Darley Stable's Bernardini, winner of the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) and Jim Dandy (gr. II), was installed as the even-money favorite when seven 3-year-olds were entered Wednesday for Saturday's $1-million Travers Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga.First race post time Saturday is 12:30 p.m. EDT, with the 1 ¼-mile Travers set to go at 6:30 p.m. as race 11 on a 12-race card. An all stakes Pick 4 with a guaranteed pool of $1 million includes the grade II Ballston Spa, grade II Bernard Baruch, grade I King's Bishop, and Travers. There will also be a $100,000 guaranteed Grand Slam pool which begins in race seven and ends with the King's Bishop. All four stakes races will be broadcast on ESPN's "Sports Center from Saratoga" from 5 to 7 p.m.
"His performances have been speaking for themselves, and this will no doubt be his toughest challenge," trainer Tom Albertrani said.
"Bluegrass Cat has been second in two classics, and he's definitely the horse that's going to be the main threat to him. I feel our horse is training as well as ever and, hopefully, he runs his race as he has in the Preakness and Jim Dandy. I would love to see that kind of performance again."
With a compact field in the Travers and a long run to the first turn, post positions will not be extremely important. Bernardini drew post 5 with jockey Javier Castellano."The horse makes it a lot easier for Javier," Albertrani said. "He's easy to rate, and he never fights the rider. Javier is very patient with him and never overreacts."
Bluegrass Cat, winner of the Haskell Invitational (gr. I), drew post 7 with jockey Johnny Velazquez.
Trained by Todd Pletcher, Bluegrass Cat has been a steady campaigner all year with strong seconds in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and Belmont Stakes (gr. I). Pletcher and owner WinStar Farm always thought he was capable of running eye-opening efforts, and that type of performance finally came in the Haskell when Bluegrass Cat drew off to a sharp seven-length score.
"I thought it was the breakthrough performance that we thought he had in him," Pletcher said of the Haskell. "Second in the Kentucky Derby and second in the Belmont are not bad efforts by any means, but I thought he brought his game to another level."
While Albertrani said little has changed with Bernardini in the last few months, that is not the case with Bluegrass Cat.
"Physically, he's a stronger horse than he was in the Derby and Belmont," Pletcher said. "He's carrying more weight, and his energy level has been unbelievable since the Haskell. I'm hoping that's a positive sign that he's bounced out of the Haskell well and 20 days is enough recuperation time."
Pletcher and Velazquez will be looking for their second straight Travers win after teaming up with Flower Alley to win the Jim Dandy and Travers last year. Despite being leading trainer here from 2002 to 2004, Pletcher felt his Saratoga resume was incomplete until winning the meet's marquee race last year.
"We love the Saratoga meet, and it's a meet we emphasize every year," he said. "We're fortunate to win a lot of races up here, but until you win the Travers, you haven't won THE race at Saratoga."
Pletcher will improve his chances on taking a second Travers by also running Peachtree Stable's High Cotton, winner of the grade III Northern Dancer Breeders' Cup at Churchill in June.
"The horse is training very well, but this is a big step up," Pletcher said of High Cotton. "He's competed against some of the best three-year-olds, but I think you have to put Bernardini and Bluegrass Cat at that highest level. This is definitely the toughest race he's run in."
Owner John Oxley and trainer John Ward Jr. also entered two in the Travers. Minister's Bid and Dr. Pleasure, the second- and fourth-place finishers from the Jim Dandy, will try to take on Bernardini again. Those stablemates were coupled in the Jim Dandy wagering but, since the Travers is a $1 million race, they will be separate betting interests this time around.
Minister's Bid will be the most lightly raced horse in the Travers, with just three starts under his belt. He won his first two starts impressively and held his own against Bernardini in the Jim Dandy - his first stakes appearance - outgaming Hemingway's Key for the place spot.
In six career starts, Dr. Pleasure's only victory remains a maiden special weight win at Saratoga last September. He was beaten 10 lengths in the Jim Dandy after failing as the favorite in a pair of allowance races.
"I haven't seen any chinks in Bernardini," Ward said. "The only chink in Bernardini's armor is being a target. In the Jim Dandy, he was a target, but nobody could get to him. He was a moving target.
"In our scenario, we're not concerned with the target that much. We're there to let the competitors mix it up. Hopefully, we're sitting with good, fit animals that can take advantage of others' bad racing luck. If the two superstars take care of each other, we're figuring to capitalize on others' mistakes."
Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito, who won the 2004 Travers with Marylou Whitney's Birdstone , will try for his second Travers victory when Hesanoldsalt heads to the post a longshot. The Live Oak Plantation runner won an allowance against older horses in his last start.
"We're hoping that his last race was a good confidence builder and that he can improve off that race," Zito said. "Bernardini and Bluegrass Cat look tremendous on paper, but I'm running my horse. That's our style."IEAH Stable's Kip Deville was a late entrant for the Travers. The longshot is best known for setting a very fast pace in the Colonial Turf Cup and holding on for second behind Showing Up at 28-1. His only two victories on dirt are an Oklahoma-bred maiden special weight at Remington Park last year and the $40,000 Texas Heritage at Sam Houston in March.Field for the $1-million Travers StakesPost position -- Horse, jockey, morning-line odds
1--Hesanoldsalt, Eibar Coa, 15-1
2--Minister's Bid, Edgar Prado, 8-1
3--Dr. Pleasure, Cornelio Velasquez, 12-1
4--High Cotton, Garrett Gomez, 6-1
5--Bernardini, Javier Castellano, 1-1
6--Kip Deville, Rafael Bejarano, 30-1
7--Bluegrass Cat, John Velazquez, 2-1
All starters carry 126 pounds