03/02/2005 1:00AM

Bernstein makes Big Cap return

Benoit & Associates
Truly a Judge drew post 4 for Saturday's Santa Anita Handicap. He will be the first Big Cap starter for trainer David Bernstein since 1994.

ARCADIA, Calif. - For 11 years, March 5 has been a bitter anniversary for trainer David Bernstein.

On that day in 1994, the Bernstein-trained The Wicked North finished first in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap only to be disqualified and placed fourth.

This year, Bernstein gets a chance to gain a measure of redemption when he runs the longshot Truly a Judge in the Santa Anita Handicap, to be run Saturday, March 5.

Truly a Judge, 7, will be Bernstein's first starter in the Big Cap since The Wicked North.

Wednesday, Truly a Judge drew post 4 for the Big Cap, run over 1 1/4 miles.

The Big Cap field is led by Saint Liam, the Florida-based winner of the Donn Handicap and the only shipper in a field of 11. Trained by Richard Dutrow Jr., Saint Liam drew the outside post. Other top contenders include Lundy's Liability, the winner of the San Antonio Handicap on Feb. 6, who starts from the rail, and Rock Hard Ten, the winner of the Strub Stakes on Feb. 5, who breaks from post 10. Imperialism, third in the 2004 Kentucky Derby and second in the Strub, drew post 8.

Bernstein said he knows Truly a Judge is an outsider against those horses, but he and the partnership that owns the gelding - Alan Aidekman, Gaylord Ailshie, and Tom Harris - are willing to take a chance.

"I'm not sure he belongs here off what he's done, but he keeps getting good with age," Bernstein said. "He's sort of like fine wine."

The other entrants are Borrego, Congrats, Island Fashion, Californian, Grand Reward, and Supah Blitz.

Truly a Judge approaches the Big Cap in the best form of his career. Claimed for $20,000 in October 2001, he won the Grade 3 Native Diver Handicap in December, the Grade 3 San Gabriel Handicap in January, and finished second to Lundy's Liability in the Grade 2 San Antonio Handicap.

"He's exceeded our expectations," Bernstein said. "We never thought he'd be this kind of horse."

Truly a Judge is a front-runner who has never raced beyond 1 1/8 miles, and the race's distance of 1 1/4 miles will be a test for him.

The Wicked North was the champion older male of 1994. In the Big Cap that year, he was always near the front. Turning for home, The Wicked North drifted out, forcing the longshot Myrakalu to take up. The Wicked North won by 1 1/2 lengths, but was disqualified and placed fourth, behind Myrakalu.

Bernstein and owners Phil and Sophie Hersh subsequently lost an appeal to have the stewards' decision overturned.

"That was a tough night," Bernstein said. "We did win it fair and square. They didn't see it that way. It's over and done with.

"The Wicked North was the best horse I ever had," he said.

Saturday, Truly a Judge will be on the lead early, trying to avenge that painful memory for Bernstein.