Horse Racing’s Magic: the Bernardini Effect

In about half an hour from this moment, five horses will contest the 2017 episode of the Jim Dandy, a premiere race for Thoroughbreds at Saratoga Race Course.

At 1 1/8 mile, the Jim Dandy is a major prep race for the Travers Stakes, which is held traditionally three weeks after.  I have a favorite picked for today, but I shan’t share it here with only 30-something minutes to go.  The horses for the Jim Dandy are moving into the paddock being saddled, even as the horses for Race 9 (the Bowling Green Stakes) are heading to the post for their day in the sun.

There are many magical things that come together to create a horse race.  The first and most obvious is the horses, themselves, of course.  In a series of articles, I’m going to go over each factor:  the next piece may be on the eye of a race horse.

But today’s piece is a simple story, and it’s about power:  the power of a single horse, Bernardini, and how that horse’s physical and spiritual power radiated out from the track at Saratoga–into the stands–and straight up the feet, thence into the brain and soul of a good friend, and of myself.

Exactly 11 years ago this day (July 29, 2006), three friends:  Jennifer, Joanne, Karen and I had plum seats on the porch at Saratoga.    Wearing hats and lunching on fabulosa comestibles, we had a delightful afternoon.  We toasted the horses.  We toasted each other, and Jennifer’s superior handicapping skills.

I shan’t go on about the rest of the afternoon–for one thing and one thing, only, mattered:  this was the first day that Karen had spent at the races.  She’d grown up hanging around Dressage horses, accompanying her Mother to events to watch the beautiful shows.  But she’d never been to a race track, to experience the authority with which a single, 1,000-pound animal can assert over a group of 40,000 human souls.

So Karen spent the day in awe.  She had a great time, from everything that I saw.  But the kicker that sold her–that brought her fully into the fold of Diehards–was a single moment.  One moment, which lasted about three seconds:

Bernardini,  Sheikh Mohammed‘s extraordinarily beautiful and talented son of A.P. Indy–came galloping, screaming-as-it-were, past the finish line, first of course.  Javier Castellano didn’t try to cool him off the minute they hit the finish line–that is, he didn’t hit the brakes and pull up the horse.  He let him run out, of course–but Bernardini still had the stick shift in fifth.

Our table on the Clubhouse Porch was right at the lip, just past the finish line–about 20 feet.  It took Bernardini and Castellano three seconds to pound past us, and in those three brief seconds–something changed.  Karen’s joy–her experience of merely having a fun time at the track–turned into that which I have to declare to be a spiritual experience.  Because…as Bernardini blew past, he did so with such power, such severity of movement–that the beautiful, ancient, wooden floor of the Porch–shook.  Like an earthquake, radiating out from the track, from right-to-left–we all felt the floor MOVE.

 It MOVED, and the vibration moved up our feet, up our bodies–pinged off our hearts and terminated as fireworks in our brains.  

Karen turned to me, tears in her eyes.  She grabbed my arm, and asked, “Did HE do that?”

Yes, he did.  He did, and–I hate to admit this!– but I guess I’d just gotten SO used to the ground shaking beneath my own feet over the years–that the experience of brilliant, powerful, authoritative horses–may not have made the impression that they should have over the 46 years that I’d been a fan at that point.

(It is possible to take for granted the presence and beauty of Angels, when you hang out with Angels every day.)

Until that moment, when Bernardini’s sheer, primal power shook me to my core.  He woke me up, and slapped me out of my status as Veteran-Race-Fan-Who’s-Seen-it-All.

So Karen’s question in the fourth second past the finish line made me think, too.  It make me take spiritual stock of that which I’d just experienced.

I had experienced power, once again–and I believe, with all my soul, that the power we experience through the hooves and hearts of horses, racing at 40 mph and 200,000 pounds per-square-inch with each thud of a hoof–I believe that, in those seconds, God allows us (we, mere mortal humans) to catch the tiniest glimpse into the magnitude of His own power.   We can never know the full power of God while we’re still here on Earth–it would kill us.

But I know–I’ve experienced–and, through Sheikh Mohammed’s magnificent Bernardini 11 years ago, today–I experienced an infinitesimal moment during which God, Himself, reached out from the soul of one of His most-perfect horses, and ran full-throttle up through my feet and into my heart, soul, then my head.

I needed that reminder–I’d become too detached, perhaps.  Or, just “used to it.”  Being a race fan for so long–I was used to the rolling thunder.

But that day, I felt the dominion, the mastery, the absolute command over the human spirit, that God built  into His horses.   I experienced one of the greatest Thoroughbreds ever to live–and he wrote a Reality Check for me that I sorely needed.    Karen’s emotional response, coming one second after my own soul-rattling,  slapped me into the Supreme Reality of the moment.  She, feeling it for the first time–got baptized by fire.  And, with the quiet gratitude of a True Believer–I renewed my own Baptismal Vows, as supreme Spirit flowed through me, thanks to Bernardini, acting with the authority of an Archangel.

Bernardini shared that fire with Karen and me, and 11 years later–I sit here, watching this year’s Jim Dandy contestants enter the gate.  And, from the explosive thrust of the electromagnetic gate to the pounding after the finish–Bernardini is present in my heart, today and always.

This–THIS–is what horses, and horse racing, do to the human soul.  If you’ve forgotten–or if you’ve just gotten used to it–slap yourself around.  Take a novice to the track, and live the thrill vicariously through them.  Whatever you do, however you do it–get that passion back, ASAP.

If horses, pounding for home can’t make your cardiac muscle race,  and tears form in your eyeballs–nothing can, or ever will.