The Jury: Bets and fades for Aug. 13
Two Grade 1 grass tests on a special Churchill Downs card tops this weekend's national racing scene. The TwinSpires Jury of James Scully, Kellie Reilly, and Vance Hanson look at that card, as well as other action this weekend at Saratoga and Ellis Park.
What is your best bet?
James Scully: #3 Confidence Game (6-1) in Race 6 at Churchill Downs on Saturday. Despite being trained by a low-percentage debut trainer, Candy Ride colt got a bet a little in a salty July 2 maiden special weight at Churchill but missed the break. Confidence Game offered a good run for third, a deceptively sneaky move given the margin behind runaway winner Damon's Mount, and it was the perfect effort to build upon. He appears to be training forwardly for Keith Desormeaux in the interim, and Confidence Game looks poised to graduate at second asking.
Kellie Reilly: #1 Set Piece (4-1) should get enough pace to set up his late kick in Saturday's Arlington Million (G1). Although he's yet to race on this incarnation of the Churchill Downs turf, the Brad Cox veteran was 4-for-5 on the old course, so he's enjoyed the configuration at any rate. He's also run well in defeat in both prior tries at 1 1/8 miles – on Turfway's all-weather and at a boggy Fair Grounds – and these conditions figure to suit him better. I'm partly influenced by the fact that connections were right to opt for this spot over the Fourstardave H. (G1) at Saratoga; the Spa just hasn't fit him as well. The Million is a competitive race with a few other proper win candidates on their day, but I've come to trust Set Piece at Churchill.
Vance Hanson: #6 Santin (3-1) appears best qualified to win this year's edition of the Arlington Million. The lightly-raced four-year-old threw in a bit of a clunker last time in the Manhattan (G1) when chasing a loose-on-the-lead winner, but should get an ideal setup in this spot from just off the pace with plenty of speed signed on. Also, he showed his fondness for this tricky new turf course on Derby weekend when taking the Old Forester Bourbon Turf Classic (G1). The son of Distorted Humor should continue to progress for Godolphin and trainer Brendan Walsh.
Who is the horse to fade?
JS: Listed as the 5-2 morning line favorite in Race 3 at Churchill Downs, #3 Tepeu will get another shot on the main track after breaking her maiden by a 7 1/2-length margin on July 1, but her future is probably on turf. The three-year-old filly showed promise on turf earlier this season, but she had limited options when Churchill suspended turf racing in mid-June. Tepeu defeated a suspect group of rivals last time – the second- and third-place finishers did not fare well in their next start – and Saturday's class hike will prove too imposing.
KR: If the Beverly D. (G1) were still 1 3/16 miles around Arlington, I might be less hesitant about #5 Lily Pond (5-2). But my instinct is that the Aidan O'Brien filly is going to find things unfolding a bit quick for her going 1 1/8 miles, her minimum trip, at a track like Churchill. Obviously, her place chances are boosted in a five-horse field. Still, she'd have to step up on what she's achieved so far to win this race, historically a difficult one for three-year-olds. This looks like more of a bridge to a future target, and at skimpy odds, I'd rather look elsewhere for the winner. In so doing, I run the risk of underestimating a lightly-raced type on the upswing, as explored in her Beverly D. international scouting report.
VH: Career maidens are often the best horses to stand against at a short price, and #8 Engrave (3-1) in Race 8 at Churchill on Saturday increasingly qualifies as such. The four-year-old has finished second or third in six of nine lifetime starts, and in five of six races held over a fast track. He's a logical threat off his last two starts during the spring meet, but note he weakened late in both going 6 1/2 furlongs and now must negotiate seven panels while facing several younger rivals with considerably more upside.
What else is worth noting?
JS: Nine horses are set for the Arlington Million, and I have concerns surrounding a couple short-priced horses. Early favorite Smooth Like Strait has come up short in six consecutive starts, recording five seconds and a third, often at short odds, and the speedy Grade 1-winning miler won't receive an easy trip at a tricky 1 1/8-mile distance, given the presence of Megacity. Multiple Grade 2 winner Set Piece appears to favor shorter distances. I'll go three-deep in all multi-race wagers, including logical contenders #2 Sacred Life and #6 Santin along with #7 Admission Office, who is listed at 10-1 on the morning line. Winner of the 1 1/16-mile Arlington (G3) at Churchill on June 11, Admission Office figures to appreciate the cutback to 1 1/8 miles after making his last outing over 12 furlongs, and the confirmed closer should receive the right setup. At the very least, Admission Office offers appeal underneath for all vertical exotics.
KR: #1 Shoplifter (12-1) is overpriced in the Ellis Park Debutante, one of five stakes races at the Henderson, Kentucky, track on Sunday. The Eddie Kenneally trainee just missed on debut to Sabra Tuff, who went on to place in both Churchill's Debutante S. and the Adirondack (G3). Shoplifter came back to break her maiden stylishly, romping over a next-out winner with a gap to third. The daughter of Runhappy could be tough to catch from her rail post. The three final stakes on the Sunday card – the Audubon Oaks, Groupie Doll S., and Ellis Park Derby – are part of the two-day "Bluegrass Pick 6" that begins at Churchill Saturday with the Beverly D., Lady Tak S., and Arlington Million. In the Audubon Oaks, I'm intrigued by #7 Gunning, a five-length maiden winner last out. Trained by Ken McPeek, the Gun Runner filly was previously a strong second on debut to Colorful Mischief, who's since captured a Saratoga allowance.
VH: The Fourstardave at Saratoga came up light in numbers and in depth, which makes it look like a very winnable spot for the season's pro tem leader among turf mares, #3 Regal Glory. Having virtually run out of competition against filly milers, this spot looks an ideal one to see what her connections have. A strong performance will give her reason to pursue the Breeders' Cup Mile (G1) at Keeneland in November.