Very few thought any of his five rivals had much of a shot at beating Bernardini at equal weights in Saturday's 137th Travers (gr. I) at Saratoga Race Course. But this appeared so effortless that jockey Javier Castellano was clapping the winner on the neck – with a sixteenth of a mile to go!
By then Bernardini was a good seven lengths in front of Haskell Invitational (gr. I) winner Bluegrass Cat. If there was any doubt about it beforehand, Darley Stable's homebred son of A.P. Indy
--Cara Rafaela proved he's easily the best 3-year-old in the land with his 7 1/2-length victory.
"He's pretty sharp," Castellano told ESPN moments after his victory. "Right now, I don't think any horse can beat this horse."
The margin of victory was the largest in the Travers since General Assembly won by 15 lengths in 1979.
Trainer Tom Albertrani said afterward that Bernardini would shoot for the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) at Belmont Park Oct. 7 next. Looming, of course, is the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (gr. I).
"I was just praying that he would show up as the phenomenal horse I know him to be," Albertrani said. "And he did. He's just getting sharper every race. It's pretty scary."
Under cloudy skies before a crowd of 40,785, Castellano drove Bernardini to the lead in the $1 million Travers heading into the clubhouse turn when it appeared he might get trapped behind Todd Pletcher-trained entrants High Cotton - who led coming out of the gate - and Bluegrass Cat on the outside. That proved to be the winning move, as Bernardini overtook High Cotton easily and set a realistic pace while Bluegrass Cat stalked.
That's the way they ran until the head of the final turn, when Bernardini responded to hand urging from Castellano to begin to pull away. Bluegrass Cat tried to stick but, by the time the pair hit the top of the lane, it was clear that it was all over. Castellano gave Bernardini a light tap of the whip left-handed at the eighth pole but otherwise allowed his charge to run out.
The virtuoso effort had John Ferguson, Darley's bloodstock advisor, calling Bernardini a superstar.
"I firmly believe he is," Ferguson said. "What makes him special is his father is A.P. Indy (1992 Horse of the Year). So he's a superstar of a race horse and superstar of a physical specimen, too."
Albertrani, an assistant under Bill Mott when he campaigned Cigar, says Bernardini has the potential to become just as popular as the two-time Horse of the Year.
"To have a horse of this caliber, I think it's great for racing," Albertrani said. "Great to have people cheering for a horse. That's what it's all about. Cigar got the attention of a nation and, hopefully, this horse will, too."
Bluegrass Cat held on for second, while Dr. Pleasure - ridden by Cornelio Velasquez - finished third.
"You are always worried about 20 days and coming back on short rest," Pletcher said of Bluegrass Cat. "Our horse kept digging in and gave us a big effort. The way we had to ride him – aggressively the whole race to soften up the favorite – you just wish you had another week between starts."
The winning time for the 1 1/4-mile event was 2:01 3/5, the fastest since Point Given
ran a tick faster in 2001. Bernardini carved fractions of :22 3/5, :48 and 1:12 3/5.
After a fourth-place finish in his debut Jan. 7, the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner Bernardini has won five races in a row by a combined 33 1/4 lengths, including his nine-length triumph at Saratoga in the Jim Dandy (gr. II) July 29. With the $600,000 winner's share, his earnings now stand at $1,610,480.
Sent off at 2-5, Bernardini paid $2.70, $2.10, and $2.10. Bluegrass Cat returned $2.50 and $2.60. Dr. Pleasure was $4.70 to show.
Hesanoldsalt took fourth, while High Cotton and Minister's Bid - who was unruly in the post parade and caused problems in the starting gate - trailed. Kip Deville scratched.