05/25/2006 11:00PM

Why isn't Bernardini going?


NEW YORK - We'll never know what might have happened if Barbaro had hooked up with Bernardini down the stretch of the Preakness instead of being pulled up with career-ending injuries 100 yards into the race. It might have been a classic of a classic, though, because by several measures Bernardini's Preakness performance was in the same rarefied territory as Barbaro's victory in Louisville two weeks earlier.

Bernardini's performance understandably and perhaps properly received only quiet and secondary notice once Barbaro was hurt, but it was a dazzler. His 5 1/2-length victory over Sweetnorthernsaint in 1:54.65 was the fastest raw Preakness time in a decade and came over a track that was playing only slightly faster than usual. One race earlier, older horses need 1:49.42 to cover nine furlongs in the Grade 3 Schaefer Handicap.

Bernardini's effort translated to a Beyer Speed Figure of 113 that if anything was conservative, allowing for the possibility the track had gotten a bit quicker later in the day. That 113 is higher than Barbaro's Derby (111) and the winning Preakness Beyers earned by dual-classic winners Real Quiet (111), Charismatic (107), Point Given (111), War Emblem (109), and Afleet Alex (112).

What made it even more impressive is that Bernardini was taking a huge step up in class and distance against more experienced and tested opponents. The son of A.P. Indy and Cara Rafaela was bred for distance but was making only his fourth career start and his first around two turns or beyond a mile.

All of which makes his owners' decision to skip the June 10 Belmont Stakes, where he would have been a heavy favorite, somewhere between mystifying and bizarre.

The day after the Preakness, trainer Tom Albertrani and Jimmy Bell, president of the Maktoum family's Darley USA, said they could not commit to the Belmont pending approval from the home office in Dubai. That seemed like a formality, though, and there was no good reason to think he wouldn't run.

"He was a deserving winner in a most unfortunate situation," Bell said. "What we take the most pride in is that our horse was making his fourth lifetime start, his first start around two turns, in front of 118,000 people, and he was the consummate picture of focus before the race. He didn't turn a hair."

This did not sound like a prelude to a vacation, but four days later Darley issued a statement saying Bernardini was out of the Belmont.

"Bernardini has had three quick races in succession, and Sheikh Mohammed feels that the colt deserves a break before his next target, which will be determined in due course," said Bell, who had been notified of Sheik Mohammed's decision by John Ferguson, Darley's bloodstock adviser. "Given the fact that Bernardini only broke his maiden in March and won a Grade 1 race in May, we feel that he climbed the ladder of competition quite quickly. Having said that, we believe he deserves a break."

The decision was consistent with the Maktoums' eccentric views on racing, if at odds with their determined pursuit of the American classics. They have employed one controversial strategy after another in trying to win a Triple Crown race for the last decade, unsuccessfully prepping their horses in Dubai while eschewing American prep races. Then they finally get a classic victory with a homebred who looks like he would relish the 12 furlongs of the Belmont, but decide to back off and point for the Jim Dandy? Because he needs a "break" after making four career starts during five months?

You probably have to go back to the 2000 Belmont, won by the forgettable Commendable, to find a classic more ripe for the picking than this year's Belmont. Bernardini would have been even-money or less, and if he does come back this summer, the water could be deeper - in part due to his stablemate Discreet Cat, who may return in the Dwyer. Then what happens - will one of them go in the Jim Dandy, the other in the Haskell, and then run against each other in the Travers?

So for only the third time in 36 years, we have a Belmont without the Derby or Preakness winner. It happened in 1970 when High Echelon won with Dust Commander and Personality on the sidelines, and again 30 years later when Commendable won in the absence of Fusaichi Pegasus and Red Bullet. In Red Bullet's case, he had won a fluky Preakness contested over a wet track, and the Belmont distance was going to be a stretch. This time, there are no such questions surrounding Bernardini's quality or stamina, making his plans all the more puzzling.