It’s put up or shut up
time for Bernardini

Oct 31, 2006 12:20 AM

If you’re looking for value, as sure as there is a second chin on Chris (Ethel Merman) Berman, better opportunities exist Saturday than wagering on the glorified Bernardini.

He is the marquee horse in the 23rd Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships at Churchill Downs, and at something like even-money, could well be over bet in the $5 million Classic, even in a full field of 14. He has looked scintillating beating up on tomato cans, but so did Primo Carnera.

Now it’s time to fight.

"He’s going to have a hot pace to run at and he’s going to be stretched, and you never know how a horse is going to react until’s he’s stretched," said Bob Baffert, who, with three Kentucky Derby victories, knows his way around fabled Churchill Downs. The world’s most recognizable trainer also has started 42 horses in Breeders’ Cup races, winning with three — Thirty Slews (1992 Sprint), Silverbulletday (1998 Juvenile Fillies) and Vindication (2002 Juvenile). He has never won the Classic, his best finish being a second by Silver Charm in 1998.

"Bernardini is a good horse, but he’s had his own way every time," Baffert said. "He’s going to get looked in the eye in this race, and how he handles it will depend on how he responds to Lava Man when Lava Man makes his kick. Will Bernardini go with him?"

There lies the intrigue. Will Bernardini win as handily as he did dusting three rivals in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, or will he be overcome by the heebie-jeebies if the natives surround him? Will he win and go on to be mentioned in the same breath as Spectacular Bid, or will a forgettable longshot emerge from the depths to educe huzzahs from the multitudes and become a one-hit wonder?

Such a wonder could be Giacomo, who has already displayed a penchant for the course. He won the 2005 Kentucky Derby at 50-1 but remained below racing’s radar screen ever since, save for a victory in a nondescript San Diego Handicap. He did make up ground to finish third behind Lava Man in the 11/8-mile Goodwood at Santa Anita, and now it’s back to a track he favors and a distance he fancies, a mile and a quarter.

"You know, I like Giacomo, but it depends on the track that day how a horse will run," Baffert said. "If it’s like it was for the Derby this year, loose and cuppy all week”¦ you never know how that track is going to be."

With that to chew on, here’s one man’s opinions on Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup:

Distaff: The good news is this race will be over first. Californians Healthy Addiction and Hollywood Story are dullards on the national scene. Make it the ultra consistent(13 for 18) Fleet Indian, Spinster surprise Asi Siempre, exotics must-use Balleto and the late-running Lemons Forever.

Juvenile Fillies: A race that won’t make headlines. It’s Dreaming of Anna by process of elimination, even though her best races have been on grass. Her turf wins have been superb; her rivals have been beating up on each other unconvincingly. Dreaming of Anna, Octave, Sutra and Cash Included.

Mile: Racing luck could be an important in what appears to be a very competitive event. Here’s hoping Aussie Rules gets the same trip he had in winning the Shadwell. Aussie Rules, Aragorn, Gorella, Librettist.

Sprint: Don’t blink or you could miss this one. Look for a time around 1:08 (the fastest time was 1:07.77 by Kona Gold in 2000; the slowest, 1:10 2/5 by Gulch in 1988. Both races were at Churchill Downs). There is no shortage of speed with Bordonaro, Too Much Bling and favored Henny Hughes. That should set up for a closer like Siren Lure. Art Sherman is having a career year and even though he would have preferred to have had a race about five weeks from the Sprint as opposed to more than two months, he has Siren Lure primed. Sherman is somewhat enamored to have Bordonaro and Patrick Valenzuela in the race. "I know there will be an honest pace now," he said. Personally, I’d love to see Bordonaro win for tireless trainer Bill Spawr, but the Cal-bred son of Memo could get cooked in a pace duel and weaken when the real test comes. Siren Lure, Henny Hughes, a freshened Too Much Bling, Attila’s Storm.

Filly & Mare Turf: Ouija Board is a world-class performer, winning this race in 2004 and finishing second last year. She will have to beat Wait a While to win Saturday, and that seems a daunting task based on Wait a While’s impeccable current form. Her swooping win in the Yellow Ribbon was so breathtaking, she’s my best bet. Wait a While, Ouija Board, Film Maker and Quiet Royal.

Juvenile: Another open race, but Great Hunter found his niche in the two-turn Lane’s End, even though it was on Keeneland’s Polytrack. "He was crying to go long," said Doug O’Neill, who won this race last year with champion Stevie Wonderboy. Trainer Chris Paasch was livid after Principle Secret was shaded by Stormello in the Norfolk after going 45 and change under Alex Solis. That’s why Solis was taken off and Victor Espinoza put on. The horse has speed and ability and is dangerous with the right trip. Great Hunter, Principle Secret, Stormello and Scat Daddy.

Turf: English Channel could cap a monster day for Todd Pletcher, who already has set a record for purse earnings this year at more than $24 million. His Turf Classic romp was merely a tightener and he’s a win machine (nine for 15). Go Deputy (another Pletcher) never runs a poor race and was nosed on Woodbine’s soft turf in the Canadian International. Hurricane was in tight in the Arc but is one tough Euro. English Channel, Go Deputy, Hurricane Run, Honey Ryder (yes, another Pletcher).

Classic: The national jury is out on Lava Man, but not because he can’t ship and win. He had foot issues in those dreadful out-of-town losses, and he’s OK now. Giacomo is still regarded as a flash in the pan; Invasor has been a monster in the U.S., but missing the Jockey Club Gold Cup due to a fever arouses suspicion he might be a tad short to handle the likes of Bernardini at 11/4 miles. But I like his grit and he could prove toughest if a stretch battle ensues. Invasor, Bernardini, Lava Man and the ever-popular Perfect Drift. Exotic longshots: Super Frolic and Giacomo. Trainer Vladimir Cerin said he learned something after Super Frolic’s Goodwood loss to Lava Man (he wouldn’t reveal what it was), but was enthralled with the horse’s post-race demeanor. Giacomo won the 2005 Kentucky Derby on this track at 50-1. Look for Bernardini to be even-money or less in the betting, with Invasor about 7-2 or 4-1, and Lava Man around 5-1.

The homestretch

”¡ Jeff Mullins has moved his horses from Santa Anita, sending 25 to Fairplex and 40 to Hollywood to train on the new Cushion Track, which he lauds. "You can’t screw a horse up there if you tried," he said.

”¡ And speaking of Chris Berman, who has turned into a caricature of himself, he would benefit from a refresher course in Journalism 101 at Brown U. I suggest he goes back—back—back—back—back.