Though not nearly as calamitous as Barbaro's breakdown in the Preakness, the defection of Bernardini from the Belmont Stakes was a troubling and damaging blow to horse racing that raises myriad issues about the sport, the Triple Crown and a mind-set among owners and trainers that it is better not to run than to run.
Most of the air came out of the Belmont Stakes the minute Barbaro took his first awkward step in the Preakness, vanquishing hopes of a Triple Crown winner. Then Bernardini finished the race off. Had he come back for the Belmont, the race could have at least showcased the horse who might just be Barbaro's successor as sport's most exciting 3-year-old. Though few noticed, he turned in a powerful performance in the Preakness, earning a Beyer number (113) that surpassed Barbaro's Kentucky Derby figure (111). Instead, the final leg of the Triple Crown is a meaningless event with a starless field.
Bernardini has raced just four times in his life and three times since March 4. It wasn't that long ago that conventional wisdom would have dictated that he all but had to come back in a race as prestigious as the Belmont. With such a light schedule, he would have been viewed as a horse who had yet to peak and was so fresh and rested that he would have an advantage over rivals perhaps worn down by the Triple Crown grind.
Over the last 10 years or so, conventional wisdom has been turned upside down. The Darley team maintains that Bernardini, pampered as he has been, needs some rest.
"Bernardini has had three races in quick succession and Sheikh Mohammed feels that the colt deserves a break before his next target, which will be determined in due course," Jimmy Bell, president of Darley USA, said in a statement. "Therefore, he will not contest the June 10 Belmont Stakes. Given the fact that Bernardini only broke his maiden in March and won a Grade I race in May, we feel that he climbed the ladder of competition quite quickly. Having said that, we believe he deserves a break."
That someone with a perfectly healthy, potentially dominant horse would walk away from a Triple Crown race had to happen sooner or later. Believing that the modern breed is too fragile to stand up to any kind of strenuous schedule, most trainers and owners are reluctant to race their good horses more than four or five times a year and they want at least six weeks between races. You can't coddle a horse and at the same time run them in the Triple Crown, at least not in all three races.
Even the economics no longer work in the favor of the Triple Crown, especially when the Belmont is only worth $1 million. Bernardini would have had a lousy group of Belmont opponents over a barrel and likely would have won easily, to earn Sheikh Mohammed about $600,000. That's about one-tenth what he made for winning this year's Dubai World Cup with Electrocutionist.
It's also a small fraction of what the horse is worth as a sire. As far as his value as a stallion goes, he's already well over the hump. Because he is a Grade I winner by a top sire (A.P. Indy), he could be retired tomorrow and still be worth $20 million. Why worry about a $600,000 payday that will do little, if anything, for the horse's stud value?
Unfortunately, the Bernardini decision cannot be dismissed as an isolated incident. Rather, it's no doubt a precursor of decisions to come.
No one will ever pass the Kentucky Derby. The race is too prestigious and it adds many millions to a horse's value as a sire. But the Preakness and Belmont are in trouble. Reluctant to run their horses back quickly or race them too often, more and more connections of top horses are going to pass these races. Should Sweeetnorthernsaint skip the Belmont, not a single horse will have run in all three Triple Crown legs this year. With things getting worse all the time, we might not be too far away from the point where a Kentucky Derby winner doesn't run back in the Preakness.
Racing can't afford that. The Triple Crown is the one event in the sport that still resonates with the general public and receives substantial coverage from the media. With a weakened Preakness and Belmont, the Triple Crown won't be the same. Unfortunately, there are no obvious solutions to the problem. As for Bernardini, he will likely make two or three more starts and then be retired to stud after the Breeders' Cup. What a shame.