08/24/2006 12:00AM

Bernardini the toast of the Travers


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Bernardini flew under the radar in the Preakness. He simply flew in the Jim Dandy. If he can replicate either one of those dazzling performances in Saturday's $1 million , Bernardini will fly to the head of the 3-year-old division.

While the Travers, for the 11th straight year, may not have the Kentucky Derby winner, it does possess the two best 3-year-old dirt distance horses in training in Bernardini and Bluegrass Cat. But even Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Bluegrass Cat, understands that his horse has to run the race of his life to beat Bernardini in the 1 1/4-mile Travers.

"We're not kidding ourselves," said Pletcher, who will also start the Grade 3 stakes winner High Cotton in the Travers. "Bernardini was awesome in the Jim Dandy, he's been awesome basically every start of his life. We got to step up a notch, and so does everyone else in the race if we're going to beat Bernardini. But it's a horse race, and you never know what's going to happen."

John Ward, who will send out Minister's Bid and Dr. Pleasure, and Nick Zito, who will saddle Hesanoldsalt, are basically in agreement with Pletcher. In order for Bernardini to lose the Travers, he will have to have an off day while their horses will have to have their best day.

"Bernardini is by far one of the nicest animals we've seen in the past decade, but having trained Beautiful Pleasure with my wife, Donna, we know you can get burnt at Saratoga every time," said John Ward, referring to his champion mare who was upset as the 3-10 favorite in the 2000 Go for Wand Handicap.

Favorites have won only five of the last 20 runnings of the Travers, though all of those winning choices have been odds-on favorites. Though listed as even-money on the morning line, Bernardini figures to go off shorter than that in this field. Seven were entered in the Travers, but Kip Deville is likely to scratch.

What makes Bernardini so tough is his versatility. He won the Grade 3 Withers by pressing the pace. He won the Preakness by 5 1/4 lengths by sitting fourth and stalking the speed. He won the Jim Dandy by nine lengths over a sloppy track in gate-to-wire fashion while being virtually pulled up the last furlong.

"We're not going to take back and try to rate him, we're just going to be where he's comfortable, like he did in his last race," said Tom Albertrani, trainer of Bernardini. "If someone wants to do a little bit more, we'll just let them go ahead and do whatever they feel they want to do with their horses."

Javier Castellano will ride Bernardini from post 5.

Provided Kip Deville does indeed scratch, the only other horse who appears to have enough speed to outfoot Bernardini early is High Cotton, who won the Sir Barton in gate-to-wire fashion on Preakness Day. It has been suggested that Pletcher would use High Cotton as a rabbit for Bluegrass Cat, who prefers to do his running from off the pace. Pletcher said both horses would run their own races, wherever that puts them.

"That's the only fair thing to do," Pletcher said. "Obviously I don't want to see the two head and head. Bluegrass Cat's tactical enough, and so is Bernardini. If High Cotton weren't in there and Bernardini went to the lead on his own, Bluegrass Cat wouldn't let him gallop to the lead on his own, anyway."

Bluegrass Cat, who will break from post 7 under John Velazquez, is given the best chance to upset Bernardini. After running second in both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, Bluegrass Cat came through with a breakthrough performance winning the Haskell Invitational by a stakes-record seven lengths. Though concerned about running Bluegrass Cat back in 20 days, Pletcher has seen enough changes in Bluegrass Cat to have faith he can handle the quick turnaround.

"He's just a better horse now than he was in May," Pletcher said. "He's bigger, he's stronger, he's carrying more weight, he's sharper."

Dr. Pleasure, the first foal out of Beautiful Pleasure, could offer value in the exacta as the only true closer in the field. He figures to sit back under Cornelio Velasquez and try to pick up whatever pieces are left in the stretch.

"If they threw a quarter in that's too fast, he should be able to sit there and pounce on human error," Ward said.

There will be 12 races on Travers Day with a first post of 12:30 p.m. There will be a guaranteed all-stakes pick four pool of $1 million comprising the Ballston Spa, Bernard Baruch, King's Bishop, and Travers. There will be a $100,000 guaranteed pool in the Grand Slam wager, which begins with race 7 and ends with the King's Bishop.

All four stakes will be shown either live or on tape on a two-hour ESPN broadcast beginning at 5 p.m. Eastern.

The field

Purse: $1 million; 1 1/4 miles; Grade 1

1HesanoldsaltE. Coa15-1
2Minister's BidE. Prado8-1
3Dr. PleasureC. Velasquez12-1
4High CottonG. Gomez6-1
5BernardiniJ. Castellano1-1
6Kip DevilleR. Bejarano30-1
7Bluegrass CatJ. Velazquez2-1

* All starters carry 126 pounds
* Track odds