04/30/2004 11:00PM

Stroll takes Woodford

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Stroll with Jerry Bailey aboard wins the 18th running of The Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on Saturday at Churchill Downs.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The conditions for Saturday's $400,000 changed dramatically when a torrential downpour turned the Churchill Downs grass course from firm to yielding just minutes before the race. But the soft ground proved no obstacle for Stroll, who got back on the winning track with an easy 2 1/2-length victory over Sweet Return in the Grade 1 turf fixture.

Stroll had a five-race winning streak snapped when he finished fifth as the favorite in Keeneland's one-mile Maker's Mark Stakes on April 9. A 4-year-old son of Pulpit, Stroll is trained by Bill Mott for his owner-breeder, Claiborne Farm.

Sweet Return, the 4-1 favorite in a field of 11 for the 1 1/8-mile Woodford Reserve, set a slow pace over the yielding ground, with Jerry Bailey positioning Stroll just behind him. Stroll engaged Sweet Return after six furlongs, shook free near midstretch, and gradually drew clear.

Sweet Return weakened late but was able to outlast Mystery Giver by a nose to finish second.

Rounding out the order of finish were Burning Sun, Honor in War, Kicken Kris, Everything to Gain, Sir Cherokee, Stage Call, and Perfect Soul.

Skate Away collapsed and died on the turn after suffering what was diagnosed as a cardiac arrhythmia by Dr. Larry Bramlage, the on-call veterinarian.

Stroll returned $11.60 to win, despite having won the last five starts of his 3-year-old campaign last year, including three stakes. He also came into the race with a perfect record in three tries at the distance. Stroll completed the nine furlongs in 1:53.00.

The Woodford was Mott's first Grade 1 victory since Royal Anthem captured the 2000 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup.

"We needed this," Mott said. "The barn needed it. And the horse definitely deserved it. I don't think he needed his last start as much as he didn't handle the turf course at Keeneland."

Saturday's heavy rain was of little concern to the trainer.

"He's won a couple of times over soft courses in the past, so that didn't bother me," said Mott. "And he couldn't have gotten a better trip. I thought things might have been flip-flopped going into the first bend, that we might go to the front and the other horse [Sweet Return] would be second, but as it was, everything turned out great."

Mott said he will now consider stretching Stroll out to 1 1/4 miles for Belmont Park's Grade 1 Manhattan Handicap on June 5.