10/24/2006 12:00AM

Amid sad losses, good horse gives hope

David Bernstein has Unfurl the Flag in the Cal Cup.

ARCADIA, Calif. - As a veteran trainer who has heard and seen it all, David Bernstein can think of a lot reasons to switch jocks when a rider misses a key race. Burying a brother, though, is not one of them.

When Jon Court had to rush back to Florida earlier this month upon receiving the news that his older brother James had been killed by a truck while riding his bike, he left a lot of Santa Anita business behind. One of the mounts was a personal favorite, Unfurl the Flag, who was using the Oct. 9 War Chant Handicap as his final prep for the California Cup Mile.

"At that point I was oblivious to anything," Court said this week. "I was just so caught up in the tragedy that had befallen the family. I did learn, while I was gone, that I would be getting the horse back, and I was grateful."

In Court's absence, and with Patrick Valenzuela aboard, Unfurl the Flag ran a scorcher. He was beaten just a half-length in the War Chant by Place Cowboy, with both of them shading 1:33 for the mile on firm turf.

"I wasn't going to be heartbroken if things changed," Court said. "I certainly understand. I've dealt with it before, with 25 years of experience. You just regroup and go on."

Bernstein said Court never had anything to fear.

"The owners were unanimous in their feeling that Jon shouldn't be penalized," Bernstein said, referring to Gaylord Ailshie, Tom Harris, and Bruce Rose.

"But when this horse is right, I think anybody can ride him," Bernstein went on. "Jon's a sit-still kind of rider, which is why we like him. Besides, he came up here from Del Mar a few times to work him over the summer, and when a guy drives a couple hundred miles, you sure want to ride him."

Bernstein's sympathies were not entirely based on mileage. Like Court, the trainer had just gone through great personal loss, in his case the death on July 10 of his 27-year-old son, Robert Bernstein, and the subsequent suicide of Robert's mother, Victoria. The Bernsteins were divorced, but still close because of their son, who had suffered from severe illnesses since birth, including cerebral palsy and congestive heart failure. Robert was turned down for a heart transplant not long before his death.

"Bobby and his mother would come down to Del Mar every summer, at least a couple times," Bernstein said. "She always took a lot of pictures - thousands of pictures of Bobby. But when he passed there was nothing more for her. She just couldn't bear it, so she decided to join him."

Although not among the high-volume trainers on the circuit, the 66-year-old Bernstein always seems to have at least one top-class animal to keep life interesting. Along the way he has handled such stakes winners as Dancing Liz, Grey Gauntlet, Stalcreek, Houston Sunrise, Truly a Judge, and The Wicked North, who won an Eclipse Award as champion older male of 1994. There was also Prince Bobby B., a multiple stakes winner of the mid-1990's named for Bobby Bernstein.

Unfurl the Flag is a son of Bertrando who was claimed out of his second race in August of 2002 by Bernstein and his partners for $40,000. Since then he has earned nearly $650,000.

"He's not quite as fragile as a lot of Bertrandos," Bernstein said. "He's stout and muscular. He has his issues, mostly with ankles, but we've turned him out a few times to let his little aches and pains heal, and he comes right back and fires for us. He's just a racehorse."

Before the 2006 season, Unfurl the Flag had never raced beyond seven furlongs. His finest hour came in July of 2005 in the Triple Bend Handicap at Hollywood, in which he dusted 12 opponents. His last three starts have been at a mile on grass, leading up to his appearance on Saturday in the $150,000 Cal Cup Mile.

"We decided we'd stretch him out this year because we thought it might be easier on him," Bernstein said. "We wanted to try the turf for the same reason. He's learned to relax now, which is something he didn't do earlier in his career. I think age and maturity plays a part - and the fact that going long he knows he doesn't have to go as fast as he can the first part of his races."

Court was clued into the plan from the beginning.

"My testimony was that it would be a great idea," the rider said. "As a sprinter, he would show something at the end of his race that showed me he was looking for more distance. And I thought the turf would certainly be conducive to his stride and his style."

Unfurl the Flag will have his hands full in the Cal Cup Mile, a race filled with speed. As far as Bernstein is concerned, though, his horse brings something extra to the table.

"The thing you can tell about when you claim them is how much heart they've got," Bernstein noted. "He certainly showed us he had a lot of heart when we got him, and it's still there."