10/26/2007 12:00AM

Dylan Thomas figures tough on firm turf

EmailOCEANPORT, N.J. – The first, second, and third finishers from the 2006 Breeders' Cup Turf are back for an encore presentation in the 2007 race at Monmouth Park – and the widespread perception is that they haven't got a chance.

There is a good reason for that – and his name is Dylan Thomas.

Dylan Thomas, the legendary Irish poet, was known for his low-life carousing, but Dylan Thomas the horse has kept the most impeccable company. After making his 2007 debut in a listed race, Dylan Thomas has run exclusively in Group 1 stakes, winning 4 of 7, and finishing second on those occasions when he was beaten.

His most recent appearance came in Paris, where the turf condition in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe was thought to be too mushy for Dylan Thomas to win. But he made the lead a furlong from the finish, and held off the high-class performer Youmzain by a head, giving him 18 starts, 10 wins, and more than $6.5 million in career earnings.

Dylan Thomas arrived here Tuesday evening after shipping from trainer Aidan O'Brien's Ballydoyle Stable in Ireland. He will find seven rivals waiting in Saturday's $3 million race, as small a number of horses as ever have competed in a Breeders Cup Turf. The race is contested over 1 1/2 miles, and the course condition could be a factor; Monmouth's grass was labeled "good" Wednesday, with more rain forecast to fall.

Red Rocks won the 2006 Turf at Churchill, with Better Talk Now a half-length behind him, and English Channel a well-beaten third. All are back for the 2007 race, though Red Rocks has failed to show anything like his Breeders' Cup form in four subsequent starts. A trip to Dubai ended with a flop in the Sheema Classic in March, and after winning a Group 3 race in April, Red Rocks was fourth in the June 20 Prince of Wales's Stakes, and fourth in the Sept. 8 Irish Champion Stakes. Nevertheless, trainer Brian Meehan believes Red Rocks enters the 2007 Turf in form as good as last year's.

"He had the summer off to get to the Breeders' Cup," Meehan said. "You know, you can't go all year and still have something left."

English Channel has been near the top of the U.S. turf class since 2005, and may have a particular affinity for the Monmouth course, with wins here in the United Nations Stakes the last two seasons. English Channel, a five-time Grade 1 winner, has won 7 of 13 starts the last two seasons, and may be headed to a career at stud after Saturday's race.

"If you look at his record, it's amazing how consistent he's been," trainer Todd Pletcher said.

Still, at age 5, English Channel remains prone to being rank early in his races, and Pletcher firmly believes English Channel needs a target at which to run. He should get one Saturday in the form of Fri Guy, a front-running horse in from Churchill who on paper looks overmatched.

Better Talk Now, 8, once pulled too hard himself, but he eventually learned to settle, and now qualifies as the grand old man of the Breeders' Cup Turf. This marks his fourth appearance in a race that he won in 2004, and trainer Graham Motion thinks Better Talk Now can run as well this time as he did last year, with his closing second, and in 2004, when he upset Kitten's Joy at Lone Star Park. And while English Channel has handled Better Talk Now in the last two United Nations, Better Talk Now may be a better horse in the autumn than he is during the summer.

It also may not matter much if Dylan Thomas doesn't come back to the field. Word from across the Atlantic is that Dylan Thomas thrives on activity, an assertion bore out by his eight starts this year. But no horse has ever won the Arc and come back with another victory in the Breeders' Cup, though good ones have tried. Dylan Thomas will be running back with a break of less than three weeks and with a trans-Atlantic flight during the downtime. Moreover, Dylan Thomas probably is at his best on a firm course he might not get.

Still, he will be something in the neighborhood of even-money in the Turf, and jockey John Murtagh, who rode Dylan Thomas to a win and a second earlier this year, likes his chances.

"He's a lovely big horse," Murtagh said. "He's like most of the good ones, in that he's mostly straightforward to ride. He's done well at a mile and a quarter, so he does have some speed, and I don't think the tighter course here is going to be a problem for him."

And that could spell defeat for anyone else in the Breeders' Cup Turf.