10/04/2006 11:00PM

European trio challenges English Channel

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ELMONT, N.Y. - , one of the leading U.S. hopefuls for the Breeders' Cup turf, faces an intriguing trio of European horses in the $600,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational on Saturday at Belmont Park.

Frost Giant, a 3-year-old colt from leading Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien, and the 4-year-old fillies Freedonia and Royal Highness all make their U.S. debuts in the 1 1/2-mile Hirsch.

English Channel goes for his third Grade 1 victory of the season, having won the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs and the United Nations Stakes at Monmouth Park.

Last year, as a 3-year-old, English Channel missed by only a head in the Hirsch before running fifth in the Breeders' Cup Turf.

"We're trying to follow a similar program to what we did last year," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "The horse is training great. He's coming up to it well. It looks like we'll get decent enough weather so that we should have a firm turf course, which he'll appreciate."

Pletcher will send out Icy Atlantic as a rabbit to insure a solid early pace, something English Channel did not get last time out when he finished fourth in the Grade 1 Arlington Million on Aug. 12.

Pletcher says English Channel was in trouble in the Million from the moment he drew the outside post in the 10-horse field.

"That killed him," Pletcher said. "The race starts at an awkward place for such a significant race.

"From the outside stalls, you're going that way," said Pletcher, gesturing to the right, "while everything else is going that way," he said, pointing left.

"What made it even worse was a chain-reaction bumping episode that got us. We were on the tail end of it. Cacique also got it. English Channel and Cacique, the two horses to beat on paper, were left out in right field and The Tin Man loped around on the lead."

English Channel has post 5 for the Hirsch, while Icy Atlantic, his rabbit, has post 2 in the seven-horse field. They will race as an entry.

Frost Giant gets the rail, and Lasix for the first time, following his Group 3 victory by a head in the Bruce Betting Kilternan Stakes at Leopardstown in Ireland on Sept. 9. It was the first race for Frost Giant, a son of Giant's Causeway, since he sustained a pelvic injury in May in the 2000 Guineas Stakes.

"He didn't win too far, but he looked like a horse that was a bit like his father; they were never going to get by him," O'Brien said. "We hadn't a lot of other options for us and jockey Kieran Fallon thought there is a possibility he might get a mile and a half. We'll find out more about him as well, so that we'll see what route to go. He looks like a horse in his races that could get a mile and a half."

Edgar Prado gets the mount Saturday.

The connections of Freedonia and Royal Highness opted for the added distance of the Hirsch instead of the $600,000 Flower Bowl Invitational for fillies and mares at 1 1/4 miles on the same card.

Freedonia is 3-1-1 from 6 starts in France. She most recently finished fourth in the 1 1/2-mile Group 1 Prix Vermeille at Longchamp last month, a race in which she was blocked on the rail in the lane. She has post 3.

Royal Highness was third in the Prix Vermeille. She has a record of 2-4-1 in 9 starts and will break from the outside. Completing the field are Interpatation and Dreadnaught.

- additional reporting

by David Grening