11/06/2003 12:00AM

Dennis exception to rule of thumb


NEW YORK - In a perverse way, it almost makes sense that after a Breeders' Cup Day at Santa Anita marked by near triple-digit temperatures and deadly wildfires, the forecast for California Cup Day at the same venue calls for cool temperatures and rain.

Nevertheless, the Cal Cup is the biggest event on Saturday's schedule. The 10-race program, which is worth slightly more than $1.3 million in purses and is entirely for California-breds, includes eight stakes, the biggest being the $250,000 Cal Cup Classic.

There's also the Illinois Festival of Racing at Hawthorne, comprising six stakes for Illinois-breds worth a total of $600,000.

The highest graded, and richest unrestricted stakes on Saturday's schedule is the Grade 2, $200,000 Churchill Downs Distaff Handicap, for fillies and mares at one mile.

Here are my three spotlight stakes:

Cal Cup Mile

When it comes to handicapping, being flexible is as important as anything else. For example, I rarely feature speed on the turf. Speed simply does not hold nearly as well on turf as it does on dirt, and with the way turf racing in this country is being increasingly conducted European-style - slow early, fast late - there is more emphasis than ever on who has the best finish.

However, this race demands flexibility. Menacing Dennis, my selection, looks to be in total control of the early pace. The only one of his 11 opponents who has even close to his kind of speed is Lennyfromalibu, but Menacing Dennis is consistently quicker early.

Along with his major pace advantage, Menacing Dennis is also in sharp form. He comes into this off a fine second in a tough, open money-allowance sprint down the hillside course in which he did not weaken, but was simply run down by the 7-5 favorite. Menacing Dennis figures to be primed for a peak performance third start back off a layoff, and enjoys the momentum of Doug O'Neill's hot barn.

Cal Cup Juvenile Fillies

The probable favorite here is House of Fortune, and given that she won both of her attempts versus California-breds by daylight, she can certainly get her picture taken. But, House of Fortune will be trying two turns for the first time, and with the speedy Phoenix shipper Bugsy Marrone breaking right inside of her, she will probably be denied the early lead she seems to like. So, at a short price, House of Fortune looks like the kind of horse to try and beat.

I like Silent Sighs, who was impressive winning her only start earlier in the meet. Silent Sighs drew the one hole in that race, which is usually trouble for a first-time starter, and sure enough, she got left. But, she showed eye-catching rush-up speed while still being amenable to being under a hold. Then, once she was able to break out of her box on the rail, Silent Sighs blew away her field.

Silent Sighs is bred to love the added distance she gets here, and this time, I think she drew well toward the outside. She should comfortably stalk all the speed inside of her.

Churchill Downs Distaff

It's probably nuts to pick and bet against Yell in this spot. She looked like a star in the making early this year, and she finally delivered a strong performance winning the Raven Run at Keeneland last time out. But, no one likes a chalk-eating weasel, so I will go with Mayo on the Side.

Lord knows what got into Mayo on the Side in her last three starts. This filly, who was a modest 2 for 11 to begin her career, first won an optional claimer at Ellis Park by almost 13, then won another at Arlington by nearly nine, and then won a classified allowance last time out at Keeneland by more than seven lengths, earning a 101 Beyer Figure, which is only one point fewer than what Yell earned in the Raven Run. And now, Mayo on the Side returns to what was previously her favorite surface.

A little mayo with that chalk sandwich?