10/28/2005 12:00AM

Few throwouts among these 13

English Channel (right), working under Angel Cordero Jr. on Oct. 22 at Belmont, comes into Saturday's Breeders' Cup Turf off a head defeat to Shakespeare in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic.

ELMONT, N.Y. - A few days ago, trainer Todd Pletcher ran the top contenders for Saturday's Breeders' Cup Turf through his mind. After mentioning a few major stakes winners, as well as his hope, English Channel, Pletcher looked up.

"There are a half a dozen that can win this race," he said.

Pletcher may have left a few out. The $2,280,000 Breeders' Cup Turf at Belmont Park has an unusually well-matched field of 13.

Shakespeare, who has overcome a severe knee injury to remain unbeaten in five starts, may be a lukewarm favorite, but he could lose that role to Azamour, who won two major stakes in England in June and July.

If bettors frown on that pair, they can choose from Bago, who won the 2004 the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and was third in that race this year; Shirocco, who won the 2004 German Derby on a soft course, the sort of conditions expected Saturday; or English Channel, a game second to Shakespeare in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic on Oct. 1.

Then there is Better Talk Now, the defending champion, who has only won two Grade 1 races this year.

"I think this is more of a sterner test," said Graham Motion, who trains Better Talk Now. "I have a tremendous respect for the Europeans. I think last year we were lucky that more didn't come over."

The condition of the turf course will play a major role in the outcome. It is likely to be soft.

Bill Mott, who trains Shakespeare, and John Oxx, who trains Azamour, are not thrilled with a rain-soaked course.

Shakespeare has never run on anything but firm turf.

"He worked on it on Monday - it would have been yielding - and he worked well," Mott said of Shakespeare, a 4-year-old colt by Theatrical. "But historically, Theatricals don't like soft ground."

Shakespeare's win by a head over English Channel in the Turf Classic was his first appearance over 1 1/2 miles, the same distance as Saturday's race.

"He showed he could win in a fight," Mott said. "You hope it doesn't take too much out of him. He acts like he's better now. He hasn't done anything wrong yet."

English Channel, 3, has similar consistency, with 5 wins in 8 starts.

"These races are so deep that a good horse can be overlooked," Pletcher said. "If he wins, people would look back and say that he's as good as any turf horse in the country."

English Channel typically races near the front, but he is unlikely to have the lead in the Turf. Shake the Bank, a stablemate of Better Talk Now, has been entered with the sole purpose of setting the pace.

Pletcher said he will be content with English Channel stalking the front-runner and is pleased that the pace will be faster than it was in the Turf Classic.

"Like a lot of others, we'd like to see a more honest pace than we ran at last time," he said.

Better Talk Now will be at the back of the field early in Saturday's race. The strategy of employing a rabbit worked in the United Nations Handicap and Man o' War Stakes this year, when Better Talk Now rallied to win both by narrow margins.

Motion said Better Talk Now is racing better than last year, when he won the BC Turf at 27-1.

"It's so hard to get these horses to go back to the same race, just maintaining that level of competition," he said. "I feel he's had a better year this year. He's a more mature horse."

The condition of the turf course is a positive for some Europeans and a negative for others. A soft course helps Shirocco, who won Group 1 races in Germany and Italy last year under such conditions. He has been well-backed with European bookmakers and has the attention of English trainer John Gosden, who does not have a starter in the Turf.

"There's the turf winner," Gosden said, watching Shirocco walk through the stables Tuesday. "He loves soft ground."

Soft ground may not work for Azamour, who was fifth in the Irish Champion Stakes in those conditions last month. "I'm happy with the horse, but you can't be confident," Oxx said.

The ground might have been firmer had the remnants of Hurricane Wilma not dumped a big rainstorm on the area earlier this week.

"It's a big worry," jockey Michael Kinane, who rides Azamour, said of the surface. "Curse on Wilma."