06/05/2009 12:00AM

Deep field, but plenty of questions in Manhattan

Barbara D. Livingston
Cowboy Cal will try to build on his second-place finish in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic in Saturday's Manhattan Handicap.

ELMONT, N.Y. - The marquee race of the day may be the Belmont Stakes, but the best race Saturday is the one before, the Grade 1, $400,000 Manhattan Handicap.

The Manhattan, run at 1 1/4 miles on Belmont's inner turf, drew a deep field of 14, including six Grade 1 winners, but questions surround all. Better Talk Now, who won this race in 2007, is 10 and has not won a race in two years. Court Vision, the 2008 Hollywood Derby winner, would appear to prefer firm ground. Marsh Side has not run since finishing fifth in Dubai. Gio Ponti may prefer shorter than 10 furlongs. Champs Elysees comes off a poor race. His stablemate Zambezi Sun is 0 for 3 in North America and is parked in post 14.

If able to duplicate his last race, the Grade 2 winner Cowboy Cal could rate a slight edge, though he must break from post 13.

Five weeks ago, in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs, Cowboy Cal ran the best race of his career, losing a head decision to Einstein - arguably the top-rated turf horse in North America.

"Tough beat," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "You hate to see a horse run that well and not win."

While rains Wednesday and Thursday - and possibly Friday - figure to soften the turf, Pletcher is more concerned about the 1 1/4 miles for Cowboy Cal than course condition.

"He's run well at a mile and a quarter, but I think a mile and an eighth is probably his best distance," Pletcher said. "I think he handles whatever ground we get Saturday."

Pletcher feels Cowboy Cal, who will be ridden by John Velazquez, has enough tactical speed to overcome his outside draw.

Court Vision finished third behind Einstein and Cowboy Cal in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, and he was spotting five pounds to the top two finishers. Now the weights are level, and the 1 1/4 miles could favor Court Vision. However, his trainer, Bill Mott, would prefer to see a firmer turf course than he may get.

Ramon Dominguez sticks with Court Vision over Better Talk Now, whom Dominguez had ridden in 27 of the horse's last 28 starts. Graham Motion, the trainer of Better Talk Now, said he was a bit on the fence about running here, and Dominguez had already committed to ride Court Vision. Thus, Jeremy Rose will ride Better Talk Now for the first time in what will be the gelding's 50th career start.

Better Talk Now would certainly appreciate some give in the ground, but not necessarily the bulky field.

"I'm not crazy about the fact there's 14 in there," Motion said. "In order to win the race, he's going to have to do it through the whole field. What I do like is there should be a legitimate pace, and that's important for him."

Champs Elysees is certainly bred to like Belmont. His siblings Banks Hill, Intercontinental, and Cacique all won Grade 1 races on this course. Champs Elysees won last year's Grade 1 Northern Dancer over yielding ground at Woodbine. His trainer, Bobby Frankel, has won three of the last seven Manhattans.

One interesting longshot could be Cosmonaut, who has run well at Belmont, handles soft turf, and is a two-time winner at 1 1/4 miles. He enters this year's Manhattan off a solid victory in the Grade 3 Fort Marcy at 1 1/16 miles on May 2, his first start as a 7-year-old. Jose Lezcano rides for trainer Phil Serpe.

Lauro, beaten two lengths in the Grade 2 Dixie, is another who can handles soft ground and figures to stalk the pace. Premium Gold, Optimer, Wesley, Senior, and Interpatation complete the field.