02/08/2009 1:00AM

Champs Elysees tries to fill hole


ARCADIA, Calif. - At age 6, with two Grade 1 victories, $1.3 million in the bank, and a pedigree to die for, Champs Elysees figured to be standing his first season at stud this spring.

But a stallion career for Champs Elysees has been postponed. Blame it on the recession.

"The only reason we didn't stand him this year is because of the [breeding] market and the economy," trainer Bobby Frankel said. "A lot of studs are going to be starving."

Instead, Champs Elysees enters the Grade 2 San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita as one of the top older males in California. A win Sunday in the 1 1/8-mile San Antonio would make him a leading contender for the Santa Anita Handicap on March 7 and fill a hole in his stallion resume.

Champs Elysees has raced twice on the main track, finishing eighth in the Breeders' Cup and third in the 2008 Big Cap. A main-track stakes win would be "great financially," Frankel said. It would make him a major winner on grass and Pro-Ride and further increase his appeal as a stallion. Sired by Danehill, Champs Elysees is out of Hasili, a mare who has produced five Grade 1 winners.

To win the San Antonio, Champs Elysees must defeat Tiago, the third-place finisher in the Breeders' Cup Classic making his first start in 3 1/2 months. Tiago was assigned 119 pounds, compared to 120 for Champs Elysees, leaving Frankel puzzled.

Frankel pointed out that Tiago has won two main-track Grade 1's and beat Champs Elysees by 2 1/2 lengths in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and that Champs Elysees has never won on the main track.

"Listen, it's not going to make a difference, but I don't think I should be highweight," he said.

Champs Elysees and Tiago are the top San Antonio starters, but the $200,000 race is odd because the only front-runner is not in sharp form. Well Armed finished ninth as the favorite in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, followed by a fourth-place finish as the favorite in the Grade 2 San Pasqual in his Jan. 10 comeback.

"He's coming off two subpar races for him, so he needs to redeem himself," trainer Eoin Harty said.

Well Armed won the San Antonio last year racing gate to wire, but his current form is dubious even if he does figure for another easy lead.

A field of 11 entered the San Antonio. The longshots include Dakota Phone, Becrux, Stream Cat, Magnum, Marchfield, Racketeer, Ferneley, and Informed.

Tiago is the richest horse in the field, having earned $2.3 million by winning 5 of 17. If he reproduces his third-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Tiago could win the San Antonio, but trainer John Shirreffs said this week he expects Tiago will need a start.

Inclement weather this weekend in Southern California further muddles the San Antonio, which is expected to be run over a wet Pro-Ride surface. And if enough rains falls, the good grass horse Ferneley could scratch from the Thunder Road Handicap on Saturday and run in the San Antonio.

Trainer Ben Cecil said Ferneley "doesn't want a really soft turf course." The Thunder Road was scheduled for a mile on turf on Saturday. If he runs Sunday in the San Antonio, Ferneley will be the fittest horse in the field, making his third start of the meet. He has never run on the main track, however.

"We've always wanted to try him on it, because he's trained very well on it," Cecil said. "I don't see why he wouldn't handle it."

But the horse to beat is Champs Elysees, even if the distance is shorter than he prefers.

"I don't know if he can beat Tiago, and a mile and an eighth might be a little short for him," Frankel said. "But he's training good and he looks good."

Champs Elysees won the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup in December, defeating a weak field at 1 1/2 miles. If he runs well Sunday, Champs Elysees will be pointed to the Santa Anita Handicap, a race in which he finished third last year.