11/02/2006 1:00AM

A win away from greatness

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The sun was just beginning to make its feeble way over the distant horizon Thursday morning, as Bernardini emerged from the stakes barn to take his first steps over the Churchill Downs main track.

By the ruthless clock that dictates 3-year-old behaviors, Bernardini was six months late. He should have been here last May, when the class of 2006 convened for the Kentucky Derby, mixing it up with Barbaro, Bluegrass Cat, Brother Derek, and the others. But he wasn't, which is probably why he has made it this far, favored over his elders to win the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic over the Derby's course and distance Saturday.

While the Derby is America's most famous race, the Classic is the richest, as well as the toughest to win. Easy Goer lost the Classic. So did Slew o' Gold, Precisionist, Bertrando, Best Pal, Medaglia d'Oro, Giant's Causeway, Roses in May, and Lemon Drop Kid - all of them good enough to beat you senseless on any given day. Except that day.

That's why Bernardini needs one more turn before sainthood is bestowed. Let him unspool one more of those effortless, high-speed gallops that have passed for major competitive races. If the game is really as easy as he makes it look, let him do it one more time, this time in front of a worldwide audience, surrounded by an accomplished opposition full of battle-tested veterans.

Preceded by reputation, accompanied on the pony by trainer Tom Albertrani, Bernardini made his way calmly to the track a bit past 7 a.m. The surface was muddy and pock-marked, but it posed no difficulty, as Bernardini backtracked to the front side and then commenced a lazy jog, neck bowed and loving it. Admirers gathered all along the backstretch fence, while trainers moaned in Albertrani envy.

"Oooff," grunted the normally articulate John Shirreffs, trainer of Classic hopeful Giacomo, when asked to describe his first Bernardini sighting. It was a sound someone might make upon seeing a Ferrari Scaglietti or the Grand Canyon. Pressed, he was asked what "oooff" meant in terms of conformation, presence, and stride.

"I'd just have to say 'oooff' pretty much covers anything you'd want to say about him," Shirreffs said.

Doug O'Neill, hardly shy about his multimillionaire Lava Man, tried hard but failed to hold a poker face after Bernardini glided by, clipping the mud lightly with his long dancer's legs.

"Whew, what a horse," said O'Neill, who arrived in town the night before. "Going by with his neck bowed, he looked like the Loch Ness monster."

Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains the Uruguayan import Invasor, has seen plenty of Bernardini all season long in New York. He has been suitably impressed, but he is also an experienced skeptic whose faith in his own horse is unshakable, especially after victories in the Pimlico Special, the Suburban, and the Whitney.

"After Invasor won the Pimlico Special," McLaughlin said, "I sent his former owner a sign that said, 'From Uruguay's Horse of the Year to America's Horse of the Year.' I was only kidding at the time, but now here we are, just one step away.

"My horse is feeling better than he has all year, he's looking better, and he's training better," McLaughlin said. "But this is a better field than he's seen all year, and Bernardini's in the same position. This is no four-horse race."

The reference, clearly, was to the lack of competition mustered against Bernardini in events like the Withers, the Jim Dandy, the Travers, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Still, there is a point at which the opposition becomes moot, and judgments are made based on the great ones of the past.

"He wins his races like his sire did," said Gary Mandella, who is safely out of Bernardini's way, running Silent Name in the Breeders' Cup Mile. "I mean, when A.P. Indy won the Classic, I don't think Delahoussaye even used his whip."

Good memory. It's not supposed to be that easy, but A.P. Indy did, in fact, win the 1992 Breeders' Cup Classic under a hand ride, just as his son has dismissed opposition while barely breaking a sweat.

"He's right there with the best I've ever seen," said John Ferguson, a top advisor to Sheikh Mohammed, Bernardini's owner. Ferguson was asked to name some of the others.

"Dubai Millennium, of course," he said, referring to Sheikh Mohammed's breathtaking winner of the 2000 Dubai World Cup. "And Shergar - I got on him as a 2-year-old while working for Michael Stoute. I also worked in California for a year. While I was there I was really impressed with Precisionist."

There is something of all those horses in Bernardini - the devouring stride of Shergar, the high cruising speed of Precisionist, the dramatic flair of Dubai Millennium. As a potential stallion of great price, there is also little doubt this will be the last chance to watch Bernardini in action.

By now that is to be expected. But at least - after the disappointments of losing Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, and Barbaro - the Breeders' Cup Classic can boast a 3-year-old with sterling Horse of the Year credentials, facing older horses like Invasor and Lava Man. If Bernardini can handle them, there can be only one reaction.

Oooff.