10/16/2006 11:00PM

Locals have good shot at turf prizes

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Woodbine-based trainer Mac Benson (above) could have the E.P. Taylor favorite in Arravale, who will be going after her second Grade 1 win.

In recent years, horses based at Woodbine haven’t had much of an impact on the Canadian International or E.P. Taylor Stakes, whose rich pots lure some serious shippers from overseas and south of the border. But the tide may be about to turn this Sunday, when Sky Conqueror is poised to give the invaders a serious run for the money in the Canadian International and Arravale could be the filly to beat in the E.P. Taylor.

The Canadian International and the E.P. Taylor are both Grade 1 turf races. The International carries a purse of $2 million and is for 3-year-olds and upward at 1 1/2 miles, and the Taylor carries a purse of $1 million and is for fillies and mares at 1?1/4 miles.

Sky Conqueror, an Ontario-bred 4-year-old, is trained by Darwin Banach, 41, who went out on his own in 1998 after spending six years as an assistant to trainer Phil England.

Arravale, a 3-year-old, is Kentucky-bred but is based here with Mac Benson, 76, who has made Woodbine his racing headquarters since 1978.

Sky Conqueror surged to the forefront of the turf division here this summer, when he won the 1 1/8-mile King Edward and the 1 1/2-mile Northern Dancer. After falling ill with a virus and missing the next two stepping-stones to the Canadian International, Sky Conqueror made his first start in 11 weeks in a one-mile allowance race here Oct. 8 and was an impressive winner under regular rider Todd Kabel.

Now, Sky Conqueror will be facing the most difficult test of his career in the Canadian International. His opponents from the United States will include Relaxed Gesture and Meteor Storm, the one-two finishers from last year’s Canadian International; and Go Deputy, winner of the Grade 1 Sword Dancer this summer. From Europe come Group 1 winners Kastoria and Collier Hill, along with Blue Monday and The Last Drop, who have placed in Group 1 stakes.

The other Woodbine-based entrants also seem to be a cut above the average. Jambalaya and Last Answer finished fractionally behind Better Talk Now, winner of the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Turf, in the Grade 2 Sky Classic here Sept.?24, with Jambalaya losing by a head and Last Answer another nose back in third.

Sky Conqueror defeated both Last Answer and Jambalaya in the Northern Dancer.

Regardless of whom Sky Conqueror will line up against in the Canadian International, Banach said he is confident.

“He couldn’t be doing any better right now,” Banach said. “He’s a very talented runner, and I’m still not sure we’ve seen the best of him. He just has such a tremendous turn of foot. I think at longer distances it’s even more effective.

Banach is no stranger to an exceptional horse. During his days with England, he was associated with the likes of Thornfield and Benburb, both Canadian horses of the year. Thornfield and Benburb both took the measure of some talented shippers in their award-winning campaigns.

Thornfield was the last Woodbine-based horse to win the Canadian International, in 1999, and Benburb’s biggest victory came in the Molson Million in 1992.

Banach said he believes Sky Conqueror may be cut from similar cloth.

“He just seems to always come up with a little bit more of an effort when he needs to,” said Banach. “I guess that’s what makes the best ones. They just step up.”

While Sky Conqueror will try a Grade 1 race for the first time, Arravale already has two under her belt, including a win in the Del Mar Oaks on Aug. 19.

But the competition for Arravale also will run deep on Sunday.

Ready’s Gal shipped here to win the Grade 2 Canadian on Sept. 17, beating Arravale by a half-length.

Angara, winner of the Grade 1 Diana this summer, plus Latice and Barancella, the two-four finishers in last year’s Taylor, are others in a strong U.S. contingent.

Also among Arravale’s opponents are Red Bloom, a Group 1 winner in England and Ireland, and Ontario-based Ambitious Cat, who was third in last year’s Taylor and was the Canadian champion in her division.

Yet Benson is cautiously optimistic about Arravale’s chances.

“I think she’s a really honest-to-goodness good filly,” said Benson. “She does things that you just can’t do with an ordinary filly.”

Following a victory in the 6 1/2-furlong Alywow here in her season debut June 11, Arravale returned three weeks later and stretched out to 1 1/4 miles on turf in the Grade?1 American Oaks at Hollywood Park on July 2, finishing third behind the formidable Wait a While.

“She wasn’t fit enough to run much more than a mile and a sixteenth,” said Benson. “To me, it was a miracle that she wound up being third.”

After returning to Woodbine, Arravale was shipped back to California and was a 1 1/2-length winner of the Del Mar Oaks at 1 1/8 miles. And in her last start, which came against older fillies and mares in the Canadian at 1 1/8 miles, Arravale stalked a slow pace set by Ready’s Gal and was beaten a half-length as the 4-5 favorite.

“There was no pace; that was a very tough thing for this filly,” said Benson, who obviously will be hoping for a different scenario for Arravale and rider Jose Valdivia, who has been aboard for her last two outings. “But I think the mile and a quarter will be to her advantage.”