Countdown to the Cup: Not Enough Flow in Classic Picture

Countdown to the Cup: Not Enough Flow in Classic Picture
Photo: Skip Dickstein
Bernardini, likely Classic favorite, was easy winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
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It is safe to say there has never been more major stakes run and more major stars performing around the country than there were this past weekend. In the end, most of the Breeders' Cup World Championship races were clearly defined, but there was something missing in the aftermath of one of the races.

Of course, this column could be dominated by more superlatives heaped upon Bernardini, but there is nothing that can be said about this extraordinary horse that hasn't been said before, so we'll have others speak their piece about him later on. After yet another stroll in the park in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), the son of A.P. Indy no doubt is something very special.

But in regard to the Breeders' Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I), there was one disturbing observation that had nothing to do with what happened on the racetrack. While the name Bernardini was on everyone's lips, and rightfully so, did any publication east of the Rockies even acknowledge Lava Man's victory in the Goodwood Breeders' Cup (gr. II) some 20 minutes later?

As brilliant and dominating as Bernardini was, there is absolutely no reason why Lava Man, with his accomplishments this year, shouldn't receive equal billing with the Darley dynamo. The Classic is a dream match-up for the media and for the sport, pitting the wealthiest Thoroughbred owner in the world and his regally bred colt against the rags-to-riches horse who was claimed for $50,000, and should be publicized as such. Throw in Invasor, the last Uruguyan star to hit these shores since the infamous Cinzano and his much-publicized ringer case (which we'll rehash later on), and you have one of the most intriguing Classics in memory.

To all those who have Bernardini ingrained in their psyche and have merely glossed over the heroics of Lava Man, it should be noted that the horse who couldn't win for a $12,500 claiming tag at the San Joaquin Fair in Stockton, Calif. at odds of 35-1 has now earned over $3.8 million, and is riding a seven-race winning streak -- all stakes.

Becoming the first horse ever to sweep the grade I Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic in the same year is enough by itself to project him into the national spotlight. Winning the grade I Whittingham on the grass and conceding eight to 10 pounds to five graded stakes winners, including two grade I winners, in the Goodwood just adds to his remarkable credentials. In short, this horse should have at least the beginning of a widespread national following in the same manner as other geldings Forego, Kelso, and John Henry.

This is not to even hint that Lava Man is anywhere near as good as those Hall of Famers, or even as good as Bernardini. But he deserves a great deal more respect and press than he's been getting.

In the Goodwood, he was pressed all the way through quarters of :23 1/5, :23 3/5, and :23 4/5 before bursting clear of his pursuers, getting his next quarter in :24 1/5. Under the circumstances, his final eighth of :13 1/5, while not quick by any means, was certainly respectable enough, especially considering that no one got closer than two lengths to him at the wire. Yes, it's hard to equate inner fractions at Santa Anita to a track like Churchill Downs, and, yes, his Beyer Speed Figure in the Goodwood was eight points lower than Bernardini's in the Gold Cup, but he still deserves his place in the headlines.

His critics claim he's merely a California horse and, after three dismal performances on the road (in New York, Florida, and Japan), he still must prove himself away from home. But before anyone dismisses him off those races, let's remember that John Henry's only race in Japan also was a disaster, as has been the case with a number of top-class American horses who have journeyed there. So, that race has to be considered a total throwout.

Prior to the Japan Cup Dirt, in the 29 months since his career debut, he had run at least once in 24 of those months without having a break. He was coming off a dreadful race and an equally dreadful experience in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. When a horse of his caliber gets beat 45 lengths, it's not a race that can be attributed to his inability to handle a track outside of California. Remember, he had run the most explosive race of his career in the Hollywood Gold Cup, getting a monster 120 Beyer Speed Figure, and then had to withstand a head-and-head duel and a blistering pace in the Pacific Classic, finishing a game third, after which he was so rubber-legged, the veterinarian thought he was lame and had him vanned off. He had every right to feel the effects of both those races in the Gold Cup, and certainly in the race in Japan.

From a visual standpoint, Lava Man does not run with the grace and fluidity of Bernardini, but true to his blue-collar persona, he gets down and dirty, lowering his head and grinding and battling his way to victory.

Now it is finally time for the noble Arabian-owned steed to face off against the one-time county fair gelding for America's biggest prize.

It is also time for racing to get its big story to the local newspapers. Sure, the possible coronation of Bernardini as racing's next superstar is huge, but there are two other deserving horses who are pretty close to wearing the crown. So let's inform the masses that the showdown between Bernardini and Lava Man, and, yes, Invasor, is an equally, if not more compelling story. Then, if one of them should win the Classic, it will make the victory an even greater achievement and the subsequent coronation a more historical event.

And now for Bernardini

It is appropriate to begin with the following line from a Peter, Paul, and Mary song: "And a-way out yonder, ahead of them all, came a-prancin' and a-dancin' my noble Stewball."

All one has to do is substitute the name Bernardini, and Peter, Paul, and Mary's fictional racehorse becomes a real-life figure on the threshold of superstardom. There is no better way to describe Bernardini, who basically has been prancin' and dancin' his way through an unforgettable season.

There no doubt will be some who will look at Bernardini's cakewalk in the Jockey Club Gold Cup against only four opponents and claim he still hasn't beaten anyone of consequence. But he has annihilated such talented colts as Bluegrass Cat, Brother Derek, and Sweetnorthernsaint, and it has reached a point where hardly anyone wants to run against him before the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Even with Invasor out of the Gold Cup due to a fever, the connections of New York-based stakes horses Premium Tap, Awesome Twist, Good Reward, Strong Contender, Wild Desert, Master Command, and Funny Cide all decided to stay clear of Bernardini and look for other spots, as did Sun King, who will train up to the Classic.

Nick Zito did show up, with Brooklyn Breeders' Cup (gr. II) winner Wanderin Boy and Andromeda's Hero, while Aidan O'Brien sent over Irish Derby and Irish Champion Stakes (both group I) winner Dylan Thomas on a scouting mission for the Classic to see how he handled the dirt.

When it was over, Zito, despite getting beaten 6 3/4 lengths with runner-up Wanderin Boy and nearly 13 lengths with third-place finisher Andromeda's Hero, had a smile on his face as he headed down to the track. "This is the first time I almost clapped for a horse that beat me," he said. "That is a tremendous horse, who has superstar credentials."

One of those who was glad he stayed away was John Kimmel, trainer of Woodward (gr. I) winner Premium Tap, who had a horrible in trip in last week's Kentucky Cup Classic (gr. II), and Brooklyn runner-up Awesome Twist, who is scheduled to run in the Oct. 13 Meadowlands Breeders' Cup (gr. II).

"I watched Bernardini at Payson Park this winter, and I've had lot of admiration for him ever since," Kimmel said. "You can spot him anywhere on the racetrack. He's a special animal and I basically have been trying to stay out of his way. It proved to be a wise move on Saturday. Now I guess I'll have to try to double team in the Classic. He was always a great mover and an awesome physical specimen. Because of his cardiovascular efficiency, things that other horses find difficult he does easily."

Right from the first race, there was a feeling of excitement in the air, due to the presence of Bernardini and others stars such as Henny Hughes, Silver Train, Fleet Indian, and English Channel.

Trainer Tom Albertrani's strategy was to let Wanderin Boy go to the lead and then have Javier Castellano ease Bernardini to the outside and track him. Despite a slow opening quarter in :25.03, Castellano had no trouble rating Bernardini, who settled nicely about two lengths off the pace. They picked it up with a sharp second quarter in :23.10 and a third quarter in :23.68, with Bernardini starting to close in.

Turning for home, it was over in an instant. Without the slightest bit of urging, Bernardini drew off while still under wraps and continued that way to the wire, winning eased up, in what track announcer Tom Durkin called, "the trademark nonchalant brilliance of his."

Even before Bernardini hit the wire, assistant trainer Andy Rehm, standing by the rail, began his praise of the colt. "He's a freak," he said shaking his head. "I've never been around a horse like him. Watch him when he comes back, he won't even be tired. He's unbelievable."

Sure enough, Benardini returned to a rousing ovation, and, except for a touch of lather on his neck, looked as if he hadn't even run. As the ovation grew louder, Jimmy Bell, president of Darley USA, said, "He's deserving of it. He's in that rarified air, I can tell you that."

Two others in awe of Bernardini are his work rider Simon Harris and gallop rider Miguel Guiterrez, who works as an outrider in the afternoon.

"You got Tiger Woods; you got Michael Jordan; and you got him," said Harris, who also works top horses such as Jazil and Funny Cide.

"He's just a special horse," Guiterrez said. "He does whatever you want him to, and when you ask him he just takes off. He's amazing. I've been on some very good horses, but like this one? Never."

After the race, Albertrani, Bell, and John Ferguson, racing manager for Darley Stable, all huddled around the ESPN monitor and watched Lava Man win the Goodwood Breeders' Cup (gr. II). There were few comments afterward, other than Bell saying, "I won't trade places."

Walking back to the test barn, Bernardini was still so strong, his groom, Jose Amezcua, who had been nursing a bad back, asked Rehm to help him hold the horse. "He was pulling him so hard, Jose made me grab the other rein," said Rehm. "He said, 'He's going to run away from me.' In the test barn, he took one little sip of water and that was it."

After returning to his barn and walking the shed, Bernardini went outside to graze for several minutes. In the darkness, he was but a faint figure, which is pretty much what he's been to his opponents in the final furlong.

Now comes his biggest test. He may not be prancin' and dancin' ahead of them all in the Classic, but if he knocks off Lava Man, Invasor and the others, then, like "Ol Stewball," his story will be told.

Calm Seas for English Channel for a Change
Let's just imagine English Channel's thought process as he drew off to an easy 4 1/2-length victory in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (gr. IT) going something like this:

"What's going on here? Where is everyone? Why am I not feeling the sting of the whip in the final furlong? Why am I not straining every muscle trying to out-battle another horse? Where the heck is Cacique?"

Not since his early carefree days as a 3-year-old when he was blowing open stakes at Colonial Downs has English Channel had anything remotely close to an easy race, so no one deserved this one more than him. In his last eight starts, the chestnut son of Smart Strike   – Belva, by Theatrical has proven himself to be one of the toughest warriors in the game. To his opponents, he is like a little terrier who refuses to let go of your pant leg.

Deadlocked at two and two, his rivalry this year with Juddmonte's Cacique, recent winner of the Man o'War Stakes (gr. IT), should provide some big fireworks in the Nov. 4 John Deere Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT).

Top horses will be late arrivals at Churchill

Don't expect the normal amount of action at Churchill Downs during Breeders' Cup week. Bernardini will not ship to Churchill until the Wednesday before the race; Henny Hughes, who turned in another spectacular performance in the Vosburgh (gr. I), and Invasor also will remain in New York, with the alternative being to ship to Keeneland to train over the Polytrack surface. And Todd Pletcher said he, too, will train all his Breeders' Cup horses in New York before shipping down on that Wednesday.

"I don't see a big advantage training at Churchill," he said. "We had a lot of success last year shipping to Churchill right on top of races. From a personal standpoint, I'm at home and I get to train here. You can close the barn easily and keep the horses warm if it starts to cool off. If we had a really wet fall, then we might want to take a look at the Polytrack and see if we want to train on that."

Also heading to Keeneland is Lava Man, who will join Great Hunter. That's a lot of top-quality horses who will not be at Churchill Downs the first half of Breeders' Cup week. And you can bet there will be many others who either will remain at home or train at Keeneland.

Other News and Observations from the Weekend:

-- Speaking of Polytrack, it looks as if you can throw form for the most part right out the window judging by some of the weird winners over the weekend, most of whom had either run or trained over the track, and the number of good horses who didn't run their usual race over it, such as Happy Ticket and Spun Sugar in the Juddmonte Spinster (gr. I), and a host of others in the Phoenix Breeders' Cup (gr. II) and Alcibiades (gr. I).

-- The Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) took a bit of a beating with the sound defeat of 6-5 Horse Greeley in the Norfolk Stakes (gr. II) and the failure of unbeaten Circular Quay, the 2-5 favorite, to demonstrate his powerful closing kick in the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity (gr. I), leaving the Juvenile a lot more wide-open than it appeared to be. Breeders' Futurity winner Great Hunter, who was a big overlay in the race at nearly 6-1, is an extremely talented colt and deserves to be no worse than second choice in the Juvenile, regardless of the outcome of Saturday's Champagne Stakes (gr. I).

-- It was great seeing Brother Derek rebound from the El Cajon to run a big second in the Goodwood, suggesting he should be ready for a peak effort in the Classic. And Giacomo's solid third put him right in the picture as well.

-- Fleet Indian, Henny Hughes, and Aragorn established themselves as early favorites for their respective Breeders' Cup races with exceptional performances. Although Fleet Indian won the Bedlame (gr. I) by only a head, she showed a totally different dimension and was as game as can be in the final 50 yards to hold off Balletto. And how about Aragorn breaking 1:33 for the mile for the third time this year?

-- Since losing the 2003 Hollywood Wildcat Stakes at Calder by a head, Honey Ryder, a gutsy nose winner of Saturday's Flower Bowl Invitational (gr. IT), has been involved in eight finishes of a half-length or less and has won them all.

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