05/29/2006 12:00AM

Bernardini's Preakness win left reasonable doubt


NEW YORK - Now that we have had a little more than a week to digest the unfortunate incident involving Barbaro in the Preakness Stakes, and with Barbaro's recovery going as well as anyone could have hoped for, this is a good time to ask the following question: How well did Bernardini really run in winning the Preakness?

Among the adjectives used to describe Bernardini's victory at Pimlico was "phenomenal." Maybe it was. What we do know is Bernardini won with complete authority, by just over five lengths, and he ran fast enough to earn a Beyer Speed Figure of 113, which was conservatively adjusted downward after initially being 117. That Bernardini was able to perform the way he did after only three previous career starts, and without any prior experience racing around two turns, is unquestionably an accomplishment.

But did he really perform as spectacularly in the Preakness as just about everyone thinks? If you're going to do anything more than a superficial analysis of the Preakness, this is a fair question, and here's why:

Once Barbaro was out of the race, the Preakness became a hugely easier spot. The second choice, Brother Derek, even if he did make a rank middle move, was taken out of his game when he was left in the gate, and then stopped cold behind Barbaro's accident. Like Now, going a distance at which everyone considered him extremely suspect, was under heavy pressure on the lead, and at no stage did he seem a serious threat to carry his speed. Sweetnorthernsaint, the third choice, had the dirty job of keeping Like Now honest in front and was completely spent from that thankless task.

There are indications that the Preakness didn't turn out to be a very tough race at all. I mean, Hemingway's Key finished third! The same Hemingway's Key who had never before managed to finish better than sixth in a stakes race, and whose four stakes starts resulted in defeats of 16 3/4, 7 1/2, 8 1/2, and nine lengths.

Bernardini did what he should have done when presented with such a golden opportunity. He won big and ran fast. But that is exactly what good horses are supposed to do when they fall into the kind of optimal conditions Bernardini was charmed to get in the Preakness.

In truth, we really don't know how well Bernardini ran in the Preakness, because the measures most of us use - such as win margin, Beyer Speed Figures, level of company beaten - were so profoundly affected by the events within the race. Maybe Bernardini is a special horse, and maybe we were lucky enough to have two special horses in the same 3-year-old crop, even if just for a short time. But given how the breakdown of Barbaro started a chain of events that caused the Preakness to fall apart, there is nothing wrong with being a little more prudent in the assessment of Bernardini and to ask him to prove just how good he might be in a more truly run event.

It is too bad that race won't be the Belmont Stakes. The decision to have Bernardini pass the Belmont on June 10 has caused some concern that the last leg of this Triple Crown will resemble the 2000 Belmont Stakes, the most recent Belmont that did not have the Kentucky Derby or Preakness winner and one of the worst Triple Crown races in memory.

That 2000 Belmont was a terrible race by Triple Crown standards. It was ugly on paper, tantamount to a second-level allowance race. It was ugly in the running, with Commendable pulling the upset despite running his last six furlongs in 1:16.80. And it was ugly in hindsight, as runner-up Aptitude was the only one of the 11 starters to accomplish anything meaningful later in his career.

The good news is this Belmont Stakes, if the prospective field holds together, won't be nearly as bad as its 2000 counterpart. This Belmont promises to have a three-time stakes winner in Bluegrass Cat, the Wood Memorial winner in Bob and John, the Peter Pan winner in Sunriver, and the Tampa Bay Derby winner in Deputy Glitters. And Deputy Glitters will be one of the longer shots in the field, because there are a couple of appealing stakes-placed runners in Steppenwolfer and Jazil.

Was it New York-Bred Day?

It would be a surprise if there are any New York-bred races at Belmont during Belmont Stakes weekend, because it seemed as if the New York Racing Association satisfied its requirement of New York-bred races for the next three months over Memorial Day weekend. Of the 28 races carded at Belmont last Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, 11 of them, or 39 percent, were New York-bred races.

Now, I'm not knocking New York-bred races - sometimes, they are the best betting races on a NYRA card - but for five of the 10 races at Belmont Park on a racing day like Memorial Day to be restricted to New York-breds is completely contrary to the level of quality New York racing is supposed to be about.