06/16/2008 11:00PM

Grand Couturier starts anew

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Besides the venerable Better Talk Now, the only horse able to beat Eclipse Award winner English Channel in the United States last year was Grand Couturier, who upset the champ with a hedge-hugging stretch run in the Grade 1 Sword Dancer at Saratoga.

Grand Couturier will make his first start of the year Thursday, and is well-suited to the conditions of the $75,000 Academy Award, an overnight stake for nonwinners of a graded stakes on turf this year.

Scheduled for 10 furlongs on the inner course, the Academy Award drew a field of nine that also includes True Cause, second in the Grade 2 Red Smith last fall; Mission Approved and Distorted Reality, the one-two finishers in the 2007 Saranac at Saratoga; Crown Point, fourth in the Sword Dancer and Red Smith last year; and Banrock, who won the Kingston Handicap with a lifetime-best Beyer Speed Figure of 99 earlier at the current meet.

Smart Growth, British Blue, and Sky Dragon also are entered.

Grand Couturier, 5, has not been out since finishing sixth - beaten less than two lengths for second - in the Breeders' Cup Turf over extremely soft going. He was being pointed to the Japan Cup in November, but a minor ankle injury from the summer flared up, and he was given some time off in Ocala, Fla., over the winter.

"It's an ideal situation to run in this spot," said trainer Bob Ribaudo. "Physically, he looks great, and he's been training every day. We're looking for him to perform well and come back well, and then we'll consider something like the Man o' War [July 12], with the main goal to get back to the Sword Dancer."

Grand Couturier has had four races in the United States on firm turf and has recorded triple-digit Beyer Figures three times, including a career-best 105 in the Sword Dancer.

"I don't want it too hard, but firm turf is better for him," said Ribaudo. "What he really needs is some pace. It's a nine-horse field, so hopefully there will be some type of legitimate pace."

Mission Approved was bottled up in traffic and checked in seventh behind Banrock in the Kingston, which was his first start of the year. That race was on yielding turf.

Two stakes wins in a 13-day span last September indicate Mission Approved is much more effective with the early lead. Except for Distorted Reality, who chased him around the course in the Saranac, there isn't much other early speed in the Academy Award.