The wait is over. Darley Stable's Bernardini, who hasn't run since his brilliant victory in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), finally gets back to the races in Saturday's Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II), in which he will face five opponents.
Trainer Tom Albertrani is hoping the Jim Dandy is the first step toward an Eclipse Award for top 3-year-old male, as well as Horse of the Year. While the Jim Dandy is pretty much a prep for the $1-million Travers Stakes (gr. I) Aug. 26, Albertrani realizes Bernardini has little margin for error in his final three starts of the year -- the Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), and Breeders' Cup Classic--Presented by Dodge (gr. I).
Prep or no prep; 10-week layoff or no 10-week layoff, Albertrani feels Bernardini is something special and is expecting another huge effort from the son of A.P. Indy
, despite the presence of several formidable foes, including the undefeated Minister's Bid and Peter Pan (gr. II) winner Sunriver.
"He looks fantastic right now, and a fresh horse is always dangerous," Albertrani said. "We thought it was a good idea to give him a rest after the Preakness and hopefully have a fresh horse for Saratoga and the Belmont fall meet. We let him down after the Preakness, but he's very sharp right now. His last two works have been unbelievable, and in his last work (5 furlongs in 1:00 4/5), he did it so easily.
"Naturally, you want to have him good going into the Jim Dandy and then peaking in the Travers, the same way we did it in the Preakness. Right now, he's showing me he's on ready. I'm hoping the Jim Dandy will catapult him to the next level."
As for the possibility of dethroning the division leader Barbaro, Albertrani said, "That definitely is a major goal, and we know it's not going to be easy. If he wins the Jim Dandy and Travers and beats older horses, I would hope he would get some consideration for champion 3-year-old and perhaps Horse of the Year, who knows?
"This horse has shown me that he is as talented as any horse I've seen. He stacks right up there with the best horses I've been around, like Cigar, Dubai Millennium, and Street Cry, and those kinds of horses."
If there is one trainer who is not intimidated by the presence of Bernardini, it is John Ward Jr., who has demonstrated in the past that he is not afraid of any horse. In the Jim Dandy, Ward will launch a two-pronged attack against Bernardini, in the hope that Minister's Bid can either outrun the Preakness winner himself or soften him up for the closing punch of Dr. Pleasure, both owned by John Oxley. Both colts will be in receipt of eight pounds (123-115) from Bernardini.
"These are both lightly raced colts, and they've been up at Saratoga with Donna (Ward's wife) for the last 60 days," Ward said. "They've had a chance to train over the racetrack, which makes it a good preparation. Minister's Bid has a very high cruising speed, and his Dwyer win was extremely big on the Sheets. He's very professional, and has good tactical speed and the ability to close. Dr. Pleasure is a great athlete and is still looking for his game. I feel very comfortable with both of them, and I feel the Jim Dandy sets up horses for the Travers very well."
Minister's Bid will be ridden by Edgar Prado, while Garrett Gomez gets the mount on Dr. Pleasure, whose dam is Ward and Oxley's magnificent champion Beautiful Pleasure.
If Bernardini can get by the Ward pair, he still has the Todd Pletcher-trained Sunriver to contend with. The son of Saint Ballado has not started since his solid third-place finish in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). In addition to his Peter Pan score, he was third to Barbaro in the Florida Derby (gr. I). He no doubt would benefit from a rapid, contentious pace, having exhibited a strong closing punch in his last three stakes appearances. John Velazquez has the mount.
"After the Belmont, everything's gone just how we wanted it to," said Pletcher, who has won four of the last six runnings of the Jim Dandy. "We gave him a couple of easy weeks and then picked it up. We're pleased with the progress he's made. Backing up from a mile and a half to a mile and an eighth is going to suit him well. I thought he ran a big race in the Belmont till about the eighth pole. He hung a little bit; it could have been the distance or it could have been he was coming back in three weeks.
"We're not taking on an unproven commodity against a Preakness winner. We're taking on a horse that's run some very competitive races. We're not stepping out of the box in that regard, but we are running against a horse who I thought in the Preakness was every bit as impressive as Barbaro was in the Derby."
Rounding out the field will be Hemingway's Key, a Nick Zito-trained colt who finished a well-beaten third in the Preakness, and Oh So Awesome, who finished a good fifth in the Belmont Stakes after lunging badly at the break and dropping back to last early.
In Saturday's third race, Centennial Farms' Corinthian, who was disqualified from first in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II) in his last start, makes his return in an allowance race for 3-year-olds and up.$500,000 Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II, Race 9, 5:46 p.m.), 3-Year-Olds, 1 1/8 Miles
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey
1. Sunriver (KY), 121, John R. Velazquez
2. Oh So Awesome (KY), 115, Kent J. Desormeaux
3. Bernardini (KY), 123, Javier Castellano
4. Dr. Pleasure (KY), 115, Garrett K. Gomez
5. Hemingway's Key (FL), 115, Julien R. Leparoux
6. Minister's Bid (KY), 115, Edgar S. Prado