11/22/2007 1:00AM

Pago Hop has 13, but none stand out

EmailNEW ORLEANS - A filly named Melissa's Dream was shipped from Chicago, where turf racing is coming to an end, to New Orleans, where winter grass racing is just getting started this week. The idea was to enter her in Saturday's Pago Hop Stakes, see if Melissa's Dream would be obviously overmatched, and if not, run her. Well, Melissa's Dream will indeed start in the Pago Hop, and her new trainer, Neil Pessin, seems to have a firm handle on the competition.

"The race looks pretty even to me," said Pessin. "I don't think there's any standout."

No standout - but plenty of horses. A field of 13 was entered in the $60,000 Pago Hop, a one-mile grass race that offers one of the final chances for a filly to earn black type in a race restricted to 3-year-olds.

Who might be favored? Who really knows, which speaks to Pessin's assessment. Winsome Ways, from the barn of Bill Mott, and Buy the Barrel, trained by Larry Jones, probably will be the top two betting choices, but neither has great margin for error.

Winsome Ways has won three turf races by a combined margin of one length, but may still have room to improve. Eased three races ago at Monmouth Park after stumbling at the break, she won two starts back at Monmouth by a nose, and was up by three-quarters of a length Oct. 5 at Keeneland, closing into a slow pace for the win.

"She's slowly fought her way up the ladder," Mott said. "She hasn't been brilliant, but she's been going the right direction, and she's coming off a win."

Winsome Ways will need racing luck from post 12. Three stalls inside her is Buy the Barrel, who has won three dirt races and scored by a head over older third-level allowance horses Oct. 2 in her grass debut.

"She's one of those horses that will do whatever we ask her to do," said Jones.

In other words, if the Pago Hop should get rained off grass, Buy the Barrel might become the one to beat.

Melissa's Dream - trained to this point by Chris Block - has turned a form corner in her last two starts, most recently scoring a 5 1/4-length win in a second-level Hawthorne allowance race. She shipped here last weekend after working a half-mile at Hawthorne.

"She shipped good, she's training well," Pessin said. "They put blinkers on her, had her lay a little closer to the pace, and she seems to have responded to it."