10/07/2006 12:00AM

Bernardini makes it look easy

Bernardini with Javier Castellano up wins the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Saturday at Belmont Park.

ELMONT, N.Y. - With each effortless stride Bernardini put out on the Belmont Park stretch, the crescendo of applause among the announced crowd of 16,959 in attendance on a comfortable autumn day grew. And as Bernardini crossed the finish line in hand in Saturday's Grade 1, $750,000 , the hearty Belmont faithful roared their approval and for another virtuoso performance from North America's best 3-year-old.

Tom Albertrani, the cool and calm trainer of Bernardini, collected his daughter, Noelle, in his arms and led the way to the winner's circle for another photo op. "Good stuff,'' he said.


Though it wasn't the toughest Jockey Club Gold Cup field ever assembled, Bernardini did exactly what he was supposed to do, inhaling the pacesetting Wanderin Boy in upper stretch and galloping home a 6 3/4-length winner. Wanderin Boy held second by six lengths over Andromeda's Hero. It was 19 1/2 lengths back to Dylan Thomas, the European turf sensation who didn't handle the dirt one bit, according to jockey John Velazquez.

It was the sixth consecutive victory for Bernardini, who added the Gold Cup to victories in the Preakness, Jim Dandy, and Travers. And it should send him to Churchill Downs for the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 4 as the favorite despite the fact Lava Man, who won Saturday's Goodwood Breeders' Cup, enters the race 7 for 7 on the year.

The ease in which Bernardini won the Gold Cup was similar to how he won the Jim Dandy and Travers. Only instead of making the lead early, Bernardini was content to let Wanderin Boy set the pace.

Under Edgar Prado, Wanderin Boy got away with a first quarter in 25.08 seconds and the half-mile in 48.13. Javier Castellano had Bernardini in second, a little more than a length off the pace. Leaving the three-furlong marker, Castellano sent Bernardini after Wanderin Boy and he overtook him by the time the field straightened away for home.

Bernardini, a son of A.P. Indy owned by Sheikh Mohammed's Darley Stable, covered the 1 1/4 miles in 2:01.02 and returned $2.30 as the 1-9 favorite.

"This was exactly what we wanted to see, just a nice easy race and he'll be fresh for the next one,'' Albertrani said. "I think Javier let Wanderin Boy have his way a little longer than he needed to. When I saw 25 [seconds for the first quarter] I couldn't believe he didn't just go wire to wire.''

Bernardini's vanquished couldn't help but pay tribute to the winner.

"He's a super horse,'' Prado said. "He had me any time.''

Said Nick Zito, who trained Wanderin Boy and Andromeda's Hero: "It's the first time I almost clapped for a horse that beat me,'' Zito said.

He would have been one of many who did.