07/09/2008 12:00AM

Man o' War has BC quality

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Reed Palmer Photography
Curlin will be taking on two Breeders' Cup Turf winners in the Man o' War: Better Talk Now and Red Rocks

ELMONT, N.Y. - Curlin, the 2007 Horse of the Year, has not picked an easy spot to make his turf debut, as Saturday's Grade 1, $500,000 Man o' War Stakes at Belmont Park is developing into one of the top turf races of the year in North America.

Curlin will be taking on two Breeders' Cup Turf winners in the Man o' War: Better Talk Now (2004) and Red Rocks (2006). Andrew Byrnes, Belmont's stakes coordinator, also lists Grand Couturier, Interpatation, Sudan, and True Cause as likely starters. The Man o' War will be televised on ESPNews.

Trainer H. Graham Motion passed last week's United Nations Stakes at Monmouth Park with Better Talk Now, preferring to give the 9-year-old an extra week following his trouble-filled fifth-place finish in Grade 1 Manhattan Handicap on the Belmont Stakes undercard.

"I think the extra week is going to help him." Motion said. "Obviously, this is going to be a much more competitive race than the race last weekend. Quite frankly, at this stage in the game we are not going around looking for easy spots for him. He's doing very well."

In the Manhattan, Better Talk Now wound up in tight quarters in deep stretch with regular rider Ramon Dominguez aboard.

"Ramon gave him an absolutely perfect ride," Motion said. "Unfortunately, nothing opened up at the last minute. With my horse, that's the nature of his style. That's unfortunately why he doesn't get to the winner's circle as often as you'd like."

Big Brown still on for Haskell

Big Brown remains on target for the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on Aug. 3, according to trainer Richard Dutrow Jr.

The Haskell will be the first start for Big Brown, winner of the the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, since his last-place finish in the Belmont Stakes.

"Right now everything is fine with the horse," Dutrow said. "We are moving forward. The first date is the Haskell."

The colt had his latest work Monday, five furlongs at Aqueduct in 1:02.86. The move was markedly quicker than the 1:06.71 workout he turned in on July 2. That work was his first since the Belmont.

"He went fine," Dutrow said Wednesday morning. "He'll probably breeze in five or six days from now, if everything is beautiful. And right now, it is beautiful."

Steppenwolfer in tough comeback spot

Trainer Danny Peitz, shopping for a comeback spot for Steppenwolfer, initially settled on the Inside the Beltway Stakes at six furlongs on the turf Wednesday at Belmont.

Upon further consideration, Peitz scratched out of that race in favor of the Grade 3, $100,000 Poker Handicap at one mile here on Sunday.

"We're looking for a challenge," Peitz said with a laugh. "We're looking for Kip Deville."

Kip Deville, winner of the Breeders' Cup Mile last October, tops the expected field. Byrnes lists Danak, Imawildandcrazyguy, Sensational Humor, and Tam Lin as likely starters.

Steppenwolfer has not run in more than a year, last appearing in the 2007 Manhattan Handicap at Belmont. He came out of that race with a cracked bone in his right knee.

"After the Manhattan, I couldn't tell that he was hitting the ground any different, but he was getting hot every day," Peitz said. "That wasn't him, and I knew something wasn't right."

It took a number of X-rays and scans before the injury was detected. It did not require surgery, just a lengthy recuperation. Peitz put him back in training in December with the goal of taking his time to get the 5-year-old ready for the summer grass season.

Steppenwolfer is best know for his late-running exploits in the 2006 Triple Crown season, where he rallied for second in the Arkansas Derby and third in the Kentucky Derby.

Peitz was trying to ease him back into action in the Inside The Beltway.

"We really wanted a three-other-than allowance that we entered about five times and it didn't fill," Peitz said. "That's where we really wanted to get started. It's a little frustrating. We didn't want to ship. We threw him in the little sprint stakes, but there wasn't a lot of speed and it came up tough, so it really didn't set up for him."

Peitz is looking at the Poker as both a comeback race and a prep for the Grade 2 Fourstardave Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on the turf on Aug. 3 at Saratoga.

"He's been off a long time now and it seems like he's trained well," Peitz said. "He's got to go out there and show us he's still got the fire in his belly."

* Rajiv Maragh will serve a three-day suspension July 16 to 18 for careless riding in the 10th race on July 6.