06/03/2004 12:00AM

Best on turf in Manhattan


ELMONT, N.Y. - There is no clear-cut leader in the male turf division, but on Saturday at Belmont Park the winner of the Grade 1 Manhattan Handicap could stake claim to the top spot.

The horse who will be the favorite among 10 runners in the $400,000 Manhattan is Stroll, the 121-pound highweight. Stroll is part of a distinguished cast in the 1 1/4-mile grass race. Each of the runners is a graded stakes winner and some are coming off career-best efforts.

, who will be ridden by Jerry Bailey, a four-time winner of the Manhattan, put in a super effort at Churchill Downs in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic. Stroll, a 4-year-old son of Pulpit, won the 1 1/8-mile Woodford over a yielding course. He also has demonstrated the ability to handle firm courses when winning last year's Grade 2 Jamaica at Belmont and the Grade 3 Calder Derby.

Bill Mott, who trains Stroll for owner and breeder Claiborne Farm, said the colt sometimes is too eager in the early stages of his races.

"He's a horse that tends to be anxious up on the pace, and we've worked on getting him back," said Mott, who has won the Manhattan three times.

Stroll drew post 4 and figures to be tracking the likely pacesetter, Millennium Dragon. , who has not won a race beyond a mile, is coming off a troubled second-place finish in the 1 1/8-mile Dixie Handicap at Pimlico last month. Millennium Dragon was blocked in the stretch and was gaining ground on the two-length winner, Mr O'Brien, in the final yards.

Kiaran McLaughlin, Millennium Dragon's trainer, hopes that the 5-year-old can steal the race on the lead.

"He just might have an uncontested lead," McLaughlin said.

Richard Migliore rides Millennium Dragon from post 6.

Mr O'Brien, 2 for 2 in stakes this year, ships in from Laurel Park for trainer Robin Graham. Before scoring his first graded win in the Dixie, Mr O'Brien won the Henry Clark at Pimlico by nine lengths on May 1.

Graham hadn't originally planned on running Mr O'Brien in the Manhattan, which will be the gelding's third start in five weeks.

"He was bouncing and squealing and kicking," Graham said. "I figured if he wants to run, we will."

ships in from California for trainer Wally Dollase, who saddled Ten Most Wanted to a second-place finish in last year's Belmont Stakes. Meteor Storm is coming off back-to-back graded stakes wins at Santa Anita in the 1 1/2-mile San Luis Rey and 1 3/4-mile San Juan Capistrano. He will meet stronger opposition in this spot.

"Stroll will be tough; he looked awfully good at Churchill Downs," Dollase said. "Our horse has always been consistent."

Trainer Bobby Frankel, who has won the last two runnings of the Manhattan, sends out Elkhorn winner Epicentre, who was disqualified from first place in the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup for interference last November.

Quest Star, Request for Parole, and Kicken Kris have nearly $2 million in earnings between them, but they might be a cut below the tops ones here.

European shipper King's Drama hasn't won since the Group 3 Prix de la Jonchere in France a year ago.

Better Talk Now, ninth in the Dixie, completes the field.