Gotta Match - By Lenny Shulman

(Originally published in the February 5, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)    

 Zenyatta has been celebrated not only for her exploits from starting gate to wire, but for the anthropomorphic traits we attribute to her. Her pawing at the ground before a race to intimidate her foes; her dancing around the paddock to show her readiness for battle; and her softer side, the gentleness with which she receives visitors and well-wishers no matter their age, size, or circumstance.

Now comes the news that Zenyatta will pay her first prom visit to Bernardini, by every account one of the most promising and well-pedigreed young stallions in the world. The experts have had their way in matching up the happy couple after studying their physicals, pedigrees, and precociousness for many, many hours, and I am certain they have done their homework well. I am here to add my two cents: Beyond all the nicking and measuring and studying, these two great kids match up superbly personality-wise as well.

Bernardini displayed enough talent to be named champion 3-year-old male in 2006, out-polling the popular, ill-fated Barbaro. Still, we may never have seen his best. He was one of those horses, even at 2 and before he ever won a race, that his connections would brag on; so good they didn’t want to speak his name or jinx what they knew they were seeing. Around trainer Tom Albertrani’s barn, though, there was no doubt what this horse could become.

Bernardini didn’t really enter the public consciousness until that fateful Preakness (gr. I) day, when he broke from the gate a virtual unknown, despite having won the Withers Stakes (gr. III). Even his brilliant run in the Preakness was relegated to sidebar status as the eyes of the world trained instead on the fallen warrior Barbaro. Weeks later, as the racing universe arrived in New York for the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), the decision was made by his connections to skip that race, and, thus, while lesser contestants trained for the final jewel of the Triple Crown, Bernardini watched them from his stall in Barn 10 on the Belmont backstretch.

That is where I got to know him.

Albertrani and his staff were extraordinarily gracious to my colleague Steve Haskin and myself, allowing us not only to go see the Preakness winner, but to spend as much time as we wanted at his stall. And if it was to their chagrin that those visits grew to about an hour each day, they never showed it.

Full disclosure: I am a self-admitted A.P. Indy stalker. As Zenyatta did for so many, he was the one that lit my fire as to what wondrous animals these Thoroughbreds are, and I have taken a, let’s say unusual, interest in him since he began tearing up the racetrack. Photos of him hang in my home and at my office. A Moneigh he “painted” graces my wall. So Bernardini, his first offspring to win a Triple Crown race, was certainly a prime candidate for my affections.

Certain horses just hit you in a mysterious way. Watching me at Bernardini’s door interacting with him, Steve said it was like I was playing with one of my Labradors. We petted on him...and petted on him some more. I kept up a monologue, calling him “Champ” like I was Bundini Brown talking to the great Ali. When he’d thrust his muzzle up, it was playful, never threatening. If he grew weary of us, he never said so, never retreated to the back of the stall. Having writing duties, we’d be the ones to cut the session off; he was still game to keep the visit going.

Bernardini is a plain brown wrapper, yet stunning. To see him simply walking, your vision freezes on him. You knew he was different, and you at once realized he was one of the ones that would stay forever in your mind’s eye.

Two months later I stood on the roof above the press box at Saratoga, binoculars pressed against my eye sockets, to watch his Travers (gr. I). The binoculars didn’t do much good—my hands were shaking like Don Knotts seeing a ghost. He put aside any reason for nerves, winning by a pole. At the barn the next morning he was a touch more full of himself, like “Did you see what I just did?”

We saw. And now, with his first crop having shown tremendous promise last year, comes his date with the equally personable Zenyatta. eHarmony couldn’t have planned a better match.

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