11/01/2006 12:00AM

Big European cast in River City


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The European influence on turf races at Churchill Downs won't wait until Saturday's Breeders' Cup events. The River City Handicap, a 1 1/8-mile grass race on Friday at Churchill, has a strong European flavor, with five of the nine horses entered either European shippers or one-time European racers.

Among the expatriates are the two likely favorites: Art Master, who finished third last out in the Kelso Handicap, his U.S. debut, and Ballast, who in between a pair of impressive allowance wins flopped in the Grade 1 Woodbine Mile. Lord Admiral, based in Ireland for most of his career, made his U.S. debut in the Oak Tree Mile, finishing a closing third behind possible BC Mile favorite Aragorn. Bayeaux, a solid English handicapper, makes his first start in this country, and Victory Design, trained by Patrick Biancone, makes his third, having won an entry-level Keeneland turf allowance in his most recent race.

The Americans in the race aren't bad, either. Trainer Craig Dollase had his fingers crossed this week that Courtnall, second to Aragorn in the Oak Tree Mile, would find a way into the BC Mile, but that did not happen. Instead, Courtnall, with the rail and Patrick Valenzuela to ride, will be one of the top choices in the River City.

Silver Whistle, meanwhile, has raced at distances of 1 1/4 miles and up in his seven starts this year. Bill Mott is shortening Silver Whistle up Friday, trying to produce the kind of form Silver Whistle showed over the winter and late last summer. Erroneous I.D. got very good this summer at Louisiana Downs, but faces an uphill battle at this class level.

Art Master, bred and owned by Juddmonte Farms, is a lightly raced 5-year-old who won a pair of Group 3's in France. His race as the favorite in the Sept. 30 Kelso wasn't bad - a third behind the solid miler Ashkal Way and Free Thinking, a BC Mile longshot - and trainer Bobby Frankel said he thinks Art Master can do better.

"He didn't really try very hard that race," Frankel said. "He finished all right, but during the middle of the race he backed out of it. I think he needed the race, really."

Art Master has the form of a miler, but Frankel said the added 220 yards Friday would not pose an obstacle.

"The mile and an eighth is no problem," he said.

Ballast sharply won a third-level allowance race over 1 1/8 miles on Aug. 12 at Saratoga. He backed out of the pace and finished last of 13 in the Woodbine Mile, but rebounded with a good win Oct. 13 at Keeneland.