Bernardini shines on day filled with ominous clouds

Preakness Stakes

May 21, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

On a day so glorious that the sun seemed to be shining only on Old Hilltop, everyone connected to Preakness winner Bernardini should have been basking in one of the greatest upsets in the history of the second jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown. Except that no one was in a great mood to celebrate.

Jockey Javier Castellano had just scored his greatest victory, but he was almost subdued as he took questions during the post-race news conference. Same for trainer Tom Albertrani and John Ferguson, who represented Darley Stables and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai.

With Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro facing a life-threatening leg injury, the question-and-answer session became the horse racing equivalent of "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?"

"Everybody wants to see a Triple Crown," Castellano said. "We've waited for a long time. Everybody thought we were going to see a Triple Crown this year, but I had to do my job. My horse did a great job."

Maybe Bernardini would have won anyway, though it's hard to imagine that the 12-1 afterthought would have done it in such dominating fashion. Barbaro went off as a 1-2 favorite, but was out of the picture after the first furlong, limping off the track and into one of the sadder chapters of racing lore.

Bernardini settled in behind long shot Like Now and third-favorite Sweetnorthernsaint at the first turn and seemed positioned well until Brother Derek overtook him late in the backstretch.

"My only concern was about the half-mile pole when Brother Derek went by him, it looked like we were maybe backpedaling a little bit," Albertrani said. "I got a little worried for a moment. I didn't think he was going to run his race, but when I saw him come back into the picture about the five-sixteenths pole, from there on I knew he was going to just take off."

There was little doubt as they turned for home. Bernardini surged ahead and looked very much like Barbaro in the Derby as he ran away with the Preakness by 5 1/4 lengths.

"It's special for us," Ferguson said, "but obviously tempered by what happened to Barbaro. We all know how it feels because it has happened to all of us before. Maybe not in such a high-profile situation. The prince is overjoyed to win the Preakness, but we would have been more excited if Barbaro had been OK."

Even in the wake of the injury, no one could discount Bernardini's effort. The horse, after all, fended off a challenge by Brother Derek, who was considered by many horse racing experts to be the real favorite in the race.

"I didn't think we'd win by that far a margin," Albertrani said. "He just seemed to really extend at the end. Without Barbaro in there, I don't know how much of a the margin he [Bernardini] would have won by if he [Barbaro] didn't get injured. He sure came with an explosive run at the end."

If the betting public didn't see Bernardini coming, it wasn't because the colt lacked credentials or big-time backing. Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, is a major player on the international horse racing scene, but the 131st Preakness was his first Triple Crown victory.

Bernardini has its own royal lineage. His sire, A.P. Indy, is by Seattle Slew and is one of the most popular stallions in the United States. His dam is Cara Rafaela, who comes from coveted broodmaster Quiet American.

"With A.P. Indy on the top and Quiet American on the bottom, it's quite an attractive mix," Ferguson said. "When this horse was born, he was an outstandingly good-looking individual and very athletic. So, to be honest, from the day he was born, he was what you might call a very exciting proposition."

Still, Bernardini was so lightly raced coming into yesterday's Preakness that it was difficult for Preakness bettors to take him seriously. He did not race as a 2-year-old and had run just three times, most recently scoring a solid win in the Grade III Withers Stakes at Aqueduct. In his previous race at Gulfstream Park, Barbaro jockey Edgar Prado had ridden him to a seven-length victory.

"When he was a 2-year-old, he had some problems," Albertrani said. "Nothing serious, just a bit weak. ... We didn't get the opportunity to run him as a 2-year-old. When I first got him it was the middle of September, and he was still a little weak, really, and he was probably ready to make his first start in December, but then New York took a break for the winter.

"We decided to get him out of the cold weather and send him down to Florida. He didn't make his first start until the first week of January."

Ferguson was noncommittal about Bernardini's prospects for the Belmont in three weeks, leaving the decision on whether to enter the horse in the 1 1/2 -mile marathon to Sheikh Mohammed.

The horse came into the Preakness a relative unknown and came out of it a star, which would make it the marquee attraction in a Belmont that suddenly can use all the star power it can get.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

"The Peter Schmuck Show" airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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