08/09/2006 11:00PM

Million is more than top pair

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - English Channel and Cacique have traded punches since May, their next exchange scheduled for Saturday afternoon at Arlington Park, but even if English Channel and Cacique are the two best American turf horses of the moment, they still may not be good enough to win the 24th .

The New York-based pair are among 10 horses expected for Saturday's race. Todd Pletcher, English Channel's trainer, also entered Go Deputy, but that horse is running in the Sword Dancer at Saratoga. Also expected to start here are one local horse, the extreme longshot Major Rhythm; one Californian, The Tin Man; another East Coaster, the venerable Better Talk Now; Cosmonaut, who ships from Turfway Park; and four Europeans - Ace, Touch of Land, Soldier Hollow, and Phoenix Reach.

English Channel drew the widest post with Cacique in the stall just inside of him, and while Pletcher said he didn't mind his draw, Bobby Frankel, Cacique's trainer, was unhappy with his. The Americans can't afford much bad luck if they're to beat a solid group of foreign invaders. While English Channel and Cacique have alternated wins during their budding rivalry, Americans and Europeans have taken turns winning the Million the last six years.

Pletcher has never had a Million starter, but this year sends the likely favorite, and even the connections of European horses are counting English Channel as the horse to beat. Still, Pletcher came close to keeping English Channel home for the Sword Dancer rather than shipping to Arlington, where English Channel finished second as the odds-on favorite last year in the Secretariat Stakes.

"I really don't think that was Arlington or him not liking the turf," Pletcher said. "I think it was more the trip he got."

English Channel has won 8 of 13 in his career and 3 of 4 this season, including Grade 1 scores in the Turf Classic on May 6 at Churchill, where he beat Cacique by a half-length, and the United Nations on July 8, where, once again, he beat Cacique by a half-length. But in the June 10 Manhattan Handicap, at the Million's 1 1/4-mile distance, Cacique was the winner, with English Channel a close fourth.

"He was a better horse than Cacique at a mile and an eighth, and he was a better horse at a mile and three-eighths," said Pletcher. "But these horses are very competitively matched."

Cacique came to the U.S. late last year looking strictly like a middle-distance horse, but he broke through in the 1 1/4-mile Manhattan with his first Grade 1 victory, and has transitioned to longer distances while adapting to American racing.

"I think he was a good miler, but I think he can go further," said Frankel, who has won the Million twice. "He's an easy horse to ride, and he relaxes really well. I actually think he's a mile-and-a-quarter horse."

Cacique and English Channel both should be forwardly placed in a moderately paced race, with The Tin Man, who breaks from post 2, the likely speed. The Tin Man has been here before, finishing sixth in the 2003 Million, but though his horse is now 8, trainer Richard Mandella thinks The Tin Man might be better now than at any previous point in an excellent career.

"Whenever you've got them around at this age, you're always surprised," Mandella said. "But he's a tough old horse."

Back for his second Million is Better Talk Now, who finished a tough-luck fourth in the race last year, and back for his third Million, though he comes all the way from France, is Touch of Land, who was fifth last year and 11th in 2003. But Touch of Land might be the least of the European quartet, a group perhaps headed by Ace, who was second in the Breeders' Cup Turf last fall. Ace, however, is riding a losing streak that dates to August 2004. His Irish-based trainer, Aidan O'Brien, won the 2005 Million with Powerscourt.

From England comes Phoenix Reach, a multiple Group 1 and Grade 1 winner who has traveled the globe. What Phoenix Reach has not done is race since last July, nor has he won a race at 1 1 /4 miles. Still, Phoenix Reach's connections have declared him ready for a competitive effort.

"He's a gifted horse," said owner Andreas Christou.

Soldier Hollow starts for Germany's leading trainer, Peter Schiergen, and has twice won Group 1 races at 1 1/4 miles. Soldier Hollow may prefer wet going, but seems unlikely to get it Saturday, with the the rest of this week's forecast calling for partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the low 80's.

* The Million is race 9 on a 12-race card that also includes the Grade 1 Beverly D. (race 8) and Grade 1 Secretariat (race 11). The Million and Beverly D. will be shown on an ABC telecast from 3-5 p.m. Central, along with the other two legs of a $500,000 NTRA National Pick 4, the Sword Dancer and Vanderbilt at Saratoga. Arlington is guaranteeing a $250,000 pool for a pick four on its final four races.

The field

Arlington Million
Purse: $1 million; 1 1/4 miles, turf; Grade 1

PPHORSEJOCKEYODDS
1Major RhythmE. Fires30-1
2The Tin ManV. Espinoza10-1
3AceG. Gomez5-1
4Touch of LandC. Lemaire15-1
5Soldier HollowR. Douglas15-1
6Phoenix ReachM. Dwyer5-1
7CosmonautJ. Leparoux20-1
8Better Talk NowR. Dominguez6-1
9Go DeputyJ. Velazquez15-1
10CaciqueE. Prado4-1
11English ChannelJ. Velazquez3-1

* Track odds
* All starters carry 126 pounds
* Television: Saturday, 4-6 p.m. (Eastern), ABC