With Bernardini Out, the Belmont Lacks Star Power
T.O. Whenham of Doc's Sports Picks
I wouldn't blame anyone who was superstitious and thought that the 2006 Triple Crown was cursed. Potential stars, like Stevie Wonderboy, got hurt in decidedly innocent situations on the road to the Derby, the Preakness turned into one of the more tragic and heart-wrenching days in the history of the sport, Brother Derek had two of the most uniquely rotten trips in recent memory, and now Bernardini's connections have chosen to skip the Belmont. Certainly not the course of events that Belmont officials were hoping for.
The decision not to run Bernardini in the Belmont is one of the most bizarre and, on the surface, incomprehensible decisions I can remember in a sport that often doesn't follow a logical path. Darley Stables, the owner of Bernardini, is owned by Sheik Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, and fronted in the U.S. by Jimmy Bell, whose family sold Darley the well-known Jonabell Stables and their impressive roster of stallions. Sheik Mohammed is consistently among the world leaders in both the number of horses in training and the amount spent buying new horses at sales. They have been incredibly successful, but Bernardini earned their first Triple Crown victory.
The reasoning behind the decision was reportedly that they felt that the horse needed rest after 'three races in quick succession'. That's ridiculous. He broke his maiden on March 4, won the Withers on April 29, and then won the Preakness with ease on May 20. The Belmont isn't until June 10, so he would have had just four races in 99 days, or an average of more than a month between starts. Not exactly taxing. On top of that, he is clearly the best three year old on the scene right now, he's bred and runs almost perfectly for the distance of the Belmont, and he would have been a near-prohibitive favorite in the race. In a year in which racing desperately needs a positive story and a new star, it seems almost irresponsible for the Darley team to hold their horse out of a position so well suited. Unless there is something wrong with Bernardini that we don't know about (and likely never will), this is an incredibly frustrating decision.
Now that that's off my chest, I should note that the absence of both a Derby and Preakness winner in the Belmont is rare but not unprecedented. The last time it happened was in 2000 when Red Bullet upset Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus in the Preakness. Red Bullet just made one stop on the Triple Crown trail that year. Before that, it happened in 1970, when both longshot Derby winner Dust Commander and Preakness winner and eventual three-year-old champion Personality skipped the challenge of the Belmont.
As there is in most situations, there is decidedly a bright side to this seemingly dark situation. Sure, the Belmont is now a race without stars, which will get absolutely pathetic television ratings, but for those of us who like to place a bet it means that we will be able to get a good price. Bernardini would have been a heavy favorite after dominating the Preakness, and would have pulled down the prices on the exotics, too. Now we have a field with several intriguing prospects, but no runaway choice. That means an acceptable winning price if we can pick the winner, and likely some juicy payouts for the exotics.
It's hard to know for sure who the favorite will be until the field is set, but based on what we know now, that favorite will likely be trained by Todd Pletcher. It could be Sunriver, the horse that narrowly missed the Derby because he didn't have enough graded stakes earnings, but rebounded by winning the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont in an impressive late charge, or it could be Bluegrass Cat, the horse that was an early star on the trail, strung together a couple of unimpressive starts, then rebounded by finishing second in the Derby behind Barbaro. Sunriver also has experience following Barbaro across the finish line, having finished a solid third in the Florida Derby.
Another Derby returnee will be Jazil, the late closer who finished in a dead heat for fourth with Brother Derek in Kentucky. He's owned by Sheik Hamdan of Dubai, Sheik Mohammed's brother. If he can get a brisk pace, he could close hard down the stretch to get a piece of the action. He looked tired by the end of the Derby, so the five-week break will serve him well.
Bob Baffert will likely send at least one and maybe two Derby starters back for another shot. Bob and John is almost certain, and Point Determined is possible. Both had very disappointing runs in Kentucky, but have the talent and the potential to make it interesting in the Belmont. Point Determined is a son of Point Given, who completely and absolutely destroyed the field in the 2001 Belmont, so nostalgic bettors might bet him down more than you would otherwise expect.
There are plenty of wild cards in the potential field, including Pletcher trainee High Cotton, who cruised to an easy win in the Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico on Preakness day, but hadn't done a lot before that, and Deputy Glitters, the Derby starter from Tom Albertrani, Bernardini's trainer, who was flat in Kentucky. No horse combines potential and uncertainty more, however, than Oh So Awesome. Team Valor bought the horse from France earlier this year specifically to run in the Belmont. He ran just one race here, and the third-place finish in a meaningless stakes race really told us nothing. He's run longer distances in France than any of his peers in North America, but he hasn't overwhelmed in them. At first glance there isn't much to like about the horse, but Team Valor had to have seen something to go to the effort and expense of bringing him here.
The 2006 Belmont Stakes will not be a star-filled affair, and it likely won't be a race we are talking about years from now, but at least it provides the potential for some serious profit. That's better than nothing.