05/05/2007 12:00AM

Poor start, then flying finish in Woodford

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Sky Conqueror, the champion turf male in Canada last year, proved Saturday he also ranks among the best grass horses in the United States, winning the Grade 1, $561,000 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs.

After stumbling to his knees at the start, Sky Conqueror was given a patient ride from Javier Castellano, who rated him in ninth early, as Shake The Bank surged ahead to a commanding lead with fractions of 47.33 seconds and 1:11.52 in the 1 1/8-mile turf contest.

Sky Conqueror remained in the back of the pack until the top of the stretch before being fanned to the outside. Then, once clear, he finished with a flourish under Castellano, passing horse after horse and catching Brilliant on the wire.

Castellano said he was concerned about Sky Conqueror's chances when the horse stumbled so badly leaving the gate, but that being well off the pace may have been the place to be.

"I'm glad he stayed up, and I think it worked out perfect," he said.

The winner, a 5-year-old son of Sky Classic owned and bred by William Sorokolit, completed 1 1/8 miles on a "good" turf course in 1:49.01, paying $18.80.

The Woodford marked the biggest victory of Sky Conqueror's career. Last year, the horse won the Grade 2 Northern Dancer Breeders' Cup and Grade 2 King Edward Breeders' Cup Mile at Woodbine, and also ran third in the Grade 1 Canadian International at Woodbine.

Making the Woodford victory and his other achievements all the more remarkable is that as a 3-year-old he contracted strangles, a highly contagious respiratory disease that resulted in him being placed in quarantine in Florida for nearly six months.

"We always have known he's a fantastic racehorse," trainer Darwin Banach said. "We're just very proud of him."

Brilliant, who won the Jefferson Cup over the Churchill Downs course last summer, ran bravely in defeat, finishing a length in front of third-place Danzon. He slipped through along the inside for the stretch run, took the lead with less than a sixteenth of a mile remaining, but could not contain the winner's late surge.

The two favorites, Einstein and Better Talk Now, did not make a significant impact. Einstein failed to rally after stalking the pace, running seventh. Better Talk Now, in his first start since finishing second in the Nov. 4 Breeders' Cup Turf, rallied belatedly for fourth after encountering traffic problems late in the stretch.