01/21/2005 12:00AM

Wooden Phone finally returns

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NEW ORLEANS - Wooden Phone returns to the races Saturday for the first time in 17 months as the probable favorite in the feature race at Fair Grounds, an optional claiming race at six furlongs on the main track.

, a multiple graded stakes winner who has been sidelined since August 2003, has been fine-tuned for his return by trainer Bret Calhoun with a series of works, climaxing with a stamina-building six-furlong breeze last Monday.

"The horse is all business," said Calhoun. "He's been training real good."

An 8-year-old gelding owned by James and Marilyn Helzer and Tom Durant, Wooden Phone won the Grade 2 Strub Stakes at Santa Anita in 2001 and the Grade 2 San Pasqual Handicap in 2002 while in trainer Bob Baffert's barn.

After suffering a tendon injury in a race at Del Mar in August 2003, Wooden Phone was taken out of training. Calhoun has been in charge of his comeback for several months.

One potential knock on Wooden Phone is that six furlongs may not be his best distance, although he certainly has enough tactical speed to avoid being caught hopelessly behind turning for home.

"He's a very good two-turn horse," Calhoun said.

The obvious future spots for Wooden Phone are the Grade 3 Mineshaft Handicap on Feb. 12, Louisiana Derby Preview Day, and the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap on March 12, Louisiana Derby Day.

Wooden Phone, with Eddie Martin Jr. to ride, faces five opponents for his comeback.

, owned by Michael Gill and trained by Gamaliel Vazquez, appears to be the most dangerous rival in the race. A 6-year-old Forest Wildcat gelding, he is a dedicated sprinter who has won both of his starts at the meet. Carlos Marquez Jr. rides.

Monkey Hill, trained by Tom Amoss, won easily in the first week of the meet, then was overmatched in his first start on turf. Robby Albarado will be reunited with Monkey Hill as he returns to his favorite surface and distance.

Crafty Cammack, trained by Albert Stall and ridden by Corey Lanerie, finished second in his first local start, and shows a bullet half-mile work in 48.20 seconds since then. He appears well-placed here.

Stakes-placed Stormy Siege and Caitlin's Playboy complete the field.