ELMONT, N.Y. -- It's almost impossible for a trainer to win a Triple Crown race and be an invisible man, but Tom Albertrani pulled it off, through no fault of his own.
As his handsome colt Bernardini was sailing through the stretch at Pimlico five years ago to win the Preakness, nearly every eye at the racetrack and across the nation was fixed instead on the struggling Barbaro. The Kentucky Derby winner was pulled up after fracturing his right hind leg, and the long shadow cast by his injury left little room in anyone's memory for whatever else happened that day.
Bernardini went on to win the Travers Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup, and was named the top 3-year-old male horse of 2006. A success in his budding career at stud, Bernardini has sired Stay Thirsty, one of 11 horses Albertrani will be trying to beat in Saturday's $1 million Belmont Stakes with his horse, Blue Grass winner Brilliant Speed.
"They're so hard to come by," Albertrani said of earning a jewel in the Crown. "You don't have a horse that's going to be in a Triple Crown race every year. When you have one, you're very fortunate. I was very fortunate to have Bernardini. Brilliant Speed and King Congie [seventh in the Preakness] this year, they both came into the Derby picture very late. It's nice having a horse of that caliber in your barn and being able to participate in these races."
This will be Albertrani's second attempt at a Belmont. In 2006, just three weeks after winning the Preakness with Bernardini (who did not run in the Belmont), Albertrani saddled Deputy Glitters to a 10th-place finish. He beat only one horse.
This time around, Albertrani is holding a stronger hand, despite the 15-1 morning line odds assigned to Brilliant Speed. The mile and a half Belmont distance offers him a great opportunity to cash in on his stamina-packed bloodlines. His famous relations include numerous Belmont winners, most notably the immortal Secretariat.
"My horse probably has the best pedigree of all [of this year's contenders]," Albertrani said. "There's always that question about surface, but I think we got over that at Churchill. We saw him finish well in the Derby. He was one of the horses who came from the furthest back and made up a lot of ground."
Brilliant Speed's first two efforts were losing ones on dirt as a 2-year-old, but the sprints of 5 and 7 furlongs were a poor match for his distance DNA. After five turf starts (one win and four in-the-money finishes, all at a mile or longer), he won the Blue Grass on Keeneland's Polytrack. The Live Oak Plantation homebred made his return to the dirt in the Derby, where he was seventh after going eight-wide into the stretch and displayed a good, but not good enough, late kick.
Winning the biggest race on his home track would be especially meaningful for the Brooklyn-born Albertrani. He grew up in Valley Stream, about two miles from Belmont's stable gate, and started working at age 13 on the backstretch. His uncle, Jack Abatemarco, was a trainer.
"I'm very familiar with Belmont. It's always been a second home," said Albertrani, who famously worked as an assistant to Bill Mott during Cigar's championship campaigns. "I was a hot walker, a groom, an exercise rider, a jockey. Everything but night watchman. I don't think I did that. Maybe I did, I can't remember. You start from the bottom and work your way up.
"To win a Belmont would be unbelievable," he said. "For me, being from Brooklyn and moving out here [to Long Island] when I was 10 years old, this would be a special race to win for a hometown boy."
And this time, everybody would be paying attention.
Preakness winner Shackleford, memorably washy in the post parade for that race, went to the track at Belmont today. In the humid late-morning heat, every horse -- and human for that matter -- was sweating profusely. "He's handling the heat better than I am," said trainer Dale Romans. Due to the forecast of potentially record-setting heat in the afternoon, Belmont Park canceled its nine-race card. The temperature is due to drop dramatically by Saturday. Kathy Ritvo, trainer of Mucho Macho Man, said the attention paid to her during the Triple Crown trail has given a boost to an important cause. "I shot a commercial for the Kentucky [Organ Donor Registry] and we had a booth in Kentucky [for organ donor registration]," said Ritvo, whose life was saved by a heart transplant in 2008. "Look, I'm alive, and can you imagine? Training horses, after being so sick." Ritvo will be attempting to become the first female trainer to win a Belmont. The best finish was by Kingpost, trained by Dianne Carpenter, who was second to Risen Star in 1988.