01/03/2013 2:47PM

Weekend Warrior for Jan. 5, 2013: Picks for the San Pasqual, Marshua's River, and Jerome

Tom Keyser
John Scott, the victim of a speed-favoring track in his last two outings, may be overlooked in the San Pasqual.

The New Year may be only a few days old, but there will be a hint of May in the air Saturday with two graded stakes for 3-year-olds on the schedule. Those races are the Grade 2, $200,000 Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct, which also happens to be the richest race of the day, and the Grade  3, $100,000 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita.

The Sham and Jerome are part of stakes doubleheaders at their respective tracks. The Grade 2, $150,000 San Pasqual is the ostensible headliner at Santa Anita, while the $100,000 Busanda Stakes is the supporting feature at Aqueduct. The other graded stakes Saturday is the Grade 3, $100,000 Marshua’s River at Gulfstream Park.

San Pasqual Stakes

Coil and Ultimate Eagle are certainly legitimate win threats, but they also have their vulnerabilities. Coil’s recent form is solid. He ran well when third behind Stay Thirsty and Groupie Doll in the Cigar Mile last time out even if he simply wasn’t good enough, and his seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint two starts back is best forgiven as he was compromised by a speed-biased track. And three starts back, Coil notched the second Grade 1 win of his career when he prevailed in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship; his first Grade 1 came in the Haskell in the summer of 2011. But as good as Coil’s form is, he tends to wait on horses when he’s on or near the lead in the stretch, and I don’t think he has the margin of error to get away with that in this race.

As for Ultimate Eagle, he should improve on a second in the Citation Handicap most recently as that was his first start in nearly nine months. Moreover, he is repeating a turf-to-dirt pattern that preceded his blowout score in the Stub Stakes last winter on the Santa Anita main track. But Ultimate Eagle is a front-runner, and I suspect that Hoorayforhollywood and the stretch-out sprinter Bank the Eight might take it to him early here.

I like John Scott. I do see how some could say that there is a question as to John Scott’s ability on dirt given that he is 5 for 7 in his career on synthetic tracks, and 0 for 3 on dirt. But John Scott’s fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile last time out dispelled any doubt that he is just as effective on dirt, or at least on Santa Anita’s main track. John Scott broke slowly and was last of nine early in the Dirt Mile, and that amounted to a death sentence considering how the track was favoring speed. To his credit, however, John Scott made a very good four-wide run on the far turn, and despite being floated six wide into the stretch, he finished with good courage.

John Scott was also compromised by a speed bias when third in the California Cup Classic two starts back. But Santa Anita’s main track seemed to be playing fairly last weekend, and John Scott showed he’s good enough to win a race like this when he won the Brubaker Handicap, and was a sharp second in the San Diego Handicap, three and four starts back.

Marshua’s River Stakes

Fantasy of Flight is a one-way front-runner. So is Frontside. It’s hard not envisioning these two hooking up in some fashion early, and setting this race up to be won from off the pace.

This pace scenario helps Heavenly Landing and Chokurei. Heavenly Landing beat an arguably better field when she upset this race last year, was clearly best at Keeneland in her most recent start, and has worked well of late. Chokurei encountered a pace collapse in the South Beach Stakes most recently and came from way back to fall just a neck short. Either can win, but I prefer another. I’m going with Channel Lady.

Channel Lady showed a powerful late kick when she won at Saratoga three starts back off an eight-month absence, running a sub-22-second fourth and final quarter-mile to win going away. She followed with a second in the Pebbles Stakes that should not be held against her as it was run on very deep footing she might not have liked. She also might have been too close early trying to stay in contact with a run-off pacesetter. But Channel Lady rebounded last time out with a well-measured victory in an overnight stakes at Aqueduct.

Beyond her closing style fitting the pace setup, and her Beyer Figures fitting the competition, another thing to like about Channel Lady here is this will be only her sixth career start. Heavenly Landing has made 20 starts and Chokurei 14. They have established their ceiling, and we know precisely how good they are. But Channel Lady still has lots of room to improve, and her best races should still be ahead of her.

Jerome Stakes

There are some legitimately promising horses in here. Long River became one to watch after his strong second in a hot maiden race two starts back, and Mudflats put it all together last time out with blinkers on, winning big. But truth be told, I wasn’t crazy about how hard Long River had to work to get his maiden win most recently after a perfect trip. And Mudflats’s trainer change to Doug O’Neill isn’t the big move it usually is because his previous trainer, Eddie Kenneally, is very, very sharp.

I know he won’t be much of a price, and that this will be his first start around two turns, but I think Vyjack is a serious horse. Vyjack didn’t beat much when he dominated an overnight stakes last time out, but he beat a loaded maiden field when he won his debut two back. What impressed me most about Vyjack in both of his performances is he was close early despite being well in hand, and he ran strongly though the wire. That bodes well for a stretch out.