08/03/2006 11:00PM

Looking to fill slots at the top

Bluegrass Cat owns second-place finishes in the Derby and Belmont, but has not won a race since the Sam F. Davis at Tampa in February.

OCEANPORT, N.J. - Preakness winner Bernardini asserted his leadership role in the 3-year-old division with an authoritative win in the Jim Dandy Stakes. But with Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro retired and Belmont Stakes winner Jazil sidelined with a bruised cannon bone, the ranks are still thin.

Behind Bernardini is a gap that could close with a victory Sunday in the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

The Haskell tops a 14-race card on the biggest day in New Jersey racing. Gates open at 10 a.m., with first post at 12 p.m. A crowd of 40,000 is expected.

The Haskell is one of eight stakes on the day, and anchors an ESPN telecast from 5-6 p.m. that also includes Monmouth's Matchmaker Stakes and the West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Racetrack.

Monmouth will offer two guaranteed pools: $200,000 for an all-stakes pick four on races 9-12, ending with the Haskell, and $10,000 for the Choose 6.

The 1 1/8-mile Haskell drew a field of nine, and it is being run for the first time under weight-allowance conditions. The Haskell had been a handicap since its inception as the Monmouth Invitational in 1968. All runners this year carry 118 pounds.

Only eight are expected to run, as Flashy Bull, also entered in the West Virginia Derby, was heading to Mountaineer, according to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.

The Haskell field includes Ohio Derby winner Deputy Glitters; Praying for Cash, winner of the Long Branch Stakes, Monmouth's Haskell prep; Electrify, winner of Calder's Unbridled Stakes; Awfully Smart, winner of the Leonard Richards Stakes; Little Cliff, third as the favorite in the Leonard Richards; and Victory Lake, third in the Long Branch.

Bluegrass Cat, the 2-1 morning-line favorite, holds a substantial class edge after running second in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, and trainer Todd Pletcher sees no evidence of Triple Crown fatigue.

"I think he looks the best he's looked all year right now," Pletcher said. "He's had a really good period since the Belmont. I'm very, very pleased with the way he's trained. He actually gained weight through his campaign and has handled it very well."

John Velazquez will ride Bluegrass Cat from the outside post.

"He's got tactical speed and should get a good tactical position," said Pletcher, who is 6 for 16 in Monmouth stakes this meet. His winners include Flower Alley in the Grade 3 Salvator Mile and English Channel in the Grade 1 United Nations Stakes.

The major failing for Bluegrass Cat is the long gap since his last win, the

Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 18. Every Haskell entrant, with the exception of Flashy Bull, has posted a victory since then.

Strong Contender, the 5-2 second choice, is a late-developing colt for trainer John Ward. He scored his first stakes victory in the Grade 2 Dwyer at Belmont on July 4.

"Since we didn't go in any of the Triple Crown races, we've been able to pick our spots," Ward said. "I think this horse is coming up to this race just about as good as we can get him there. He's just going to have to show us, just as everybody else, whether he's got the talent to compete in Grade 1 company or if he's just a notch below."

Edgar Prado will ride.

was eighth in the Kentucky Derby and 11th in the Belmont. He bounced back in the Ohio Derby with a hard-fought win by a neck over High Cotton.

"After the Belmont, he came back firing," said trainer Tom Albertrani. "He trained well leading up to the Ohio Derby and was able to put in a huge effort that day."

Deputy Glitters owns a win over Bluegrass Cat in the Tampa Bay Derby.

"He certainly put in a huge effort that day to beat Bluegrass Cat," said Albertrani. Rene Douglas will ride.

Praying for Cash will have a strong local rooting section. He is trained by Kelly Breen and ridden by Joe Bravo, the leading trainer and rider at the meet.

The field

Haskell Invitational
Purse: $1 million; 1 1/8 miles; Grade 1

1Flashy BullJ. Santos5-1
2Awfully SmartR. Dominguez10-1
3Strong ContenderE. Prado5-2
4Little CliffJ. Lezcano J20-1
5Praying for CashJ. Bravo8-1
6Victory LakeE. Castro30-1
7Deputy GlittersR. Douglas4-1
8ElectrifyA. Castellano Jr.10-1
9Bluegrass CatJ. Velazquez2-1

* Track odds
* All starters carry 118 pounds
* Blinkers off: Little Cliff
* Television: Sunday, 5-6 p.m. (Eastern), ESPN