07/02/2009 11:00PM

Presious Passion a tough U.N. king

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Bill Denver/Equi-Photo
Presious Passion, here training Thursday at Monmouth with Fernando Espinoza, will play catch-me-if-you-can in the Grade 1 United Nations Stakes on Saturday.

OCEANPORT, N.J. - Presious Passion defends his title Saturday in the $750,000 United Nations Stakes at Monmouth Park, and he won't surrender the crown willingly.

"As we've all seen, he's not going to let that happen without a fight," said trainer Mary Hartmann. "He always fights and gives it his best. He just doesn't like losing."

The 1 3/8-mile United Nations is the richest turf race in New Jersey and joins the Haskell Invitational as the only Grade 1 races in the state.

The U.N. is also a Breeders' Cup Win and You're In stakes, bestowing on the winner an automatic berth in the BC Turf.

With a rich purse, Grade 1 status and the Breeders' Cup incentive, the race attracted a strong field.

Court Vision is the likely favorite. Trained by Bill Mott, Court Vision is winless in four Grade 1 races this year. He did rally to get third in the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap and the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic.

Mott has expressed concern about the soft courses the 4-year-old has encountered recently. While the rainy June on the Jersey Shore extended into the first two days of July, the forecast calls for clear weather on the weekend.

It doesn't take long for this course to dry out. Replaced in advance of the 2007 Breeders' Cup, the course has excellent drainage, which helps it firm quickly.

Garrett Gomez will be aboard.

Lining up to challenge Presious Passion are Brass Hat, the 8-year-old who captured the Louisville Handicap last time out; Spice Route, winner of Elkhorn Stakes at Keeneland who ran second to Brass Hat in the Louisville; Banrock, the king of the New York-bred turf stakes who missed by a nose to Presious Passion last month in the Monmouth Stakes; Strike a Deal, last year's U.N. runner-up; Lauro, the hero of the Sky Classic last October at Woodbine; and Wesley, who captured the Miami Mile at Calder. Better Talk Now, the still-competitive 10-year-old who captured this race in 2005, was also entered, but trainer Graham Motion said Friday that because of an injured splint bone in a hind leg.

Presious Passion's rivals will have no problem locating him. He will be firing right to the front with Elvis Trujillo aboard.

The 6-year-old gelding loves to set a fast pace. He opened a huge lead in the Monmouth, humming along through a 46.31-second opening half-mile - usually a suicide pace in a grass marathon.

It creates the illusion of a horse on the lead primed to fade. Except there is no quit in this front-runner, as Proudinsky discovered the Monmouth Stakes.

Making the first run at the leader, Proudinsky edged clear to a one-length advantage turning for home. To the surprise of many, Presious Passion battled back to reclaim the lead, eventually holding off a frantic late charge from Banrock by a nose.

"He goes so fast he creates the impression that he has to fold," Hartmann said. "He doesn't fold. He's not a cheap suitcase."

The race poses an interesting tactical challenge. Aside from Presious Passion, there doesn't appear to be much early pace in the race.

Left unchallenged, he will look to duplicate last year's front-running win. To engage him early risks the potential of a costly tussle.

"There is not much speed in the race," said Tom Bush, Banrock's trainer. "We're not interested in being a horse that's chasing him early. It's going to be up to the gods. If someone puts pressure on Presious Passion, it's not going to be us. We'll just have to let it unfold as it does."

Banrock will have a new rider: Joe Bravo, 13 times the leading rider here and one of the best of the best on this grass course.

If he repeats, Presious Passion will joins a select group of consecutive winners of this race, which originated at Atlantic City Race Course: Mongo, Noble Dancer II, Manila, Sandpit, and English Channel. Round Table is the other two-time winner, successful in 1957 and 1959. He was second in 1958.