06/06/2007 12:00AM

Castellano thinks he has a winner


ELMONT, N.Y. - Javier Castellano rode Sky Conqueror for the first time just five weeks ago at Churchill Downs, but Sky Conqueror made such a strong impression that Castellano cannot wait to ride him back on Saturday in the Grade 1, $400,000 Manhattan Handicap at Belmont Park.

Sky Conqueror overcame a rough start to capture the Turf Classic on the Kentucky Derby undercard at 8-1. He figures to be a shorter price in the Manhattan, but he will be facing such outstanding older turf horses as Better Talk Now, a Breeders' Cup Turf winner, and English Channel, who won three Grade 1 races last year.

"He stumbled really, really badly," Castellano said between races Wednesday at Belmont Park. "I was really lucky. But I didn't do anything. He put me back in the saddle. When I opened my eyes, he was three or four lengths behind everybody. He's very, very strong. He has a powerful kick. I give him a lot of credit."

The Manhattan, at 1 1/4 miles on turf, is one of five graded stakes and two overnight stakes that will precede the Belmont Stakes on Saturday. Many of the fields came up small when entries were taken and posts drawn on Wednesday, but what they lack in numbers they make up for in star power.

The Manhattan is the best of the five graded stakes. Nine are in the race, with English Channel the 122-pound highweight. He most recently ran poorly in the Dubai Duty Free, finishing 12th of 16, but he won 2 of his 3 previous starts.

Better Talk Now, 8, was fourth behind Sky Conqueror at Churchill Downs in his first start in six months. He was second in the Breeders' Cup Turf in his final start of 2006.

Wait a While, last year's champion 3-year-old filly, tops a five-horse field in the Grade 2, $300,000 Just a Game Stakes for female turf runners at one mile. She is returning to her favorite surface after floundering on Polytrack at Keeneland.

The speedy Dream Rush, who won the Nassau County here May 5, will attempt to stretch out to one mile in the Grade 1, $250,000 Acorn Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. Only six are entered in the Acorn, but it lured such top-class fillies as Christmas Kid, the Ashland Stakes winner; Comely winner Boca Grande; and Cotton Blossom, who was second in the Fantasy before getting stopped cold in the stretch in the Kentucky Oaks.

California-based speedster Bordonaro has shipped in for the Grade 2, $200,000 True North Handicap, which drew eight older sprinters going six furlongs, including Keyed Entry. Bordonaro, who has won 10 of 15 starts, took the Count Fleet Sprint Handicap at Oaklawn Park last time out.

Kentucky Derby also-rans Stormello and Teuflesberg shorten up to seven furlongs for the Grade 2, $250,000 Woody Stephens Stakes for 3-year-olds. They will face Sports Town, who won the Ogygian Stakes here on May 16, and Street Magician, who won the Hirsch Jacobs Stakes at Pimlico on the Preakness undercard May 19.

There are two overnight stakes earlier on the card. The popular Evening Attire meets A. P. Arrow, Hesanoldsalt, and Naughty New Yorker in the $100,000 Birdstone Stakes for older horses at 1 1/8 miles, and 11 older female turf runners, including A True Pussycat and Meribel, are in the $80,000 Foresta Stakes at 1 1/16 miles.