06/05/2008 12:00AM

Pays to Dream diving into deep end


ELMONT, N.Y. - When his 19-1 shot Pays to Dream seemed to be running in place during the Dixie Stakes on the Preakness undercard at Pimlico, "I thought it was time to start looking for his next race," recalled trainer David Donk. "I thought it was all over - in a bad way."

But then Pays to Dream began passing everybody, and next thing you know, it was all over - in a good way. With Javier Castellano aboard, the 4-year-old gelding romped to a 7 1/2-length victory in the Grade 2 turf race.

Saturday, as one of the main contenders in the 107th running of the Grade 1, $400,000 Manhattan Handicap at Belmont Park, Pays to Dream will try to prove his Dixie triumph was no fluke. He earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 108 at Pimlico, easily his career high.

"Could he bounce? Yeah, sure," said Donk, who worked under the legendary Woody Stephens during the last two (1985-86) of Stephens's five straight Belmont Stakes wins. "I'm sure that's what the sheets guys are looking at. But he cooled out really well, and he's trained great since we got him back here to New York. Obviously he's taking on a little better quality in the Manhattan, but hopefully he'll earn a trip to the Arlington Million."

Donk, who won the 1995 Million with Awad, said the winner of the 1 1/4-mile Manhattan should automatically rank among the top turf horses in North America.

"This is an excellent field," he said, "even without Einstein," whose ownership group, the Midnight Cry Stable, had licensing difficulties in New York, precluding them from running Einstein off his victory in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic last month.

Edgar Prado will replace Castellano on Pays to Dream, who was assigned post 8 in a field of 12. Among the multitude of capable challengers are Better Talk Now, the defending Manhattan champion and an earner of more than $4 million, and the uncoupled Bobby Frankel duo of Proudinsky and Out of Control.

Better Talk Now was up in the final jump of the 2007 Manhattan to narrowly prevail over the eventual Eclipse turf champion English Channel in a three-horse photo. Since then, the 9-year-old gelding has gone winless in four tries, with his latest race resulting in a ninth-place finish in the March 29 Dubai Sheema Classic.

As trainer Graham Motion has often done as a means of providing pace assistance for the stretch-running Better Talk Now, he has entered Shake the Bank to serve as a rabbit on Saturday.

Proudinsky defeated the multiple graded stakes winner Daytona when he captured the Grade 2 Mervin Muniz on March 8 at the Fair Grounds in his only start since late December.

"He got a quarter crack after that, and I had to stop on him," said Frankel. "He likes a little cut in the ground, but I don't know if we're going to get that Saturday, as hot as it's supposed to be."

Out of Control, beaten a length by Einstein as the Woodford Reserve runner-up at Churchill Downs, "ran good that day, even though I don't think he liked that course very much," said Frankel. "He bobbled quite a bit down there."

Other Manhattan threats include the uncoupled Kiaran McLaughlin pair of Shakis, the beaten Dixie favorite, and Stream of Gold, winner of the Grade 2 Mac Diarmida at Gulfstream in March; Dancing Forever, a markedly improved 5-year-old who won the Grade 2 Elkhorn at Keeneland in April for trainer Shug McGaughey; and Strike a Deal, who retains Castellano following a sharp runner-up finish in a May 11 overnight stakes on the Belmont turf.

The other Manhattan starters are Interpatation, Stalingrad, and Cougar Bay.

The Manhattan directly precedes the Belmont as the 10th of 13 Saturday races.