Breeders' Cup a bittersweet ending without Barbaro around

Thursday, November 2nd 2006, 1:14 pm
By: News On 6

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) _ No matter what happens _ even on the biggest day in thoroughbred racing _ Bernardini seems destined to remain shadowed by Barbaro.

The Kentucky Derby winner is recovering from a devastating misstep at the start of the Preakness in what has been a bittersweet year in racing.

``It's wonderful that Bernardini came along, but it's taking awhile to get over Barbaro,'' longtime horse owner Cot Campbell said.

The Breeders' Cup, where nearly all the top horses in the world compete to determine the best of the best, features eight races worth $20 million at Churchill Downs on Saturday. All eyes will be on one race and one horse _ the $5 million Classic featuring the sensational Bernardini.

The 3-year-old colt is the sport's brightest star after six straight victories, and he's the overwhelming favorite to win and be voted Horse of the Year.

The Preakness sealed the Bernardini-Barbaro connection. The result left Barbaro fighting for his life at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa., his right hind leg shattered, and Preakness winner Bernardini trying to prove himself a worthy champion, too.

``It would have been a great race between them,'' Bernardini's trainer Tom Albertrani said. ``It's just unfortunate what happened to Barbaro. I think it could have been a great rivalry, like Affirmed and Alydar.''

And it could have happened in the Classic, with Barbaro taking on Bernardini and top contenders Invasor and Lava Man.

``That would have been certainly interesting,'' Barbaro trainer Michael Matz said. ``After Bernardini got real good, there was really no one that could challenge him. Whether these older horses do that, we'll see on Saturday.''

Barbaro's jockey Edgar Prado has a chance to defeat Bernardini aboard 30-1 long shot Premium Tap, but he would prefer to be back on his Derby winner.

``That will have to be a fantasy race,'' Prado said. ``It will be in the memories of all the fans.''

In racing, timing is everything. And it seems that whenever a popular horse is no longer able to race, there's always another ready to step up.

This year, it's Bernardini in for Barbaro.

``It reminds me of a quarterback that gets hurt and the other one comes in and he's just as good,'' said trainer Nick Zito, who will send out Sun King in the Classic. ``It's a blessing that Bernardini came along and took Barbaro's place because he looks like he's great, too.''

Barbaro is not the only Derby winner to be injured or retired before the Breeders' Cup, and probably won't be the last.

Giacomo, the 2005 Derby winner, missed last year's Classic with an injury but is back for Saturday's Classic. Smarty Jones, the 2004 Derby and Preakness winner, was retired after finishing second in the Belmont Stakes in his bid to capture the Triple Crown.

Each time, there was another horse to take center stage: Afleet Alex won the 2005 Preakness and Belmont; and Ghostzapper had an unbeaten 2004 campaign to take Horse of the Year honors.

``The heroes come and go pretty quickly in this game,'' said D.G. Van Clief, Breeders' Cup president emeritus. ``You lose a good horse and then he's replaced by a brilliant racehorse. Barbaro is one of the great stories of the year _ his survival and now his recovery shows what a game animal he is and what great care they are giving him.''

Barbaro's rise to fame was rapid. Entering the Derby, the 3-year-old colt was unbeaten in five races. When he overpowered the Derby field and won by 6 1/2 lengths _ the largest winning margin in 60 years _ Barbaro was being hailed as the next Triple Crown winner and first since Affirmed in 1978.

Then came the Preakness, when Barbaro took a misstep a few strides out of the starting gate. His right hind leg flared out awkwardly as Prado jumped off and tried to steady the ailing horse. Race fans at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore wept. Within 24 hours the entire nation seemed to be caught up in a ``Barbaro watch,'' waiting for any news on his condition.

And each time things looked grim, Barbaro pulled through, from the five-hour surgery the day after the injury to the laminitis that set in and caused 80 percent of his left hind hoof to be removed.

The right leg is all but healed, while the left foot continues to grow back slowly.

``He still does not have a normal left hind foot. ... He still has a long way to go,'' said Dr. Dean Richardson, Barbaro's veterinarian who was honored Wednesday night by the National Turf Writers Association, along with the rest of Team Barbaro _ owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson, Matz, assistant trainer Peter Brette and Prado.

Millions have been captivated with Barbaro's recovery, and the hospital still receives carrots, apples, mints and get-well baskets addressed to the colt.

Meanwhile, Bernardini's impressive 5 1/4-length Preakness victory was all but overlooked. Trainer Todd Pletcher noticed, though, and called the win as impressive as Barbaro's Derby victory.

Albertrani, who trains Bernardini for owner Sheik Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, knew he had a special horse and that eventually everyone would notice.

He was right.

After the Preakness, Bernardini was rested and held out of the Belmont Stakes. But he came back better than ever and easily won two races at Saratoga _ the Jim Dandy Stakes and the prestigious Travers Stakes.

Last month, the son of 1992 Horse of the Year A.P. Indy tuned up for the Classic with a dominating 6 3/4-length win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.

Now comes the Classic, the richest race in America and perhaps the final race of Bernardini's career.

``If he wins, he will stamp himself as one of the all-time greats,'' Albertrani said.

And Barbaro, no doubt, will be right there with him.