Bernardini towers over 3-year-old peers now

August 30, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

When Barbaro broke down in the Preakness, it was widely believed that horse racing had been denied its first Triple Crown winner since 1978 and that Bernardini's victory at Pimlico would soon be dismissed as little more than a footnote to a somber event.

But like baseball and golf, racing tends to spawn mythology that, um, occasionally swells beyond what the facts can support. And clearly, three months after the Preakness, it's time to reconsider at least one aspect of the towering Barbaro legend.

Was he, in fact, a lock to win the Triple Crown? Not even Barbaro's most ardent fans can say that after Bernardini's impressive romp in the Travers Stakes last weekend at Saratoga Race Course.

The Preakness winner, it turns out, was no footnote. He and the brilliant Barbaro would have been comparable rivals.

Who was better?

"The only thing you can say with any certainty is both were bound for greatness," said Mike Trombetta, trainer of Sweetnorthernsaint, the Laurel-based gelding that finished seventh behind Barbaro in the Kentucky Derby and second behind Bernardini in the Preakness. "Everyone saw what Barbaro could do. And now everyone is seeing what Bernardini can do. It's hard to compare them. They're alike in that they both win. All the time. No matter what happens, they just keep winning."

Indeed, Barbaro was 6-for-6 in his career before shattering his right hind leg in the first furlong of the Preakness. And while Bernardini lost when he raced for the first time in January, he has since won five in a row, most recently taking the Preakness by 5 1/4 lengths, the Jim Dandy Stakes by nine lengths, and now, the Travers by 7 1/2 lengths.

"He has never been challenged," his trainer, Tom Albertrani, told reporters after the Travers. "There's a lot more to this horse than what we have seen."

Sadly for racing, Bernardini and Barbaro stood in the same starting gate only once, and Barbaro's injury ended their showdown as soon as it started. Otherwise, they charted different courses. Some insiders wish Albertrani had taken on the Derby and Belmont, especially the latter after winning the Preakness, but Albertrani had a vision, and it's hard to argue with the results.

"We'll obviously never know what would have happened if they had run against each other at their best," Trombetta said. "It's too bad. I know I would have loved to see it."

Albertrani said last weekend that a rivalry between Barbaro and Bernardini could have matched the one between Affirmed and Alydar, the colts that famously pushed each other through the 1978 Triple Crown, with Affirmed winning all three races.

Now, however, Barbaro and Bernardini can only compete in the minds of voters who will select the sport's 3-year-old champion for 2006. Even though Barbaro stopped running in May, there is strong sentiment for him because of his astounding recovery and enduring popularity.

But with all due respect, Bernardini has passed Barbaro, and there's no looking back. Having dismissed what was left of the 3-year-old class, Bernardini is set to take on older horses in his next two races - the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 7 at Belmont and the Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs. If he fares well, he could be Horse of the Year as well as the 3-year-old champion.

"A lot of people outside the industry didn't know about him when he lined up to run in the Preakness," Trombetta said, "but they sure do now."

Trombetta first heard about the horse when he was in Louisville for the Derby. He went to dinner with a columnist from The Blood-Horse, a preeminent racing journal, and discussed Bernardini's skipping the Derby to run in the Preakness.

"The guy from The Blood-Horse told me that no matter what happened in Louisville, we were going to have to contend with a really tough horse in Baltimore," Trombetta recalled.

A strong bay son of 1992 Belmont winner A.P. Indy, Bernardini already had a champion's breeding. Months later, he has a champion's record, too.

Trombetta said that his big horse, Sweetnorthernsaint, is back in training at Laurel after taking several months off. The gelding won the Illinois Derby and will be always remembered for having been the betting favorite in Barbaro's Derby.

"Going through [the first two legs of the Triple Crown] was a great experience," Trombetta said. "We got a lot done. We made some money. And while being part of what happened in the Preakness was awful, we were fortunate and only got beat by the 3-year-old champion."

Trombetta hopes to run Sweetnorthernsaint for many years, but he harbors no illusions. Asked if he expected to run into Bernardini again, he just laughed.

"Not on purpose," he said.

And that's no myth.

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