10/31/2006 1:00AM

Hand in hand with the greats

Bernardini, Simon Harris up, gets his final workout Tuesday at Belmont before the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Albertrani was an assistant with Bill Mott when Mott had his best years, in the mid-1990's, including the first of two Horse of the Year campaigns with Cigar. After Albertrani took a position with Sheikh Mohammed's mighty Godolphin stable, where he was the top assistant to trainer Saeed bin Suroor, Godolphin won races such as the Dubai World Cup with Dubai Millennium and the Breeders' Cup Turf with Daylami and Fantastic Light.

Now, Albertrani has stepped from the shadow of his long-time role as an assistant. Once again, though, a wonderful horse is right at his side. Surely, it cannot be a coincidence.

Bernardini represents the latest in a series of top-class horses with whom Albertrani, 48, has been associated. This time, though, Albertrani is front and center as the trainer of the horse. And if Bernardini, 3, can close out his year on Saturday with a victory in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, Albertrani will have trained this country's Horse of the Year, a little more than three years since going out on his own and opening a New York-based stable.

"I've been very fortunate to be around some very special horses like Cigar and Dubai Millennium," Albertrani said one recent morning at Belmont Park. "And now to be around another like Bernardini."

Bernardini has won six straight races, including the Preakness, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup, to emerge as the strong favorite for the Classic. Like Albertrani, Bernardini initially was overlooked and then suddenly was appreciated for being quite special.

Albertrani is a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., who first worked at the track when he was a teenager for his uncle, trainer Jack Abatemarco. He enjoyed riding and tried his hand as a jockey. From the late 1970's through the early 1980's, Albertrani rode in New York, New England, and Kentucky. He won just 49 races before growing too big to continue.

He was a talented exercise rider, though, so even though he might not have had the skill, nor the physique, to be a successful jockey, Albertrani's way with horses proved valuable. He first worked for Mott galloping some of his best runners of that era, like the mare Heatherten, then advanced to become his top assistant during the years when Mott trained the likes of Theatrical and Cigar. While he was with Mott, Albertrani caught the eye of Sheikh Mohammed, who was looking to launch his Dubai-based Godolphin stable and wanted a horseman who had been an assistant for a top-class, American-based training operation. Albertrani joined the team in 1995, and in 1999, Eoin Harty - then an assistant to Bob Baffert - would come aboard based on the same criteria.

Albertrani, his wife, Fonda - who had been the exercise rider for Cigar - and their two daughters, Noelle and Teal, then spent the next four years splitting time in Dubai and Great Britain, then Dubai and the United States. In the fall of 2003, Albertrani returned to New York full time with horses for Sheikh Mohammed. Less than a year later, Albertrani won the Frizette Stakes with the filly Balletto, who is still going strong at age 4 and will run on Saturday in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff.

Albertrani had 15 horses then, all for Sheikh Mohammed's Darley Stable, a sister operation to Godolphin. Since being allowed to take outside clients in addition to horses who race for Darley, Albertrani is up to 40 horses, 18 of whom are Darley-owned.

"It's about quality, not quantity," said Albertrani, who won this year's Tampa Bay Derby with Deputy Glitters for owner Joe Lacombe.

Bernardini arrived in Albertrani's barn in September 2005 after doing his early training with the since-deceased Robert Scanlon in Ocala, Fla. Darley uses several trainers, in both the United States and Europe.

"They just told me he was on my list," Albertrani said. "I was pretty fortunate."

Bernardini did not get to the races until Jan. 7 of this year, at Gulfstream Park.

"Before his first race, just watching him, you could see he was very, very talented," Albertrani said. "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 already 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."

Bernardini broke slowly from an inside post and finished fourth under Jerry Bailey, who has had to endure teasing of being the only jockey to lose a race on Bernardini. According to Albertrani, Bailey told him after the race, "The light bulb didn't go on."

"But that race got him to focus," Albertrani said. "The next few weeks, he was a lot better. Jerry saw him after a couple of works and said, 'I guess the floodlights came on.' "

Bailey retired at the end of January, so Edgar Prado had the mount when Bernardini made his second start, on March 4 at Gulfstream. He stretched out to a mile, added Lasix, and cruised home 7 3/4 lengths best against maidens. Prado had a conflict for Bernardini's next start, so Javier Castellano got the mount and has had it since.

Albertrani is soft-spoken, eschews showiness, and is conservative in the way he trains. He tipped his hand as to his confidence in Bernardini, though, over the next two months. First, he jumped Bernardini from a maiden race straight into a stakes, the Withers at Aqueduct on April 29. And after a 3 3/4-length victory in that race, Albertrani put Bernardini in the Preakness Stakes. It was only Bernardini's fourth start, and he would be facing the overpowering winner of the Derby, the unbeaten Barbaro.

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

The Preakness was Bernardini's coming-out party on a national stage, but the tragic injury to Barbaro understandably overshadowed his dazzling 5 1/4-length victory. It was not until subsequent effortless wins in the Jim Dandy, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup that the rest of the world came to realize what Albertrani had long suspected, that Bernardini was a rare nugget.

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