12/05/2008 12:00AM

Champs Elysees tries again in Turf Cup

Michael Burns
Champs Elysees, winner of the Northern Dancer Stakes in September at Woodbine, is the expected favorite in Saturday's Grade 1, $250,000 Hollywood Turf Cup.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It was almost one year ago, and in the same race, when Champs Elysees hinted at what was to come. In his first North American start, and for trainer Bobby Frankel, Champs Elysees was entered in the Hollywood Turf Cup, with jockey Julien Leparoux. He came with such advance notice - being out of the same dam who produced Breeders' Cup winners Banks Hill and Intercontinental - that he was sent off the favorite, even though Champs Elysees had yet to win a Grade 1 race.

Champs Elysees finished second that day after encountering severe traffic trouble on the final turn. That race has almost defined his North American campaign. Even though he finally got that elusive Grade 1 victory in September, Champs Elysees has won just twice in his nine starts since being imported from Europe.

Now, he is back to try again. On Saturday at Hollywood Park, Champs Elysees again will run in the 1 1/2-mile Turf Cup and again should be favored in the $250,000 race. And Leparoux was named to ride.

But there could be some changes. Leparoux, according to Frankel, likely will not ride Champs Elysees in the race.

"I don't think he can come and ride. He's in Hawaii on vacation," said Frankel, who on Thursday said he was not going to decide on a replacement until scratch time Friday morning. Garrett Gomez, who has ridden Champs Elysees in both his victories, also is out. He's discovering Japan.

Frankel also said he was contemplating removing the blinkers that Champs Elysees wore for the first time in his most recent start, the Breeders' Cup Classic, in which he finished eighth of 12.

"I thought he'd show a little more speed, but he didn't," Frankel said. "I don't think they made a difference."

The fine tuning has been part and parcel of Champs Elysees. He often drops well back and frequently forgets to change leads in the stretch. Yet he has shown flashes of real talent, and his best races on this continent have been at 1 1/2 miles, the distance of the Turf Cup.

Eight are entered against Champs Elysees, and it's an eclectic bunch, including a 3-year-old who has had two extremely different performances in this country and a pair of imported mares who have never faced males on these shores.

Winchester, 3, was a powerful winner of the Secretariat Stakes in August at Arlington Park, but he never threatened in the Breeders' Cup Turf, finishing seventh of 11.

Jockey Patrick Smullen, who rode Winchester in the Breeders' Cup, said Thursday morning that the crackling pace of that race did not suit Winchester.

"It was a very strange race," Smullen said before taking Winchester out for a training session at Hollywood Park. "They went a very, very fast gallop. He had never traveled that fast before. He also got a little squeezed, so I was farther back than I wanted.

"I thought he still finished well, against the best stayers in the world. I don't think his race is as bad as people might think."

The ground at Santa Anita that day was extremely firm, but Smullen said, "I wouldn't use that as an excuse, no."

The distance, however, is a question. Winchester has never finished better than seventh in three races at 1 1/2 miles.

Black Mamba and High Heel Sneakers will try to join Miss Alleged (1991) as the only female to win the Turf Cup. Neither, though, is the quality of Miss Alleged, an Eclipse Award winner.

Black Mamba is the far more accomplished of the two. Her best races in this country have been at 1 1/4 miles, including a win in the Beverly Hills Handicap on this course in June. Her lone race at 1 1/2 miles was in her native New Zealand, in March 2007, in a race restricted to fillies and mares. She was fifth. Black Mamba was seventh as the favorite in a blanket finish in the Las Palmas Handicap at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting on Oct. 24.

High Heel Sneakers finished well behind Black Mamba (who was third) in the Yellow Ribbon on Sept. 27, then defeated far inferior company in the overnight Hermosa Beach Handicap going 1 1/2 miles on Nov. 9.

Church Service just missed in the Breeders' Cup Marathon on Cushion Track. He has never beaten turf horses of this quality and has yet to finish in the money in three grass races at Hollywood Park. But his trainer, Mike Mitchell, is white hot.

Both Rush Rush and Obrigado came off layoffs to tune up in a money-allowance race on Nov. 12 and have a right to move forward.