11/02/2006 1:00AM

Cream of the crop all on one card


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The Breeders' Cup was designed to formalize the process of determining champions, and it has worked gloriously since its inception in 1984. Regional biases are muted, since there is the opportunity for the best in the world to meet on one day, at one site. This year's $5 million Classic best exemplifies the importance of the Breeders' Cup.

Before 1984, Bernardini would have completed his year with the Jockey Club Gold Cup in New York. Invasor, having missed the Gold Cup, would be resting for a 2007 campaign. Lava Man likely would have remained in California, where he reigns supreme. With the Breeders' Cup, they are forced to converge on Saturday on neutral ground at Churchill Downs, in a showdown for Horse of the Year.

Eclipse Awards in numerous divisions, both horse and human, will be on the line, starting in the first two Breeders' Cup races of the day, the $2 million Juvenile Fillies and the $2 million Juvenile, which have every leading contender for a year-end championship. The winner of the $2 million Filly and Mare Turf should walk away with an Eclipse Award, as should the winner of the $2 million Sprint.

If one of the nation's best older fillies or mares makes off with the $2 million Distaff, she will take down a championship. The $2 million Mile and $3 million Turf will determine the male grass title. And at the end of the day, Horse of the Year will be decided.

"It would just be a fantastic year if we can get that accomplished," said Tom Albertrani, the trainer of Bernardini.

Todd Pletcher has a record 17 horses entered in the Breeders' Cup. He has set a record for purse earnings this year, and likely already has secured his third straight Eclipse Award, regardless of how he does Saturday. But Pletcher has excellent chances in several races, and has three runners in the Juvenile, Filly and Mare Turf, Distaff, and Turf.

Garrett Gomez leads the nation's jockeys in purse earnings, and he can wrap up his first Eclipse Award with a multi-win day. But Victor Espinoza, Corey Nakatani, Edgar Prado, or John Velazquez could help swing votes their way if they turn out to be the day's riding star.

Bernardini got his first feel for the Churchill Downs main track on Thursday morning after arriving Wednesday from New York. With Albertrani on a pony accompanying Bernardini, he jogged on the sloppy track, galloped, then visited the starting gate for a schooling session.

"He was perfect," Albertrani said. "Just going through the motions."

Invasor also went to the track for the first time after arriving Wednesday from New York, but George Washington and the rest of trainer Aidan O'Brien's horses, who arrived late Tuesday from Ireland, remained in the quarantine barn because O'Brien chose not go to the track, even though they had cleared United States Department of Agriculture quarantine requirements. They were expected to train Friday.

Most horses had routine training sessions so close to race day. Two horses - Street Sense in the Juvenile, and Satulagi in the Juvenile Fillies - worked a half-mile in 50.80 seconds on the main track, though Satulagi worked from the gate. Ouija Board was given a time of 44 seconds for a three-furlong breeze on the grass in preparation for the Filly and Mare Turf.

The track looked like lumpy chocolate oatmeal before the renovation break, but it dried noticeably later in the morning after temperatures rose above freezing, and it was upgraded to good. The Weather Channel forecast was for cold, though dry, conditions through Saturday, with a high on Saturday of 53 degrees. The track should be fast on Saturday.

The turf course took plenty of water when it rained earlier in the week, and then Churchill Downs amazingly allowed two grass races on it Wednesday, which predictably tore up the middle of the softened course. Grass races scheduled for Thursday were prudently moved to the main track. This course likely will be labeled firm by Churchill on Saturday, though it might actually be closer to good.

This is the record sixth time the Breeders' Cup will be run at Churchill Downs, which holds the Breeders' Cup attendance record of 80,452, set in 1998. Since then, Churchill Downs has undergone an extensive $121 million renovation, which has yielded near-record crowds for the Kentucky Derby.

The Breeders' Cup comprises the final eight races on a 10-race card that begins at 11:15 a.m. Eastern time. The first Breeders' Cup race, the Juvenile Fillies, is scheduled for 12:30 p.m., with the Classic at 5:20 p.m.

There is a $3 million guaranteed pool in the pick six, which begins with the Filly and Mare Turf and concludes with the Classic.

After a 22-year run by NBC, the Breeders' Cup will be televised for the first time by ESPN, beginning at noon Eastern. Chris Fowler will host the show, and Trevor Denman will call the races.