08/23/2006 12:00AM

The star in Bluegrass Cat breaks through

Bluegrass Cat, working at Saratoga on Wednesday, heads into the Travers off a seven-length win in the Haskell.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - As well as Bluegrass Cat was running last year, when he won three straight races, including two stakes, jockey John Velazquez felt the horse still had more to give.

"I always said he ran really good races, but not to his full potential," Velazquez said Wednesday morning. "I thought all the time if he ever gets to put everything together he'd be a really good horse."

Bluegrass Cat had a decent spring in which he won the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay and finished second in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, but it was not until the colt's last race that Velazquez felt Bluegrass Cat reached his potential. In the $1 million Haskell Invitational, Bluegrass Cat rolled to a stakes-record seven-length victory at Monmouth Park. That performance has some thinking Bluegrass Cat may able to derail Preakness and Jim Dandy winner Bernardini in Saturday's $1 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga.

"Every time he'd pass a horse he'd open up a half a length and he never really drew away from anything," Velazquez said. "He'd put the ears up and he'd start waiting. The other day I just shook him up and he just went, no waiting, no messing around. That's the type of thing I was looking for from him, and obviously he got it done. So, hopefully, he can come back and do the same thing."

"He's a horse that's run very well all year, but to us and to everyone else that was kind of a breakthrough performance to the next level that we were hoping for," trainer Todd Pletcher said of the Haskell.

It was this time last year that Pletcher was using the same phraseology to describe Flower Alley, who had his breakthrough performance in the Jim Dandy. He came back four weeks later to give Pletcher his first victory in the Travers.

There's the rub. Flower Alley had four weeks between races; Bluegrass Cat will only have 20 days. In 2003 and 2004, Pletcher attempted to win the Travers with horses who were coming off breakthrough performances in the Jim Dandy when that race was three weeks ahead of the Travers. But neither Strong Hope nor Purge won the Travers.

Pletcher said he believes that Strong Hope was compromised by a hot pace scenario, which set the Travers up for Ten Most Wanted. He believes Purge was compromised by the short time between races and perhaps an inability to run 1 1/4 miles.

In the initial days following this year's Haskell, Pletcher expressed some concern about running Bluegrass Cat back in 20 days. But in the week leading up to the Travers, he has seen everything he wants to see from Bluegrass Cat.

"From an energy standpoint, he gives me the impression that he's the kind of horse that's going to handle it," Pletcher said. "He bounced out of the race really well, he didn't lose any weight, his energy level's been good, he's galloping enthusiastic, he's coming off the track bucking and squealing.

"But now we have to run against Bernardini, who's had four weeks and what appeared to be a very easy race, and he's a very good horse," Pletcher said. "We're at a bit of a disadvantage that way. Some horses, a good effort moves them forward; some horses, it moves them back. [Bluegrass Cat] gives me the impression that he's one of those horses that's getting ready to move forward."

The only time that Bluegrass Cat has run back on three weeks rest was when he finished second in the Kentucky Derby. However, he was coming off a dull effort in the Bluegrass Stakes where he finished a well-beaten fourth. Pletcher said Bluegrass Cat was very quiet in the paddock that day, which may have been a tip-off he was not going to run well.

Pletcher said Bluegrass Cat got a bit hot in the Derby, Belmont and Haskell, and he hopes to see some of that in the paddock on Saturday from the son of Storm Cat, known to have passed on his hot-blooded traits to his progeny.

"I think he's a horse, when he's on his 'A' game, the Storm Cat comes out in him," said Pletcher. "He gets fired up and he's ready to go."

Velazquez said he believes Bluegrass Cat's 'A' game could be good enough to upset Bernardini.

"I think if he comes back and puts the race that he can put in, he'd be dangerous," said Velazquez. "Really, really dangerous."