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Bernardini romps past Bluegrass Cat in Travers

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Javier Castellano raised his right index finger to the sky, then patted Bernardini on the side for a job well done.

The fact that horse and rider were still a sixteenth of a mile from the finish line in Saturday's Travers Stakes didn't matter. That's how brilliant Bernardini was in romping to his fifth straight victory in what is looking more and more like a championship season.

"I was just praying he would show up as the phenomenal horse I know him to be -- and he did," trainer Tom Albertrani said. "He's just getting sharper every race. It's pretty scary."

An imposing 3-year-old son of 1992 Horse of Year A.P. Indy, Bernardini easily turned back the challenge of Bluegrass Cat around the final turn.

With a slight left-handed tap of Castellano's whip, Bernardini turned on the afterburners and rolled to a 7½-length win over the Haskell winner who was supposed to be the colt's biggest challenger. The winning margin was the largest since General Assembly won the 1979 Travers.

Now, racing has its newest star in Bernardini, who won the Preakness by 5¼ lengths on May 20 -- a race remembered more for Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro breaking down at the start -- and came back 10 weeks later with a nine-length win in the Jim Dandy Stakes.

"This horse is a special horse," Castellano said. "When he won the Preakness, it was sad. We couldn't enjoy that moment because of Barbaro. But today, people are starting to recognize what kind of a horse he is."

Bernardini's dazzling encore after his Preakness and Jim Dandy wins had the crowd of 40,785 at Saratoga Race Course cheering him all the way around the track.

When Castellano led him back to the winner's circle, the crowd applauded as Sheik Rashid -- son of Dubai's Sheik Mohammed, who owns Bernardini -- and his entourage congratulated everyone in the vicinity.

It was a big day for Sheik Mohammed's racing operation. In addition to winning the Travers, there were victories in the $250,000 King's Bishop with 3-year-old Henny Hughes and in the $200,000 Bernard Baruch Handicap with Ashkal Way. Also, Sheik Mohammed's Darley Stable sent out 2-year-old colt Incriminate to win a maiden race.

But this was a day to celebrate a dominating Travers triumph.

When Bluegrass Cat moved within a half-length of Bernardini around the turn, Castellano asked for a little more. And as the colt took off down the stretch, Castellano raised a finger and gave Bernardini a pat -- something usually seen after crossing the finish line.

"I wanted to tell the people to recognize that he is a special horse," Castellano said. "He is the best 3-year-old in the country right now."

Bernardini, in winning his fifth straight race after a career-opening defeat in January, not only confirmed his status as the leading 3-year-old, but becomes a serious contender for Horse of the Year. His five wins have been by a combined 33¼ lengths.

Next up for Bernardini is the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont on Oct. 7, followed by the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4. Win those two -- against older horses such as Lava Man and Invasor -- and Bernardini will certainly become a champion.

Sent off as the odds-on favorite, Bernardini returned $2.70, $2.10 and $2.10. Bluegrass Cat, trained by Todd Pletcher, was second and paid $2.50 and $2.60. Dr. Pleasure was third and returned $4.70 to show.

Hesanoldsalt was fourth, followed by High Cotton and Minister's Bid. Kip Deville was scratched. Winning time for the 1¼-mile race was 2:01.60.

Bernardini earned $600,000 for the win, and boosted his bankroll to $1,610,480.

The virtuoso effort had John Ferguson -- Darley's bloodstock advisor -- calling Bernardini a superstar.

"I firmly believe he is," Ferguson said. "What makes him special is his father is A.P. Indy, so he's a superstar of a race horse and superstar of a physical specimen, too."

Albertrani, an assistant under Bill Mott when he campaigned Cigar, says Bernardini has the potential to become just as popular as the two-time Horse of the Year.

"To have a horse of this caliber, I think it's great for racing," Albertrani said. "Great to have people cheering for a horse. That's what it's all about. Cigar got the attention of a nation and hopefully this horse will, too."

And what if Barbaro wasn't injured in the Preakness?

"That would have been a great race between them," Albertrani said. "It's just unfortunate what happened to Barbaro. I think they could have been like Affirmed and Alydar."

In other stakes on the undercard:

• Henny Hughes ($3.50) made it 2-for-2 after an eight-month layoff with a 5¼-length victory in the Grade 1 King's Bishop. Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, Henny Hughes improved to five wins in eight starts with three runner-up finishes, and is expected to run next in the Vosburgh at Belmont as a prep for the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

• Ashkal Way ($3.40) overtook T.D. Vance in the stretch and won the Bernard Baruch by a neck, giving jockey Garrett Gomez his fourth win of the day.

• My Typhoon ($8.10), with Gomez aboard, led from the start and won the $200,000 Ballston Spa Handicap by three-quarters of a length over Karen's Caper. Sweet Talker, the 6-5 favorite, was fourth.