I may be a handicapper, but I’m a journalist above all else, and I love a good story. Wednesday’s Grade 1 Jonathan Sheppard Handicap delivered in spades, as The Mean Queen redeemed herself after one of the worst beats I’ve ever seen earlier this summer.
Just a few weeks after tossing jockey Tom Garner in the stretch, she kept her composure, rallied past stablemate Baltimore Bucko, and cruised home to win by daylight. Add in that trainer Keri Brion was a Sheppard disciple, and that she also trained Baltimore Bucko (who finished second in his first start following a Grade 1 score of his own in the A.P. Smithwick), and you’ve got something that was really, really cool to watch.
WEDNESDAY’S RESULTS: We were washed out of our action, as the sixth race was moved off the turf. As a reminder, all wagers in this space assume races carded for the grass stay there.
THURSDAY’S PLAY: I have two opinions in the second race. The first is that #7 BIG SCULLY is an underlay at 7/5. The second is that #5 INEVTABL CONECTION might be a runner given his works at Delaware and a strong bottom-side pedigree. I’ll put $15 to win on the latter runner, and I’ll also key him in $3 exactas above and below first-time starters #1 PIPITO and #3 ST. LUKES.
TOTAL WAGERED: $27.
Best Bet: Gold Panda, Race 6
Longshot: Inevtabl Conection, Race 2
#2 ANNA’S FAST: Ran too poorly to be true against far better competition last time out and drops back to the appropriate level here. She beat similar-level foes two and three back at Belmont, and I expect her to be prominent from the jump in the Thursday lid-lifter; #1 TRUE CASTLE: Has chased my top pick in each of her last two outings but has been working well since coming to upstate New York. She has tactical speed but doesn’t necessarily need the lead, and she could sit an ideal stalking trip; #3 SWEET MIA: Just missed in each of her last two outings and is another with a significant amount of early zip. She’s aggressively spotted by her new connections, but she gets a big rider switch to Joel Rosario that could move her forward.
#5 INEVTABL CONECTION: Will likely be a price after shipping up from Delaware, but he has a strong bottom-side pedigree and a solid work tab. He’s a half-brother to multiple stakes winner Daddy Justice, his dam is kin to Grade 3 winner Lasersport, and his second dam is a full sister to stakes winner Marked Tree; #3 ST. LUKES: Comes in off of a big drill for Rudy Rodriguez, who doesn’t usually work his first-time starters very quickly. This daughter of Tapiture attracts Irad Ortiz, Jr., and it wouldn’t be surprising if he’s ready to run; #1 PIPITO: Draws the rail in his unveiling but may be talented enough to overcome it. His work tab is as strong as any runner in the field. If there’s hesitation here, it’s because his strong female family hints that he may be better on turf than dirt.
#7 SMOOTH PEBBLE: May have needed the last-out effort off a bit of a freshening and drops back in for a tag here. This is far from the strongest race for the level we’ll see this summer, and the Rosario/Clement tag team merits respect with turf sprinters; #9 JASMINESQUE: Rallied from last to first to top non-winners of two downstate and tries this condition for the first time. Her record looks far, far better if you simply toss the dirt races, and she ran well at this route when second against maiden claimers last summer; #6 JEN’S BATTLE: Drops back down the ladder after trying allowance company off the claim back in June. She hasn’t won in a while, but the presence of leading rider Luis Saez is a plus and perhaps the addition of blinkers will make a difference.
#5 MORE MOONSHINE: Debuted with an impressive score going seven furlongs and stretches out to two turns for her first try against winners. Her pedigree says the added distance won’t be an issue, and logical second-out improvement would make her a handful against this short field; #1 MISTY VEIL: Had a perfect trip when loose on the lead against starter allowance foes earlier this summer and may have also benefited from the muddy track. It’s also possible she’s been a dirt horse all along, though, and she’s got the early speed necessary to turn the rail draw into a strength; #2 ICE PRINCESS: Hasn’t won since February of 2020 and has been a beaten favorite in three of her last four outings. It’s possible she takes money again here, but this field came up heavier on quality than quantity, and at her likely price, I simply cannot endorse her on top.
#5 SILVER STRAND: Hammered for $575,000 two summers ago and sure seems to have come to hand for Bill Mott, judging by the flashy work tab. This daughter of Frosted looks ready to roll on debut, and drawing outside several other contenders should help her; #3 SHALIMAR GARDENS: Rallied to finish beaten a neck in her debut back in May, and that day’s runner-up came right back to win at next asking. She’s got a few solid local works, and Jose Ortiz and Horacio DePaz usually mean business when they team up; #1 O’GOTTEN GIRL: Has shown speed in several of her prior outings and should be forwardly-placed again here. However, she hasn’t run since February, she’s burned plenty of money to this point, and it’s tough to trust the form she showed over Aqueduct’s quirky surface.
#2 GOLD PANDA: Ran reasonably well when third in his debut downstate, especially considering that trainer Charlton Baker’s horses often need a race or two to get going. He’s fired back-to-back bullets since that performance, and I’m expecting a big performance at second asking; #3 V PATTERN: Makes his first start since October for a patient barn that has connected at a 26% clip with similar stock. He’s been gelded since we last saw him, and perhaps he just needed the first-out effort; #1 SEIZER: Has been working consistently ahead of his debut, and one of those drills was the fastest five-furlong work of the morning on August 7th. His pedigree says he wants more ground, but this barn could be heating up and he may be good enough for a piece of it at first asking.
#3 SHAMROCKET: Will likely go favored in a loaded optional claiming event that looks more like a stakes race. He most recently ran third in the Grade 2 Bowling Green behind Cross Border, and he’s shown he can run well going long distances. He’s a legitimate favorite and looks formidable; #4 OPRY: Could complete a 1-2 finish for Todd Pletcher, who also conditions my top pick. He hasn’t won in a while but was a close-up third going a bit longer here last month, and perhaps marathon distances are up his street; #1 OLYMPICO: Is another looking to break a long drought, as he hasn’t found the winner’s circle since the Grade 3 Fort Marcy in May of 2019. However, perhaps he needed his first race back off a long break, and he’s had a history of knocking heads with some very classy turf horses.
#3 GAMBLING CAT: Has run three solid races in a row and closed well to be third last time out despite rating behind a pretty slow pace. She’s won going two turns before, attracts Jose Ortiz, and merits respect coming from the Mike Maker barn, which has been as hot as any outfit on the circuit this summer; #4 COWORTH PARK: Takes a significant drop in class after running third against allowance foes at Monmouth Park. Todd Pletcher’s Monmouth shippers usually don’t pique my interest, but this one may stand to benefit if the early pace is faster than expected; #6 BATTLE BLING: Showed some speed against better horses last time out in his first start after being claimed by Danny Gargan. She should capitalize on a likely race shape that seems to favor front-runners, and given her exploits on dirt, she may be the one to beat if this race is moved to the main track.
#1 SADIE LADY: Will likely be the odds-on choice in the Union Avenue, and for good reason. She’s in career-best form for a trainer having an excellent meet, and her usual race would likely produce a wire-to-wire victory at a very short price; #6 DIVA BANKER: Is wheeled back after a week and ran too poorly to be true last time out. Unlike many others in this race, she doesn’t need the lead in order to run well, and I think she could be moving the right direction late at a bit of a price; #5 AWESOME DEBATE: Won here over a sloppy track early in the meet but didn’t do much running when fifth at Finger Lakes in her most recent outing. When she’s right, she’s very tough, and at a minimum, she could provide some company up front going up the backstretch.
#4 MARVELOUS MAUDE: Ran third in her debut downstate despite not breaking well in that spot. She rated behind a pretty slow pace that day, and I think she’s sitting on a significantly better effort in the Thursday finale; #1 ACUSHLA: Adds blinkers after showing no early speed in both of her prior starts to date. She’s made two significant moves in as many efforts, though, and perhaps the blinkers will put her closer to striking range in this spot; #12 VIVAZANO: Returns to the turf in her second start off the bench and may have enough tactical speed to work out a trip from a tricky far outside post. She ran reasonably well in her lone turf start to date and will at least have a long run into the first turn where she can establish position on or near the lead.