07/23/2006 11:00PM

Bernardini's second act begins with Jim Dandy

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ELMONT, N.Y. - To some, Bernardini remains almost as much a mystery exiting the Preakness as he was entering it. Trainer Tom Albertrani looks forward to unraveling that mystery this summer at Saratoga.

Unraced since his dominant Preakness victory on May 20, Bernardini starts the second half of his 3-year-old season in Saturday's Grade 2, $500,000 Jim Dandy Stakes. Provided all goes well there, he will return in the $1 million Travers on Aug. 26. The Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park on Oct. 7 and the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4 are also on the docket, if Bernardini continues to excel.

That ambitious schedule was one reason why his connections elected to keep Bernardini out of the Belmont Stakes. That decision, coupled with the fact his Preakness victory was overshadowed by the catastrophic injury suffered by Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro in the Preakness, casts a specter of doubt on Bernardini entering the second half of the year.

"I think there's still a lot of doubt in people's minds what he really accomplished, being that Barbaro got injured," Albertrani said during a recent interview in his Belmont Park office. "The way that he ran the race, I think you'd have to really give the horse credit. His Beyer was a 113 - that's saying a lot for a horse that's been lightly raced."

Bernardini has raced only four times, as his 3-year-old season was interrupted because of a temperature in February and a foot bruise in early April.

"He was beat only one time, in his first start," Albertrani said. "I believe this horse will continue to do well and he will get the recognition the second part of the season."

Bernardini, a son of A.P. Indy out of the Grade 1-winning mare Cara Rafaela, entered the Preakness on a two-race winning streak, but had beaten only three horses in the Grade 2 Withers in April. Moreover, he was trying to stretch out from a one-turn mile to two turns and 1 3/16 miles in the Preakness, against a dominant Kentucky Derby winner in Barbaro.

In the Preakness, Bernardini received a perfect

stalking trip under Javier Castellano, sitting third early behind Like Now and Sweetnorthernsaint, then fourth after Brother Derek joined the leaders. Entering the far turn, Bernardini catapulted into second, then put Sweetnorthernsaint - the beaten Kentucky Derby favorite - away in upper stretch while winning by 5 1/4 lengths under a hard ride. Bernardini ran his final three-sixteenths of a mile in 18.92 seconds.

"He reminded me of Ghostzapper in the [2005] Met Mile," said Castellano, who was the regular rider of Ghostzapper, the 2004 Horse of the Year. "He made that kind of move. He had good acceleration, he went by the other horses, and he flew in the end."

Still, the performance went virtually unnoticed when Barbaro was pulled up an eighth of a mile into the race with a broken right hind leg.

Less than a week after the Preakness, owner Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, under whose Darley Stable banner Bernardini runs, announced Bernardini would skip the Belmont Stakes. Albertrani said Bernardini would have needed a break at some point this season, and that was as good a time as any. Albertrani believes the time off has done Bernardini some good.

"Physically, he's filled out more, he's been more mature,'' said Albertrani, who worked Bernardini five furlongs in 1:00.82 on Monday at Belmont Park and planned to ship him to Saratoga on Tuesday. "Things were just beginning to change just before the Preakness with him. He was just starting to turn into a man right before the Preakness. He looks as good now as he did then."

Trainer Todd Pletcher, who is seeking his fourth straight Jim Dandy win with Sunriver, believes Bernardini's Preakness victory "was every bit as impressive as Barbaro's Derby win in my eyes." Pletcher could see Bernardini sweeping the Jim Dandy and Travers just like Pletcher's Flower Alley did here last summer.

"I think he's any kind of horse," Pletcher said. "You look at his last three races he looks to be very clearly the horse to beat in the Jim Dandy, and the Travers for that matter.''

On the other hand, John Ward, who will send out Dr. Pleasure and Minister's Bid against Bernardini in the Jim Dandy, needs to see more from the Preakness winner.

"I think he made a very strong move on a bunch of [tired] horses," Ward said. "He was a fresh horse making that move. The other horses were pretty beat up. I will stand behind my own two horses, and that's the only thing I can say. I'm not running for cover yet. I might be looking for a hole after the Jim Dandy."