Mark Berner

Mark Berner first worked with horses on a small farm in upstate New York in 1973, where he mucked stalls and cared for racehorses with infirmities that were turned out there until ready to resume training.

He joined American Teletimer as a clocker in 1976 and operated their electronic timing equipment at many east coast racetracks until 1978, when he was permanently stationed at NYRA's three tracks, Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont Park & Saratoga Race Course.

Berner did freelance handicapping for the New York Daily News in 1982 & 1983 before joining Newsday in 1984 as a handicapper and later a sports reporter. Berner teamed up with Pricci to win the United Press International's 1985 UPI New York Newspaper Awards for Best Sports Story. In addition, Berner wrote and handicapped for several trade publications including, Daily Racing Form, Sports Eye, Racing Action, The Thoroughbred Times, Horse Player Magazine and New York Sportsnet.

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Wednesday, June 06, 2018

It’s a Tri-Festival: A Triple Crown Bid on the Card of 2018

With a Triple Crown on the line for Justify, the stands at Belmont Park will be full Saturday for the 150th running of the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes, most of the 90,000 in attendance rooting for the colt to fulfill his date with destiny.

The potential disappointing news is that starting gate will be packed with contenders; nine three year olds facing off against the Derby-Preakness winner. This indicates that there are nine horsemen who think there is a legitimate chance to pull off the upset.

Justify is the package: He has size, strength, athleticism & desire, but he lacks the pedigree to get 12 furlongs. Could he be a freak, as the racetrackers say, and outrun his breeding? Sure, but I don’t think that’s the only chink in his armor.

The Scat Daddy colt will have three races in five weeks and his six-race career spans just 128 days; from maiden win to possible Triple Crown glory. We have seen him at his best, and while it’s been freaky good show, it is a lot to ask of any modern Thoroughbred.

Justify has shown a hitch in his step, stiff in his left hind leg, which could be lingering since he injured his hoof the Derby or caused by the protective shoe he was fitted with after racing at Churchill Downs.

“Let’s see if he can do it,” said trainer Bob Baffert. “He came out of nowhere and is picking up steam.” But his Bris and Beyer speed figures belie that statement, as he has tailed off since his win in the Santa Anita Derby. April 7.

Justify drew post position one and was installed as the 4-5 morning line favorite. Odds on horses are 13-34 in the Belmont, in line with the win rate of the average favorite. Dual classic winners are 12-35 in the race.

If not Justify, then, which horse has the best chance to upset you ask? The answer is Hofburg.

Justify soundly beat Hofburg in the Derby, but Hofburg was brushed start and stopped twice before closing over eight lengths in the stretch. He galloped out strongly, five or six lengths ahead of the pace-spent winner.

Hofburg has shown the best late pace of any member of the Belmont field and will benefit from skipping Preakness. The son of Tapit, sire of three of the last four Belmont winners, has trained well over Saratoga’s deep Oklahoma training track.

And Bill Mott already has one Belmont upsetter on his resume: Drosselmeyer in 2010.

The $1.5 million Belmont Stakes highlights the three-day festival weekend in which the New York Racing Association will offer purses of $9.4 million in 33 races, 18 of which are stakes, including six Grade 1’s.

The Festival kicks off Thursday. Californian invader Tijori is a strong 7-5 morning line favorite in the Astoria Stakes for 2-year-old fillies, but don’t count out the one-two punch of Athens Queen and Wonder Stone, from uber hot 2-year-old trainer Wesley Ward.

Two Grade 3 stakes, the Intercontinental featuring Heavenly Score, Arkansas Horse of the Year, and the Wonder Again, where Significant Form tops a field of ten, round out Thursday’s stakes action.

Friday’s first race post is 12:50 pm with five stakes on tap. The Tremont has a trio of two-year-old colts for Todd Pletcher; Outshine, Social Fan and Sombeyay. The Grade 3 Bed o’ Roses Invitational features G1 Humana Distaff winner American Girl vs. a very competitive field of eight.

Three Grade 3’s cap off the day. The True North has eight; topped by Joking, Bobby Abu Dhabi and Limousine Liberal. The New York Handicap, with nine, features Esquisse, Holy Helena and Dacita. The Belmont Gold Cup Invitational, with 10 runners, is highlighted by Nessy and Call To Mind, owned by ‘Her Majesty, The Queen.’

NYRA will also offer a $500,000 guaranteed late Pick 4 beginning in the eighth race and two guaranteed $100,000 Daily Double wagers, Friday’s New York and Saturday’s Met Mile and Friday’s Belmont Gold Cup Invitational and Saturday’s Belmont Stakes with a $300,000 Pick 3 guarantee.

Advance wagering for Saturday’s Belmont Stakes card is available on Friday. NBCSN will provide coverage beginning at 5pm.

First race post time on Saturday will be 11:35 am and 10 of the 13 races are stakes. NBCSN will air races beginning at 2pm and coverage will shift to NBC at 4 pm.

Saturday’s card is the strongest of the year anywhere, with three Grade 2s, the Jaipur, Brooklyn Invitational and Woody Stephens, and six Grade 1’s: the Acorn, Ogden Phipps, Just a Game, Met Mile, Manhattan and Belmont.

NYRA is guaranteeing a $1.5 million late Pick 4 Saturday, all Grade 1’s comprised of Just A Game, Met Mile, Manhattan and the Belmont Stakes. The will be a $500,00 guaranteed Pick 5, beginning in the first race and $500,000 guaranteed Pick 6 beginning with the sixth race.

Weather forecasters have been waffling on the chance of rain for several days. I’m predicting that any significant rain will hold off until after the races conclude Saturday evening. That, and a Hofburg upset.

Written by John Pricci

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