08/28/2006 12:00AM

Bernardini cream of a bumper crop

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NEW YORK - Saturday's Travers at Saratoga was just the latest addition to a growing list of blowout stakes victories by Bernardini. This, however, was not a matter of the same old, same old. No sir.

Although Bernardini was again impressive both visually and against the clock, just as he was in his prior scores in the Jim Dandy, Preakness, and Withers, there was something different about his Travers performance. Unlike the Withers, in which he dominated three forgettable opponents, or the Preakness, a race that fell apart before even one furlong had been run, or the Jim Dandy, in which he was loose on the lead on a sloppy track against allowance horses, Bernardini received a challenge in the Travers. This is what people who resisted the rush to attach the "superstar" label to Bernardini had been waiting to see. And what was seen - Bernardini's response to a genuine challenge - was goose-pimply good.

The one who finally brought a challenge to Bernardini was Bluegrass Cat. Of course, it was disheartening to see on Sunday that Bluegrass Cat had sustained a career-ending fracture of his right hind pastern, presumably during the running of the Travers. But even though it is entirely speculation, the feeling is, given the way Bluegrass Cat ran on Saturday, he probably didn't feel the effects of his injury until the very final stages of the Travers, if at all.

In any event, Bluegrass Cat went after Bernardini into the backstretch, which was early but necessary considering his uncoupled barn mate, the speedy High Cotton, simply couldn't keep up with Bernardini like many though he would attempt to do. Bluegrass Cat went after Bernardini in earnest on the far turn, and when that bid was repelled, he found the courage to make yet another run turning for home.

Bluegrass Cat was a nice horse; not a star, but a colt good enough to win the Haskell Invitational and finish second in the Belmont Stakes and Kentucky Derby in his three starts before the Travers. You can't fake a series of performances like that. Bluegrass Cat was by far the best horse to look Bernardini in the eye since Bernardini started winning. Yet Bernardini, emboldened, maybe even angered at the challenges Bluegrass Cat threw at him, answered with a devastatingly brilliant turn of foot in upper stretch. Bernardini's move was so deadly that it made you salivate at the prospect of what he might be capable of when challenged by even better horses. Bernardini continued to draw away despite not being asked by jockey Javier Castellano, who instead was motioning that the colt beneath him was "Number 1." Castellano has a frame of reference. He was the regular rider of Ghostzapper, the 2004 Horse of the Year and perhaps the best pure talent to grace American racecourses since Spectacular Bid.

Speaking of talent, after Bernardini won the Jim Dandy four weeks ago and looked to have the Travers at his mercy, it was apparent that he was building a strong case to overtake Barbaro, the sensational Kentucky Derby winner who broke down in the Preakness, for the 3-year-old championship. Today, a lot of folks believe that Bernardini has now wrested command of the 3-year-old division. Those who don't have to concede that Bernardini has at least drawn dead-even with Barbaro, and must recognize he can blow this divisional battle apart, as well as make a strong bid for Horse of the Year honors, with characteristic performances against older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders' Cup Classic.

But this year, being champion 3-year-old male would carry a special distinction, because this crop is looking like it might be the best group of 3-year-olds we have seen in a while. Bernardini's Travers score was the third exceptional performance by a 3-year-old in just two days at Saratoga. One race before the Travers, Henny Hughes withstood strong early pace pressure to crush a deep field in the Grade 1 King's Bishop Stakes, and is now in prime position to bid for the sprint championship. On Friday, the undefeated Discreet Cat was awesome winning an allowance race by 11 lengths in his return to this country. It would be nice if Discreet Cat did something a little more daring next time than beat three hopeless opponents at 1-9 in the Jerome Handicap. But that is what will probably happen because Discreet Cat was so dominant on Friday, in his first start since his romp last March in the UAE Derby, in which he left Invasor seven lengths back in fourth. All Invasor has done since is win the Pimlico Special, Suburban, and Whitney to emerge as the best older male in the nation.

The thing about this class of 3-year-olds is it is so good on so many fronts. Showing Up won the Secretariat in a manner that suggests he can compete with the best older turf horses. Of course, Barbaro never lost a race he was able to finish. And this doesn't even touch on Belmont winner Jazil, or early-season 3-year-old leaders like Stevie Wonderboy, who was the champ of the group at 2, or Brother Derek. Those two are on the comeback trail. Lawyer Ron, another top 3-year-old early season, came back Saturday night with a solid win in the St. Louis Derby at Fairmount Park.

So as special as this crop of 3-year-olds appears to be, what does it say for Bernardini if he is the best of all of them?