10/08/2006 11:00PM

Head-to-head fight for Horse of Year

Adam Coglianese
Bernardini (left) will have a great deal at stake in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

On a weekend when many hopes were realized and some were dashed, the most significant results came in preps for the Breeders' Cup Classic, with both Bernardini and Lava Man scoring runaway victories to remain on course for a showdown for Horse of the Year on Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs.

The $5 million Classic, the richest of the eight Breeders' Cup races that will be run at Churchill Downs, is shaping up as the race of the year. If Bernardini, Lava Man, and Invasor are all in the gate, as expected, both Horse of the Year and champion older horse will be decided. The Kentucky Derby, run at the same 1 1/4-mile distance at the same track, might be the "greatest two minutes in sports," but this year's Classic will be, for 2006, the sport's greatest two minutes.

Bernardini got a Beyer Speed Figure of 117 in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. With victories also in the Preakness, Jim Dandy, and Travers, he has likely wrested the 3-year-old title from Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, regardless of what happens in the Classic. But if Bernardini can close out the year - and, most likely, his career - with a victory in the Classic, he will be Horse of the Year, too.

In his last few starts, no rival has been able to keep up with Bernardini. Those digging for ammunition against him are reaching for this - what might happen if a horse can look Bernardini in the eye and engage him in a dogfight?

"The horse is so competitive that if someone looks him in the eye he'll dig down deeper and harder, from the way I've seen him train," said his trainer, Tom Albertrani. "When he's breezing, if he sees another horse in front of him, he gets a lot tougher."

Lava Man got a Beyer of 109 in the Goodwood BC Handicap at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting, equaling the figure he received in the Pacific Classic and Hollywood Gold Cup. He has won all seven of his starts this year.

"He needs to step up," his trainer, Doug O'Neill, said Monday morning. "On sheer numbers, which we use often to place our horses, he's slower as we speak to Bernardini and Invasor. He needs to run the race of his life, but I think there's more there, and he couldn't be doing any better."

Lava Man has run poorly the three previous times he has raced outside of California. O'Neill said he believes part of the reason for that inglorious record is that Lava Man has traveled just before those races. To try and remove that factor, Lava Man is being sent early to Kentucky. He was scheduled to leave Tuesday morning for Keeneland, where he will train for nearly three weeks until moving over to Churchill Downs the week of the Breeders' Cup. O'Neill said Lava Man has done so well on the synthetic Cushion Track surface at Hollywood Park that he wanted to train him on Keeneland's new Polytrack surface.

Brother Derek, who was second in the Goodwood, and Giacomo, who was third, are expected to run in the Classic.

Invasor skipped the Jockey Club Gold Cup after briefly taking ill nearly two weeks ago. He will train up to the Classic, and will be supplemented to the race, according to his trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin.

The unbeaten Discreet Cat, who most recently won the Jerome Handicap, will not run in the Classic unless something unforeseen befalls Bernardini. Both are owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, though under different stable names.

"If Bernardini runs, Discreet Cat will go in the Cigar Mile," Rick Mettee, who is the New York-based assistant to trainer Saeed bin Suroor, said Monday. "He will not run in the Sprint."

The BC Sprint will be headed by another Maktoum family-owned horse, Henny Hughes, who got a Beyer of 113 for winning the Vosburgh at Belmont.

His top challenger might have been Bordonaro, who got a 119 - the best number by any horse this year - when he won the Ancient Title at Santa Anita, but it is unlikely Bordonaro will be supplemented to the Sprint, trainer Bill Spawr said, citing both the cost and his belief that Bordonaro does best with more than four weeks between races. The De Francis Dash on Nov. 25 at Laurel is a tempting alternative, Spawr said.

Kelly's Landing, who got a 98 for winning the Phoenix at Keeneland, is headed to the Sprint, trainer Eddie Kenneally said.

Kelly's Landing was one of several longshot winners in Keeneland stakes. Turf specialist Asi Siempre switched to Polytrack and won an inscrutable Spinster Stakes, in which highly regarded BC Distaff contenders Happy Ticket and Spun Sugar were defeated. Asi Siempre got a 92 Beyer.

Form among Distaff contenders held up in Belmont Park's Beldame, which Fleet Indian won by a head over Balletto and earned a Beyer Figure of 104.

Fleet Indian was one of three stakes winners at Belmont on Saturday for trainer Todd Pletcher, who also won the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic with English Channel and the Flower Bowl with Honey Ryder.

The Hirsch is a prep for the BC Turf, in which English Channel finished fifth last year. He got a 107 for his victory Saturday.

Honey Ryder got a Beyer Figure of 103 in her tuneup for the BC Filly and Mare Turf, in which she will have a rematch with Film Maker, who lost the Flower Bowl by a nose.

Aragorn solidified his position as the best American-based prospect for the BC Mile with what trainer Neil Drysdale described as a "workmanlike performance" in the Oak Tree BC Mile, in which he received a Beyer of 99.

Aragorn "was just under a hand ride," according to jockey Corey Nakatani.

"You don't want to squeeze the lemon dry too soon," Nakatani said. "We were trying to get an easy win under his belt and make sure he was getting enough out of it at the same time."

Aussie Rules enhanced the reputation of the European contingent pointing for the BC Mile with his victory at Keeneland in the Shadwell Turf Mile, in which he got a Beyer Figure of 108. Remarkable News, who finished second in the Shadwell, will not be supplemented to the Breeders' Cup, trainer Angel Penna Jr. said.

The Del Mar Futurity proved to be a key race for everyone but the winner in two preps last weekend for the BC Juvenile. Great Hunter, who was second at Del Mar, was sent to Keeneland and defeated the previously unbeaten Circular Quay in the Breeders' Futurity. He got a Beyer Figure of 90.

Stormello, third at Del Mar, wore down a stubborn Principle Secret in the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita and got a 96 Beyer. Horse Greeley, the Del Mar Futurity winner, ran poorly in the Norfolk and came out of the race with his ankles jarred up, according to trainer Richard Mandella, who said Horse Greeley would not run in the Breeders' Cup.

The lone prep for the BC Juvenile Fillies was last Friday's Alcibiades Stakes at Keeneland, which the longshot Bel Air Beauty won with a Beyer Figure of 81.

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen, David Grening,

and Marty McGee