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Who's King of the Mountain?

Author

Mark Patterson

Date

Tue, Apr 12, 2016

About five hours after Giacomo upset the 2005 Ky Derby, a diminutive bay gelding from the same crop posted his own stakes win in a somewhat less- celebrated event called the Panhandle Handicap. Giacomo would taste victory just once more, his run for the roses soon scorned as some cosmic fluke. After nine subsequent scores in Mountaineer stakes races, it's probably safe to conclude that Bernie Blue's win was not a fluke. Cosmic or otherwise.

In setting up his 15 minutes of fame, Giacomo earned exactly 100 points on the Beyer scale, an intricate system for rating final times that has long been the industry standard. Bernie Blue ran an identical number. More than half-a-decade later, that is, in annexing this spring's Dale Baird Memorial. A fitting convergence of the two competitors that have most distinguished themselves at Mountaineer, the Baird Memorial result also means that its 2010 winner has now taken at least one stakes event in each of the last five seasons. That equals Forego, the immortal gelding surpassed perhaps only by the ageless John Henry in terms of modernday durability. Beyond that, there is no comparison. Bernie Blue has racked up stakes wins at seven different distances (and counting), the less versatile Forego 'just' six.

Weighing thoroughbred achievement is tricky, the criteria hard to define. For sheer drama and star wattage, what single performance here even comes close to Soto's 2003 West Virginia Derby win? The skies opened, and the gods of racing rumbled menacingly to announce their presence as the flashy, then-unbeaten red horse stared down the formidable Dynever in an epic stretch-duel. For earthly proof of Soto's preeminence in mountain annals, consult the Beyer number, a 114 that still sets the standard for WV Derby winners. Fabulous Strike ran even faster, bursting onto the national scene with a stratospheric 119, reached in winning our 2006 Sophomore Sprint Championship. ( *In my opinion, skeptical figure makers actually SHAVED a point or two from that number, perhaps to make it more believable.) Fabulous Strike would validate that speed-fig and confirm the class behind it by becoming a grade 1 stakes winner.

But Soto ran here just once and Fabulous Strike only three times. They were invading warriors, steeds never synonymous with Mountaineer. When the conversation is restricted to locally-based runners, none should be mentioned in the same BREATH as Bernie blue. Oh sure, 'Bernie' winters in Florida while his mountain brethren gasp for frigid air and pound around frozen surfaces. And the eight-year-old son of Bernstein (a Storm Cat) occasionally struts his stuff at Thistledown, which amounts to consorting with the enemy. Still, starting 31 times here unequivocally makes him our own.

So, why then, when old-timers debate Mountaineer's elite, does his name so rarely arise? Because Big John, the uncertified Ohio-bred who made Mountaineer his adopted home, almost never lost? Bernie Blue is unparalleled, not unbeatable. Or because the name Steel City both invokes power and conjures wistful images of the economically sturdy 60's? Or is it Count Joe's murky win streak, predating available drf data, that haunts Bernie Blue's rightful place in Mountaineer's pantheon? The longest 'Bernie' has gone without losing is a mere four-start span in a 51-race career.

Plus, the public wants sexy. It's more memorable. Give them pulse-racing rallies, as did Golden Sylvia and Slipton Fell; Or the sheer, seductive speed of a horse like Cortan. There's nothing hot-or memorable-about watching Bernie Blue methodically deconstruct his fields. It's cold and machine-like. First, he separates from the closers, opening a bit too much cushion for those back-markers to make up. Then he draws a bead on the leader, gradually turning up the heat until a speedball falters or dares to catch a breath. At that instant, Bernie Blue pounces. As for the homestretch, don't expect some three-hankie homage to the horse's 'heart' or 'courage.' Bernie Blue is an assassin who finishes things with one clean shot. Just two of his 21 wins have come by margins of less than one length, and only one involved a bonafide photo-finish. Head bobs are too risky, and unprofessional.

Some horses build reputations. Bernie Blue builds his bankroll, and no runner has raked in more of Mountaineer's money. His overall earnings come within 60k of seven figures, if you're counting. And you should be, since the very notion of a Mountaineer-based millionaire is unfathomable, even with a horse as special as Bernie Blue. But when you watch Bernie Blue parade postward Saturday for a fifth appearance in the Chairman's Cup, don't let money cross your mind. That's his concern. Just appreciate the best horse ever to campaign here-and maybe the best that ever will.

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