10/16/2003 11:00PM

In the end, it's Chapel Royal

Chapel Royal won the first three starts of his career, including the Sanford (above).

At one point this summer it looked as if trainer Todd Pletcher would need his own plane just to cart his 2-year-olds cross-country for the Breeders' Cup. In addition to winning six stakes races with his colts and three more with his fillies, Pletcher seemingly was sending out a good-looking maiden winner every other day.

As it turns out, Pletcher will need only one boxed stall on Tuesday's charter flight for Chapel Royal, his starter, and another for Ashado, his starter in the Juvenile Fillies.

"We could've taken other ones there," said Pletcher, who will also have Balto Star in the Breeders' Cup Turf. "We could've run Value Plus, we could have pre-entered Limehouse; I feel you got to go with the ones that make the most sense. Value Plus needs a little more experience before he goes into that type of race with a 14-horse field. I'm happy to have one."

In Chapel Royal, Pletcher feels he is bringing a legitimate one for the $1.5 million Juvenile. While Pletcher admits Chapel Royal will have distance limitations next year, he doesn't feel that should preclude him from attempting the Juvenile, especially at Santa Anita.

"I think the mile and a sixteenth on a track that's kind to speed is within his scope, but he's probably not a horse that's going to be on the Kentucky Derby trail next year," Pletcher said. "With Chapel Royal we feel we have a top sprinter, we have a very good middle-distance horse. . . . This is a huge race, a big pot. We're going to give it a shot."

There was no more impressive 2-year-old from May through July than Chapel Royal, who won his first three starts - including the Grade 2 Sanford Stakes - by a combined 20 3/4 lengths. Chapel Royal suffered his first loss in the Grade 1 Hopeful when he was parked four wide after hitting the side of the gate and

couldn't run on with Silver Wagon.

Pletcher attempted to stretch Chapel Royal out in the Grade 1 Champagne, but he was outkicked by Birdstone from the quarter pole home and was beaten 2 1/2 lengths. He finished 6 3/4 lengths clear of the third horse.

In the Champagne, jockey John Velazquez had a snug hold of Chapel Royal through an opening half-mile run in 48.33 seconds. By the time Velazquez asked Chapel Royal to run, Birdstone was already off his flank and easily ran past him. Birdstone, like several other graded stakes winners, is skipping the Juvenile.

"It was such a paceless race we probably overdid it a little bit trying to get him to go slower," Pletcher said. "We might have been better off if we turned his head loose and let him go in 47 instead of 48 throttled down. But from the quarter pole to the wire I thought he kicked in and ran hard. Birdstone just kicked in and ran a little faster. I think the way the track was playing that day it probably favored horses from the off the pace as opposed to where we were."

Pletcher planned to work Chapel Royal on Sunday before shipping him to California.

In other Juvenile developments:

* Minister Eric, the Del Mar Futurity runner-up, breezed six furlongs in 1:13.60 in company with two maidens. According to trainer Richard Mandella, Minister Eric started behind his stablemates and then split horses in the stretch.

"I didn't want a fast work," Mandella said. "I just schooled him with some babies. We took him back and opened up those two and let him come between."

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen