Thoroughbred racing is a sport nobody ever can quite figure out, not even a Hall of Fame trainer who has won nine Triple Crown races. Bob Baffert always thought Bayern had great potential but wasn't sure of the best way to reach it.
After front-running romps at Santa Anita in his first two starts, the second by 15 lengths, Baffert was hopeful that the son of Offlee Wild could give him his fourth Kentucky Derby trophy. As the old saying goes, "The three most important qualities in a thoroughbred are speed, speed and speed."
"You can't teach a horse to run fast, they're just born with it," said Baffert, who has been finding young runners with that gift for what seems like forever. "You just have to figure out their style and stick with it."
A bruised heel during the winter set back Bayern, and he came off the Derby trail after he ran third in the 11/8-mile Arkansas Derby. He was disqualified from victory in the mile Derby Trial at Churchill Downs before Baffert stretched him out again in the 13/16-mile Preakness. A poor start did him in and Bayern plodded in ninth, beaten 21 lengths. The flop left Baffert wondering what to do next.
"I was so puzzled by his performance,'" he said Tuesday. "I thought maybe he's not a true distance horse, that maybe he's a one-turn miler or a mile-and-a-sixteenth horse.'"
So he sent him to the 7-furlong Woody Stephens Stakes on Belmont Stakes day and Bayern freaked, leading throughout a 7½-length runaway. Identity crisis solved.
"When he exploded in New York, I was blown away,'" Baffert said. "I think that's what really turned it around. He's a fast horse, and he just wants to go. You can't take a hold of him.'"
The $1-million Haskell at speed sanctuary Monmouth Park was a rerun of the Woody Stephens, except this 7¼-length wire job was at 11/8 miles. Baffert hadn't been thinking of the 11/4-mile Travers Stakes, and now he had to.
Bayern was entered Tuesday for tomorrow's 145th running of Saratoga's $1.25-million Midsummer Derby, and he's the 2-1 favorite in a field of 10. His main rivals are Belmont champion Tonalist (3-1 second choice) and Jim Dandy winner Wicked Strong (7-2). They ran 1-2 in the Jim Dandy, the winner of which has taken the Travers five of the past 11 years. Not only does Bayern not have a race over the track, but he also has to ship from California for the second time in a month.
Then there's the distance question, because the difference between 11/8 and 11/4 miles can seem a lot farther than a furlong when most horses reach the eighth pole. We see that every first Saturday in May.
"Can he get a mile and a quarter?" Baffert said. "After watching the Haskell, I think he can go that far. You never know until you try it. So we're going to try it, and we'll see what happens."