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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Countdown to the Crown: April 10, 2009

3 things you won't read anywhere else

Opinions are like waiting for spring. All you want is for someone to bring the heat.

1. The big event is alive and well. Santa Anita packed the stands with 50,519 fans Saturday for its Derby Day. Meanwhile, the same-day throng at Keeneland numbered 30,550 for the fifth-highest turnout in track history; and Oaklawn lured 28,208 for the opening of its Racing Festival of South. That's more than 109,000 on-track racing fans at three venues in three vastly different geographic and economically diverse (and depressed) regions.

2. Anyone think it's possible IEAH Stables might enter STARDOM BOUND, and Godolphin REGAL RANSOM, into the Kentucky Derby field with an intention to scratch and potentially keep DUNKIRK out of the mix? That theory could help protect their respective A-players, I WANT REVENGE and DESERT PARTY. Crazier -- and less sporting -- things have happened, and we all know the Godolphin rivalry with Tabor and the Coolmore folks. It costs $25,000 to enter, which is pocket change if it could provide a security blanket against the likely second or third betting choice. Just something to gnaw on ...

3. A quick show of hands: How many of you already have forgotten that Wood Memorial winner I WANT REVENGE is 0-2 vs. PIONEEROF THE NILE in head-to-head match-ups? I know, I know. It's the surface, stupid.

This week's fearless forecast

This section includes a preview of the coming week's 3-year-old races to watch. We're down to the final big duo of the prep season, Saturday's G1 Blue Grass and G2 Arkansas Derby. Next week's G2 Lexington will provide a fringe player perhaps, but this, friends, is the end of the line. Deal or no deal. Let's get right to it.

G1 Blue Grass (Saturday/Keeneland):

To this point, the major preps look to have produced two, maybe three Kentucky Derby starters apiece, namely the Wood, Santa Anita Derby, Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby and UAE Derby. But don't be surprised if the Kentucky Derby field balloons after the running of the Blue Grass.

MAFAAZ already has qualified via his win in the Kentucky Derby Challenge at England's Kempton Racecourse; TERRAIN and HOLD ME BACK both sit safely on the graded-stakes earnings list and deserve a Derby bid with any sort of positive finish, though clearly neither needs to win Saturday; THEREGOESJOJO, GENERAL QUARTERS and CHARITABLE MAN all have considerable graded earnings and should have enough with a fourth or fifth-place check. And then you have PATENA, JOIN IN THE DANCE and others who could run one-two here and catapult into the mix. I'm setting the over/under at 4-1/2 Kentucky Derby starters when the Polytrack settles, and am leaning on betting the "over."

But whom do we bet on in the Blue Grass? Take a look at the following facts, and my apologies for using them in various forums this week ad nauseam, but they can't be repeated enough:

Each of the last 12 Polytrack route stakes has produced a winner paying double-digits, and favorites are just 2-for-28 all-time in Polytrack stakes routes. A big reason for that is the public's misperception that Polytrack is a deep-closer's racetrack. The fact is that 10 of the last 12 Polytrack route stakes have been won by horses who were no more than 1-1/2 lengths behind the leader after the opening half-mile. Only 5 of these 28 winners have ever come from more than 5 lengths behind after the half-mile.

Todd Pletcher swept the exacta in this race last year with Monba and Cowboy Cal, the latter nearly taking the field wire-to-wire after a soft pace. Team Pletcher will try to take that a step further this year with likely pacesetter JOIN IN THE DANCE. But unlike Cowboy Cal, who already was a 9-furlong winner of the grassy Tropical Park Derby, the route resume for 'DANCE is wafer-thin. This one would need to get a three-ply, tissue-soft pace in the :49, 1:14 ballpark to carry the day, and I don't see that happening with CHARITABLE MAN routing for the first time and being forced to go early from a wide draw.

The X-factor in the pace scenario, and race in general, has to be CHARITABLE MAN. As someone who prides himself on strong opinions, I regretfully admit I am clueless as to what to make of him. There is just no way to translate 2-year-old sprint form to April 3-year-old form around two turns, much less on a fitness-demanding surface like Polytrack. You either have to embrace him or forget about him, and I just have too many other options pulling at my wallet to bank on his long-ago Futurity form.

If there's ANY 2-year-old form that you can translate to Saturday's race it might be that of TERRAIN (past performances), who ran a solid second despite traffic trouble in last year's G1 Breeders' Futurity over this track. He's a steady comer and a horse who should be moving the right way toward Louisville.

PATENA (past performances) should get a perfect trip just behind the leaders from the rail. Once ranked as high as No. 2 on my contenders' list, a nagging cough set him back prior to the Louisiana Derby and he ran like a short horse. Don't be fooled by the sloppy track at Fair Grounds; he was moving smartly over it and was looming large before hitting the proverbial wall. Look for him to return to his solid Lecomte Stakes form, where he looked so beautiful striding out late.

Morning-line favorite HOLD ME BACK has a tough go, wheeling back in 3 weeks' time after being sidelined since last November's Remsen. With a wide draw and jockey Kent Desormeaux's strong beliefs that you can win from a hundred back on Polytrack, expect this rising star to lag early and make a good run. That has not been a winning recipe at Keeneland this meeting or in major route stakes over the years, so I expect a fine showing on the short end of the stick for the Lane's End Stakes champ.

Finally, ignoring MAFAAZ would be downright snobbish and dangerous given the utmost respect trainer John Gosden deserves. The European training style is vastly superior to that in America, and while this horse would have to make a sizable leap in class from his victory at Kempton, it may be no bigger cavern than what the Yanks have to make up for when comparing fitness. I would be more stunned if he embarrasses himself than if he runs a big race. But knowing this horse's goal is the Kentucky Derby, I doubt he'll be full-throttle Saturday; rather they're simply looking to run a race that suggests the next step is within reason. A top-five finish in the same area code as the winner would accomplish that and give the master horseman Gosden a building block.

For more up-to-minute analysis of the Blue Grass, I recommend you check out Keeneland's exclusive, live paddock reports on Twitter. It's free and also accessible with most mobile Internet devices, perfect for those heading to the track or OTB on Saturday. A service like this would have been remarkable to have had access to during last week's Wood Memorial, where we had serious pre-race antics from a top contender (outlined below in our recap section).

As we like to do in the two-turn races, here's a look at the projected Blue Grass pace scenario:

SPEED
PRESS
MIDDLE
CLOSER

JOIN IN THE DANCE
CHARITABLE MAN
PATENA
MASSONE
THEREGOESJOJO
GENERAL QUARTERS
TERRAIN
MAFAAZ
LOCH DUBH
CLIFFY'S FUTURE
HOLD ME BACK



G2 Arkansas Derby (Saturday/Oaklawn):

The most prolific Triple Crown prep race of the past five years, it's almost comical to put the G2 moniker in front of the Arkansas Derby. But this year's field actually does look representative of a G2 cast, even though expected favorite OLD FASHIONED certainly carries his weight in the accomplishment department. But the fact remains: Only OLD FASHIONED and WIN WILLY own a graded stakes victory among this 10-horse cast. Several nibblers have a chance to kick the door down if they make the needed improvement, including graded-placed horses like PAPA CLEM and FLYING PRIVATE, and listed stakes winner FLAT OUT.

In terms of spring-boarding Kentucky Derby dreams, the trio of OLD FASHIONED, WIN WILLY and PAPA CLEM all appear safely in the graded stakes rankings. However, plausible cases could be made against any of the three moving forward if they were to run poorly Saturday. After all, it's a no-excuse kind of race with a fast dirt track forecasted for Saturday and a race held in the most Kentucky Derby-like setting possible. Oaklawn's jam-packed crowd and extended public exposure in the infield saddling area really puts a horse on dress rehearsal.

FLYING PRIVATE's earnings situation puts him in a top three, possibly top four, "need" scenario. If he could pair back-to-back stakes placings at 9 furlongs at Turfway and Oaklawn on vastly different surfaces, the D. Wayne Lukas trainee certainly would have a license to advance. Remember, he already ran well over the Churchill surface last fall, so he does not have as many variables to check off his list as some. And, wow, what a foundation! In this era, it's so rare to see a horse race for the sixth time of the spring with just 14, 14, 14, 21 and 21-day gaps in his starts.

Meanwhile, it's top-two finishes or bust for stakes veterans like FLAT OUT, DANGER TO SOCIETY, CAPTAIN CHEROKEE, POLTERGEIST and ZIEGFELD

For those who have followed the Oaklawn spring season, you already know it's been a case of lone speed horse SILVER CITY and a glue-to-his-shadow OLD FASHIONED. With SILVER CITY dropping by the wayside as the distance extends to 9 furlongs, one might think OLD FASHIONED would get a reprieve from his ominous task of having to do his own pace-end dirty work. But, alas, here comes Louisiana Derby pace-setter PAPA CLEM, who stars in the role of SILVER CITY in a race seriously lacking other pace players. And what's more, PAPA CLEM looks to be Clark Gable to SILVER CITY's Paulie Shore when it comes to the ability to extend his stamina. SILVER CITY has brilliance, but PAPA CLEM has proven to be a much tougher "out" when challenged. And he's drawing raves in the a.m. as trainer Gary Stute has 'PAPA sitting on a peak performance.

No doubt Larry Jones is pulling out all the stops with OLD FASHIONED. The colt had just one workout in the 26 days between the Southwest and Rebel, a plan Jones also followed with fellow Derby trail blazer FRIESAN FIRE. But in the 28 days since the Rebel, Jones has opted for two serious drills, both five-eighths of a mile, for OLD FASHIONED. The rider change to local leading jockey Terry Thompson also means that Jones is putting this race entirely on his own shoulders of responsibility. I expect him to run his biggest race of the year Saturday, but also caution that he's taking on his toughest set of challengers.

Those challengers include Rebel slayer WIN WILLY, who has done nothing in the a.m. to discredit his fantastic Rebel performance. He was flattered by a :46 opening half-mile in the Rebel; that's not a knock on the horse whatsoever, but just a handicapping fact of life. Circle your list of horses all-time at any class level who have won from 16 (count 'em 16!) lengths off the pace, and I'll bet you that nearly all closed into a swift early pace. You simply can't spot that kind of real estate and be successful without the pack coming back to you some. I don't see PAPA CLEM running in the :46s Saturday. He's not that kind of horse, and should not be forced into that scenario. A replay of his Louisiana Derby journey appears highly plausible. Over a fast track, expect PAPA CLEM's pace to be in the :47s, and for WIN WILLY to be at least four or five lengths closer than he was in the Rebel. The question for WIN WILLY comes when he's asked to accelerate coming off the turn: Will he be able to reel in horses who should have more left in the tank than those in the Rebel?

WIN WILLY relinquishes his 5-pound Rebel weight break vs. OLD FASHIONED, and now carries an equal 122. These two, along with stakes winner FLAT OUT, will be spotting 4 pounds to the balance of the field. As for Rebel fourth-place finisher CAPTAIN CHEROKEE, it's never a good sign when a stable ace rider like Shaun Bridgmohan is back at Keeneland riding Storm Treasure in a $250,000 turf sprint over a $1 million Kentucky Derby launching pad. Rebel third POLTERGEIST finished a carbon-copy 8 lengths behind OLD FASHIONED in each of the two earlier season preps and gives no indication of reversing that.

This race boils down to the known commodities -- OLD FASHIONED, PAPA CLEM and FLYING PRIVATE -- holding serve against WIN WILLY and trying to deflect new shooters FLAT OUT, DANGER TO SOCIETY and SUMMER BIRD. All three are proven finishers around two turns, but come in with various levels of success. DANGER TO SOCIETY (past performances) is poorly drawn in post 10 and has an even running style that figures to be seriously hampered by his draw.

FLAT OUT (past performances) is proven over the track, winning the Smarty Jones and deserving a mulligan after his start in the Southwest. But a foot bruise kept him off the work tab 34 days after his fourth-place run vs. OLD FASHIONED. Underrated trainer Scooter Dickey has been playing catch-up with three drills of increasing demand (5F, 6F and 1M). If the early pace is hot, like WIN WILLY, this guy certainly will benefit. As I've noted a few times this season, his high leg action makes him an intriguing turf or all-weather track player to me, and it's not surprising that a horse who can be so hard on himself striking the ground suffered from a minor foot problem. Clearly he's got tons of talent, because he's done so well on a surface that I don't think is even his best. Barbaro followed that same storyline all the way to the roses, so it can be done. Certainly he's no Barbaro, but that does not mean FLAT OUT can't punch with these. He must run first or second to make the Derby, so a solid-closing third or fourth won't be enough.

Finally there's SUMMER BIRD, who probably will be 50-1 or more on the board at post time and deserves some exotics love. By Birdstone and out of a Summer Squall mare, he's got pedigree to run all day and he proved that with a visually and numerically impressive maiden win at 1 1/16 miles three weeks ago. The time of 1:44-3/5 was just one-fifth slower than the G3 Rebel time, and despite all you've read about how slow the Rebel day track played, the official Daily Racing Form track variant was an identical 19 for both days. But Summer Bird got a 78 Beyer figure, while WIN WILLY netted a 102. Don't be shocked to see him challenge for third or fourth money, especially if things get too hot up front.

As we like to do in the two-turn races, here's a look at the projected Arkansas Derby pace scenario:

SPEED
PRESS
MIDDLE
CLOSER

PAPA CLEM
OLD FASHIONED
ZIEGFELD
FLYING PRIVATE
POLTERGEIST
DANGER TO SOCIETY
FLAT OUT
CAPTAIN CHEROKEE
WIN WILLY
SUMMER BIRD



Everyone's a critic

This section recaps the week that was, and, wow, what a week! For the hum-drumness of three winning favorites in the big three preps, could it have been any more exciting? Let's pick them off, one-by-one.

Wood Memorial:

Before the appearance of odds-on favorite I WANT REVENGE, his black-hatted trainer Jeff Mullins was nabbed in the detention barn in violation of NYRA rules, admittedly administering an over-the-counter cough medicine to his entrant in the Bay Shore, GATO GO WIN. Given Mullins' past run-ins and lack of respect for the rulebook (reading it, at the very least; thumbing his nose at it, worst case), don't be surprised if the proverbial "book" is thrown at him and he's made a poster child of deterrence. The public relations and consumer confidence hits are magnified on a day like Saturday, and the penalty ought to fit the damage done because of Mullins' negligence, even if you believe the medication is innocuous.

Okay, back to the featured race. But still, even before the horses made their way to the track for the Wood, second choice IMPERIAL COUNCIL did a half gainer in the paddock, flipping over and landing on his back after being a worked-up basket case. That over-exertion eventually left Shug McGaughey's much respected Gotham Stakes runner-up completely empty in the drive, and one less domino for favorite I WANT REVEGE to tip over.

Still, the Wood proved equally ominous and exhilarating for I WANT REVENGE, who leaped in the air when the doors popped, spotted the field a good 3-4 lengths and seemingly was relegated to a safety stroll that would get him to Louisville in the easiest manner possible. But a ridiculous second-quarter (:23.63) that went almost five lengths faster than the first quarter sent the recipe for a deep-closing winner into motion, and opened the door for I WANT REVENGE to get back into the mix late if he was good enough. Boy was he ever.

The front-runners, led by LORD JUSTICE, ATOMIC RAIN and IMPERIAL COUNCIL, began to hit the wall around the far turn, slowing to a :25.01 fourth quarter by the time they hit mid-stretch, allowing I WANT REVENGE to get back into the fray without having go gangbusters to do so. Desperately trying to find racing room in the upper stretch, patient-riding Joe Talamo aboard 'REVEGE finally got a seam and his charge responded like a championship-caliber racehorse. He spurted home the final furlong in about :11-4/5 and really only had to put in an eighth-mile of exertion in winning this dramatic Wood renewal. Runner-up WEST SIDE BERNIE could not quicken with the victor, but did enough to point his connections toward the Derby. He remains a rank outsider to me in Louisville, but has done enough on his resume to warrant the entry, no doubt.

I WANT REVENGE was not as brilliant in the Wood as he was in the Gotham, and likely beat a better field in the Gotham, given he got an honest run that day from IMPERIAL COUNCIL and had a quality pacesetter challenge him deep into the stretch in MR. FANTASY. But his maturation process took two leaps forward in the Wood and he answered many of those Derby dress rehearsal questions about overcoming adversity. Remember, he got a dream trip in the Gotham; this time it was nightmarish. The final time of 1:49.49 was not sparkling in number, but it was about seven lengths faster than the same-day G3 Excelsior Handicap for older horses. Seattle Slew, Pleasant Colony and Easy Goer all made their Derby presence felt after Wood renewals that actually went slower, so don't give any thought to the final clocking. I WANT REVENGE sizzled the furlong the mattered most, the last.

The only concern now becomes how I WANT REVENGE stands in the gate in Louisville. Talamo said the colt was spooked by a rival who became restless just moments before the gates opened in the Wood. You can get away with that when there are seven horses surrounding you and just that many left to pick off in the running. When that number grows to 19, your goose is cooked. Ask Colonel John how much energy you have left for a stretch drive after getting turned sideways at the start of the Derby and then running wide for seven furlongs at a breakneck speed to get back into the mix.

I give Mullins credit for immediately taking I WANT REVENGE to Churchill Downs to get him comfortable. 'REVENGE twice made cross-country trips this spring, but he arrived at Churchill Tuesday morning after a van ride from New York. That's a very wise move, especially if nerves are going to be any factor. As for Mullins personally, it's going to be an ugly Derby week amongst the media hordes. Remember, most thought Rick Dutrow was a lovable "comeback story" Derby week. It was only at the Preakness that his mouth ran and his luster started to come off. Mullins comes to Louisville with a big red target on his back.

Santa Anita Derby:

"Countdown" regulars know that I was not keen on THE PAMPLEMOUSSE heading into the Santa Anita Derby last week, feeling that he was heading in the wrong direction in his training. That suspicion was confirmed Saturday morning when trainer Julio Canani was forced to scratch his star speedball after a tendon issue was detected. THE PAMPLEMOUSSE will be out six months and back to fight another day. Let's hope we see him back as strong as the brilliant Georgie Boy returned this year after being sidelined in a similar timeframe last spring.

The defection of THE PAMPLEMOUSSE turned the race into an episode of Extreme Makeover, Santa Anita Derby Edition. PIONEEROF THE NILE's rabbit, Z DAY, was given a reprieve back to the barn, while Todd Pletcher decided to run Sham runner-up TAKE THE POINTS at the eleventh hour. The best laid plans of Bob Baffert and Garrett Gomez then went awry with PIONEEROF THE NILE, who was forced to make his own hay in a paceless scrum, instead of taking back and making the one big run they were hoping would best educate him for Louisville.

No matter how different the Santa Anita Derby looked than expected, you had to at least appreciate the performance of PIONEEROF THE NILE. He may lack the brilliance needed that recent Kentucky Derby winners all have had; it's not been a sluggers' race this decade, for sure. But on Saturday, when taken out of his game, PIONEEROF THE NILE proved he can pound out the rhythmic splits as the race unfolded :24.04, :24.61, :23.67, :24.35 and :12.50. The third-quarter was especially noticeable when Gomez just let the big horse roll on the backstretch and take the race to the opposition. A push-button move like that is a sign of a serious horse, and you see by the teletimer that he didn't back up much late after that mid-race spurt. In fact, here's an incredibly ironic set of numbers to look at from Saturday:

Santa Anita Derby 6F split -- 1:12.32.
Wood Memorial 6F split -- 1:12.32.
Illinois Derby 6F split -- 1:12.30.

The paces of the big three preps were essentially identical! So how did they finish?

Santa Anita Derby final 3F -- :36.85.
Wood Memorial final 3F -- :37.17.
Illinois Derby final 3F -- :37.61.

PIONEEROF THE NILE was responsible for the race fractions as the leader in the Santa Anita Derby. Note that I WANT REVENGE made up four lengths over the final three furlongs in the Wood, meaning his personal time over the final three-eighths was approximately :36.40 (while mired in traffic for much of that time). Both heavyweights showed they can come home very nicely, even when posed with trips not drawn up in the sand beforehand.

Speaking of coming home nicely, both CHOCOLATE CANDY and MR. HOT STUFF showed they were horses capable and worthy of a Kentucky Derby dance. Both closed just under five lengths over the final three furlongs with no pace help whatsoever, coming home in the high :35.80s -- splendid, indeed. MR. HOT STUFF once again galloped out like a beast, best of all. CHOCOLATE CANDY can move forward with confidence, while MR. HOT STUFF must hope that his $114,000 in graded stakes earnings will be enough. Trainer Eoin Harty said they'll pursue the Derby with fingers crossed and his camp can't wait to get an honest pace. This is not a late-running, plodding slug. Don't be fooled; he's got a remarkable turn of foot. Watch his maiden win and try to convince yourself otherwise. If he gets in the Derby, I can tell you I will be HIGHLY interested.

In an era of lightly raced horses, you have to love these Californians' foundations. CHOCOLATE CANDY has now made nine starts, including a six-race foundation at age 2 and a perfect series of three preps this spring. PIONEEROF THE NILE has eight races under his belt, three preps this year, and has made every start at 1-1/16 miles or farther around two turns.

Keep in mind that Big Brown won last year's roses after only 25.5 furlongs traveled in his three-race career, but runner-up Eight Belles had logged a massive 71.5 furlongs prior. As for other recent Derby winners: Street Sense had 55 furlongs prior to his '07 win; Barbaro had 43.5 in '06; Giacomo had 57.5 in '05; and Smarty Jones covered 46.5 furlongs prior to his '04 score.

Here's the tale of the tape of this year's Californians vs. other well-known contenders. Check out their total distances raced.

Chocolate Candy -- 70 furlongs
Pioneerof The Nile -- 68.5 furlongs
Mr. Hot Stuff -- 55.5 furlongs
I Want Revenge -- 52.5 furlongs
Old Fashioned -- 48.5 furlongs (includes 9F of Arkansas Derby this week)
Win Willy -- 36.5 furlongs (includes 9F of Arkansas Derby this week).
Quality Road -- 30.5 furlongs
Dunkirk -- 25 furlongs

Illinois Derby:

There may not be a national turf writer or columnist who appreciates smaller, regional-circuit racing more than me. It's what I grew up on and still prefer on a day-in, day-out horseplaying basis. Please don't mistake my criticism of the Illinois Derby as anything snobbish whatsoever. This year's race was wafer-thin on quality, sprinkled with the hope that a few of the stakes unknowns might be players. They simply weren't.

Horses like PERFECT SONG, LORD JUSTICE, AL KHALI and FREE COUNTRY were not able to rise above their allowance-only credentials. Certainly G3 Tampa Bay Derby winner MUSKET MAN (past performances) lived up to his multiple stakes-winning resume, but it can't be ignored that the rest of his Illinois Derby rivals are now a combined 0-for-23 lifetime in stakes races. No doubt, MUSKET MAN has earned the right to ply his trade in the Kentucky Derby and deserves any handicapper's fair analysis of his stellar 5-for-6 career record. With four preps this season, three over the deep Tampa surface, he'll be as "legged-up" as any horse on Derby Day if he's good enough, even with a pedigree that says he should not get the distance.

Visually, the Illinois Derby could be deemed an equally impressive performance by runner-up GIANT OAK. He was in the danger zone from the opening furlong and almost went sideways when forced up into a hole on the clubhouse turn. Jockey Shaun Bridgmohan had his hands full throughout and 'OAK ducked all over the track coming down the lane while five lengths clear of the rest of an overmatched cast. GIANT OAK just does not look comfortable on dirt as we've intimated all season. But, boy, what a runner this guy must be to keep putting out on a non-preferred surface. He's a stone-cold turfer and one to watch in races like the Virginia Derby and Secretariat. Here's hoping the connections, who are leaning against a Kentucky Derby run, follow through with that thought and pass on the temptation.

Rubber-necking

Each week we provide a race video worth a second look. With PIONEEROF THE NILE, CHOCOLATE CANDY and I WANT REVENGE all punching their tickets to Louisville last week, we don't have to imagine what it would look like to see them square off. It happened in December's CashCall Hollywood Futurity.

Quick hitters

The price on Florida Derby winner QUALITY ROAD doubled from 5-1 to 10-1 on Monday with the announcement of his quarter crack injury, according to the Wynn Las Vegas Derby Futures (full list below) ... SQUARE EDDIE drilled six furlongs in 1:13 flat Sunday at Hollywood Park as his last-ditch comeback effort reached its third official timed workout ... Many have asked where I would rank the super filly RACHEL ALEXANDRA if she hypothetically made a Derby run. Right now, I'd put her No. 5 on my list, ahead of Louisiana Derby winner FRIESAN FIRE. She was New Orleans' best 3-year-old this year regardless of sex ... Speaking of FRIESAN FIRE, he logged his first workout in 25 days Thursday when breezing 5F at Keeneland in 1:00.80 ... The last graded prep on the Derby trail takes place next Saturday with Keeneland's G2 Lexington.

High fives

Jeremy Plonk's Top 5-rated performances this year (Dec. 26-present):

The relevance of the maiden and allowance races have subsided, so let's focus on just the stakes action.

Stakes Race
1. QUALITY ROAD -- Florida Derby 3/28
2. FRIESAN FIRE -- Louisiana Derby 3/14
3. I WANT REVENGE -- Wood * new *
4. I WANT REVENGE -- Gotham 3/7
5. PIONEEROF THE NILE -- Santa Anita Derby * new *

Stakes selections

G1 Blue Grass Picks:
1- #1 PATENA
2- #6 TERRAIN
3- #10 HOLD ME BACK

G1 Arkansas Derby Picks:
1- #2 PAPA CLEM
2- #8 OLD FASHIONED
3- #6 FLYING PRIVATE

How did we do last week?
Top pick PIONEEROF THE NILE won the Santa Anita Derby; second choice I WANT REVENGE won the Wood; whiffed on the Illinois Derby.

How are we doing on the season?
12-for-40 (28 percent) with top pick; 21-for-40 (52 percent) with top two picks.

Put 'em in the gate

Can't wait for May 2? This section ranks my Top 20 and puts horses in the gate if the race was this weekend. Remember, this isn't about how they'll be on Derby Day, but rather how they rate today with Derby ability at 1-1/4 miles a main factor. This will be a fluid list over the spring.

Think I'm off my rocker? Send your Top 20 list to me, jeremy@horseplayerpro.com, and I'll pick one fan's list each week to appear in Countdown to the Crown right next to mine. Please put "TOP 20" in the subject line and include your state of residence.

Jeremy's top 20: 15th week of the 2009 season

1. Pioneerof The Nile
11. Hold Me Back

2. Quality Road
12. Papa Clem

3. Dunkirk
13. Theregoesjojo

4. I Want Revenge
14. Danger to Society

5. Friesan Fire
15. Win Willy

6. Old Fashioned
16. Regal Ransom

7. Mr. Hot Stuff
17. Mafaaz (automatic berth)

8. Terrain
18. Musket Man (new)

9. Desert Party
19. West Side Bernie (new)

10. Chocolate Candy
20. Square Eddie



Dropped out this week: Imperial Council, The Pamplemousse.

Reader-submitted top 20: Chester in Port Jervis, N.Y.

1. I Want Revenge
11. West Side Bernie

2. Desert Party
12. Square Eddie

3. Dunkirk
13. Regal Ransom

4. Friesan Fire
14. Danger to Society

5. Quality Road
15. Flat Out

6. Musket Man
16. Papa Clem

7. Theregoesjojo
17. Win Willy

8. Old Fashioned
18. Flying Private

9. Pioneerof The Nile
19. Chocolate Candy

10. Charitable Man
20. Giant Oak



What happens in Vegas

This section highlights the steamers in the Las Vegas future book odds. Odds updated April 6, 2009, here.

Wynn Las Vegas Derby Favorites
I WANT REVENGE ... 4-1
DUNKIRK ... 6-1
FRIESAN FIRE ... 7-1
PIONEEROF THE NILE ... 8-1
QUALITY ROAD ... 10-1
OLD FASHIONED ... 14-1
DESERT PARTY ... 15-1
CHOCOLATE CANDY ... 15-1
THEREGOESJOJO ... 18-1
MUSKET MAN ... 20-1
PAPA CLEM ... 25-1
WEST SIDE BERNIE ... 25-1
REGAL RANSOM ... 25-1
HOLD ME BACK ... 28-1

COUNTDOWN TO THE CROWN is the ONLY major racing column where you can find the line of Johnny Avello, Vegas' premier oddsmaker!

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000. You can email Jeremy about Countdown to the Crown or anything racing related at Jeremy@Horseplayerpro.com.

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