06/14/2009 11:00PM

Give Dakota Phone one more chance


NEW YORK - There is a little something for everyone on Saturday's very appealing national stakes schedule. Most of the activity will be at Churchill Downs, where top older male Einstein will attempt to become the first horse to add a Grade 1 victory on dirt to Grade 1 successes on turf and synthetic in a single season when he goes in the $600,000 Stephen Foster Handicap. The Foster is the main event on a program that includes four other graded stakes events - the Fleur de Lis Handicap, and the Regret, Jefferson Cup, and Northern Dancer stakes.

As strong as Churchill's card is, you don't have to look very hard for major racing elsewhere on Saturday. Music Note, a near-champion last year at 3, makes her 2009 debut at Belmont Park in the Grade 1, $300,000 Ogden Phipps Stakes. The Grade 2, $250,000 Californian Stakes is the feature at Hollywood Park. And Monmouth Park and Philadelphia Park each host a $200,000 event, the Monmouth Stakes on the turf, and the Jostle Stakes for 3-year-old filly sprinters.

Californian Stakes

I had the right idea, but the wrong horse when I went against the 3-5 Rail Bird in last month's Mervyn LeRoy Handicap. I expected Ball Four to be a major pace presence. But I didn't expect him to get away with the kind of soft fractions that played such a big role in him leading Rail Trip all the way around the track, and which compromised the late run of my pick, Dakota Phone.

The early pace should be different this time. Rail Trip's connections are on record as saying their gelding is more effective as a free-running horse, which means he will be more aggressive early on Saturday. But Rail Trip might have distance limitations, and he may not be part of another soft pace. Ball Four's best game is going to the front, and he's unlikely to concede anything early. And it wouldn't surprise me if Mast Track was sent early, too, because he led all the way in last summer's Hollywood Gold Cup, the biggest win of his career. All of this means that the pace this time could well be strong and contested, and much more favorable to the stretch-runners.

For this reason, I'm going back to Dakota Phone. Despite the pokey fractions in the LeRoy, Dakota Phone tried hard, and was beaten less than two lengths for all the money. He also confirmed that he is at home on Hollywood's Cushion Track.

The projected pace scenario might also help Awesome Gem, who looks to be back in form. But Awesome Gem has not actually finished first in a race in almost two years, and his desire to win is in question. So, he's best used underneath in exotics.

Monmouth Stakes

Grand Couturier, whose two Grade 1 turf stakes victories last year placed his name into the discussion for the divisional Eclipse Award, makes his 2009 debut here. And while Grand Couturier is more than good enough to win this race - even if it came up fairly salty with Proudinsky and Strike a Deal in the field - this is the right time to take a swing against him.

Grand Couturier has been the sort who needs a race or two off a layoff to reach peak form. So while his connections would surely love to win this event, I suspect the main purpose of this race is to ready Grand Couturier for next month's Man o' War at Belmont, and certainly for the Sword Dancer Invitational at Saratoga after that, a race he won in 2007 and 2008.

I like Presious Passion, who is the controlling speed in this spot. Presious Passion was very game in defeat in the off-the-turf Pan American last time out considering his troubled start and how fast he went early. Notably, the last time Presious Passion went slop to turf, he won the Grade 1 United Nations last summer on the same course he runs on Saturday. And that U.N. win came on off turf, footing Presious Passion might catch again considering all the rain the Northeast has had lately.

Jostle Stakes

There are several fillies with real potential in this race, and even more with early speed, but there are precious few who have shown that they can win from off the pace in a spot like this. One who has is On the Menu, and that's why she rates as a strong play.

On the Menu showed just the kind of running style that figures to succeed here when she won the Just Smashing Stakes at Monmouth last time out off a two-month layoff. She was with the leaders early, but very willingly dropped back to stalk a fast pace from close range. On the Menu then ranged up wide on the far turn and into the stretch, a move that is often preferable at Philadelphia Park, took control late, and then seemed to ease herself up, which is why she won by only a neck. She has worked well since, and in view of the fact that twice she ran faster than she did in the Just Smashing, it's reasonable to expect her to take a step forward Saturday.