08/26/2010 1:35PM

Dakota Phone may be horse for the course in Pacific Classic

Benoit & Associates
Dakota Phone is 2 for 2 on Del Mar's Polytrack coming into the Pacific Classic.

DEL MAR, Calif. – It would be hard to imagine a more emotionally draining month than one experienced by trainer Jerry Hollendorfer this August. He looked on helplessly as the top mare in his barn, Tuscan Evening, dropped dead, likely from a heart attack, after a work at Del Mar. Just 13 days later, he watched on television as the horse Tuscan Evening had beaten in a key prep race, Eclaire de Lune, won the Beverly D.

He had to wonder, What might have been? Yet just minutes after the Beverly D., his filly Blind Luck secured her position as the best 3-year-old filly in the land by winning the Alabama Stakes, giving Hollendorfer his first Grade 1 stakes win at Saratoga.

Through it all, Hollendorfer outwardly has retained the uncanny equilibrium that carries him through the day. He chooses his words carefully, never pops off, and works tirelessly. Celebratory displays are not in his repertoire. If he played in the National Football League, he wouldn’t spike the ball after scoring a touchdown. He would just give it to the referee.

But asked if he celebrated just a little more than normal after the Alabama, Hollendorfer allowed a smile to crease his lips.

“Yes,” he said, his eyes alight, “I did.”

Hollendorfer will try to score another touchdown on Saturday, when he sends out Dakota Phone in the Grade 1, $1 million Pacific Classic, the richest race of the season at Del Mar. Dakota Phone comes off a victory in this track’s major prep, the San Diego Handicap, and though that ended a 16-race losing streak for Dakota Phone, it brought his lifetime record to 2 for 2 on Del Mar’s Polytrack surface. In a wide-open field of 10, headed by turf specialist The Usual Q.T. and last year’s Pacific Classic winner, Richard’s Kid, Dakota Phone is a viable longshot.

It is horses like Blind Luck and Dakota Phone that helped Hollendorfer retain his focus after the sudden loss of Tuscan Evening.

“Rather than get too up or too down, I try to stay on an even keel, take things in stride,” Hollendorfer said in the paddock at Del Mar the other afternoon. “Everybody goes through problems in horse racing. We’re no different. Landaluce. Ruffian. You do your grieving, but you have to stand up and go on.”

The Pacific Classic is the eighth race on an 11-race card that begins one hour earlier than usual, at 1 p.m. Pacific. It is preceded by the Grade 2, $250,000 Del Mar Mile on turf, and followed by the Grade 1, $300,000 Pat O’Brien for sprinters. The race will be seen live on TVG, and via video streaming at NTRA.com. Both the Pacific Classic and Pat O’Brien are part of a pick six sequence that has a guaranteed pool of $750,000.

Dakota Phone has failed twice previously at the Pacific Classic distance of 1 1/4 miles, though he did finish third in the 14-horse Santa Anita Handicap earlier this year. Hollendorfer said Dakota Phone has done well this summer.

“He’s training great,” Hollendorfer said. “He didn’t train well here last summer. His ankles were flaring up, his feet were bothering him. I think he’s ready, but I know it’s a tough race.”

Richard’s Kid, since returning from the Dubai World Cup, has finished third in the Hollywood Gold Cup and third in the Cougar II Handicap. He was beaten by Pacific Classic runners Awesome Gem, Temple City, and Unusual Suspect in those two races.

“He’s training well for it,” said his trainer, Bob Baffert, who will be at Saratoga on Saturday to run, among others, Bulldogger in the King’s Bishop. “He likes the distance. A mile and a quarter is his deal.”

The Usual Q.T. is the best turf horse on this circuit; he is coming off two straight grass wins, including the Grade 1 Eddie Read on July 24. He will be trying a synthetic surface for the first time since a last-place finish in the nine-horse Sunshine Millions Classic at Santa Anita in January. The Usual Q.T. can be aggressively early, and a decided lack of pace in this race could compromise his chances, especially when starting without cover from the outside post.

The likely pacesetter is Temple City, who led from start to finish in the Cougar II at 1 1/2 miles here on July 30. Isle of Giant’s also should be forwardly placed under red-hot jockey Patrick Valenzuela.

Awesome Gem comes off the biggest win of his career in the Hollywood Gold Cup, in which he defeated Rail Trip and Richard’s Kid. This is his fourth straight appearance in the Pacific Classic.

Hold Me Back is a newcomer to this circuit, but not to synthetic surfaces. He is 4 for 6 on Polytrack at Arlington, Keeneland, Turfway, and Woodbine.