Editor’s note: 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
Before you think you’ve figured out how many weeks between starts is best for a Derby contender, save yourself the embarrassment. The last four winners were off four, six, three and five weeks, respectively, which pretty much sums up that anything goes.
This week’s fearless forecast
This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. We get a last-call Derby prep at Keeneland and a potential Preakness lead-in at Hawthorne. Let’s get right to the stakes.
Charismatic will not jump up from the unknowns this week and become the next Kentucky Derby winner. In fact, it’s unlikely any horse from Saturday’s 11-deep Grade 3 Lexington will be represented on the first Saturday in May. But strangely enough the Lexington may produce an Oaks filly in PURE FUN (Kenny McPeek).
A week after his barn captured the Grade 1 Blue Grass with Java’s War, McPeek aims his filly PURE FUN at the Lexington in hopes of securing transferable Kentucky Oaks qualifying points at a run for the lilies. The Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet winner, PURE FUN will have her work cut out for her from post 11, however. Behind the clock in preparation this winter/spring, PURE FUN flattened out late in the Grade 3 Bourbonette Oaks March 27 in her only start on the season. McPeek bypassed logical targets in the Fantasy and Ashland against the fillies, and apparently the racing gods frowned on that at the pill pull with the widest draw. She has been installed a lukewarm 7-2 morning-line favorite by Keeneland oddsmaker Mike Battaglia, but I don’t consider her a big factor in the Lexington outcome.
The Lexington 11 lacks an easy throw-out horse other than longshot HIP FOUR SIXTYNINE (Bobby Barnett), but even he could play a role in the early pace. But among the colts, you have horses who have combined to finish 6th, 6th, 8th, 10th and 11th in five cumulative graded stakes bids. I am dismissing the filly from the wide post and not enamored by what we’ve seen from the graded stakes veterans, so this Lexington appears ripe for a class riser in form.
Three horses on the class rise merit our attention. Let’s inspect the chances of WINNING CAUSE (Todd Pletcher), RIVER ROCKS (Wayne Catalano) and EXAMEN (Tom Proctor).
WINNING CAUSE visually impressed with a steam-train close two Saturdays ago in allowance company. Of the 408 seven-furlong races run on the Keeneland Polytrack heading into this weekend’s action, WINNING CAUSE rates the second-deepest closer ever to win. The only horse to rally from more than 12 lengths back going seven furlongs on the Polytrack happened on the third day the surface existed, a 76-1 maiden named Poschner in 2006. This is a rising colt bred to run much farther than his winning trip here two weeks ago, by Keeneland Polytrack route sire Giant’s Causeway out of a Kingmambo mare. He’s 2 for 2 at Keeneland and razor-sharp right now off that win. Pletcher had a good horse named Forty Tales he could have run in this spot, so I think WINNING CAUSE could live up to his name.
RIVER ROCKS is a very fast Florida-bred who can daylight lesser horses early in the race. The private buy after his Calder maiden win turned some heads at Gulfstream, and last time just ran out of gas routing in his first two-turn attempt when caught by Looking Cool (Carl Nafzger), a rival who would go on to finish second in Oaklawn’s Northern Spur Stakes last Saturday. With a sixteenth pole finish line employed here (as it was at Gulfstream for 1 1/16 miles races) and an inside post draw, RIVER ROCKS could give ice-cold jockey James Graham a memorable boost for an otherwise forgettable meet.
EXAMEN, like WINNING CAUSE, is another “now” horse sired by Giant’s Causeway and should have no trouble with the surface. He’s run well over anything and visually his March 7 win at Santa Anita was as “in-hand” as you’ll see. Garrett Gomez makes the saddle shuffle from the filly PURE FUN, upon whom he won a Grade 1 stakes, to partner with EXAMEN. The Gomez-Proctor team often proves potent, but this is a significant riding assignment and endorsement for EXAMEN. He looks strong in this spot along with the other allowance risers named above.
As for the more “name” graded stakes performers we’ve seen fail versus tougher this season, CERRO (Graham Motion) certainly stands every chance to rebound in the Lexington. He’s bred to handle the surface for a Motion barn that’s sent out live horse after live horse at the meeting. Leading jockey Joel Rosario has lit the Polytrack afire this week and all meet, and of course this is the $10 million Dubai World Cup-winning trio as the jockey-trainer-owner of Animal Kingdom.
SUNBEAN (Mike Maker) makes his first start since the colt was moved from Al Stall’s care. The talented Louisiana-bred is a bit short on route pedigree, so the 1 1/16 miles and short stretch may play better for him than some of the other big-money dates in the 3-year-old ranks. Gary Stevens takes the controls, and after a troubled trip among many rough expeditions in the Louisiana Derby, SUNBEAN could factor with improved fortunes.
Horses like GENERAL ELECTION (Kellyn Gorder) and PICK OF THE LITTER (Dale Romans) come from highly respected barns but have been too inconsistent for me to endorse with confidence. WHERE’S DOMINIC (Mike Trombetta) exits a pretty key edition of the Private Terms at Laurel as runner-up Battier (Pablo Andrade) came back to win a $75,000 stakes at Aqueduct and winner Mr Palmer (Bill Mott) more than held his own in a Grade 1 Wood Memorial fourth-place finish. Look for more speed from WHERE’S DOMINIC with the addition of blinkers.
Lexington Stakes selections: W) EXAMEN; P) WINNING CAUSE; S) SUNBEAN
Pace handicappers will have an interesting dilemma with Saturday’s $750,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne. On paper, the early lead appears rather uncontested with only ABRAHAM (Todd Pletcher) and perhaps wide-drawn NARVAEZ (Agustin Berrera) having any real interest in the engine. But fields of 14 rarely play soft, as the field size forces jockeys to hustle for holes and position. Who else might force the issue, and change the race complexion? That’s a key deliberation. And will the hot pace even matter as Hawthorne’s strip historically plays heavily to speed on Illinois Derby Day?
Pletcher has had great success with front-running Illinois Derby raiders over the years, winning with Pollard’s Vision, Cowtown Cat and Joe Vann, none of which had a previous resume any more defined than that of ABRAHAM.
Even though I think the Sunland Derby’s fast time was more a product of the surface than the performances, ABRAHAM didn’t run too badly in the high altitude after blazing the early splits. With Javier Castellano shuttling between Hawthorne and Charles Town for its $1.5 million Classic later Saturday night, it could be a lucrative pair of roadies for this jockey-trainer tandem. They’ll team with defending champion Caixa Eletronica in the West Virginia excursion.
The Lexington will be contested about an hour before the Illinois Derby, so tab how Sunbean (Mike Maker) runs in that one for a final barometer on Illinois Derby hopefuls and fellow Louisiana Derby alumni GROUND TRANSPORT (Mike Stidham) and DEPARTING (Al Stall Jr.). Unless you’re making a pace play on the Illinois Derby, the logical winner or “best available horse option” has to land you in the GROUND TRANSPORT and DEPARTING camps.
The Louisiana Derby grades out to me as the most complete and best prep race run in 2013. While some other race winners had more impressive performances (see “High fives” below), when you score out a race for quality, the Louisiana Derby goes top-to-bottom better than the others this season. Part of that depth was reiterated last Saturday when Palace Malice (Todd Pletcher) wheeled back quickly to run second in the Grade 1 Blue Grass. Obviously, the Lexington and Illinois Derby will give that race two more chances to crow.
Both GROUND TRANSPORT and DEPARTING have bounced out of the Louisiana Derby with bullet workouts in Kentucky. Both have legitimate reasons to improve Saturday as GROUND TRANSPORT suffered a very tough trip from post 13 that day, and DEPARTING races on Lasix for the first time in five lifetime starts in the Illinois Derby. I’m having a hard time envisioning a scenario where both of these horses fail to show up at Hawthorne. One or both are must-includes in the exactas, no matter what your style of handicapping may be. Given an option, and we do have one when we wager, my lean would be to GROUND TRANSPORT at a much more attractive price. DEPARTING has outfinished him twice, but the difference between these two is minimal, you get a better draw with GROUND TRANSPORT and the price will be in his favor.
The best options beyond ABRAHAM and the Louisiana Derby duo figure to come from graded stakes veterans DEWEY SQUARE (Dale Romans), FOR GREATER GLORY (Steve Hobby) and SIETE DE OROS (Ramon Preciado). While the damside pedigree may catch up with DEWEY SQUARE and SIETE DE OROS over the 1 1/8 miles, FOR GREATER GLORY draws from a pair of Belmont Stakes winners in his immediate bloodlines, and his trainer, Steve Hobby, is as good as anyone in bringing out the fitness in a horse. True, the Spiral runners fared poorly upon return in the Grade 1 Blue Grass last week, but FOR GREATER GLORY’s best races have been on dirt and the return to dirt intrigues me.
DEWEY SQUARE ties me in knots. The first-time through handicapping the race, I had him on top. He appears to be working up a storm that could bring him back to his juvenile form. But this race almost is an afterthought as he was rerouted away from the races at Gulfstream, Keeneland and Oaklawn to find an easier spot and, in essence, removed him from the Derby trail.
The longer I looked and realized the number of alternate, quality options, I couldn’t do DEWEY. We’ll see if that comes back to bite me. I’ve also picked Todd Pletcher to run second twice in this Saturday’s preps, which is akin to wearing a meat suit to the dog pound. Wish me luck.
Illinois Derby selections: W) GROUND TRANSPORT; P) ABRAHAM; S) FOR GREATER GLORY
Last week’s selections: 2: 0-0-0. Top pick RYDILLUC gave way with a big lead in the Blue Grass to finish fourth and was beaten by my third choice JAVA’S WAR. As for the Arkansas Derby, I whiffed badly. This is no time to go cold on the trail!
Season selections: 38: 9-7-4.
Everyone’s a critic
This section reviews the week that was in the 3-year-old ranks. We’re exclusively in big-race mode now with Derby 139 in sight. I review the key Kentucky Derby “points preps” in further detail in the Countdown Rewind. Get my analysis of the Arkansas Derby  and Blue Grass  by clicking on the race name.
Put ‘em in the Gate
This section lists the horses who have completed their preps and appear to have secured starting positions in Kentucky Derby 139. As of this writing, 20 of the 20 spots in the gate have reservations barring injury. We’ll plug in jockeys where they are known or assumed, as well as note any new twists where applicable. Many of the leading players already are bedded down at Churchill Downs in a pleasant change of events over recent years with late arrivals.
ORB (Joel Rosario): Breezed half-mile at Florida’s Payson Park in 48 Sunday in his first workout since Florida Derby.
VERRAZANO (John Velazquez)
GOLDENCENTS (Kevin Krigger): Breezed half-mile at Santa Anita in 48.40 Wednesday in his first action since Santa Anita Derby.
JAVA’S WAR (Julien Leparoux)
OVERANALYZE (Rafael Bejarano)
REVOLUTIONARY (Calvin Borel): Three-time Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel picked this week to work his mojo.
LINES OF BATTLE (TBD)
VYJACK (Garrett Gomez): Tremendous “get” for this camp to land Gomez at this late stage, who is riding so well.
WILL TAKE CHARGE (Jon Court)
ITSMYLUCKYDAY (Elvis Trujillo): Worked the past two Thursday mornings at Calder, this week a mile in 1:43.20.
GOVENOR CHARLIE (Martin Garcia): Nursing foot issues while on the grounds at Churchill.
BLACK ONYX (Joe Bravo)
PALACE MALICE (Mike Smith): After War Academy’s thud, Smith lands on his feet with a better Derby alternative.
NORMANDY INVASION (Javier Castellano)
FRAC DADDY (TBD)
MYLUTE (Rosie Napravnik): Secured a top rider this week in Napravnik.
OXBOW (Gary Stevens): Hall of Fame jockey made it official this week; this will be his first Derby mount since 2005.
SUPER NINETY NINE (TBD): Very tenuous to put him in Derby mix at this point, though officials at Churchill include him.
FALLING SKY (Luis Saez): A decision on his status will be made by Sunday.
CHARMING KITTEN (TBD)
This section offers a look at the horses who are finished running and could be sweating out a berth in the Derby 139 starting gate. Horses expected to race again before the Derby are exempt from this wait-and-see list.
Here’s the best of the bubble as it stands today.
GOLDEN SOUL: Dallas Stewart would like to get the late-running Louisiana Derby fourth-place finisher into the dance.
CODE WEST: Camp awfully quiet about this one and he has yet to work out since March 30 Louisiana Derby. But he’s on the grounds at Churchill. He’d actually be the Baffert horse I’d most like to see in the Derby of what’s left.
POWER BROKER: He’s been shipped to Churchill, which would seem odd for him to be pointed at the Crown Royal American Turf, but not out of the question.
Don’t be surprised if TITLETOWN FIVE (D. Wayne Lukas) makes a late ascension to the race via the April 27 Grade 3 Derby Trial. And it’s not out of the question for a resounding performance in the Lexington to propel Derby dreams for one more on the cusp.
Jeremy Plonk’s top-5 rated performances by class so far this season (Dec. 26-present).
1. ORB (Florida Derby, Gulfstream, 3/30)
2. ITSMYLUCKYDAY (Holy Bull, Gulfstream, 1/26)
3. VERRAZANO (Wood Memorial, Aqueduct, 4/6)
4. VYJACK (Gotham, Aqueduct, 3/2)
5. REVOLUTIONARY (Withers, Aqueduct, 2/2)
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!