07/26/2006 11:00PM

Jim Dandy first target in Bernardini's title hunt

Bernardini starts in Saturday's $500,000 Jim Dandy at Saratoga.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - For Bernardini, Saturday's $500,000 isn't merely a prep for next month's $1 million Travers Stakes. It's more important than that.

If Bernardini, the Preakness winner, is going to have a chance to unseat the popular but injured Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro from his perch atop the 3-year-old division, he is virtually going to have to run the table in the second half of the year.

"That's definitely a major goal for us," said Tom Albertrani, trainer of Bernardini. "We know it's not going to be easy. If this horse were to win the Jim Dandy, Travers, and goes on and is able to beat the older horses, we're hoping that there may be some consideration he could get the top 3-year-old or even Horse of the Year."

Though Bernardini has not run since his authoritative victory in the Preakness, the typically mild-mannered Albertrani is supremely confident entering the Grade 2 Jim Dandy, run at 1 1/8 miles. His opposition includes just one other stakes winner, Sunriver, who won the Peter Pan at Belmont in May.

Also running are Minister's Bid and Dr. Pleasure, a coupled entry from the John Ward barn; Hemingway's Key, third in the Preakness; and Oh So Awesome, fifth in the Belmont.

"I don't think I'm going to be fearing anybody, myself," Albertrani said. "I think we got the horse to beat in here."

Bernardini brings a three-race winning streak into the Jim Dandy. After winning a maiden race by 7 3/4 lengths on March 4 at Gulfstream, he won the Grade 3 Withers on April 29 at Aqueduct.

In the Preakness, Bernardini made a monster move around the turn to pass the leaders and drew clear to win by 5 1/4 lengths in a performance that was as electrifying as Barbaro's Kentucky Derby win two weeks earlier. Barbaro ran in the Preakness, but broke his right hind leg a furlong into the race.

Bernardini skipped the Belmont with the second half of the season in mind. He was given a few weeks of light training, but his last two workouts have him razor-sharp entering this race

"He's on ready," Albertrani said. "I think even after the Jim Dandy he's going to improve and be even sharper for the next race."

There doesn't appear to be much speed in the Jim Dandy. Minister's Bid, who has won both of his starts smartly, could be the pacesetter if he breaks well from his outside post.

"If there is no pace at all we will be on the lead," Ward said.

Ward has worked with Minister's Bid to overcome poor gate habits he has exhibited in his first two starts.

"We've been standing him up here and will stand him a little bit more," Ward said. "He'll grow through that. Going a mile and an eighth, you can give up a little bit at the break. By the time the Travers rolls around, he'll be a perfect gentleman."

Dr. Pleasure won his debut at Saratoga last fall but has gone winless in five starts since.

Todd Pletcher and John Velazquez have teamed up to win the last three runnings of the Jim Dandy. That included a 2003 victory by Strong Hope, who upset 3-10 favorite Empire Maker. They go for their fourth in a row with Sunriver.

Sunriver is coming off a third-place finish behind Jazil and Bluegrass Cat in the Belmont Stakes, where he flattened out a bit in the final furlong. Cutting back to 1 1/8 miles should be a plus.

"He was a touch closer to the pace than I would have liked him to have been," Pletcher said of the Belmont. "He got beat by two nice horses. He didn't disgrace himself. He ran a solid mile and a quarter, mile and three-eighths, and flattened out a touch from being too close to the pace."

Oh So Awesome and Hemingway's Key ran fifth and sixth in the Belmont, but have not yet run a race that makes them competitive with Bernardini.

The Jim Dandy shares billing with the Grade 1 Diana. Both races will be televised live on ESPN in a one-hour broadcast beginning at 5 p.m. Eastern.

The field

Jim Dandy
Purse: $500,000; 1 1/8 miles; Grade 2

1SunriverJ. Velazquez1213-1
2Oh So AwesomeK. Desormeaux11510-1
3BernardiniJ. Castellano1233-5
4aDr. PleasureG. Gomez1154-1
5Hemingway's KeyJ. Leparoux11515-1
6aMinister's BidE. Prado1154-1

* a-coupled
* Odds by Art Gropper
* Television: Saturday, 5-6 p.m. (Eastern), ESPN