For Bernardini it was Jim Dandy to the Rescue

Bernardini, who made nine shuttle trips to Australia, died at age 18 last week just as he was emerging as the hottest young broodmare sire in the country, having sired the dams of Maxfield, Catholic Boy, Serengeti Empress, Dunbar Road and a number other top-class runners. As a racehorse, he had to constantly “wow” people to remove himself from the shadow of Barbaro, which he accomplished with a series of spectacular victories, the most important, in my opinion, being the Jim Dandy Stakes, which catapulted him to the threshold of greatness. ~ Steve Haskin

For Berdnardini it was Jim Dandy to the Rescue

By Steve Haskin

One of the most bittersweet comments one can hear in Thoroughbred racing is “Imagine what he could have done at 4.” It is bittersweet because on one hand it is used only when he have seen something extraordinary at 3 and on the other it envisions new amazing feats left only to the imagination. We heard it with Secretariat and we heard it with American Pharoah.

In 2006 we heard it with Bernardini, but with an added twist. Unlike with Big Red and Pharoah, who defeated every top horse they faced and departed on a high note, Benardini left behind the taste of defeat and then not being given the opportunity to rectify it. His departure enabled his lone conqueror Invasor to bask in further glory that eventually led him to the Hall of Fame while Bernardini was left with mainly “what ifs.”

When one looks back at the whirlwind career of this gifted colt they naturally think of his brilliant victories in the grade 1 Preakness (by 5 ¾ lengths), Travers (by 7 ½ lengths), and Jockey Club Gold Cup (by 6 ¾ lengths). But his most impressive and important victory was actually the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes. Although his meteoric rise to stardom, winning the Withers Stakes by 3 ¾ lengths in 1:35 flat and the Preakness in a sharp 1:54 3/5 in only the third and fourth starts of his career, made people aware of this new sensation there was a shadow hanging over it by the name of Barbaro who was fighting for his life at New Bolton Medical Center after suffering at catastrophic injury shortly after the start of the Preakness.

As spectacular as Bernardini’s victory in the Preakness was, the rapidly growing legion of Barbaro fans and racing fans in general were far from convinced that he would have beaten their undefeated hero, who had just stunned the racing world with one of the most brilliant victories in the history of the Kentucky Derby, winning by 6 ½ lengths in a sharp 2:01 1/5.

Barbaro’s fight for life reached global proportions as the entire world waited for updates daily. From a personal standpoint, I was picked up at my home in New Jersey and driven to Manhattan to appear on ESPN’S popular morning show Cold Pizza to discuss Barbaro. While at the Preakness I went on National Public Radio (NPR) to provide perspective to their vast audience, most of whom were not familiar with Barbaro or horse racing, but were caught up in his struggle and his courage.

The longer Barbaro continued to fight gallantly to survive the larger the shadow he cast on Bernardini. Some felt the son of A.P. Indy’s victory at Pimlico was so impressive, visually and statistically, it would have taken a herculean performance by Barbaro to defeat him, but most felt either Barbaro would have repeated his Derby effort and that Bernardini merely took advantage of the situation or they simply were unsure what would have happened. In either case, the Preakness became more about Barbaro’s injury than Bernardini’s victory.

Trainer Tom Albertrani decided to bypass the Belmont Stakes and prepare Bernardini for a summer and fall campaign, targeting the Travers and then the big races against older horses

As for the possibility of dethroning Barbaro as the division leader, 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. A horse like him doesn’t come around too often. I just think this is a special horse; I’ve been saying that all along.”

And I can attest to that. As Bernardini continued to go from strength to strength, I kept thinking back to a morning at Belmont Park the previous fall. It was Breeders’ Cup week, with the event being held in New York for what would prove to be the last time.

I was at the gap when Tom Albertrani came by on his pony. Tom was one of the most low-keyed and understated people I knew, so when, despite the number of promising stars in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he said to me, “The best 2-year-old in the country isn’t running in the race,” I was stunned. That comment was so out of character for him, and it was followed by a sly smirk on his face, as if he wanted the world to know who the best 2-year-old was, but felt compelled to keep it under wraps.

“You can’t say that and leave it at that. Who is he?” I replied. But Tom refused to budge, “I’m not saying because he hasn’t run yet.” What? Tom Albertrani has a horse who hasn’t run yet and he tells me he’s the best 2-year-old in the country? I kept after him for the next few months. Who was this mystery sensation of his and when will he be revealed? But all he kept telling me was, “You’ll know him when you see him run.”

When I was at Gulfstream Park the following winter with my wife, we stood on the grandstand steps and watched a colt trained by Tom work, and as he went by us he blew me away. What a stride! What action! What a physical presence! I turned to my wife and said, “Wow! that has to be the colt Tom told me about.” His name was Bernardini, owned by Darley Stable, and I knew right then he was special. Needless to say it was no surprise when he broke his maiden on March 4 by nearly eight lengths in 1:35 2/5 and then romped in the Withers Stakes.

Following his maiden victory, Albertrani, despite the presence of rising stars Barbaro, Brother Derek, and Lawyer Ron, said, “I told you back in the fall you haven’t seen the best one and I still mean that. One day you’ll get to write a story on this horse. He just has a presence about him. Everyone who’s ever had him said there’s something special about him. He’s got that look in his eye.”

Even with Bernardini having only three career starts and never having gone two turns I knew Barbaro would have to run another scorcher in the Preakness to beat him. The morning of the race Albertrani said to me, “We’re this close to telling the story,” holding his thumb and forefinger close together. “I feel very confident. I believe he’s going to peak today.”

Of course we’ll never know what would have happened at Pimlico. Despite his impressive victory, Bernardini, two months after the Preakness, was still a horse looking for recognition and overshadowed by Barbaro and his well-publicized battle. With the Jim Dandy Stakes approaching, this would be Bernardini’s chance to finally show the world he was something special and not just a horse who backed into his Preakness victory because of Barbaro’s misfortune. He would have the daunting task of turning the eyes of the racing world away from Barbaro and toward him, focusing now on the sport’s newest superstar. Despite the 10-week layoff, Bernardini did not have the luxury of simply winning the race, whether he was fully cranked for it or not. He needed to do something spectacular with the entire racing world watching.

On July 17, Bernardini struck his first blow by breezing five furlongs in a bullet :58 4/5, coming home his final quarter in :23 2/5 and galloping out six furlongs in 1:12 1/5. He followed that up with a strong maintenance breeze in 1:00 4/5 while in a common gallop.

The Jim Dandy would be far from a walk in the park with the presence of Todd Pletcher’s Peter Pan winner and Belmont Stakes third-place finisher Sunriver, the undefeated Minister’s Bid, the Nick Zito-trained Hemingway’s Key, third in the Preakness, and Cowdin Stakes runner-up Dr. Pleasure, all of whom would be getting eight pounds from Bernardini.

In addition, Bernardini would have to wow the racing world running on a heavy, sticky track that was turned sloppy by an afternoon deluge.

Javier Castelano sent the 1-2 Bernardini to the lead, stalked by Minister’s Bid, who chased him through fractions of :23.89, :47.36, and 1:11.33. Sunriver, who had been battling with Minister’s Bid for second, quickly dropped out of it, and when Edgar Prado began showing Minister’s Bid the whip and gave him a left-handed crack leaving the five-sixteenths pole, it was obvious the race was all but over. Castellano had barely moved on Bernardini. He looked over his left shoulder and then his right at the top of the stretch, while keeping his colt about four paths off the rail. Dr. Pleasure made what appeared to be a threatening move on the far outside, but when Castellano remained motionless on Bernardini and looked over his right shoulder again at the three-sixteenths pole, everyone knew it was just a matter of how many lengths he would win by.

We have seen many top-class horses win eased up in the final sixteenth, but I cannot recall a horse being eased up the entire length of the stretch. After one little flick of his wrist as soon as he turned for home, Castellano’s hands never moved an inch the rest of the way. It was truly a sight to behold.

Despite never coming out of a gallop, Bernardini drew off with every stride and just coasted home the easiest of winners, covering the 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.50 over the bog-like track. Not only was this as dominant a performance as anyone had seen in years, Bernardini’s action and stride were so flawless it was as if his feet barely touched the ground. It was pure poetry watching him glide over the ground.

So effortless was his performance, racecaller Tom Durkin seemed stunned when he bellowed, “Javier Castellano like a statue in the stirrups as they glide past the eighth pole with a five-length lead. An effortless performance by Bernardini. Look at this! He didn’t raise a sweat and it’s 90 degrees.”

The following morning, noted veterinarian Mark Cheney went over to Albertrani and said, “Hey listen, if you need a jock, holler. Even I could have ridden that sonofagun.”

Jimmy Bell, president of Darley USA, added, “He just makes it look so easy, and that stride down the lane was unbelievable. All I can say is we’re very lucky to have a horse like this.”

Even the Equibase chart-caller got caught up in the ease of the victory, with the redundant comment: “galloped under wraps.”

Judging by the cheers that poured out of the grandstand following the colt’s spectacular victory and the accolades that followed, it looked as if even the cynics finally were intent on paying tribute to racing’s newest phenom and removing him forever form the shadow of Barbaro.

What started out as a quest for respect turned into a quest for greatness. Benardini obviously still had a ways to go before entering the realm of the greats, but there were few people at Saratoga Race Course on July 29 who didn’t have that word pass through their mind, even for a brief moment.

The morning after the race, Bernardini seemed happy and content as he devoured a large batch of clover. “He came back in great shape, as if he’d never even run,” Albertrani said. “I think this put a lot of doubts to rest about his Preakness performance. Maybe now he can pick up where Barbaro left off. There’s been a lot of anticipation from the Preakness to the Jim Dandy for him to show everybody just what a talented horse he really is.”

The Jim Dandy was just the beginning as Bernardini continued to demolish every opponent he faced, romping in the Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup. Not only had he won his last four starts by an average margin of 7 ¼ lengths, his Beyer speed figures went from 113 to 114 to 116 to 117. It was rare for a 3-year-old to keep increasing his speed figures at that high a level and doing while coasting home by huge margins. I couldn’t help but think of a line from the classic movie Kentucky when a young trainer sees a magnificent horse in the paddock and says to a groom, “He’s beautiful, who’s he by?” And the groom answers, “By himself, usually.”

I covered all four of those races, from the Preakness to the Gold Cup, and finally the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and saw plenty of him in the morning. Although he didnt have a shred of white on him you could spot Bernardini a hundred yards away. He had a presence about him that was rare. No other horse looked like him; he stood out in a crowd and simply was spectacular to look at; a man among boys. In short, he took your breath away.

Unfortunately, in the Classic, his powerful strides and flawless action were missing over the cuppy Churchill Downs surface. Facing one of the strongest and deepest Classic fields ever assembled that included Grade 1 horses Lava Man, Invasor, Lawyer Ron, Premium Tap, Giacomo, Flower Alley, Sun King, Brother Derek, Perfect Drift, and European stars George Washington and David Junior, who between them had won seven Group 1 stakes, Bernardini still was able to make an electrifying, but premature, move on the far turn after appearing to be struggling to keep up down the backstretch. Even race caller Trevor Denman noticed that “Bernardini is back in fifth and might be asking to pick it up from here.” For the first time it looked as if the colt was not firing.

Then in the blink of an eye, he kicked into another gear and accelerated so quickly, blowing by horses, Denman’s voice rose several octaves, as in disbelief. “Now, Bernardini has kicked it in!” he bellowed. “It looked like he might have been battling (to keep up).” Then his voice reached a crescendo: “Bernardini with a magnificent rush! And Bernardini strikes the front.”

Whether it was the cuppy surface that saw Lava Man and others fade badly, Bernardini began to shorten stride in midstretch, as the Uruguayan Triple Crown winner Invasor came charging up on his outside. Bernardini continued to battle to the wire, but he fell 1 ¼ lengths short of the older Invasor, who would extend his consecutive winning streak of Grade 1 victories (that included the Pimlico Special, Suburban Handicap, and Whitney Stakes) to six the following year with wins in the Donn Handicap and Dubai World Cup before an injury ended his career.

It was no disgrace to get beat by a future Hall of Famer and older horse who would win Grade 1 stakes on three continents, but Castellano was blamed for making such a dramatic move so early, and over a track Bernardini appeared not to be handling. The first inclination was to look ahead to 2007 and imagine the amazing feats he was going to accomplish as a 4-year-old. But that was short-lived when it was decided to retire him to boost the new Darley at Jonabell Farm. Sheikh Mohammed had purchased Jonabell Farm in 2001 and then consolidated Gainsborough and Jonabell into one stallion operation in 2005. What could be bigger than to showcase his new farm with a stallion like Bernardini, who had the pedigree to go along with his looks and talent? So that was the end of the brief but spectacular career of one of the most exciting horses seen in years.

We won’t remember Bernardini for his Preakness victory or his big margins or his lofty speed ratings. What we will remember is the impact he made on people from the mere sight of him. Whether he was running, walking, or standing still, he filled the eye with his magnificence.

Perhaps Jimmy Bell spoke for everyone when he said following the Jim Dandy, “It’s a privilege and a thrill to watch him run.”

Photos courtesy of Adam Coglianese, New York Racing Association, Darley America


Signup for the newsletter For new announcements, merchandise updates and other excitement here at, please enter your email address in the popup window. Our mailing list is never sold or viewed by anyone other than