05/04/2005 12:00AM

Preliminary events also pack punch


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - There will be plenty of fireworks before the main event at Churchill Downs on Saturday, with a pair of Grade 1 events among the five stakes on the Kentucky Derby undercard. Those two races will showcase the spectacular filly Madcap Escapade in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff Handicap and some of the nation's premier grass horses in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic.

The $200,000 Churchill Downs Handicap, a Grade 2, opens the stakes action and will be followed in order by the $100,000 Three Chimneys Juvenile for 2-year-olds, the Grade 3, $100,000 Comp USA Turf Mile, the $250,000 Humana Distaff, and the $400,000 Woodford Reserve.

Madcap Escapade figures to be odds-on in the seven-furlong Humana Distaff. She returns to the scene of her only career setback, in the Kentucky Oaks one year ago. Madcap Escapade went to the sidelines for 10 months following her third-place finish behind Ashado in the 2004 Oaks, but she has returned with impressive victories in Gulfstream Park's Grade 2 Shirley Jones Handicap and Keeneland's Grade 3 Madison Stakes to open her 4-year-old campaign.

"She's doing well," said Madcap Escapade's trainer, Frank Brothers. "I'm happy with her, but it's a Grade 1, and there will be some runners in there,"

There will be exactly eight other runners, to be precise, including the multiple Grade 2 winner and Grade 1 -placed Bending Strings, as well as Heavenly Humor, Souris, and Argentine invader Santa Candida.

The 1 1/8-mile Woodford Reserve shapes up as one of the most competitive races on the card.

Grade 1 winners Meteor Storm and Sweet Return top a lineup that also includes Mustanfar, Quest Star, Perfect Drift, Senor Swinger, and A to the Z.

Meteor Storm and Mustanfar may vie for favoritism, with Meteor Storm coming off a second-place finish in the Grade 2 San Luis Rey Handicap at Santa Anita and Mustanfar a wide-running third-place effort in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup.

"My horse did not have the best of trips in either of his two races this year, especially the last one when she lost an awful lot of ground," said Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains Mustanfar for the Shadwell Stable. "But he has exceptional breeding, and I think he has a chance to have a very big year."

The seven-furlong Churchill Downs Handicap is also up for grabs, with four horses - Lion Tamer, Gold Storm, Sir Shackleton, and Pomeroy - all sharing high weight of 118 pounds.

Gold Storm opened his 2005 campaign with a pair of stakes wins after closing out 2004 finishing ninth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Slow starts have cost Lion Tamer in his first two appearances this season. He concluded 2004 by upsetting Badge of Silver and Pico Central in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile.

Sir Shackleton had his modest two-race win streak snapped when he finished a tiring fourth as the 8-5 favorite in Keeneland's Grade 2 Commonwealth Breeders' Cup. He won his only previous start at Churchill Downs, the 2004 Derby Trial.

Pomeroy, trained by Patrick Biancone, will be making only his second start since winning Saratoga's Grade 1 King's Bishop on Aug. 28.

Half Ours and Beacon Shine, sensational winners of their 2-year-old debuts earlier this spring at Keeneland, will top the five-furlong Three Chimneys Juvenile.

Half Ours, trained by Todd Pletcher, was bet to 1-5 and won his debut by 10 3/4 lengths, covering 4 1/2 furlongs in 51.60 seconds. He will be favored again in the Three Chimneys over Beacon Shine, who was nearly as impressive winning his only start by 8 3/4 lengths.

Grade 1 winner Ticker Tape makes her 2005 debut in the Comp USA Turf Mile, a race formerly known as the Argent Mortgage Distaff Turf Mile. She will face a strong field that includes defending champion Shaconage, Boasting, Mambo Slew, and Warning Zone.