08/22/2006 12:00AM

Championship up for grabs

High Cotton (right), runner-up in the Ohio Derby, gives trainer Todd Pletcher a second contender for the Travers.

When Preakness-Jim Dandy winner Bernardini meets Haskell winner Bluegrass Cat in the $1 million Travers stakes at Saratoga on Saturday the winner may pull even, if not ahead, of Barbaro for the 3-year-old championship.

While Barbaro remains in the public eye as he rallies from his shattered right hind leg and the deadly hoof disease laminitis, his place atop the leader board does not rest on sympathy. Barbaro was a racehorse first - an undefeated one at that - until his injury. Along with many observers, I thought Barbaro won the Derby with more untapped power than any Classic winner since Point Given won the 2001 Belmont Stakes as if he could have gone around the track again.

Bernardini may have won the 2006 Preakness Stakes by seven widening lengths with a Beyer Speed Figure that measured a point faster than Barbaro's Kentucky Derby, but Bernardini's performance did not satisfy after Barbaro was pulled up lame 100 yards from the starting gate.

With cautious handling, the lightly raced Bernardini was kept out of the Belmont Stakes before he returned to run rings around immature rivals in the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga on July 29. Again he earned a big number and this time people who make it their business to evaluate such things began to think that he just might be a deserving Eclipse Award winner. Yet Bernardini is not the only good 3-year-old still in the hunt.

Bluegrass Cat, who had finished a futile second in Barbaro's Kentucky Derby romp and a very good second to Jazil in the Belmont, took still another leap forward in his development with a strong winning performance over modest rivals in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on Aug. 6.

"It was a breakthrough performance," said trainer Todd Pletcher. "He's been a good horse, but we think he's maturing now. He just might turn out to be the best 3-year-old we've ever had."

For all his many millions in purse earnings and two Eclipse Awards as the nation's top trainer, Pletcher never has won a Triple Crown race or trained a 3-year-old champion. But no one should take his estimation of Bluegrass Cat lightly.

A son of Storm Cat out of an A.P. Indy mare, Bluegrass Cat has the bloodlines of a horse meant to contest high-caliber races at Classic distances. Should he take another forward step in the 10-furlong Travers, Bluegrass Cat will test Bernardini for the first time since trainer Tom Albertrani stretched Bernardini out to a mile in his second career start.

That is why this Travers is so intriguing. Even without Jazil or Barbaro, or many of the best horses who made it into a Triple Crown race this year, the matchup between Bluegrass Cat and Bernardini is not only good box office, it is a pivotal race for both horses, if not the entire 3-year-old crop of 2006.

Barbaro never will race again, but no one who has seen Bernardini and Bluegrass Cat perform this summer should have any trouble believing that the 2006 Travers could be a natural stepping-stone for a victory by one of these two 3-year-olds in the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4. Both Bernardini and Bluegrass Cat have given hints that they may be that good.

The supporting cast in the Travers is expected to include two nominees trained by John Ward: Dr. Pleasure, who finished fourth in the Jim Dandy, and Minister's Bid, who was second in the Jim Dandy, plus Hesanoldsalt, a recent allowance winner over the track for Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito.

In addition to Bluegrass Cat, Pletcher intends to start High Cotton, who won the Sir Barton on the Preakness undercard and finished a close second in the Ohio Derby at Thistledown.

While all of the above have respectable form in graded stakes, they will need major improvement to crack the Bluegrass Cat-Bernardini exacta.

On the Travers Day card, there will be three additional stakes, including the traditional King's Bishop for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs. The horse to beat in this Grade 1, $250,000 sprint is Henny Hughes, who was a game second to Stevie Wonderboy in the 1 1/16-mile Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall and returned to win his only start this year by 10 lengths in the Grade 3 Jersey Shore BC at Monmouth on July 1.

Competition may come from the Tom Albertrani-trained Songster.

The other stakes on the card are the $200,000 Balston Spa BC for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on the turf and the $200,000 Bernard Baruch at nine furlongs on the turf for 3-year-olds and upward.