01/26/2007 1:00AM

Bernardini's career was brief but brilliant


When Bernardini first burst onto the national scene, few people noticed. His dominating victory in the Preakness Stakes was understandably overshadowed by the career-ending injuries that were suffered by Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro and Barbaro's chances of survival.

By the end of the year, though, Bernardini had moved out of the shadows. He was named champion 3-year-old male over Barbaro, and was a finalist for Horse of the Year, which went to the older horse Invasor.

Bernardini's career was brief, but in his eight races over 10 months he proved to be one of the most captivating runners of the decade. He was on an accelerated learning program. Bernardini jumped from a maiden win straight into a stakes race, and from that into the Preakness, which was only his fourth lifetime start and his first race around two turns. Yet he effortlessly, almost disdainfully, handled all those obstacles.

Bernardini, by A.P. Indy out of the Quiet American mare Cara Rafaela, did not make his debut until Jan. 7, 2006, in a six-furlong maiden race at Gulfstream Park.

"Before his first race, just watching him, you could see he was very, very talented," said Bernardini's trainer, Tom Albertrani. "Until they run, though, you don't really know. With a horse like that, you're of course thinking about the Kentucky Derby, but we were running out of time.

"I wanted to start him out going seven furlongs or a mile, but a six-furlong race came up the first week at Gulfstream. He got in. If I waited another two weeks for a seven-furlong race, there was a chance he would not get in, and then he wouldn't run until February."

Racing at a distance short of his optimum, Bernardini started slowly and finished fourth.

He would not lose again until his last start of the year.

After defeating maidens at Gulfstream, Bernardini went straight into the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct and crushed his rivals while being ridden for the first time by Javier Castellano, who became his regular rider. Albertrani then put Bernardini in the Preakness, against Barbaro, who had scored an overpowering victory in the Kentucky Derby. Bernardini was 12-1.

"Before the Preakness, he just blossomed," Albertrani said. "He deserved a chance in that race."

Bernardini won the Preakness by 5 1/4 lengths, displaying the high turn of speed that would carry him to three more victories. But few saw it, as most eyes turned to the drama unfolding with Barbaro.

Subsequent romping victories in the Jim Dandy, the Travers, and then the Jockey Club Gold Cup against older horses confirmed that Bernardini's Preakness was not an opportunistic fluke, but a coming-out party.

"I wish I could say I'm surprised, but I'm not," Albertrani said just before the Breeders' Cup Classic. "I always thought he was a special horse. It's nice to see one come through and reach those expectations."

In his final start, Bernardini finished second in the Classic to Invasor.

Bernardini has proven that you can go home again. He is owned and was bred by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum's Darley Stud in Lexington, Ky., and he was retired to Darley at Jonabell at the end of 2006 to begin stud duty this spring.