11/03/2010 4:55PM

Soldat has his work cut out in Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf

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Barbara D. Livingston
Soldat, Alan Garcia up, wins the With Anticipation.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – If the horses running in Saturday’s Grade 2, $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf were merely the ones who competed in the Grade 3 Pilgrim Stakes at Belmont last month, Kiaran McLaughlin, the trainer of Pilgrim runner-up Soldat, said he could feel good about his horse’s chances.

Problem is – they’re not. As one would expect from the Breeders’ Cup, it is the best 2-year-old turf race for colts and geldings in North America this year, with 12 opponents set to face Soldat, including Air Support, the Pilgrim winner, as well as three promising Europeans – Mantoba, Master of Hounds, and Utley.

McLaughlin can still take comfort in knowing that he will be leading over one of the top American runners, something Soldat proved in winning the Grade 3 With Anticipation this summer at Saratoga, and also perhaps equally so in defeat in the Pilgrim.

Favored at 3-5 to win the Pilgrim, Soldat had troubles beginning at the start, when he hit the side of the gate, and his problems continued when he was hung wide around both turns, and was bumped by Air Support in the stretch. The stretch incident resulted in a stewards’ inquiry, although the stewards made no change to the order of finish.

“I thought he ran exceptionally,” McLaughlin said. “He had enough excuses to lose by a length and a quarter.”

Catching drier ground in the Juvenile Turf, a one-mile race, would aid Soldat’s chances. He won the With Anticipation on a firm course, and with dry weather forecasted for Saturday, the Churchill Downs grass course could be to his liking.

Alan Garcia rides Soldat, a son of War Front owned by Harvey Clarke and Craig Robertson III.

Of the European invaders, Master of Hounds is the most fancied overseas, with most British bookmakers listing him at odds of around 4-1, as of late afternoon Wednesday.

Mantoba and Utley were essentially co-second choices at around 6-1 with the bookmakers.

Master of Hounds, trained by Aidan O’Brien, has the necessary credentials, having hit the board in four straight races, most recently finishing third Grade 1 Racing Post Trophy Oct. 23 at Doncaster against some of the better juveniles in Britain.

If he replicates that performance in the Juvenile Turf, he is the most likely winner, but regression is a possibility with him returning on short rest and following a long flight across the Atlantic.

Johnny Murtagh, who rode Man of Iron to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Marathon just last year for O’Brien, takes his customary place in the irons aboard Master of Hounds.

Besides Air Support and Soldat, Banned and Pluck are other North American runners with decent chances, although Pluck drew poorly.

Pluck, winner of the Grade 3 Summer Stakes at Woodbine, drew post 13, a starting position from which he could get hung wide in the first of two turns in the Juvenile Turf.

Long-term statistics on the Churchill Downs turf course confirm this disadvantage. Since the turn of the millennium, no horse has won from post 12 or further outside in one-mile turf races at Churchill Downs. Post 12 is 0 for 48 since 2000, and post 13 is 0 for 3.

The small number of starters for Post 13 is a result of Churchill capping field size at 12 runners, except in stakes races.

Jockey Garrett Gomez will have the task of trying to carve out a decent trip on Pluck.

Banned, meanwhile, drew better than Pluck in post 8, and could prove intriguing to price seekers if he drifts up from his 10-1 price on the morning line.

Fifth in his debut on dirt, he has since gone 2 for 2 on the grass, winning a maiden race at Belmont and following that with a five-length triumph against first-level allowance horses at Keeneland Oct. 17.

Although Banned has never raced in a stakes race, his trainer, Tom Proctor, has considered him a stakes horse all fall. He wanted to start him in the Bourbon Stakes at Keeneland last month, but the colt was excluded when that race overfilled.

That alternatively led to him running Oct. 17 at Keeneland, a race in which he sat just off slow fractions before quickening away from his opponents in the lane. Although Banned’s time for a mile at Keeneland was modest, 1:38.10 over firm ground, he did run his final quarter-mile in roughly 23.40 seconds. Joel Rosario rides.