02/04/2011 1:10PM

Weekend Warrior: Price will be right on Dakota Phone

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NEW YORK – We have some serious stakes action to look forward to Saturday at Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita. There are a pair of Grade 1 events at Gulfstream, the $500,000 Donn Handicap and the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, and they are supported by the Grade 3, $150,000 Suwannee River Stakes.

At Santa Anita, the ostensible feature is the Grade 1, $250,000 Las Virgenes Stakes, in which the highly regarded Turbulent Descent makes her 3-year-old debut. But also on the card are the Grade 2, $200,000 Strub Stakes, and the Grade 3, $100,000 Thunder Road Handicap.

Thunder Road Handicap

Victor’s Cry and Fluke are likely using this race as a prep for the Grade 1 Kilroe Mile on March 5, but that is not to say they can’t win Saturday. Victor’s Cry, who upset last year’s Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile, has worked well since his decisive score in the Citation Handicap in his most recent appearance. As for Fluke, who won the 2009 edition of the Citation when that race was still a Grade 1 event, his second in his most recent outing looked better when the horse who beat him, Jeranimo, came back to win the San Gabriel with a 102 Beyer Figure. And Fluke was beaten a nose in last year’s Kilroe Mile by Proviso, who went on to win three other Grade 1 races in 2010, off a slightly longer layoff than he brings into this spot. I’m taking a shot against both, however.

Although Victor’s Cry sports a win and a second from four career starts on Santa Anita’s turf course, I still wonder if he really doesn’t prefer the grass courses at Hollywood Park and Del Mar. Victor’s Cry’s wins in the Shoemaker and Citation were the best performances of his career, and they both came at Hollywood. And his second in the Eddie Read last summer was the third best race of his life, and that was at Del Mar.

Fluke, meanwhile, clearly runs well fresh. But I have a hard time completely trusting a horse whose 5-year-old campaign in 2010 totaled one start in March, one start in April, and one start in November.

I’m going with Dakota Phone. Dakota Phone looks at first glance like he might be out of form, and he has always been considered more proficient on the main track than turf. I’m not certain either is true, yet both factors should help boost his odds Saturday.

In regard to Dakota Phone’s current form, he finished an even fourth as the favorite in the Native Diver two starts back, and made no impression when fifth of six in the San Pasqual last time out. But I was against him in the Native Diver and was not surprised by his effort. Not only was he primed for a regression after six straight hard efforts, which included an upset win in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and sharp thirds to Richard’s Kid in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic and Grade 1 Goodwood, his closing style was up against it because of a complete lack of pace. And while Dakota Phone’s San Pasqual was another step back, the fact is Santa Anita’s dirt track just has not been kind to deep closers like him.

Dakota Phone’s closing style should play better right now on turf, and he might well be a far more capable performer on grass than generally given credit for judging from his most recent attempt on turf last summer. In that grass outing, Dakota Phone finished powerfully into a slow pace, running his last half-mile in 45.10 seconds and last quarter in an excellent 22.28 to be a narrowly beaten second to The Usual Q. T. The Usual Q. T. came back in his next start to win the Grade 1 Eddie Read in his next start with a 103 Beyer, and later finished second in the Woodbine Mile, third in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, and was a fine second in last week’s Sunshine Millions Turf.

Donn Handicap

Trainer Nick Zito, who won last Sunday’s Holy Bull at Gulfstream with Dialed In, has a strong hand in this event with the pair of Fly Down and Morning Line. Fly Down was third behind Blame and Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic after checking on the first turn and was beaten a nose in last summer’s Travers. Morning Line won the Pennsylvania Derby off an entry-level allowance win, and was beaten in the last jump by Dakota Phone in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. Obviously, either is capable of winning this. But I was disappointed with the way Morning Line faded to third after setting moderate pace in the Hal’s Hope in his first start this year, and while this might sound like heresy, I thought Fly Down’s third in the Classic was a clunk-up special.

Rule is the play off what I thought was a terrific second in the Hal’s Hope. Rule was making his first start in more than nine months and raced farther off the early pace than he is accustomed to, yet was gaining on the winner and he now has every license to improve upon that effort.

Suwannee River Stakes

There are some hard hitters in this race such as Never Retreat, Cherokee Queen, and Miss World, to name a few. But we know precisely what the best those mares are capable of, meaning this is a prime spot for a filly like It’s Tea Time, who might be more than just a hard hitter.

It’s Tea Time showed real ability when in only the third start of her career, she just missed to future multiple Grade 1 winner Evening Jewel in the Grade 1 Ashland. It’s Tea Time also finished fourth in the Grade 1 Spinster and Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic last fall, and was not disgraced in either outing. And while all of those races were on the main track, It’s Tea Time did get her maiden win on the same turf course she races on Saturday.