The classic rivalry
that never materialized

Jan 2, 2007 5:53 AM

So 2006 has come and gone, leaving in its turbulent wake tales of triumph and tragedy.

None, in sports, was more dramatic than that of Barbaro and his successor Bernardini, a pair that — had fate decreed otherwise — could have produced for thoroughbred racing another rivalry like that of Affirmed and Alydar 17 years ago.

The Barbaro-Bernardini battles never materialized, of course, and the only meeting of the two resulted in Barbaro standing immobilized in the Preakness, his right hind leg shattered. Bernardini, who did not run in the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, romped home the Preakness winner.

Barbaro’s chances for life after the Preakness were slim. He developed what was described as "a catastrophic case of laminitis," a hoof disease that kills horses, and only skilled surgery and seven months of intensive round-the-clock care at the University of Pennsylvania’s George D. Widener veterinary hospital have kept him alive.

The operations that saved the horse, and the subsequent coverage of them and his recovery, made a national celebrity not only of Barbaro but of his veterinarian. Dr. Dean Richardson is Chief of Surgery at Pennsylvania’s famed New Bolton Center, and he deserved the attention he has received, having devoted most of his waking hours since late last May to caring for his celebrated patient.

Now the two unmatched adversaries — Barbaro and Bernardini — both retired, square off for post season awards, candidates for 3-year-old of the year, and possibly, if sentiment holds sway, horse of the year, although the older Invasor is the likely wearer of that lofty crown.

Ironically, it was the horse that did not run that generated a tidal wave of coverage. Barbaro, in fighting for his life, captured the attention and compassion of world racing, and far beyond.

Children wrote poems and letters, adults sent flowers, schools adopted the badly injured horse as their own. You can buy Barbaro Beanie Babie stuffed dolls now for $4.95. If you measure by eBay, it is no contest. There are 36 Bernardini items currently listed for sale, and 185 Barbaro mementos.

Horse race champions are not decided on eBay, but sentiment can affect the selections.

More practical is a comparison of their past performances. That’s a tough one too, because they never met on equal ground, only in the Preakness, disastrous for Barbaro.

He entered that race undefeated, his victories having started with 2-year-old triumphs in October and November of 2005 at Delaware Park and Laurel in Maryland. He won the Tropical Park Derby at Calder in Florida a year ago this week, on New Year’s Day, and a month later won the Holy Bull. Then, on April Fool’s day, with no fooling around, he stamped himself as a Derby favorite by winning the Florida Derby at Gulfstream, and justified that promise by winning America’s best known horse race impressively the first weekend in May at Churchill Downs.

Bernardini, meanwhile, did not race at 2, and made his debut at Gulfstream January 7, a week after Barbaro had scored his stakes victory at Calder. He won two maiden specials, then marched through five of the most important races of the year — the $150,000 Withers at Aqueduct, the million dollar Preakness at Pimlio, the $500,000 Jim Dandy and million dollar Travers at Saratoga, and the $750,000 Jockey Gold Cup at Belmont Park in New York.

That set the stage for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup, and after taking the lead at the head the stretch he lost narrowly in the late drive to the older Invasor, before being retired to stud with earnings of $3,060,400.

So will top 3-year-old honors go to the undefeated and unfortunate Barbaro or the hugely gifted Bernardini? A sympathy vote could play a role in the outcome.

It is too early to tell who will step into the spotlight vacated by these two brilliant stars, but thoroughbred racing has been hugely fortunate in having meteoric 3-year-olds step up, helped by Kentucky Derby hype. Many turn out to be shooting stars, highly publicized horses like Smarty Jones and Funny Cide that captured headlines and fancy.

It was one of the sports tragedies of 2006 that Barbaro and Bernardini never got to display a rivalry that could have been one of the most dramatic in the game.