10/04/2006 11:00PM

Bernardini faces just three

Bernardini with Javier Castellano wins the 2006 Travers Stakes at Saratoga.

On Thursday, when the field for the Grade 1, $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup was formalized, trainer Tom Albertrani was quite pleased the race didn't come up as tough as it could have for Bernardini.

"I would rather keep the testing for the Breeders' Cup," Albertrani said moments after Bernardini was assigned post 1 in a four-horse field. "I would rather see the horse have a race pretty much as he did in the Jim Dandy, where he would come out of it and be fresh for the Breeders' Cup."

Bernardini waltzed to a nine-length victory in the Jim Dandy and then came back four weeks later for a 7 1/2-length romp in the Travers. Those victories, plus his 5 1/4-length Preakness score, vaulted Bernardini to the top of the 3-year-old division and had many racing fans anticipating a showdown with the older horses in the fall.

The Jockey Club Gold Cup was supposed to represent Bernardini's toughest race to date, but it lost much of its luster when Invasor, a three-time Grade 1-winning older horse, defected from the race because of a temperature. Now, Bernardini's opponents are Wanderin Boy, winner of the Grade 2 Brooklyn; Dylan Thomas, a multiple Group 1 winner on turf in Ireland who has never raced on dirt; and Andromeda's Hero, a plodder whose most noteworthy performance was a second to Afleet Alex in the 2005 Belmont Stakes.

This represents the smallest Gold Cup field since 1988, when Waquoit beat three horses. With only four horses in this year's field, NYRA will offer only win, place, and exacta wagering. The horses will be loaded into gates 5 though 8.

The Jockey Club Gold Cup, run at 1 1/4 miles, is one of five Grade 1 events on the 10-race Belmont Park card. The other Grade 1 events are the Vosburgh, Beldame, Flower Bowl Invitational, and Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational. All five will have implications for this year's Breeders' Cup, to be run Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs.

The Joe Hirsch, Jockey Club, and Vosburgh will be shown live on ESPN2 during a two-hour broadcast that begins at 4:30 p.m. Eastern. The Hirsch and Jockey Club are two legs of an NTRA National Pick 4 that has a guaranteed $400,000 pool. The other two legs are the Shadwell Mile from Keeneland and the Goodwood Handicap from Santa Anita.

Albertrani said the only negative he sees going into the Gold Cup is that Bernardini drew the rail. Wanderin Boy, the only other speed in the race, is outside of him in post 3. Edgar Prado rides Wanderin Boy.

"I didn't want post 1," Albertrani said. "I was hoping to be on the outside of Wanderin Boy. This way he could jump out and do what he wanted to do. He looks like he's a front-runner, anyway. If Bernardini breaks sharp, I wouldn't want him to be chasing after [Wanderin Boy] or be head and head."

Javier Castellano, the rider of Bernardini, has also been the regular rider of Wanderin Boy since April, winning 4 of 6 starts with him, including two stakes. Castellano said he knows that the only way for Wanderin Boy to be effective is to be in front early.

"No question about it, Wanderin Boy is going to be on the lead, he has to be on the lead," Castellano said. "I'm not worried about that, because my horse can settle down. You can do whatever you want."

Castellano said he also questions Wanderin Boy's ability to get 1 1/4 miles. In the Pimlico Special, run at 1 3/16 miles, Wanderin Boy was the lone speed, but he couldn't carry it, finishing second to Invasor.

"A mile and a quarter, I think, is a big question for him," Castellano said. "If they let him go nice and easy, maybe he makes it. But if somebody puts pressure on him I think he gives up. Right at the three-eighths pole I'll put some pressure on him."

The X-factor in the Jockey Club is Dylan Thomas. An Irish-bred son of Danehill, Dylan Thomas won the Irish Derby and Irish Champion Stakes on turf. He attempts dirt for the first time for trainer Aidan O'Brien.

"On the turf he has great tactical speed," O'Brien said. "Whether he's going to hit those gates quick enough and not lose too much ground at the start so that he'd be able to use that tactical speed, I don't know. Sometimes what happens when we go to the dirt, we lose too much ground at the start, and they have to make too much of an effort to get into a challenging position, and when they usually get into it they've used up their reserves."

John Velazquez will ride Dylan Thomas from post 2 in the Gold Cup. Dylan Thomas gets Lasix for the first time.