05/03/2006 12:00AM

Talent galore in Woodford

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The $400,000 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, featuring a field that includes five Grade 1 winners, should prove a fitting lead-in to the afternoon's main event on Saturday's 12-race Kentucky Derby program at Churchill Downs.

The Grade 1 Woodford Reserve anchors an undercard that includes four other graded stakes - the Grade 1, $250,000 Humana Distaff Handicap; Grade 2, $200,000 Churchill Downs Handicap; Grade 3, $100,000 La Troienne Stakes, and Grade 3, $100,000 Churchill Distaff Turf Mile.

Despite the presence of five Grade 1 winners in the lineup for the 1 1/8-mile Woodford Reserve, none is likely to be favored. Instead, English Channel looks like the horse to beat. English Channel was generally regarded to be among the premier turf runners in the country at the end of his 3-year-old campaign after finishing second in the the Secretariat and Turf Classic Invitational, both Grade 1 races, and fifth in the Breeders' Cup Turf.

English Channel solidified his ranking near the top of the division after opening his 2006 campaign by defeating Miesque's Approval to capture Gulfstream Park's Canadian Turf Handicap. Miesque's Approval came out of the race to upset reigning BC Mile winner Artie Schiller in Keeneland's Maker's Mark Mile.

The Grade 1 winners in the Woodford Reserve are Good Reward, Honor in War, Perfect Drift, Einstein, and Milk It Mick. The field also includes the multiple Grade 2 stakes-placed Silver Tree, Grade 2 winner Cool Conductor, Group 2 European winner Cacique, multiple graded-stakes winner Silver Tree, BC Mile third-place finisher Gorella, and the red-hot Fort Prado.

Gorella will be facing males for the second time in four U.S. starts. A French-bred filly, Gorella was beaten less than a length by Artie Schiller despite repeated trouble in the BC Mile, although she has yet to win a race beyond a mile.

The Humana Distaff is not far behind the Woodford Reserve in terms of class, featuring a field that could include as many as four Grade 1 winners, led by the Bob Baffert-trained duo of Behaving Badly and Pussycat Doll. Two-time Grade 1 winner Splendid Blended, in the midst of a comeback following a nine-month layoff, figures to be a tough opponent as would be Leave Me Alone if she does not compete in Friday's Louisville BC Handicap.

Battle Won returns to defend his title in the Churchill Downs Handicap, while looking to register his first victory since he rallied to an easy 3 1/2-length triumph in the 2005 version of the race. Battle Won has gone winless in six subsequent starts but did finish second last summer in both the Grade 1 Forego and Grade 1 Bing Crosby handicaps.

Level Playingfield will be back seeking a measure of revenge from Battle Won in a well-matched lineup that includes the undefeated Charging Indian, Vicarage, Thunder Mission, With Distinction, and Tricky Trevor.

Adieu, winner of the Grade 1 Frizette at 2 but idle since finishing a distant seventh in the BC Juvenile Fillies, tops the 7 1/2-furlong La Troienne, while Wend, Ready's Gal, Sis City, and Mirabilis may be the major players in the Churchill Downs Distaff Turf Mile.