10/12/2006 12:00AM

Contention runs deep in QE II Cup


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Unbeaten and unchallenged in three starts, Vacare might be the best 3-year-old turf filly to come out of Chicago in many years. So what does it say about the depth of the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup when she figures to be something like 15-1, if not higher?

"A race like the Queen Elizabeth, you expect the best of the best," said Chris Block, the trainer of Vacare. "It's no surprise the race is so tough."

Eleven 3-year-old fillies from a variety of major racing venues will convene in the $500,000 QE II, a Grade 1 turf race that will be run for the 23rd time Saturday at Keeneland. Perhaps the tepid favorite will be Magnificent Song, whose two-length triumph last month in the Grade 1 Garden City at Belmont Park was a career-best effort, but trainer Todd Pletcher is taking nothing for granted.

"There are a few really nice fillies in there against us," said Pletcher, who was at Keeneland on Thursday but was scheduled to depart Friday night to be at Belmont Park for the Champagne and Frizette on Saturday. "Our filly has just improved so much since she learned how to relax. We're really excited about her running Saturday."

Magnificent Song, with Garrett Gomez to ride, will break from post 3 in the 1 1/8-mile QE II. Perhaps her chief threat will come from Mauralakana, the stronger part of an uncoupled Patrick Biancone-trained entry that also includes Trick's Pic. Biancone's stable has been hitting on all cylinders during the opening stages of the 17-day Keeneland meet. Mauralakana made a flashy North American debut when she rallied strongly to finish third behind a pair of older horses, Karen's Caper and Pommes Frites, in the Noble Damsel at Belmont three weeks ago.

Biancone was particularly pleased with a Wednesday work by Mauralakana, which played partly into his decision to withhold another top 3-year-old turf filly, Lady of Venice, from the QE II. Mauralakana, he said, "has been looking very good" in preparation for this race.

The two unknown quantities in the race are Kentucky-breds making their American debut after beginning their careers in fine fashion while racing exclusively in France. Germance has won 5 of 6 starts, with her only defeat a runner-up finish in the Group 1 French Oaks in June, while Quiet Royal is a Group 3 winner who has faced top-class competition in recent outings.

Also in the QE II lineup are Take the Ribbon, Citronnade, Vague, Foxysox, and Maxxi Arte. Of those, maybe Take the Ribbon and Maxxi Arte would be shrewd longshot plays, because both might have moved a bit prematurely into a solid pace in the Garden City before fading in the final furlong.

Vacare also seems a viable consideration despite the long odds.

"She's never been looked in the eye down the lane, but I'm sure it'll happen Saturday," said Block. "It's hard to say what to expect because there are so many nice horses in there, but if she raises her game, I'd say we're going to be competitive."

Besides the $310,000 winner's share, a berth in the Nov. 4 Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf might also be up for grabs Saturday. Even in some years when the QE II has been run a mere two weeks beforehand, the winner has gone on to the Breeders' Cup - and this year, the three-week separation figures to make that move even more inviting.

The QE II is part of an NTRA National Pick 4 with the First Lady Stakes here and the Champagne and Frizette from Belmont Park. All four races will be broadcast on ESPN from 4 to 6 p.m. Eastern.