07/30/2006 11:00PM

Suddenly, ball's in Bernardini's court

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Bernardini, winning the Jim Dandy, could strengthen his case by beating older horses in the fall.

NEW YORK - Can victories in the Withers, Preakness, Jim Dandy, and Travers trump wins in the Tropical Park Derby, Holy Bull, Florida Derby, and Kentucky Derby in the battle for the 3-year-old male championship?

We are, of course, talking about the suddenly fascinating contest between Barbaro and Bernardini for the hearts and minds of those who vote for the Eclipse Awards. After Barbaro became the first horse in 50 years to win the Kentucky Derby without a final prep race within five weeks, displaying sensational early and late speed to win by the largest margin in 60 years, it was nearly impossible to envision any other horse as the champion 3-year-old colt or gelding of 2006. A lot of people were convinced that Barbaro had the best chance since Spectacular Bid to sweep the Triple Crown. Barbaro has remained in everyone's thoughts as he valiantly attempts to fight through the gruesome fractures he sustained in the Preakness, and the subsequent infection and laminitis.

Then along came Bernardini. Bernardini was largely overlooked in the Preakness, off at 12-1 to Barbaro's odds of 1-2. But after Barbaro broke down, Bernardini stepped up with a score that was impressive both visually and timewise, though it was in a Preakness that disintegrated for more reasons than just the severe injuries sustained by Barbaro. But Bernardini returned in Saturday's Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga and delivered a performance that was just as impressive as his Preakness win, and noteworthy for the ease with which he dominated the race.

Even though the Travers won't be run until three weeks from Saturday, considering the way Bernardini ran in the , and given the current landscape of the 3-year-old division, a win by Bernardini is just about a foregone conclusion. He won the Jim Dandy by nine lengths without so much as drawing a deep breath, and did so after leading all the way. He showed admirable versatility after employing an off-the-pace move in the Preakness.

As for the rest of the division, Bluegrass Cat and Strong Contender, who are scheduled to meet this Sunday in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, are nice colts, as good as any of the 3-year-olds who are active. But they don't appear capable of seriously challenging in a situation where Bernardini brings anything close to his best.

This unusual championship battle between Bernardini, who looks like he's going to storm through the summer 3-year-old stakes, and Barbaro, who won't ever race again and is simply trying to stay alive, will be rendered moot if Bernardini beats older opponents this fall, or even runs well against them in defeat, in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders' Cup Classic. But that is when things will get most interesting.

It is one thing for Bernardini to romp in a Preakness that falls apart, or to dominate modest opposition over a sloppy track in the Jim Dandy, or master a handful of opponents in the Travers, as everyone will expect him to do. It will be something else entirely, however, when Bernardini faces older opponents such as Flower Alley, Lava Man, Invasor, and Commentator. If Bernardini can meet that challenge, then hats off to him. It would mean that we had two freakish colts in the same 3-year-old crop. If he can't meet the challenge, then the 3-year-old championship will come down to this: Which do you think is better, wins in the Kentucky Derby, Florida Derby, Holy Bull, and Tropical Park Derby, or wins in the Travers, Jim Dandy, Preakness, and Withers?

And in the older female race ...

Sheikh Mohammed, trainer Tom Albertrani, and jockey Javier Castellano are the team behind Bernardini, and they came close to another major win at Saratoga on Sunday, when Balletto lost by a bob of the head to Spun Sugar in the Go for Wand Handicap.

On paper, this was a tremendous renewal of the Go for Wand, but it was a touch unsatisfying in the running. That is because Take D' Tour, who won the Shuvee and Ogden Phipps handicaps in her last two starts in common gallops, was surprisingly meek going two turns and finished a well-beaten fourth. And Oonagh Maccool, who impressed in her wins in the Rampart and Louisville Breeders' Cup handicaps and in her narrow loss to Happy Ticket in the Fleur de Lis, clearly did not run anything close to her race, finishing sixth and last.

But that shouldn't take away from the way Spun Sugar and Balletto performed. Both clearly appreciated the stretch back out to two turns after subpar performances last time out around one turn in the Phipps Handicap. And in Spun Sugar's case in particular, her photo-finish win Sunday, combined with her neck win over Happy Ticket in the Apple Blossom Handicap three starts back, gives her two Grade 1 wins from her last two starts around two turns. And that puts Spun Sugar in a viable position to bid for the older female Eclipse Award.