06/10/2004 12:00AM

Irish Warrior is battle-ready


NEW YORK - Although the Triple Crown events have concluded for another year, there is no letup whatsoever in stakes action Saturday, thanks primarily to "Stephen Foster Super Saturday" at Churchill Downs.

In fact, Saturday is the second-biggest day of racing at Churchill Downs all year after Kentucky Derby Day. The Grade 1, $750,000 Stephen Foster Handicap tops a card that also includes five other stakes, four graded, worth another $1.1 million, including the $200,000 Northern Dancer for 3-year-olds on the main track.

Churchill Downs's sister track, Hollywood Park, also has a stakes-filled card on Saturday. The Grade 1, $350,000 Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap on the turf is the main event, and it has as supporting features the $250,000 Californian, and the $175,000 Hollywood Breeders' Cup Oaks.

Saturday is also the biggest day of the year at Thistledown, where the $350,000 Ohio Derby will be contested.

And, if you didn't get enough of 1 1/8-mile stakes for older males between the Stephen Foster and the Californian, there is one more on Saturday for good measure: the $250,000 Brooklyn Handicap at Belmont Park.

Here are my spotlight stakes, in order of preference:

Whittingham Memorial

Musical Chimes is going to take a lot to beat, even though she is a filly against males. She lost narrowly last year to Heat Haze and Tates Creek, and there are no males of that class in this field. And Musical Chimes showed in her first race this year that she still has a potent late kick. Nevertheless, I'm going to try and beat her with Irish Warrior.

Irish Warrior was a decent fourth off a layoff last time out, and the form of that race was boosted when the race's runner-up, Designed for Luck, came back to win the Shoemaker Mile. Irish Warrior has yet to win at the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Whittingham, but he was a fine third at the distance last fall in the Clement Hirsch to Storming Home, who ran one of his best races that day, and Johar, who came back to dead-heat for win in the Breeders' Cup Turf. It doesn't hurt that Irish Warrior's trainer and jockey, Wally Dollase and Jose Valdivia Jr., teamed up to win the Manhattan Handicap at Belmont last Saturday.

Northern Dancer

This is a good betting race, because the favorite figures to be around 3-1, which means there will be value on the board. And, the favorite figures to be either J Town or Two Down Automatic, and both are vulnerable. J Town is not only jumping in class, he is stretching out to two turns for the first time, and that is a tough combination to overcome. Two Down Automatic was a beaten favorite last time out, and he has to show me more off his weak third-place finish in the Withers two starts back.

I like Ecclesiastic, who broke through with emphatic victories in his last two starts. Ecclesiastic's Beyer Speed Figures are competitive with the best to be found in this field, and though he is making the same class jump as J Town, he will be a better price, and has already won at two turns.

Ohio Derby

I think that Limehouse will be the favorite, partly off his win in the Tampa Bay Derby and third in the Blue Grass, and mostly because of his fourth to Smarty Jones in the Kentucky Derby. If I'm correct, then the wrong horse will be favorite, and that makes this race very playable.

Pollard's Vision, my pick, should be the favorite, but may not be because his 17th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby may throw off a big percentage of the betting public. That would be a mistake, because Pollard's Vision proved he is the fastest and best horse in this field in his two starts before the Derby. He ran well to be nailed for second in the Louisiana Derby after being fairly close to a ridiculously fast early pace, and he earned a field-topping Beyer Speed Figure of 107 when he came back to win the Illinois Derby decisively. Pollard's Vision went wire to wire in the Illinois Derby, and he should be the controlling speed again.