How good was Bernardini in 2006? Good enough to make The Blood-Horse cover six times.
The first time came after Bernardini won the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) in May, and the last after he had headed off to stud at breeder/owner Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley near Lexington with the highest stud fee ($100,000) of any 2007 newcomer.
Few horses in recent history were pegged so early in their careers with the “potential greatness” tag as was Bernardini. The label first was tossed Bernardini’s way after the A.P. Indy colt won the Preakness in just his fourth lifetime start, and it clung to him until he was passed by Invasor in deep stretch in the Breeders’ Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I) in November in his final race. Along the way were stunning triumphs in the Travers (gr. I) and Jim Dandy (gr. II) Stakes at Saratoga and the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) at Belmont Park that added to the suspense.
Bernardini’s pedigree helped bolster the argument of the Seattle Slew grandson as a potential great. A.P. Indy not only is one of world’s great stallions (at $300,000 a booking), but Bernardini also boasts a grade I-winning dam, Cara Rafaela, who is by North America’s leading cumulative broodmare sire, Quiet American . In female family, Bernardini traces back to the blue hen mare Fast Line, bred by the late Dr. R. Smiser West and his wife, Kathryn.
Bernardini didn’t get his racing career going until January of his 3-year-old season because of minor setbacks. After an opening defeat at Gulfstream Park, he won at the South Florida track by 73/4 lengths in early March.
“We were disappointed after the loss because we had high hopes for him, but the race was only at six furlongs,” said trainer Tom Albertrani. “After that, he started to focus more on racing, and we saw that in his second race.”
With only two starts for his horse and two months to go before the May 6 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), Albertrani was pressed for time. Bernardini didn’t help matters by coming down with a cough and later a foot bruise.
“We were going to run in an allowance race in New York, but he missed the race,” Albertrani said. “Time was getting short, and that’s when we chose the Withers.”
Bernardini won the mile Withers Stakes (gr. III) April 29 by 33/4 lengths at Aqueduct in what was his first trip under jockey Javier Castellano. With the Run for the Roses just a week later, it was decided to go for the May 20 Preakness.
The Preakness featured unbeaten Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, who unfortunately suffered a career-ending injury soon after the start. The fourth betting choice, at 12-1, Bernardini took command in the stretch and won by 51/4 lengths.
Bernardini skipped the June 10 Belmont Stakes (gr. I, won by Jazil, who races for Sheikh Mohammed’s brother, Sheikh Hamdan, in the name Shadwell Stable) to rest up for Saratoga. At the Spa against fellow 3-year-olds, Bernardini continued his dominance by winning the Jim Dandy by nine lengths and the Travers by 71/2 lengths.
“The Travers stands out as his biggest win,” Albertrani said. “He won so easily and beat Bluegrass Cat, who was one of the major players.”
Six weeks after the Travers, Bernardini proved equally as dominating against older horses, winning the Oct. 7 Jockey Club Gold Cup by 63/4 lengths. His Beyer Speed figures in his last four races ranged from 114 to 117.
Any trainer of a budding superstar feels pressure, and Albertrani was no different. What might have been different was the way Albertrani handled it.
“I had been around pressure before, especially when I worked for (Hall of Fame trainer) Bill Mott, so it really didn’t get to me,” he said. “Plus, an owner like Sheikh Mohammed doesn’t put that kind of pressure on you.”
Bernardini, who made the The Blood-Horse cover after winning the Jim Dandy and Travers, shared the cover after his Jockey Club Gold Cup win with Lava Man after that runner won the Goodwood Breeders’ Cup Handicap (gr. II) at Oak Tree at Santa Anita on the same day. He was featured on the cover again prior to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. Another cover seemed to be on the horizon by virtue of a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but it wasn’t to be. The 11-10 favorite, Bernardini finished a length behind Shadwell’s Invasor.
Bernardini retired with six wins from eight races and earnings of $3,060,480. According to Dan Pride, Darley’s chief operating officer, Bernardini has settled in nicely at Darley and was a big attraction with horsemen during the Keeneland January horses of all ages sale.
Cara Rafaela is carrying a full sibling to Bernardini and is due March 12. She is booked back to A.P. Indy.
(Article appears in the January 27, 2007 issue of The Blood-Horse)