05/08/2003 12:00AM

Just Wonder tops Ascot

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - Trainer Jedd Josephson, who will run Direct Male in Saturday's $100,000 Ascot Handicap at Bay Meadows, sums up the race this way:

"It's not like this is a stellar bunch," he said of the nine 3-year-olds entered for the 1 1/16-mile turf stakes. "But it is a nice bunch."

British-bred Just Wonder, trained by Laura de Seroux, and Helms Deep are the probable favorites.

Just Wonder was 1 for 2 in France and won an $80,000 optional claimer in his U.S. debut. He subsequently ran sixth in the Grade 2 San Rafael Stakes and fifth in the La Puente at Santa Anita.

Helms Deep was winless in Europe as a 2-year-old but won his maiden in his U.S. debut before running fourth in the Academy Road at Santa Anita.

Direct Male, whom Josephson trains for owner-breeder Stanley Bell, has only a maiden victory, but he was favored and lost by only a nose while still a maiden in an allowance race on the turf.

"I talked with Mr. Bell, and we both decided this was a good spot to run," Josephson said.

"He's sure bred for turf, and it's a good time to try."

Josephson can't be faulted for believing his improving turf star has a chance.

"He's come out of some tough races," said Josephson, pointing to losses to Buddy Gil, Winning Stripes, Frisco Johnny, and Allwood before his victory in his last start.

Josephson added blinkers before that three-length victory at today's distance.

"I wanted him to stay focused and not play around on the lead," Josephson said. "Blinkers really don't help that many horses, but I think they made a difference for him."

Obermeister will make his turf, route, and stakes debut for trainer Armando Lage just two races after being claimed for $8,000. Stablemate Fellner, who was third in a troubled maiden turf try in his last start, is also entered.

Grandpa Chan, third in the Emerald Downs Express last summer, makes his turf and route debut for trainer Wesley Ward.

Iron Lad returns to the turf as he looks for his first U.S. victory after finishing far back in the Santa Anita Derby and San Rafael.

Frisco Johnny graduated on the turf, beating Direct Male on Jan. 9 at Golden Gate Fields. He followed that with a main-track win.