07/25/2008 12:00AM

Phoenix Stakes appears a four-way battle of the best


The four highest-rated juveniles in Europe will square off at the Curragh on Sunday in a white-hot renewal of the $470,000 Phoenix Stakes, the first Group 1 race of the year for 2-year-olds in the Northern Hemisphere.

Art Connoisseur had jaws dropping at Royal Ascot when he came from first to last to win the 18-runner Group 2 Coventry Stakes by

2 1/4 lengths at the same six-furlong distance as the Phoenix. Now 3 for 3, he is a Michael Bell-trained son of the Kris S. stallion Lucky Story and will be ridden by Jamie Spencer.

Aidan O'Brien has won 2 of the last 3 Phoenixes, with Holy Roman Emperor and George Washington. On Sunday his first string will be Mastercraftsman, a Danehill Dancer colt owned by Coolmore who made it 2 for 2 with a hard-fought victory in the Group 3 Railway Stakes over the Phoenix course and distance last time. Johnny Murtagh has the ride.

Another Coolmore entrant, this one trained by David Wachman, will be the Danetime colt Bushranger. The recent 2 1/2-length winner of the Curragh's Group 3 Anglesey Stakes, he will have Wayne Lordan up.

The big four is completed by Alhaban, a Kevin Prendergast-trained son of Verglas. Alhaban followed a handy 3 1/2-length maiden debut score at the Curragh with a short head second to Mastercraftsman in the Railway. He would be no surprise with Daragh McDonogh at the controls.

A 2-year-old who could crack the top four on Sunday is Percolator. Trained in England by Paul Cole, this front-running son of Kheleyf is seeking his fifth straight victory in the Group 2, $313,000 Prix Robert Papin at Maisons-Laffitte. Having traveled to France for victories in the listed Prix La Fleche and the Group 3 Prix du Bois, Percolator should feel right at home in his first attempt going as far as 5 1/2 furlongs.

Dangers lurk in Enchanting Muse, a five-length Chantilly maiden winner; Higha, a three-length Chantilly allowance winner; and Lui Rei, winner of the Group 3 Premio Primi Passi.

* Baharah will not travel to Arlington Park for the Beverly D., despite her 1 1/2-length victory in the listed one-mile Valiant Stakes at Ascot on Friday. Trainer Gerard Butler has decided to keep his Elusive Quality filly closer to home for the Matron Stakes, a Group 1 mile at Leopardstown on Sept. 6.