G2 With Anticipation Stakes winner STATE OF PLAY (Graham Motion). PHANTOM FURY will be in receipt of a six-pound spread Saturday vs. a four-pound spread in the WEBN Stakes.

STATE OF PLAY does his best running near the front, as do most offspring of War Front, and wants to be allowed to roll on his own. He was unable to nurse that speed in the G3 Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs in a race that didn’t move him forward at all. You would expect he’ll appreciate the surface and competition level in the Battaglia, but from a pace stand-point, he’s going to face the best front-runner he’s met in his career to date in PHANTOM FURY. The local sprint and route winner is a quality pacemaker who simply was burnt up in the WEBN with a far-too-fast second quarter-mile when hounded by an impossible longshot.

The cat-and-mouse between STATE OF PLAY and PHANTOM FURY up front should bode very well for MR. PRANKSTER to come flying late. While these three horses don’t have to finish one-two-three by any means, their styles will absolutely tell the fate of how this race ends.

Others include DYNAMICAL (Mark Casse), a maiden from Gulfstream who has kept solid company lines in two starts. He’s by Hard Spun, who loved the Turfway Polytrack in 2007 when winning the Spiral (formerly Lane’s End Stakes) and later the Kentucky Cup Classic. And ILL CONCEIVED (John Servis) invades from Philadelphia after a decent try in Laurel’s Count Fleet behind a decent New York invader in BEGGARTHYNEIGHBOR (Chad Brown). Either of these could find a placing if the two front-runners burn each other to pieces, which is possible.

Battaglia Stakes selections: W) MR. PRANKSTER; P) PHANTOM FURY; S) STATE OF PLAY.

Gazebo Stakes (Saturday/Oaklawn Park)

Formerly named the Mountain Valley Stakes, this 6-furlong sprint was famously used by Afleet Alex in his 2005 run toward the Triple Crown. But mostly the Gazebo should be looked at as a sprinter’s race. The field does include Triple Crown nominations in EXFACTOR (Bernie Flint), LAKE VICTOR (Steve Asmussen) and MR. BLUEGRASS MUSIC (Richard Jackson). EXFACTOR certainly is the most accomplished of the group winning Churchill Downs’ G3 Bashford Manor at 2 as well as the Sugar Bowl at Fair Grounds.

MR. BLUEGRASS MUSIC finished third in his local return Jan. 29 behind the razor-sharp SCATMAN (Mike Lauer), a rival who ranks among top handful of sophomores on the grounds at Oaklawn. When SCATMAN exited that race to nearly wire the G3 Southwest Stakes, it certainly flattered the form of MR. BLUEGRASS MUSIC, who has trained well out of that effort.

LAKE VICTOR has caught a couple of very easy assignments at Fair Grounds in his last two wins, beating just eight rivals combined in those races. This will truly be a test for him against a deeper and tougher field. Given the connections with Cliff Berry riding for Steve Asmussen, he could be an underlay on the tote.

EXFACTOR is a tough read, blown away in his two-turn experiment in the G3 Lecomte, a race that hasn’t turned out all that strong. Obviously he’s better sprinting at this stage, but he’s worked only twice since that Jan. 21 event and neither was anything special. His old pilot Calvin Borel opts to ride for his big brother Cecil Borel with BROWN EYED JOZI, the same decision that went into the Borels teaming together in the Sugar Bowl when being soundly beaten by EXFACTOR. He hasn’t run since, but is working well for the return and has inside speed that could be dangerous.

MIGHTY MONSOON (Jeff Bonde) wheels back on 13 days’ rest after a DQ allowance victory, his best effort since a third last summer in the G2 Best Pal at Del Mar. He could be moving the right way and is paired with an excellent, late-running jockey in Luis Quinonez.

Gazebo Stakes selections: W) BROWN EYED JOZI; P) MR. BLUEGRASS MUSIC; S) MIGHTY MONSOON.

Last week’s selections: 1:1-0-0. Top choice EL PADRINO and second choice MARK VALESKI led a cold Countdown exacta in the Risen Star. Top selection ALGORITHMS scratched for the Fountain of Youth.

Season selections: 18: 6-3-3.

Everyone’s a critic

This section reviews the week that was in the 3-year-old ranks. And, oh what a week at the top with dynamite stakes performers!

G2 Risen Star (2/25, FG-11)

Coming through the lane, Saturday’s Risen Star at Fair Grounds harkened back to the fantastic duel between Street Sense and Any Given Saturday in the 2007 Tampa Bay Derby. The two best horses on paper, EL PADRINO (Todd Pletcher) and MARK VALESKI (Larry Jones), delivered on all their promise and produced a stakes-record time for 1 1/16 miles. A nose separated them in 1:42.96, a legitimate time as the top pair put 5 1/2 lengths on the rest of the field and finished a smidgen quicker than even older Grade 3 stakes horses went in the same-day Mineshaft Handicap.

What we have here is one very serious Triple Crown contender in EL PADRINO, a horse with all the tools. He’s got the pedigree, the connections, the ability to blowout inferior competition and lock into a tussle with horses of similar abilities. He’s battle-tested and can win on fast or wet tracks. Good luck finding a legitimate flaw. EL PADRINO did become stirred in the paddock and reared without further incident. We will want to keep track of his pre-race behavior.

What we have in MARK VALESKI is the kind of upstart we all clamor for on the trail. He’s what so, so many are not – a fast sprinter who answered the class test and the distance test in the same breath. Yes, he’s graded quality. Yes, he can’t get a route distance. Now the question becomes of ceiling and how high he can go?

As noted in Countdown last week, these two horses appeared to have the best trip set-up on paper. The Risen Star played out exactly as diagrammed with these two talents stalking a fairly hopeless front-runner in HERO OF ORDER (Gennadi Dorochenko). MARK VALESKI took first run at the lead and EL PADRINO showed his versatility and experience by unwinding throughout the entire Fair Grounds stretch. MARK VALESKI drifted a bit when struck left-handed by Rosie Napravnik and instigated some contact, while EL PADRINO reciprocated a nudge of his own coming to the wire. The stewards didn’t have an easy call, but I think they got it right leaving the result stand.

The race should prove to be an education for both, and actually EL PADRINO got some schooling early when he was sawed off a bit leaving the starting gate. He had to overcome a large field and immediate traffic issues to recapture early position and work out his own trip. That’s a plus come Louisville, for that’s exactly what the Derby is known for. If you like to look at gallop-outs like I do, EL PADRINO easily drew away from MARK VALESKI around the clubhouse turn in an effort that looked like he could handle much more.

As for the rest, and they truly all were outrun in the lane, Z DAGER (Steve Asmussen) was a very even third in a performance only slightly better than his Lecomte bid when second. Given his light career workload, you had to hope to see a bigger move forward, but this certainly was not a deflating effort. HERO OF ORDER got away with an easy pace because no one trusted him to steal it and parlayed it into a fourth-place finish that’s not going to earn great praise.  Late-runners like SHARED PROPERTY (Tom Amoss), AFFORD (Greg Geier) and OPTIMIZER (D. Wayne Lukas) never really got into it with the pace set-up. For their sake, they better hope some out-of-town speed comes in for the Louisiana Derby, even if it is at 1-1/8 miles. With a better post draw and some pace to close into, I still think SHARED PROPERTY is a horse to be reckoned with on this circuit. OPTIMIZER appeared to resent the kickback in his face for the early going and may simply need a return to the turf or synthetics where he showed promise last year. I’d like to see him in the G1 Blue Grass at Keeneland if anywhere.

MR. BOWLING ran last of 11 and proved our suspicions right that he didn’t come out of the Lecomte victory nearly as well as his opponents. As tough of a race as the Risen Star was on the top two finishers, EL PADRINO and MARK VALESKI, it also will be key to see how they come out of this event in their upcoming workouts in terms of timing, spacing and consistency with previous works. A solid case can be made that one or both could regress next time after a taxing effort like this.

G2 Fountain of Youth (2/26, GP-11)

As fantastic as UNION RAGS (Michael Matz) looked in victory, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed in how the once-promising Fountain of Youth turned out. The scratch of ALGORITHMS (Todd Pletcher) on the morning of the race due to a popped splint bone took a lot of the starch out of this field that was top-heavy to be sure, but laced with more filler than a ballpark crabcake.

Turns out, DISCREET DANCER (Todd Pletcher) was way more like his older brother Travelin Man than bright-eyed fans and pundits had hoped. He couldn’t handle the two-turn trip, beaten more than 6 lengths in third while setting an easy pace. In fact, the pace might have been too easy for anyone’s good.

DISCREET DANCER gave up his advantage as blinding early speed, instead trying to nurse the lead under John Velazquez. When sprinter-types go 6 furlongs in 1:12, they don’t help themselves, rather they invite better routers to the party, and thus get outfinished. In fact, UNION RAGS passed him before they even turned for home. This made the Fountain of Youth infinitely easier on UNION RAGS than it could have been. He was allowed to track in a pedestrian manner and only have to let out a run for a quarter-mile (during the race’s third quarter). As is historically the key with any two-prep campaign, you have to get something out of one of the efforts. A tougher race in the Grade 1 Florida Derby would benefit UNION RAGS immensely for his Kentucky Derby chances.

I’m finding absolutely no flaw in UNION RAGS. He was sensational even if the race around him wasn’t. For a first start of the year, this was over-the-moon impressive. But it won’t do much for battle-testing a warrior. Like mentioned above with EL PADRINO, good luck finding a blemish on this guy. His pre-race perspiration was in order with how clockers have reported he has trained. UNION RAGS looks capable of more and I hope we get to see that next time out. With only two preps, he doesn’t have the luxury of multiple softballs. Even Big Brown ran 1:48 flat in his 2008 Florida Derby and set a wicked-fast pace in doing it in blowout fashion from post 12.

But what’s left in Florida to warm him up? The Gulfstream Derby has turned up an empty race with another egg laid by CASUAL TRICK (Nick Zito) in the Fountain of Youth. And I can’t imagine the HANSEN or ALPHA folks rushing to Florida to challenge UNION RAGS after this performance, though DRF’s Jay Privman reports that Kiaran McLaughlin may send ALPHA south if the field size looks small. 

As for the FoY also-rans, runner-up NEWS PENDING (Dale Romans) was our sneaky longshot and ran to it with a very good effort. Kent Desormeaux smartly detected a slow pace and kept him much closer to the front than expected. His versatile running style and varied surface affinity makes him an interesting player.  With stablemate DULLAHAN likely aiming for the G1 Blue Grass, it makes sense that he could stay right here for the G1 Florida Derby next and take another crack at UNION RAGS.

The post-script to the Fountain of Youth is that ALGORITHMS has gone off the Derby trail and will need more time to recover following surgery before the spring classics. He went from No. 1 or No. 2 in many fans’ personal polls to now being a summer/fall hope for a return.

Listed stakes

When New York-bred THE LUMBER GUY (Mike Hushion) crushed statebreds in his career debut, we mentioned in Countdown that he’s one to watch in open company in the G3 Bay Shore on the Wood Memorial undercard. Well, the super-fast son of Grand Slam made no bones about his ability to step out of the NY-bred ranks on Saturday. He toyed with the $100,000 Miracle Wood Stakes field at Laurel Park, running them off their feet early, taking a second-quarter breather, then rebreaking in the lane like good horses do. He reminds me a little bit of Smoke Glacken, an effortless gray sprinter who runs fast and doesn’t look like it at all. THE LUMBER GUY is not Triple Crown nominated, but don’t dismiss him against one-turn runners on the class rise.

ISN’T HE CLEVER (Henry Dominguez), is another horse not nominated to the Triple Crown, but worthy of your attention. He scored Saturday’s $150,000 Borderland Derby and earned a spot in the G3 Sunland Park Derby on March 25. He knocked off ZACKN’MAT (Marty Jones), a solid maiden winner at Santa Anita who had been facing some of Bob Baffert’s best 3-year-olds in recent starts. ZACKN’MAT finished up well and should be well-placed in the 9-furlong Sunland Derby if they bring him back to New Mexico. Expect that race to be infinitely deeper than this Borderland Derby, which looked on paper and played out on the track, like a two-horse race.

Five horses finished within 1 1/4 lengths at the wire of Sunday’s Baffle Stakes at Santa Anita for turf sprinters. Only BRIGAND (Bob Baffert) was Triple Crown nominated, and he didn’t deliver much in his first start of the year. TONES (Doug O’Neill) continued a red-hot run for his barn and also flattered the form of FED BIZ (Bob Baffert), who beat him by 19 lengths in allowance company on dirt last time. TONES was a turf/synthetic runner in England and could be a consideration for something like Keeneland’s G3 Lexington at 1 1/16 miles on Polytrack.

Don’t expect Saturday’s Turf Paradise Derby to impact the trail this year, even on the regional prep level. Former claimer TAYLORS DEAL (Sandi Gann) stretched out in distance to win his second straight stakes. The big disappointment was the total wilt of IMMACULTE (Eric Guillot) as the son of Distorted Humor-Folklore had absolutely nothing late in his two-turn and stakes unveiling.

Allowances

We might have seen a Florida Derby challenger for UNION RAGS emerge from Saturday’s Gulfstream turf allowance in race 7. Versus one of the strongest fields of the entire meeting for the 3-year-olds, OUR ENTOURAGE (Todd Pletcher) returned a dynamite winner in his first start since last fall’s G2 Remsen on dirt. Admittedly, I was highly disappointed in this contest with FILM SHOT (Bill Mott), who didn’t carry his speed anywhere near like he did in an impressive maiden win. While OUR ENTOURAGE’s mama was fantastic on the turf, the son of Street Cry-Sand Springs definitely has distance capabilities and some surface versatility. OUR ENTOURAGE ran well on the Polytrack at Keeneland last fall and could be a prime candidate for the 9-furlong G1 Blue Grass back in Kentucky. But owner Mike Repole’s affinity for the New York racing program could also see this one land in the G1 Wood at Aqueduct. Either way, this is one of the more promising risers from the undercards at Gulfstream all meeting long.

POLITICALLYCORRECT (Wesley Ward) likely earned himself a stakes date at Keeneland when rallying to win a 7-furlong allowance Sunday at Gulfstream Park. The son of Kitten’s Joy out of a Tale of the Cat mare could not be bred any better for the Polytrack, and owner Ken Ramsey circles that meet on his calendar. POLITICALLYCORRECT was well-beaten in a dull Gulfstream Park Derby, but caught a good pace set-up Sunday when a three-way speed duel fell apart in front of him, including 4-5 favorite LIBERTY BOUND (Todd Pletcher), who faded to fifth of seven. SEVE (Dale Romans), a half-brother to millionaire You, settled for second and just doesn’t have that brilliant gear.

Maidens

ARM FORCE (Eoin Harty), younger brother to Dubai World Cup champ Well Armed, made giant strides from his first start to his second, winning a Gulfstream Park maiden sprint on Sunday. As is often the case with Harty trainees, you need to catch this barn second time out, not first. The son of Tiznow could get a chance to make the classics, but the patient barn won’t hustle to get there. This could be much more of a Travers-type horse by late summer. Note his 7-furlong time was about 2 to 3 lengths slower than allowance winner and fellow sophomore POLITICALLYCORRECT on the same card. Runner-up SPIN OUT (Nick Zito) improved in his second start but was second-best.

If you like impressive Fair Grounds maiden winner BOURBON COURAGE (Kellyn Gorder), and you should, then you had to like the result of Saturday’s race 2 maiden sprint in New Orleans. There, MACHO MACHO (Neil Howard) posted a handy win in his second lifetime start after being dismantled in the debut by BOURBON COURAGE. The second and third-place finishers in this race both look like racehorses and you’ll want to circle them when they get a route distance. PARABELLUM (Tom Amoss) will excel on turf with his pedigree, while AGENT DI NOZZI (Steve Margolis) should handle any surface. One note about BOURBON COURAGE for caution, however, is that he’s only worked once since that Feb. 3 win, and not since Feb. 17, a sign we never like to see.

First-time starters were of order Saturday at Oaklawn in two maiden divisions. Going 1 1/16 miles, rookie KID SIDNEY (Jinks Fires) rallied last to first to edge SKYRING (D. Wayne Lukas). The son of Lemon Drop Kid is a pure router. In a race 10 maiden sprint at 6 furlongs, JIMMER (Shannon Ritter) won the jump over yet another Lukas trainee in runner-up SARK. The winner is bred top and bottom for sprint/mile races. SARK had been away since Saratoga and should be tighter for the next trip.

Quick hitters

Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager (Free PPs) will be offered through Sunday at betting outlets around the country and online. My rule of thumb given we’re two months out from the Derby is that you still want to demand at least three times the price you might see on Derby Day to get interested. If a horse you like is below 20-1 now, play him with ALL OTHER 3YOs in the exactas instead, where you might turn him into a 40-1 shot with any help underneath ... I’LL HAVE ANOTHER (Doug O’Neill) will be working between races Saturday on Big Cap Day at Santa Anita to get used to the crowd. His lead pony will be none other than Lava Man ... G2 Kentucky Jockey Club runner-up EVER SO LUCKY (Jonathan Sheppard) is looking mighty iffy for the Triple Crown trail after another minor setback, this time a bruised foot, as his trainer told HRTV’s Caton Bredar on Saturday. He’s still trying to make the G2 Swale on March 10 if all goes perfectly … SKY KINGDOM (Bob Baffert) has been taken off the Derby trail this week by the barn, announced @Midnightlute on Twitter. You have to love the information era in which we live … Also sidelined from the Triple Crown trail this past week to injury were Smarty Jones Stakes winner JUNEBUGRED (Steve Hobby) and CONSORTIUM (Kiaran McLaughlin) … MOTOR CITY (Ian Wilkes), a horse I have been waiting to see return this spring with much positive hope, turned in the slowest half-mile workout of the day Wednesday at Palm Meadows and does not appear to be progressing in a serious manner at this stage, a big disappointment for me as a fan and player … Next week’s races to circle on the calendar include Saturday’s G2 San Felipe at Santa Anita, G2 Tampa Bay Derby and G2 Swale at Gulfstream Park. Turfers will get a shot in next Saturday’s Black Gold at Fair Grounds and next Sunday’s G3 Plam Beach at Gulfstream.

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. BOURBON COURAGE (Fair Grounds, 2/3) 
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. OUR ENTOURAGE (Gulfstream, 2/25) * NEW *
5. CYBER SECRET (Oaklawn 2/4) 

Stakes Race

1. EL PADRINO (Risen Star, FG, 2/25) * NEW *
2. UNION RAGS (Fountain of Youth, GP, 2/26) * NEW *
3. ALGORITHMS (Holy Bull, GP, 1/29) 
4. I’LL HAVE ANOTHER (Lewis Memorial, SA, 2/4) 
5. OUT OF BOUNDS (Sham, SA, 1/7)

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!