06/04/2006 11:00PM

Manhattan Handicap top of the heap

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Jim Murray winner Grey Swallow will face extremely stiff competition in the Manhattan.

ELMONT, N.Y. - With all due respect to the Belmont Stakes, the best race on Saturday's 13-race, eight-hour card could very well be the $400,000 Manhattan Handicap.

Grey Swallow, a Group 1 winner in Europe who won the Grade 2 Jim Murray Memorial Handicap at Hollywood Park in his last start, heads the star-studded cast for the Grade 1 Manhattan, scheduled for 1 1/4 miles on Belmont's inner turf course. But he won't have an easy time against the likes of Grade 1 winners English Channel, Relaxed Gesture, and Good Reward, as well as the multiple group stakes winner Cacique. Silver Whistle, winner of the Grade 3 Pan American Handicap in his last start, and Sabre D'Argent are also scheduled to run. Interpretation is a possibility.

Four of the eight Manhattan starters took to Belmont Park's rain-soaked inner turf course on Monday for their final preps. Traffic cones designed to protect the inner part of the turf course - called dogs - were out well past the center of the course, so the times were not very fast.

Grey Swallow, trained by Dermot Weld, worked seven furlongs in 1:40.55. He started two lengths behind a Leo O'Brien-trained horse and finished about five in front. Bobby Dolan, Weld's assistant and the exercise rider for Grey Swallow, was unconcerned about the final time.

"He's fit," Dolan said. "I didn't want to overdo it. I couldn't be happier with him. He must have a lead horse. He'll go off on his own, but he won't do much."

As a 3-year-old, Grey Swallow won the Irish Derby and at 4 he won the Tattersalls Gold Cup, both Group 1 races at The Curragh in Ireland. This year, in his 5-year-old debut, Grey Swallow romped to a five-length victory in the Jim Murray, run over firm turf.

"I thought at Hollywood Park he'd need the run, but I still thought he'd win," Dolan said. "The feeling he's given me all week is he's a fit horse. He's a legitimate Grade 1 horse, so he's not out of his [league]."

Grey Swallow and English Channel are the assigned highweights at 122 pounds. English Channel, winner of the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic in his last start, worked four furlongs in 52.94 seconds Monday under Hall of Fame rider Angel Cordero Jr.

"It was an in-hand, maintenance breeze," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "He's fit now, I'm just trying to keep him sweet."

Relaxed Gesture defeated Grey Swallow in the Canadian International last October. He has run only once since, finishing 12th in the Dubai Sheema Classic. On Monday, he worked four furlongs in 52.01 seconds.

Silver Whistle will be a longshot in the Manhattan, but he is 2 for 2 at Belmont and looked extremely good in his five-furlong work, which was timed in 1:04.34. After starting off slowly, Silver Whistle got his last half-mile in 50.27 seconds.

On Sunday, defending Manhattan winner Good Reward worked five furlongs on a sloppy main track in 1:01.05.

McLaughlin live in Hill Prince, Queen of Song

Kiaran McLaughlin will have plenty to look forward to the day before he saddles Jazil in the Belmont Stakes.

On Friday, McLaughlin will send out the uncoupled entry of Spider Power and Carnera in the Grade 3, $100,000 Hill Prince at one mile on turf. He also will send out the exciting Khalila and Capote's Crown in the $65,000 Queen of Song Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, a race that serves as a prep for the Grade 1 Prioress.

A full field of 12 will go in the Hill Prince provided the race remains on turf. Three horses, including possible Belmont Stakes entrant Platinum Couple, were entered for the main track only.

Carnera, a son of Old Trieste, has won two straight in front-running fashion. Spider Power, a son of Royal Applause, won an allowance race from well off the pace.

To Sender, who won the Pasadena at Santa Anita, and Mr. Silver, a stakes winner at Tampa Bay, are the only stakes winners in the field.

Khalila, a daughter of Elusive Quality, is 2 for 2 and won an allowance race by 10 1/4 lengths despite wearing three shoes because one fell off and could not be put back on. Khalila will face several stakes winners in the 10-horse field for the Queen of Song Stakes, including Sensation, Wild Gams, Swap Fliparoo, and Stolen Prayer.

Too Much Bling works for Stephens

Too Much Bling, who figures to be one of the leading contenders in the Grade 2, $250,000 Woody Stephens Breeders' Cup Stakes on Saturday, worked five furlongs in 1:00 on Monday morning at Santa Anita for trainer Bob Baffert.

Too Much Bling has not raced since winning the Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct on April 8. He will be seeking his fourth straight victory in the Stephens, which was formerly known as the Riva Ridge.

The Stephens, like the Bay Shore, is at seven furlongs. The race was won last year by Lost in the Fog.

Too Much Bling is scheduled to fly to New York on Wednesday with stablemate Bob and John, who runs in the Belmont Stakes. Another Baffert trainee, Pussycat Doll, will not come here to contest the Vagrancy Stakes on Sunday.

"I'm going to freshen her up," Baffert said. "She got real light on me. I'm going to wait until the fall and get her ready for the Breeders' Cup Distaff."

The Breeders' Cup is at Churchill Downs, where Pussycat Doll won the Humana Distaff last month.

Arroyo headed to California

Norberto Arroyo Jr., runner-up to Tyler Baze in the Eclipse Award voting for leading apprentice in 2000, is about set to join Baze in the Southern California jockeys' room

Arroyo confirmed Monday that he will move his tack to California starting June 14. Arroyo, the New York Racing Association circuit's leading rider in 2000, will be represented by Jim Pegram, who is returning to California after a short stint in New York as the agent for Kent Desormeaux.

"After my second year riding I've been asked a lot of times to go over there, but I never felt it was the right people calling me to go," Arroyo said. "I think the right person called me this time. That's one of the main reasons I made the decision."

The 29-year-old Arroyo has ridden 54 winners from 323 mounts this year and is 6 for 53 at the Belmont spring meet.

"I think a change is always good and I think it would be good for me to see something new," Arroyo said. "New atmosphere, ride for some new people, new trainers, new owners. I think that will help me."

Arroyo returns from a seven-day suspension on Wednesday. Among his top mounts this week at Belmont is Hello Liberty, who runs in Saturday's Grade 1 Acorn.

Dutrow vs. Dutrow in Wednesday feature

Brothers Anthony and Richard Dutrow appear to have the top two contenders in Wednesday's $46,000 featured second-level allowance race for New York breds. The one-mile race also carries an optional claiming tag of $25,000.

Anthony Dutrow sends out Paige Nicole, who comes off a nose victory in a first-level allowance win going seven furlongs over this track on May 7. Richard Dutrow sends out Ice Cool Kitty who had a two-race winning streak snapped when she fell three-quarters of a length short to stablemate Oprah Winney in the Bouwerie Stakes for statebreds, also on May 7.

Flower Alley still a work or two away

Flower Alley, who has not raced since finishing second in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, is nearing a return to action for Pletcher. On Monday morning, Flower Alley breezed six furlongs in 1:13.52 on a Belmont Park training track that was rated good after overnight rain.

Jockey John Velazquez was aboard Flower Alley, who worked in company with West Virginia. With Flower Alley on the outside, they traveled together after breaking off at the five-furlong pole, and then Flower Alley went out another eighth of a mile after they had gone five furlongs.

"He worked well this morning, but he's one or two works away," Pletcher said.

Flower Alley is expected to be pointed to the major races at Saratoga this summer - the Whitney and Woodward - before gearing up for the Breeders' Cup.

* Jorge Velasquez is the new agent for jockey Jose Espinoza.

- additional reporting by Jay Privman