Woodford Reserve winner English Channel top choice for Saturday's Manhattan.

Woodford Reserve winner English Channel top choice for Saturday's Manhattan.

Jeffrey Snyder

English Channel Tops Stellar Manhattan Field

English Channel leads a stellar cast in the $400,000 Manhattan Handicap (gr. IT) on the Belmont Park turf Saturday, the race that precedes the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).

Undefeated in two starts this year for trainer Todd Pletcher, English Channel faces eight rivals in the Manhattan at 1 1/4 miles. Cacique, Grey Swallow, and Relaxed Gesture are among the colt's toughest opponents. English Channel--who breaks from the 8 post--and Grey Swallow carry top weight of 122 pounds apiece.

By Smart Strike, English Channel has won seven of 11 starts. He recently defeated Cacique by a half-length in Churchill Downs' Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (gr. IT) on Kentucky Derby Day.

"What concerns me more than anything is it shapes up as kind of a paceless race," Pletcher said. "I don't want to be on the lead. He's got a good turn of foot. He just does everything right. He showed he could get a mile and a half in the Turf Classic last fall, although I think a mile and a quarter might be his best distance."

English Channel teams up with jockey John Velazquez.

The Irish-bred Cacique goes out for trainer Bobby Frankel, a two-time winner of the Manhattan. By Danehill, Cacique is a full brother to a pair of female turf champions in Bank's Hill (2001) and Intercontinental (2005). Both Bank's Hill and Intercontinental won the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT) at Belmont Park.

Cacique has been a bit of a hard-luck horse in two starts since arriving in the U.S. this winter. He was beaten by a neck in Santa Anita's Kilroe Mile (gr. IT) after an extremely wide trip, then narrowly lost the Turf Classic to English Channel in May.

Grey Swallow, Irish Derby (Ire-I) champion in 2004, is also dangerous. By Daylami, Grey Swallow won his first and only start of 2006 impressively in Hollywood's Jim Murray Memorial (gr. IIT).

Relaxed Gesture won the Pattison Canadian International (Can-I) at Woodbine in October and was second in the 2005 Manhattan Handicap to Good Reward, who is back to defend his title. Relaxed Gesture has not raced since finishing 12th of 14 in the Dubai Sheema Classic (UAE-I) at Nad Al Sheba March 25.

"It's been tough training him over the slop every day, but he's doing well," trainer Christophe Clement said. "In Dubai he was very fresh, very rank, and I wish I could have given him a race before, but I couldn't. He came back from Dubai in very good order, and I had wanted to give him a long break; but I couldn't give him a long break because he was doing so well.

"This horse runs well on any ground, but compared to some of the other horses in the race his form is better on the soft."

$400,000 Manhattan Handicap (gr. IT, Race 10, 5:50 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 1/4 Miles (Turf)
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey
1. Good Reward (KY), 118, Javier Castellano
2. Relaxed Gesture (IRE), 119, Kent Desormeaux
3. Sabre d'Argent (KY), 114, Eibar Coa
4. Cacique (IRE), 120, Edgar Prado
5. Grey Swallow (IRE), 122, Alex Solis
6. Interpatation (KY), 113, Tom Turner
7. Silver Whistle (KY), 116, Cornelio Velasquez
8. English Channel (KY), 122, John Velazquez
9. Dreadnaught (KY), 115, Garrett Gomez