SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- On one of his innumerable plane trips to supervise his far-flung racing operation, Jack Van Berg struck up on a conversation with the passenger next to him and asked where he was going. "I'm flying to California to turn some pigeons loose," the man said.

Learning that his companion was involved with racing pigeons, Van Berg was intrigued. How do you train pigeons? What makes the difference between a good one and a bad one?

"You know," the man said, "if I could just look inside them and see that little heart, I'd have everybody beaten."

To Van Berg, that insight into pigeon racing confirmed an eternal verity about athletics. "I've had horses with so much talent you couldn't believe it," he said, "but they didn't have the heart. In football, prize fighting, any sport, it's the will to win that makes a great athlete."

However trite it may seem, Van Berg believes that this mental attitude, this competitive spirit is Alysheba's greatest virtue -- and he may have a point. The colt showed amazing determination when he recovered from a near-spill to win the Kentucky Derby, but in the trainer's view he was just as impressive when he lost the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

Alysheba had been suffering from a skin rash before the race and had been treated with antibiotics. Van Berg had seen plenty of horses run poorly under similar conditions.

"For a lot of horses, that would have been an excuse not to run their best," he said. "If it had been an average race I wouldn't have started him. But the Haskell was as good a race as he's ever run. When he pinned his ears back in the last eighth of a mile and went after those horses {Lost Code and Bet Twice} in the stretch, it was dynamite. I look for a very big race out of him Saturday."

While all of the trainers involved in the $1 million Travers Stakes are similarly expressing confidence and extolling the virtues of their horses, Van Berg has the right opinion -- and the right horse. Despite his losses in his last two starts, Alysheba is the best of his generation, and he ought to prove it on Saturday afternoon.

This much seems certain about the Travers: Despite all the hoopla for many of the other good 3-year-olds in the nine-horse lineup, the race is likely to boil down to a confrontation between those old adversaries, Alysheba and Bet Twice. For people viewing the Travers from afar, this may seem obvious, but there is so much local hype for the late-blooming Java Gold that he is listed in the morning line at a shorter price than Bet Twice.

But the credentials of all the challengers to Alysheba and Bet Twice can't withstand hard scrutiny.

Java Gold scored his one major victory as a 3-year-old in the Whitney Handicap with the aid of a perfect trip, scooting through along the rail to win at the wire over Gulch -- a colt who has proved all spring that he is not an effective distance runner and not in the same league with Alysheba and Bet Twice.

Fortunate Prospect is six for six in his career, but he has been beating weak competition in Illinois. Temperate Sil has looked good winning in California, but he has been beaten inferior opposition in moderate time. Polish Navy is a front-runner who, like Temperate Sil, figures to be hurt by a fast pace. Cryptoclearance has given ample proof that he can't beat this level of competition.

By the process of elimination, that leaves the two colts who have been carrying on the most spirited equine rivalry since Affirmed and Alydar. Bet Twice brings plenty of virtues into the Travers. He is training brilliantly. He has more tactical speed than Alysheba. He has an edge in jockey Craig Perret, who has been riding with great skill and confidence and clearly made the difference in Bet Twice's Haskell triumph.

But Alysheba's authoritative victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness left no doubt that he is the superior horse at 1 1/4 miles. After the Preakness, Van Berg said jockey Chris McCarron told him, "Jack, this horse was just so much the best!"

With a better ride from McCarron, Alysheba probably would have won the Haskell, too. He will have the advantage in the Travers (which he didn't have in the Haskell) of a fast early pace to set the stage for his big late run. And if he needs any further edges, he can always call on that fighting, competitive spirit that Van Berg admires so much.