09/26/2006 11:00PM

Bernardini has elders' respect

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Bernardini will seek his sixth straight win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

This is the time of year when conventional wisdom holds that 3-year-olds must prove themselves against older horses. But this fall, in the chase for the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, and for Horse of the Year, the question will be whether older horses can match up with the nation's best 3-year-old, Bernardini.

Bernardini, to whom the baton was passed by Barbaro in the Preakness Stakes, has rolled to subsequent victories in the Jim Dandy Stakes and Travers Stakes. His performances were so sublime that he is considered the favorite for the Nov. 4 Classic at Churchill Downs, and to be named Horse of the Year should he win both the Classic and his Breeders' Cup prep race, the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 7 at Belmont Park.

"It's nice knowing a lot of people give him a lot of respect," said Tom Albertrani, who trains Bernardini. "I believe the same thing. He's a special horse. We haven't seen this type of horse in a while."

Albertrani could be considered biased, but he is not prone to exaggeration, and rival trainers hold similar beliefs.

"I'm not really looking forward to running against Bernardini," said Kiaran McLaughlin, who will send out the excellent older horse Invasor against Bernardini in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. "I have a lot of respect for him. But my horse is doing great."

The 1 1/4-mile Classic, the purse for which was increased by $1 million this year, is the richest of the eight Breeders' Cup races that will be run this year at Churchill Downs. Total purses for the Breeders' Cup races are worth $20 million.

In the 22 previous Classics, a 3-year-old has won six times, most recently Tiznow in 2000.

This year's race has the nation's three leading contenders for Horse of the Year - Bernardini, Invasor, and Lava Man, who has cut a swath through the West Coast and will have his Classic tune-up on Oct. 7 in the Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting.

All paths to the Classic, however, go through Bernardini.

"I believe this horse has gotten stronger with every race," Albertrani said. "His last three races, including the Preakness, have been remarkable. He's so professional. He's always been that way. He never gets nervous. I just want to keep him at this level. He's very special."

Invasor, who has won the Pimlico Special and Whitney this year, is not an original nominee to the Breeders' Cup and would have to be supplemented, but trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said he will supplement Invasor, assuming Invasor runs well in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and goes on to the Classic.

Also pointing to the Jockey Club Gold Cup is Dylan Thomas, the Irish Derby winner, who will be making his first start on dirt. Dylan Thomas is one of several European standouts under consideration for the Classic, along with Shirocco, who won last year's Breeders' Cup Turf, and David Junior.

Lava Man has won all six of his starts this year, including a sweep of Southern California's major races for older horses: the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Del Mar's Pacific Classic. His rivals in the Goodwood are expected to include Brother Derek, the Santa Anita Derby winner; Giacomo, the 2005 Kentucky Derby winner; and Super Frolic, the runner-up in the Pacific Classic.

This weekend's Classic prep is the Grade 2, $350,000 Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park, featuring Woodward winner Premium Tap, as well as Good Reward and Perfect Drift.

John Kimmel, the trainer of Premium Tap, said he chose the Kentucky Cup instead of the Jockey Club Gold Cup because he has "no desire to run against Bernardini, Invasor, and Dylan Thomas."

"I have very high regard for Bernardini," Kimmel said. "Until he stubs his toe, I want to stay away from him."

Like Invasor, Premium Tap would need to be supplemented to the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Perfect Drift is seeking his fifth straight berth in the Breeders' Cup Classic. The only horse who has run in five straight Breeders' Cups is Kona Gold, who raced in the Sprint from 1998-2002 and won it in 2000. Perfect Drift was fourth most recently in the Pacific Classic.

The other major prep on the horizon is the Oct. 13 Meadowlands Cup, which is expected to attract Park Avenue Ball, Awesome Twist, and possibly Wanderin Boy.

Nick Zito, who trains Wanderin Boy, said the other race under consideration is the Fayette Stakes at Keeneland on Oct. 28. Should Wanderin Boy run there, he would skip the Classic and instead look at November races such as the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct or the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs, Zito said.

Zito said Sun King will train straight up to the Classic without a prep in October. He most recently was third in the Woodward Stakes. Earlier this year, Sun King suffered heartbreaking losses in the Metropolitan Handicap and Whitney.

"He runs so well fresh," said Zito, who brought Birdstone off a similar layoff to win the Travers Stakes two years ago.

With Barbaro and Bluegrass Cat having suffered career-ending injuries, and Brother Derek seeking to bounce back from a poor comeback race at Del Mar, the depth among the 3-year-olds pointing for the Classic is shallow. Strong Contender put himself in contention with his victory last weekend in the Super Derby, but Lawyer Ron, who was second in the Super Derby, is doubtful, according to trainer, Bob Holthus.

"I want to wait and see what happens next weekend with Bernardini and those horses," Holthus said.