08/27/2006 11:00PM

A colt on top of his world

Led by Sheikh Rashid al Maktoum and with Javier Castellano up, Bernardini returns victorious.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - At the sixteenth pole of Saturday's $1 million , with a victory aboard Bernardini secure, jockey Javier Castellano began pointing to his colt and gave him several pats on his neck.

"I wanted all the people to recognize that he's a special horse and he's the best 3-year-old right now in the country," Castellano said.

Few could argue that point now. By most people's account, Bernardini's 7 1/2-length Travers win coupled with his dominant victories in the Preakness and Jim Dandy, have catapulted him past Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro for championship honors in the 3-year-old division. Barbaro, after his authoritative Kentucky Derby win, broke his hind right leg in the Preakness and has gained national acclaim for staging a gallant fight for survival from that catastrophic injury and also laminitis, the potentially fatal hoof disease he has contracted in his left hind foot.

"We know how special a horse Barbaro was, but this certainly showed to us after yesterday how great Bernardini is as well," Tom Albertrani, the trainer of Bernardini, said Sunday morning. "With all of his performances, he always wins by daylight, and I think you have to give him a lot of consideration."

"Bernardini is the 3-year-old champ to me," said Kiaran McLaughlin, the trainer of Belmont Stakes winner Jazil. "That's my opinion, everybody has one. I have a lot of respect for Barbaro. He's done it on both surfaces, dirt and turf. But this horse is just awesome. He has a presence about him. He's just a very, very special horse."

Albertrani said that Bernardini was so fresh after the Travers that he needed two handlers to take him back to his barn after visiting the postrace test barn. Bernardini earned a 116 Beyer Speed Figure for the Travers, equaling the highest number assigned to any horse this year.

Bernardini will try to launch a bid for Horse of the Year when he meets older horses next in the Grade 1, $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park on Oct. 7. Among the horses he figures to meet is Invasor, the Uruguayan champion who has won the Pimlico Special, Suburban, and Whitney handicaps in three North American starts this year.

"I'm glad we got this race, and I'm looking forward to taking on a new challenge," said Albertrani, who planned to ship Bernardini back to Belmont Park on Tuesday. "I always think the older horses have an advantage just because they're more mature, but this horse, he's maturing himself with every race. He just seems like he's getting better and better every time he runs. I think he stacks up pretty well with the older horses."

McLaughlin, the trainer of Invasor and a good friend of Albertrani's, said he has plenty of respect for Bernardini, but believes his horse will be the toughest foe Bernardini has faced.

"It'll be a great horse race provided we get there in good shape and he gets there in good shape," McLaughlin said. "I think it'll be a little closer than what we've seen the last couple of races [Bernardini's] had."

Opinions were mixed on the backstretch on how a Bernardini-Invasor matchup may play out. Trainer John Ward, whose horses Dr. Pleasure and Minister's Bid were crushed by Bernardini in the Jim Dandy and Travers, gives the edge to Invasor because Bernardini has had things too easy.

"I would feel he is vulnerable only because of a lack of hardened stretch-drive experience, not on ability," Ward said.

Nick Zito, whose Sun King came within a nose of Invasor in the Whitney, believes Bernardini is the superior animal.

"It's hard to top what Invasor has done, but he is not the horse Bernardini is," Zito said. "Bernardini could beat Invasor five furlongs, six furlongs, a mile and a half, two miles, two and a half miles. He could beat him any day of the week."

The 3-year-old division did lose a major player as the Haskell winner and Travers runner-up Bluegrass Cat suffered a fractured right hind ankle and was retired.

McLaughlin said that Jazil - sidelined since the Belmont Stakes because of bruising in a hind cannon bone - was scheduled to return to his Belmont Park base next weekend with the goal of training toward a fall campaign that may include the Breeders' Cup Classic. He has spent the last six weeks on owner Sheikh Hamdan's Shadwell Farm in Lexington, Ky.

"He will tell us when he's ready, how we're going to get there and where we're going to go," McLaughlin said. "If we make the Breeders' Cup Classic, we make it, and it might set up well for a closer. We're not going to force the issue. If he doesn't get there, then we'll have to have an alternate plan."