11/02/2006 1:00AM

Much star power, with one brightest


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - With the three leading candidates for Horse of the Year, the two top contenders for champion older horse, a pair of outstanding European imports, and a Kentucky Derby winner, this year's $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday at Churchill Downs ranks as one of the best Classics ever, alongside those of 1998 and 2004.

In 2004 at Lone Star Park, the brilliant Ghostzapper ran away from a field that included Roses in May, Pleasantly Perfect, Perfect Drift, Azeri, Birdstone, and Funny Cide. In 1998 here at Churchill Downs, Awesome Again ran down Silver Charm, European import Swain, Victory Gallop, Skip Away, and Touch Gold.

This year's race will provide either a coronation, as with Ghostzapper, or a cavalry charge, like the one Awesome Again won. It all depends on Bernardini.

Bernardini has won six straight races, including the Preakness, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup, to emerge as the best 3-year-old in the land, and the front-runner for Horse of the Year. He has run Beyer Speed Figures of 113 or better in his last four races. If he continues the improving pattern he has had all year, his 12 rivals might be running for second.

But Bernardini will be making his first start at Churchill Downs. He has more opponents than in any of his races; he faced five or fewer rivals in four of his last five races. He is breaking from post 3, so he likely will need to leave alertly to avoid getting bounced around the first part of the 1 1/4-mile race.

Most bettors are expected to wager that he can do it, and sail off to stud with a glorious final act. But with the Classic anchoring a pick six pool guaranteed to be worth $3 million, and with the prices on several talented horses inflated because of the presence of Bernardini, those who take the position that Bernardini is vulnerable, and turn out right, would be handsomely rewarded.

Bernardini has had soft trips against suspect competition in several recent races, but he showed his ability to rally in the Preakness. That gives options to jockey Javier Castellano, who also rode Ghostzapper.

Tom Albertrani, who trains Bernardini, is anxiously awaiting Saturday.

"It's hard to wait all day," he said. "I just want to watch him run, and hopefully he comes through and delivers."

Invasor and Lava Man are considered Bernardini's primary challengers. Lava Man has a similar front-running style, and he is a bulldog to get past.

"People have asked me what will happen when someone looks Bernardini in the eye. No one's been able to give him that challenge yet," Albertrani said. "If Bernardini runs back to what he's been doing, I think he's the horse to beat. Lava Man certainly has the credentials. We haven't faced a horse like him. Hopefully our horse shows up."

Lava Man has won all seven of his starts this year, all in California. He is winless in three starts outside his home state, but he has trained sharply all week here.

"One thing with our horse, even if his numbers are on the slow side, he wants to beat you," said Doug O'Neill, who trains Lava Man. "We're excited, but we know we're facing a beast. Bernardini wins his races pulling away from the field without being asked. Those horses come around very rarely."

Invasor, a South American import, is unbeaten in three starts since arriving in the United States. But because he has not raced since nosing out Sun King in the Whitney on Aug. 5 - and missed a showdown with Bernardini in the Jockey Club Gold Cup with a minor illness - he has been overlooked leading up to the Classic.

"He's doing fabulous. Never better," said his trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin. "Maybe missing the Gold Cup was a blessing. He's put weight on, he's training unbelievable. He's come on so much the last 90 days. Usually as a trainer you start to leak confidence getting closer to a race. You start inventing invisible issues. But I'm gaining confidence as we get closer."

David Junior and George Washington are top-class European runners trying dirt for the first time. How they will react to the spray of dirt is a big question.

"I haven't done any training with him on dirt. I don't believe it does any good," said Brian Meehan, David Junior's trainer.

Giacomo is returning to the scene of his 2005 Kentucky Derby triumph for his final career start. A hot pace would help his chances.

Brother Derek, fourth in this year's Derby, has trained strongly since a second-place finish to Lava Man in the Goodwood Handicap.

"He's right back to the way he was in March and April," said his trainer, Dan Hendricks, who said Brother Derek's rail post will force him to go for the lead.

Lawyer Ron also should be a pace factor, what with Patrick Valenzuela taking over as his rider in his first start for trainer Todd Pletcher.

Perfect Drift will be making his fifth straight start in the Classic. He and Suave have both run well at Churchill over the years. Premium Tap upset Sun King in the Woodward Stakes. Flower Alley, second in this race last year, is off form.