12/04/2008 1:00AM

Church Service figures to improve


NEW YORK - With Churchill Downs closed and racing in New York on Aqueduct's inner track, the focus on stakes racing now switches to warm-weather sites. Evidence of this can be found on Saturday's national stakes schedule, which finds Hollywood Park and Calder Race Course commanding most of the attention. At Hollywood, where it will be sunny and 72 degrees, the Grade 1, $250,000 Hollywood Turf Cup tops a card that also includes the Grade 3, $100,000 Native Diver Handicap. At Calder, where it will be sunny and 80 degrees, the Tropical Turf and My Charmer handicaps, both Grade 3, $100,000 events, share top billing.

Interestingly, Calder's My Charmer is not the only My Charmer on the national stakes schedule. The feature at Turfway Park, where it will be snowy and 33 degrees, is the $50,000 My Charmer Stakes, but unlike Calder's My Charmer, Turfway's will be run on Polytrack, not turf.

Hollywood Turf Cup

Summer Survivor is an interesting entrant in here. Last summer, he couldn't beat anyone for a $3,200 tag (that's correct; no zeros missing there) at Solano. Heck, he could have been had for $5,000 (again, no zeros missing) off a win at Fairplex just two starts back. Yet here he is in a Grade 1 race at Hollywood Park.

What's even more interesting is that Spring House is not in this race. Two of his last three wins came in graded turf stakes at this 1 1/2-mile distance, and his victory three starts back in the Del Mar Handicap came going 11 furlongs on turf. But despite this race fitting him very well, Spring House was entered in the Native Diver, which would be his first start on a surface other than turf in 25 months. It's almost as if he was entered in the wrong race.

All this weirdness aside, Champs Elysees will be a solid favorite. But while I acknowledge that he can win, if he does win, he'll be beating me. Beyond questioning his will to win, I don't think the fields Champs Elysees was competitive with in the Grade 1 Northern Dancer and Grade 1 Canadian International at Woodbine two and three starts back were any stronger than the group he faces Saturday, even if the group he faces Saturday is not particularly imposing. Moreover, I believe Champs Elysees is really at his best on synthetic surfaces, as evidenced by his third in the Santa Anita Handicap and the fact that he was beaten only a little more than five lengths most recently in the Breeders' Cup Classic. So since Champs Elysees is the chalk, I'll attempt to beat him with Church Service.

Church Service was making his first start in two months when second, beaten just a head, in the Breeders' Cup Marathon last time out. And while it is true that the inaugural Marathon didn't seem to be much of a race, it looked a little better after fourth-place finisher Delightful Kiss came back to be a fast-closing second in last week's Clark Handicap to Einstein, a Grade 1 winner, and ahead of Commentator, a multiple Grade 1 winner. As for Church Service, he will be very much at home switching back to turf and he has the momentum of the hot Mike Mitchell barn behind him.

My Charmer Stakes

This is the Turfway version, and it is an interesting race because two fillies who bring sharp recent form to the party - Kiss With a Twist and Champagne Taste - are vulnerable.

Kiss With a Twist comes into this off a near miss in the Grade 3 Cardinal on the turf at Churchill, and she won on Keeneland's Polytrack two starts back. But her Cardinal might look better on paper than it actually was, because it was run on a deep course that Kiss With a Twist handled better than some of her opponents and because of a very slow pace that she was a part of.

As for Champagne Taste, she won her last two on dirt at Mountaineer by big margins after a series of blah synthetic-track races. She did the same thing once before, which suggests she is just not, at least so far, a synthetic-track horse.

I like Absolutely Cindy. After a forgettable spring campaign and then taking the summer off, Absolutely Cindy signaled that she is rounding back into form with improved efforts in her last two starts. In fact, I expect Absolutely Cindy to run the way she did the last time she ran at Turfway, when she blew past a field of males to win the Battaglia Memorial in going-away fashion. If she does, it will be good enough to win.

My Charmer Handicap

Hey, let's do the Calder version, too. Rutherienne boasts some imposing class lines here. Last time out, she finished third in the Grade 1 First Lady to Forever Together, who came back to win the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf. Two starts back, Rutherienne finished third in the Grade 2 Ballston Spa behind former champion Wait a While and Carriage Trail, who both came back to win Grade 1 races. But that's also the problem. While Rutherienne might be tons the best here, she also has finished third in her last five starts. She just hasn't been able to close the deal this year like she did last season when she won 6 of 8.

After trying to beat trainer Marty Wolfson lately in a couple of Calder stakes, I've learned my lesson and I'm going with his Jeux de Danse. Jeux de Danse has been a different mare since moving into Wolfson's barn, turning in the best performances of her career and winning her last two starts over the course. She is meeting tougher this time, but that will help her price, and I think she can handle the jump in her current form.