08/23/2006 11:00PM

Midsummer measuring stick


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The grim prospect of a $6.20 exacta hangs over the 137th Travers Stakes like a looming visit to the dentist, unappealing but probably unavoidable. Bernardini is 3-5 to win it and Bluegrass Cat is about the same price to beat the rest, which would complete a personal trifecta of second-place finishes to this year's classic winners.

Even those who like to poke holes in short-priced favorites can't find much not to like about Bernardini. His Preakness, underappreciated amid the gloom of Barbaro's injury, was a gem, and he came back off a 10-week layoff to run an equally impressive Jim Dandy where he never extended himself. If anything, he figures to move forward off that effort, and if he does, someone will have to sprout pretty big wings to catch him.

The only knock on Bernardini is that he has never had to overcome adversity or look a good horse in the eye and put him away. He ran past hurt or tired horses in the Preakness and drowned mediocrities in the Withers and Jim Dandy. This is obviously not the horse's fault, but there's a difference between winning in splendid isolation and proving yourself against other good horses on their best days.

That's why it's worth rooting for the best of Bluegrass Cat to show up in the Travers, not so much to complete that $6.20 exacta as to provide a yardstick for the winners of this year's Triple Crown races. It won't be a perfect measurement, because Bluegrass Cat is a better horse now than he was in May and June, and he had a breakthrough performance winning the Haskell by seven lengths last time out. Still, if the Travers turns out as chalky in the flesh as it looks on paper, it will be interesting to see the margin between the two favorites, given that Bluegrass Cat was beaten 6 1/2 lengths by Barbaro in the Derby and 1 1/4 lengths by Jazil in the Belmont.

If there's a 3-5 shot worth taking a shot against on the Travers card, it might be Henny Hughes in the King's Bishop rather than Bernardini one race later. Henny Hughes was a very fast 2-year-old, won the Sanford over this track, and returned as a 3-year-old with a 10-length romp at Monmouth that earned a gaudy Beyer Speed Figure of 109 last month. The negatives: that was his only start in the last 10 months and came in a four-horse field; he breaks from post 2 in a field of 11 in the seven-furlong King's Bishop, meaning he's probably committed to the lead and can't make even a slight mistake at the start; and he is 4 for 4 up to six furlongs but 0 for 3 beyond.

Dragone's persona, tenure memorable

Allan Dragone, who died last Sunday at 80 after a long illness, was the chairman of the New York Racing Association from 1990 to 1996. It was a difficult time of transition for New York racing, during which Dragone worked tirelessly on behalf of a sport he embraced passionately.

Serving without compensation of any kind throughout his tenure, Dragone, the former chairman of Celanese, spent many a winter morning climbing aboard small aircraft and flying to Albany to plead racing's case with stubborn legislators. He found the process excruciating but kept at it on racing's behalf. He also was among the early adopters who realized that simulcasting and in-home wagering were vital to the game's future and brought NYRA, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the modern era in those areas.

He was a popular and accessible figure around the track, greeting almost everyone with an enthusiastic "Hey, doctor!" or "Hey, handsome!" whether or not they were particularly smart or good-looking. He owned and bred horses under the nom de course of December Hill Farm, winning stakes with good ones like Changing Ways and Pennine Ridge, but his favorite was the brilliant filly Danseuse, who made only two starts but beat Capote Belle in her debut.

He was once asked for a media-guide biography to name his most exciting personal moment in racing, and he responded, "It will occur when I win my first New York Grade 1 race." That never happened, but Dragone left an even more important legacy of accomplishments and friendships.