As J. Keeler Johnson keeps us up to date with the latest smart maiden winners, I wanted to highlight two Triple Crown nominees who have slipped under the radar after breaking their maidens last October. Sharecropper and Sonneman, both well-bred auction purchases for notable connections, are worth watching not only through the spring but down the road too.

Sharecropper

A $600,000 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling, Sharecropper is trained by Al Stall Jr. for B. Wayne Hughes’ Spendthrift Farm. The name has a sentimental value, as Hughes’ father was an Oklahoma sharecropper who moved his family to California at the time of the Dust Bowl.

Sharecropper is bred to excel around a route. By Pioneerof the Nile (American Pharoah’s sire), he is the first registered foal from multiple Grade 3-placed stakes winner Blue Violet, a daughter of Hall of Famer Curlin. Given his pedigree profile, it was no surprise that Sharecropper was a never-involved eighth in his 7-furlong unveiling at Churchill Downs, where a slow start didn’t help.

He still looked green on the stretch-out to a 1 1/16-mile maiden beneath the Twin Spires Oct. 27, but for that very reason, his upset victory at odds of 19-1 has more merit than the neck margin suggests. More than five lengths behind at the 6-furlong split in 1:12.30, Sharecropper delivered a nifty turn of foot to mow down the leaders before appearing to idle a bit late.

“The improvement from his first to his second race wasn’t just like your average jump,” Stall later told Fair Grounds publicity. “He really impressed us with that and we’re really excited about him.”

Indeed, since Stall described him as a “big, sort of sleepy 2-year-old,” Sharecropper won more on raw ability – a sign that there’s more to come.

Entered in the Dec. 21 Fair Grounds allowance designed as a stepping stone to the Lecomte (G3), Sharecropper unfortunately was scratched with a fever. That was the race with Lynn’s Map edging Mr. Monomoy. Plan B for the recovered Sharecropper was a 9-furlong allowance on the Feb. 15 Risen Star (G2) undercard, where he traveled like the winner much of the way but lacked room to punch through on the rail. Switching out belatedly, he didn’t make an impact in fourth.

In the circumstances, it’s intriguing that these particular connections are pointing Sharecropper to the March 21 Louisiana Derby (G2).

“He stayed in the bridle last time and traveled like a nice animal, and I just think that race will set him up for the next one,” Stall told Daily Racing Form’s Marcus Hersh. “Why wouldn’t we give it a shot?”

Sonneman

By Curlin and out of Zardana – the Brazilian import best known for stunning newly crowned Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra in the 2010 New Orleans Ladies – Sonneman is entitled to be much better with maturity. That’s why his Belmont maiden score as a juvenile is full of promise.

Trained by Mark Hennig for Courtlandt Farm, the $375,000 Keeneland September yearling did well just to make it to the races at Saratoga last summer. Sonneman was an educational eighth in the 5 1/2-furlong maiden won by Shoplifted, but moved forward substantially when second, at 25-1, to Famished over 7 furlongs at the Spa Aug. 31.

The step up to a mile at Belmont made all the difference. Rallying out wide in the stretch, Sonneman clocked 1:36.01. Later on the same Oct. 5 card, Tiz the Law posted 1:35.41 in the Champagne (G1), assisted by a faster pace (6 furlongs in 1:10.82 compared to the 1:11.57 split in Sonneman’s maiden).

According to Trakus, Sonneman posted a faster final quarter (:23.98) than Tiz the Law (:24.33). Thus Sonneman boasts a gaudy Brisnet Late Pace figure – 107. Of Triple Crown nominees, only Sole Volante has recorded a higher Late Pace rating (108 for his Sam F. Davis [G3] victory.)

Unraced since that maiden, Sonneman resumed working Feb. 10 at Gulfstream Park. We’ll learn more as he takes a class hike, but there’s reason for optimism considering he hasn’t even gone two turns yet.

Note that Sonneman is a three-quarter brother to Smart Transition (by Curlin’s sire Smart Strike), who didn’t peak until the 2015 Curlin S. at Saratoga. He never built on that effort, so hopefully Sonneman’s relative precocity translates to greater long-term success.

P.S. on Country Grammer

I originally intended to include Country Grammer in this discussion, until he unexpectedly popped up in last Saturday’s Fountain of Youth (G2). Not under the radar anymore, the Chad Brown trainee ran a most encouraging fifth.

For a May 11 foal by Tonalist who needed 9 furlongs to break his maiden at Aqueduct, 1 1/16 miles at Gulfstream Park figured to be a sharper test of speed than preferable. Country Grammer did not get off to a good start, found himself out of position far back, yet stayed on down the outside to miss second by two necks and a head. I look forward to seeing Country Grammer back up in trip next time.