10/30/2006 1:00AM

Plot thickens as stars converge

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It used to be that trainers could not wait to get to Churchill Downs for their final preparations for events like the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders' Cup, but the modus operandi has changed this year. Keeneland's Polytrack became a popular option, and several trainers, most notably Todd Pletcher in New York, have chosen to keep their most of their runners at their home tracks until the last possible moment.

But there was an unmistakable rise in the level of anticipation on Monday at Churchill Downs, as Saturday's 23rd Breeders' Cup drew closer. Several top contenders - including the Doug O'Neill-trained pair of Lava Man, who will shoot for Horse of the Year in the $5 million Classic, and Great Hunter, who goes in the $2omillion Juvenile - made favorable impressions on the track. Suave, hoping to make his hometown trainer, Paul McGee, look good, turned in a sharp drill in preparation for the Classic. The one-two finishers in the Norfolk Stakes, Principle Secret and Stormello, got their first feel of the track after arriving on Sunday. And the first group of European-based horses, including Classic runner David Junior, settled into the quarantine barn after arriving Sunday.

The pace will pick up noticeably in the next few days. On Wednesday morning, final entries will be taken for the eight Breeders' Cup races, and then post positions will be drawn. Later that day, Bernardini, the leading contender for Horse of the Year, and Invasor, one of his main rivals in the 1 1/4-mile Classic, are scheduled to arrive from New York on a flight that will also deliver Henny Hughes, Scat Daddy, and Wait a While. They will join such well-known stars as George Washington and Giacomo, Classic runners who were to arrive on Tuesday.

The sun was shining bright Monday on this year's home of the Breeders' Cup, with a high temperature of 74 degrees. According to the National Weather Service, showers were forecast for Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, and it was expected to turn cold but dry in the aftermath of that front. The forecast for Saturday is for a high temperature of 51 degrees, but no rain.

Breeders' Cup fields are limited to 14, and it appears 14 will enter the Classic on Wednesday. There were 15 pre-entries, but Discreet Cat was pre-entered only as insurance in the event that something unforseen were to befall Bernardini before Wednesday. Both Bernardini and Discreet Cat are owned by Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum.

Not including Discreet Cat, the Classic field, with jockeys, is: Bernardini (Javier Castellano the rider), Brother Derek (Alex Solis), David Junior (Jamie Spencer), Flower Alley, George Washington (Mick Kinane), Giacomo (Mike Smith), Invasor (Fernando Jara), Lava Man (Corey Nakatani), Lawyer Ron, Perfect Drift (Garrett Gomez), Premium Tap (Edgar Prado), Suave (Kent Desormeaux), Sun King (Rafael Bejarano), and Super Frolic (Victor Espinoza).

Pletcher said John Velazquez will ride either Flower Alley or Lawyer Ron. He had yet to decide on a jockey for the other horse. Flower Alley finished second in last year's Classic, but his form this year is below par, and he turned in a disappointing work here on Sunday morning when he struggled at the end of a six-furlong work in 1:15. Flower Alley was ranked 15th for the Classic, thus putting him on the outside looking in at pre-entry time, but with Discreet Cat not expected to enter on Wednesday, Flower Alley will get in.

Suave, who was fifth in last year's Classic at Belmont Park, will be making the final start of a 27-race career on Saturday. He has won three times in six starts at Churchill Downs, and he showed his affinity for the track on Monday by finishing strongly and galloping out well while working five furlongs by himself in 1:01.40 with exercise rider Raul Vizcarrondo.

"I thought he breezed real well," said McGee, a native of Louisville. "I'm very happy with the way he's coming into this race. As a rule, he's not a good work horse by himself."

Suave, a 5-year-old son of A.P. Indy who was bred and is owned by Mace and Samantha Siegel, will enter stud next spring at Darby Dan Farm in Lexington, Ky.

"Any time a good horse like that goes out of your barn, there's a void," McGee said. "But I'm ecstatic for the Siegels. He's been a special horse for us and the Siegels."

Suave has won twice in five starts this year. This summer, he won the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park, but then he finished last of 10 in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga, behind Classic runners Premium Tap and Sun King.

In New York, Premium Tap worked a half-mile in 47.43 seconds on Monday at Belmont Park. After winning the Woodward, he was fifth when encountering severe trouble in the Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park.

At Churchill on Sunday, Sun King worked five furlongs in 1:00.80. His third-place finish in the Woodward was his most recent start.

In California, Brother Derek and Super Frolic worked at Santa Anita on Sunday, and Giacomo worked at Hollywood Park the same morning.

Brother Derek, who most recently finished second to Lava Man in the Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap, breezed five furlongs in 59.20 seconds.

Super Frolic, who was fifth in the Goodwood, went six furlongs in 1:12.80. He is also pre-entered in the Mile, but the Classic is listed as his first preference and he is expected to go in that race when final entries are taken Wednesday.

Giacomo, who was third in the Goodwood, breezed six furlongs in 1:15.40 with his regular exercise rider, Steve Willard. As with Suave, Giacomo will be making his final career start in the Classic. Giacomo, the 2005 Kentucky Derby winner, enters stud next spring at co-owner Frank Stronach's Adena Springs Farm.

In New York on Sunday, Invasor (1:00.67) and Lawyer Ron (1:02.79) both worked five furlongs on the Belmont Park training track. Invasor has not raced since his victory in the Whitney on Aug. 5. Lawyer Ron, second last time out in the Super Derby, will be making his first start since moving to Pletcher's barn after making his first 17 starts for trainer Bob Holthus.