So here he is. The sovereign racehorse of America. In the gloom of his stable, his flanks and shoulders have an opulent mahogany gleam. Hearing his trainer's voice, Bernardini pokes his head over the door. His eye is a moonlit lake. There is none of the usual distraction here: nothing scatty or bellicose or intemperate, as you find even in champions of the breed. In the thoroughbred business, this is known as "the look of eagles" - the intangible signature sought every year among thousands of untried yearlings. Then the colt turns his neck, as unmechanically as corn swaying in the breeze, and suddenly he is a mere animal again, munching on a bundle of hay.
According to his trainer, Tom Albertrani, Bernardini is "the sort of horse that only comes along once a decade". And he should know - he could argue that he worked with the last one, and the one before that, too.
As assistant to Saeed bin Suroor, Albertrani was a familiar figure on British racecourses during the transformation of Godolphin from pioneering experiment to racing superpower. The climax of that process was Dubai Millennium. Prior to that, the New Yorker had served under Bill Mott when the mighty Cigar was in his barn.
"It was a bit different with Cigar, because he was an older horse," Albertrani said. "But I see many similarities between this horse and Dubai Millennium. I feel very fortunate, because horses like these are so rare - those special ones where everything somehow comes together: pedigree, looks, conformation, temperament, everything anyone could want in a racehorse."
Anyone - but above all Sheikh Mohammed. Over the past couple of years Albertrani has supervised a string of the Sheikh's horses under his own name. Likewise Eoin Harty, who previously trained a string of juveniles for Godolphin in California. Their new roles have restored definition to the Maktoums' expanding American interests, which had threatened to make Godolphin unmanageably bloated.
Inevitably, Albertrani is full of admiration for the Sheikh. "He understands the business so well," he said. "He tells us always to keep our heads high - even in defeat. That's something I've really learned, how you have to put things behind you. I really enjoyed my time in England and Dubai. And of course I miss some things about it. But with my two daughters growing up, travel was getting harder, and my decision was to stay and bring up my family. I'm enjoying life back home and really things couldn't have worked out better."
Certainly the emergence of Bernardini represents an unprecedented boost for the Sheikh's American empire. Though hardly the result of rocket science - his dam was a Grade One winner, and his sire is A.P. Indy, one of the world's most expensive stallions - Bernardini can at least be registered as a Darley-reared champion. Nor should it be forgotten that Sheikh Hamdan won the Belmont Stakes with Jazil, or that Godolphin's lightning bolt, Discreet Cat, is also in Saratoga, on the way back from injury.
Bernardini, 5-2 favourite with Coral for the Breeders' Cup Classic, is being prepared for the Travers Stakes here on 27 August. A nine-length win in the Jim Dandy Stakes, at the start of the meeting, exorcised the miseries that undermined his runaway victory in the Preakness Stakes, where the Kentucky Derby winner broke down. At the time, it did not seem decorous to speculate whether Barbaro could have beaten Bernardini. Either way, the baton was passed into safe hands.
"You can't say what might have happened," Albertrani shrugged. "Barbaro went there undefeated off a huge win in the Derby. We had a lot of confidence going into the race, but we'll never know the answer. We were just very sorry for Barbaro and the people round him.
"I suppose it was only when he won the Jim Dandy in the same fashion that people could focus on how good this horse is, that he could get the recognition he didn't get there. Now everyone has seen how special he is, winning a race like that, as though he was doing a workout. Now everyone can look forward with him."
The fact that Bernardini was spared the Kentucky Derby greatly enhances his prospects of flourishing until Churchill Downs in November. "I remember when he was beaten in his first race, Jerry Bailey came in and said that the light bulb just hadn't turned on yet," Albertrani said.
"After that, we saw a big change in the horse - physically and mentally. The Derby wasn't ever really in the picture. He had a few growing pains, a few fevers, we just lost time with him. He didn't have a tough campaign as a two-year-old, and everyone knows that getting ready for the Derby can be very stressful. He pretty much avoided all that, and maybe that's the reason he's where he is now."Reuse content