05/01/2008 12:00AM

Bernie Blue in difficult spot off layoff

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Bernie Blue enjoyed a banner season at Mountaineer Racetrack in 2007, winning four stakes at distances ranging from 4 1/2 furlongs to a mile and 70 yards.

But will he be good enough to spot two dangerous rivals six to 13 pounds while making his first start in 5 1/2 months?

Idle since capturing the Mountaineer Mile on Nov. 10, Bernie Blue has landed in a tough spot for his 6-year-old debut in Saturday's $75,000 Panhandle Handicap, the first stakes of the season at Mountaineer.

In fact, the five-furlong Panhandle was Bernie Blue's worst race in eight starts locally last season. He finished third, beaten 7 1/2 lengths by the highly talented Fabulous Strike, in the 2007 Panhandle.

There's no horse nearly as good as Fabulous Strike among the eight older sprinters Bernie Blue will meet Saturday night. But he does have to deal with two formidable threats in Bettin on M J, who comes off back-to-back triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures at Charles Town, and De Brandon Boy, a onetime Bob Baffert-trained colt who ran two huge races at Mountaineer last season.

The 6-year-old Bettin on M J, who has been claimed three times in his last nine starts, stretches out slightly after winning consecutive races going 4 1/2 furlongs. Although those races were 3 1/2 months apart, Bettin on M J earned near-identical Beyers of 103 and 102, figs that compare well to the 103 Bernie Blue was awarded for his win in last year's six-furlong Waterford Park Handicap and the 102 he got for winning a six-furlong allowance.

Much like Bernie Blue, the 4-year-old De Brandon Boy comes into the Panhandle off a long layoff. His two best races locally, against maidens and first-level allowance runners, indicate he's fast enough to compete against this group, but he was no better than fourth in two previous tries against stakes company.

One other horse who merits respect is Oaklawn Park shipper Saalb. He was a two-time winner at the recently concluded meet in Arkansas and takes a class drop after flashing speed and fading in the Grade 3 Count Fleet Handicap.