The Jury: Bets and fades for March 18

March 17th, 2023

It's a relatively quiet weekend from a graded stakes perspective, but this week's Jury of Vance Hanson, Ashley Anderson, and Keeler Johnson have found much to chew on from this Saturday's menu of options.

What is your best bet?

Vance Hanson: #2 Soybean Man (9-2) finished fourth of 12 in his debut at Oaklawn on Dec. 31, a race which has since proved to be key. All three horses that finished ahead of Soybean Man, including the winning Eyeing Clover, went on to take their next starts. Eyeing Clover was an impressive allowance winner at Fair Grounds and later finished a distant fourth in the Gotham (G3). This race doesn't appear to be as deep by comparison, so Soybean Man looks a strong fit and can contend with normal second-out improvement.

Ashley Anderson: #8 Coffeewithchris (7-2) stretched out to a mile for the first time in his 10-race career last out and dug in to prove best with a 1 1/4-length win in the Miracle Wood S. at Laurel. The Ride On Curlin three-year-old will now try 8 1/2 furlongs in the Private Terms S. at the same track, where he owns a 7-2-1-2 record. Trainer John Salzman strikes at a 19% rate in non-graded stakes and with horses that won their last race, while Jaime Rodriguez is a 22% winner at Laurel and a 25% winner with routes. Coffeewithchris will look to track the pace while breaking from the outside and has the late kick to excel on the stretch-out in distance. He can top morning line favorite #5 Register (3-1), who broke his maiden last out when holding on to win by a nose at Aqueduct.

Keeler Johnson: In the seventh race at Fair Grounds, a 1 1/16-mile maiden special weight for three-year-olds, #9 First Mission (9-5) looks tough to beat. The Triple Crown nominee ran strongly in his debut sprinting six furlongs over this track and class level, but couldn’t quite catch his talented stablemate Bishops Bay, finishing second by three-quarters of a length. The 94 Brisnet Speed rating First Mission posted is the highest number in Saturday’s field by 11 points, and his pedigree (by Kentucky Derby [G1] winner Street Sense out of a mare by Medaglia d’Oro) indicates stretching out over 1 1/16 miles won’t be an issue. Throw in the fact he’s conditioned by ultra-hot trainer Brad Cox (a 28% winner with horses running long for the first time), and First Mission looms among the likeliest winners of the weekend.

Who is the horse to fade?

VH: #10 Last Samurai was worth having at 8-1 in last month's Razorback H. (G3) and at 12-1 in last year's Oaklawn H. (G2), but I'm not willing to bite in the vicinity of his 5-2 morning line price in the Essex H. (G3) at Oaklawn Park. He probably wouldn't have to pair up career efforts to take this, he does figure to get an honest pace to chase, and tends to run best while on Lasix, but there are few other interesting candidates in the field that are sure to offer more appealing odds.

AA: #4 Frosted Grace (2-1) is a neck shy of an unbeaten, 2-for-2 record to start his seven-year-old campaign, but the Robertino Diodoro pupil has faced weaker competition compared to a few of his rivals in Race 7, a 1 1/16-mile allowance optional claimer on Oaklawn's Saturday card. By multiple graded stakes winner Mark Valeski, Frosted Grace is 2-for-6 at today's distance and posted 90 and 91 Brisnet Speed figures in his last two at 1 1/16 miles. Those figures rank behind #1 Kupuna (5-2)'s 94 Speed figure when wiring an allowance optional claimer by 3 1/2 lengths over a muddy Oaklawn track on Jan. 29. The Hard Spun colt also drew the favorable rail post (winning at a 19% rate) and is more than capable of pulling off a slight upset here. #6 Ain’t Life Grand (4-1) is also dangerous, with three victories from three tries at today's distance and a career-best 100 Brisnet figure when racing 1 1/16 miles.

KJ: Generally speaking, I’m a fan of #9 Big Invasion (5-2), the morning line favorite to win the Silks Run S. at Gulfstream Park. He compiled a stellar 8-6-1-1 record as a three-year-old last season, highlighted by five consecutive stakes victories. But he faltered to third place in the Sept. 10 Franklin-Simpson (G2) at Kentucky Downs and disappeared from the worktab immediately afterward. He didn’t resume serious training until Feb. 16 and has breezed only four times in advance of the Silks Run, so although I expect Big Invasion to enjoy another strong year, I wonder if he might be a little rusty in his first start off the layoff.

What else is worth noting?

VH: #3 Circling the Drain (6-1) is one of only two early Triple Crown nominees entered in the Private Terms S. at Laurel, and I think the son of champion West Coast has the upside to threaten in the about 1 1/16-mile affair. Indeed, he enters as the only horse with a true two-turn victory to his credit. In fact, he has two, including a last-out allowance win over the track. If he can work out a stalk-and-pounce trip similar to the one he just received, and there appears sufficient pace entered to ensure that is a strong possibility, he merits a chance despite his lack of prior stakes experience.

AA: #7 Comanche Country (8-5) will make her three-year-old debut in the China Doll S. at Santa Anita after finishing 5 3/4 lengths seventh to Meditate in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1) at Keeneland in November. The Irish-bred filly had won three straight when racing at a mile on turf prior to her most recent setback and can bounce back for trainer Phil D'Amato, who also saddles #1 Paris Secret (5-1), a European shipper making her U.S. debut.

But #3 Wild Grazer (5-2) may have the advantage here. A fellow Irish-bred, the Jeff Mullins pupil was beaten by a neck last out in the Lady of Shamrock S. at this track, and she may improve with the addition of first-time blinkers, a 23% winning move for Mullins. She also has Santa Anita's leading jockey Juan Hernandez (24% winner this meet) in the stirrups, giving Wild Grazer a chance to upset the Surfer Girl (G3) winner in a race D'Amato had circled for Comanche Country since late 2022.

KJ: It will be interesting to see how #3 Super Chow (1-1) performs in the six-furlong Hutcheson S. at Gulfstream. The speedy three-year-old has set the pace in all seven of his starts while compiling five wins, one second, and one third. Between October and January, he rattled off consecutive victories in the Bowman Mill S., Inaugural S., and Limehouse S. dashing six furlongs, but last month he was beaten into second place in the seven-furlong Swale (G3) at Gulfstream. Was the distance too far, or was the victorious General Jim simply better on the day? Super Chow pulled 11 lengths clear of the third-place finisher, so he didn’t run badly in defeat. He towers over the Hutcheson field on paper and ought to bounce back to the winner’s circle, but the nature of his performance will determine whether he remains an early favorite for major spring and summer sprints like the Woody Stephens (G1) and H. Allen Jerkens (G1).