06/06/2006 11:00PM

Strong Manhattan rivals the main event


ELMONT, N.Y. - Outstanding renewals of the $400,000 Manhattan Handicap on turf and the $250,000 Acorn for 3-year-old fillies on dirt highlight Saturday's Belmont Stakes Day undercard.

The 13-race card, which begins at noon, also includes the $300,000 Just a Game for fillies and mares on turf, the $250,000 Woody Stephens Breeders' Cup Handicap for 3-year-old sprinters, and the $250,000 True North Handicap for older sprinters. The True North, which goes as race 6, kicks off a pick six with a guaranteed pool of $1 million. The Woody Stephens, formerly the Riva Ridge, goes as race 8 and is the first leg of a pick-four wager with a guaranteed pool of $1 million. Both wagers end with the Belmont Stakes.

The Manhattan, scheduled for 1 1/4 miles on the inner turf course, drew an exceptional field led by English Channel and Cacique, the one-two finishers in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, as well as Grey Swallow, the 2004 Irish Derby winner who won the Jim Murray Memorial Handicap at Hollywood Park.

"That might be the best race on the card," Todd Pletcher, trainer of English Channel, said of the Manhattan.

The likelihood of a less than firm turf shouldn't affect the race. English Channel won the Virginia Derby over soft ground last year. Cacique and Grey Swallow began their careers in Europe, where they often caught good or soft courses. Relaxed Gesture, who finished second in this race last year over firm ground, beat Grey Swallow in the Canadian International over yielding ground last October.

Silver Whistle, who won the Pan American Handicap at Gulfstream Park last out, worked extremely well over a soft inner turf course at Belmont on Monday.

In a departure from years past, the New York Racing Association moved the Grade 1 Acorn to Belmont Day. Officials were rewarded with a solid race that marks the return to the races of Teammate, the six-length winner of the Grade 2 Bonnie Miss on March 5. Teammate was forced to miss the Nassau County on May 6 due to a bruised foot.

Teammate will take on Ermine, the runner-up in the Kentucky Oaks; Bushfire, the Ashland winner; Hello Liberty, the Nassau County winner; and Miraculous Miss, the Comely winner. Completing the field are Adieu, a Grade 1-winning 2-year-old; the Richard Dutrow Jr.-trained pair of Last Romance and Wonder Lady Anne L; and the longshot She's Excellent.

The Woody Stephens, run at seven furlongs, features a rematch between Too Much Bling and Songster, two of the top 3-year-old sprinters in the country. Too Much Bling defeated Songster by nine lengths in the Grade 3 Bay Shore in April. Too Much Bling, who arrived from Southern California on Wednesday, has not run since the Bay Shore. Songster came back to win the Grade 3 Hirsch Jacobs by 10 lengths on the Preakness undercard.

Other contenders include Fabulous Strike, winner of three straight races; Likely, the nine-length winner of the Lafayette at Keeneland; and Keyed Entry, the Hutcheson winner, who finished last in the Kentucky Derby.

Tiger has emerged as one of the top sprinters on the East Coast. He can further enhance his credentials in the $250,000 True North. Tiger, who has come back from two bowed tendons, has won 3 of 4 races this year, including the Grade 3 Bold Ruler Handicap on May 13. Trainer Jimmy Jerkens has also entered Voodoo, the runner-up in this race last year, who has not run since running second in last November's Fall Highweight Handicap.

Gorella, who was beaten a half-length by Artie Schiller in last year's Breeders' Cup Mile over this course, heads a six-horse field entered in the $300,000 Just a Game at a mile. Gorella faced males again in the Turf Classic and finished fifth, but she was less than two lengths behind English Channel.

Gorella, trained by Patrick Biancone, faces graded-stakes winners Wend, Pommes Frites, Ozone Bere, Bright Abundance, and Mirabilis.