06/04/2008 11:00PM

About time to shine for Champs Elysees


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Champs Elysees is running out of excuses.

When he starts favored in Saturday's $300,000 Charles Whittingham Handicap at Hollywood Park, the 5-year-old horse will be seeking the second stakes win of his American career.

Bettors were expecting him to be trying for his fourth. In the Grade 2 Jim Murray Memorial Handicap here on May 10, Champs Elysees led by a length in the stretch but was caught by On the Acorn in the final strides, losing by a nose at 2-5.

Back in December, in his U.S. debut, he was a troubled second as the favorite in the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup, his first start in this country.

The loss in the Murray was a source of frustration for trainer Bobby Frankel and his team, who have considered Champs Elysees a top turf prospect since his arrival from France last fall.

"I think he should have beaten the winner," said Humberto Ascanio, Frankel's top assistant in California. "As soon as he went to the lead, he spit the bit out. When the other horse came up to him, it was over."

The Grade 1 Whittingham is run over 1 1/4 miles on turf, and is the fifth race on an 11-race program that begins at noon and includes four stakes.

Champs Elysees, 5, is part of a seven-horse field in the Whittingham, which includes the race's 2006 winner, Lava Man, and Artiste Royal, the winner of the Grade 1 Clement Hirsch Turf Championship at the Oak Tree meeting last fall. The other runners are Monzante, Mr. Wolverine, Plug Me In, and Warning Zone, all stakes winners.

Champs Elysees has drawn the outside post and will be ridden for the first time by Rafael Bejarano, the leading jockey at the meeting.

This will be Champs Elysees's third start at Hollywood Park. Last fall in the Turf Cup, he was in traffic in early stretch and was clear too late to have any chance of catching Sunriver.

"The first time he was too far back," Ascanio said. "It was a lot to do."

During the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting, Champs Elysees won the Grade 2 San Marcos Stakes over 1 1/4 miles on turf and finished a troubled third in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on the synthetic main track.

"I think he can go a mile and a quarter or a mile and a half," Ascanio said. "He's a happy horse. He's a very easy horse to train. He's easy to gallop, whatever you want - fast or slow - he can go."

Last year in France, Champs Elysees won a Group 3 race, the Prix d'Hedouville, over about 1 1/2 miles on turf at Longchamp. He was second in the Group 1 Gran Premio del Jockey Club over about 1 1/2 miles on turf in Italy in his final start in Europe last October.

Artiste Royal and Lava Man were third in their last start, but the class levels were vastly different. Artiste Royal, winless in his last four races, was beaten two lengths in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs on May 3 over a turf course rated good. Trainer Neil Drysdale said earlier this week that Artiste Royal wants a firmer turf.

Lava Man was third to Mr. Wolverine in the Khaled Stakes for statebreds on April 27. A winner of 17 of 44 starts and $5,232,706, Lava Man is winless in his last four starts, dating back to the Hollywood Gold Cup last June. His last win on turf came in the Sunshine Millions Turf at Santa Anita in January 2007.

Lava Man ended a layoff of nearly six months in the Khaled Stakes, losing by 2 1/2 lengths after nearly taking the lead in midstretch.

"In his last race, he didn't run that bad of a race," trainer Doug O'Neill said. "He couldn't be training any better. I think he was in dire need of a race."

O'Neill cites Lava Man's recent workouts, including a four-furlong bullet of 46.60 seconds on May 22, as evidence that the gelding has not lost interest in racing. Still, the recent losing streak has damaged Lava Man's reputation as a handicap star, though O'Neill, always the optimist, has not given up.

"I think it means that the pressure is off," he said. "We've got people jumping off the bandwagon. There is no better time to show that he still has it."