There are rare times when Bob Baffert feels desperate enough to turn to divine intervention, and it usually comes after a major heartbreak. When he returned to the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) the year after losing a gut-wrenching photo with Cavonnier in 1996 and watched Silver Charm trying desperately to hold off a fast-closing Captain Bodgit, Baffert reached to the heavens for assistance and pleaded, “Please God, don’t do this to me again.”
After suffering through some tough defeats in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), including two agonizing seconds with Silver Charm and Game On Dude, and having to endure an 0-for-12 record in America’s richest horserace, Baffert again found himself pleading with higher sources to spare him the pain of defeat when it became apparent Bayern was going to have to dig in like he’s never dug in before to hold off the challenges of Toast of New York and California Chrome.
“This has been so long in the waiting, I said, ‘Please Lord, you can’t take it away from me now,’” Baffert said.
Well, the Lord didn’t, but it was starting to look like the Santa Anita stewards might after an inquiry and what seemed like an interminable amount of time trying to decide if the colt ducking in sharply at the break and forcing favored Shared Belief into Moreno warranted a disqualification
“What’s taking them so long?” Baffert asked. “I don’t like that they’re taking such a long time. He broke in (at the start), but that’s not his fault. You can’t control that first jump. He ran such a courageous race; they can’t take it away from him.”
They didn’t, but that didn’t stop others from voicing their displeasure with the decision of the stewards, who ruled that “while Bayern did break in sharply at the start causing interference to the horses on his inside, the incident happened at a point in the race, where it did not alter the original order of finish.”
However, it did alter the all-important pace scenario, as the elimination of Moreno left Bayern alone on the lead. On the other hand, Toast of New York was equally guilty, veering in as badly as Bayern and also hampering Moreno, so it would have been inappropriate to put Toast of New York first. And we should remember that Moreno has always had physical issues and has been a two-turn frontunner when there is little or no speed, while Bayern possesses sprint speed, so we don’t know for sure how that would have played out.
A disqualification of Bayern would have capped one of the most crushing weeks of Baffert’s career after the painful defection of the immensely gifted American Pharoah from the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I), for which he would have been a heavy favorite. Shortly before, Baffert was forced to retire his beloved Game On Dude, a horse who had become as close to his heart as any he’s ever trained.
So, here he was pacing around waiting to hear the words that would bring him incredible joy or additional heartbreak. Then came the announcement, as Baffert and owner Kaleem Shad held their breath.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the stewards have ruled that there will be no change.”
A beaming Shah came over and embraced Baffert.
“Why do we have so much drama?” Baffert asked. “Drama follows me.” Shah agreed: “There’s always drama around Bob.”
Baffert added, “I don’t think I was breathing the last 20 yards of the race.”
So ended one of the most emotion packed Breeders’ Cup Classics ever, with four talented 3-year-olds – Shared Belief, California Chrome, Tonalist, and Bayern -- all trying to nail down 3-year-old and Horse of the Year honors. In the middle of the 3-year-old picture was the English invader Toast of New York, the U.A.E. Derby (UAE-II) winner and Pacific Classic (gr. I) runnerup who was making his third transatlantic trip of the year, having traveled a remarkable 31,000 miles in the past eight months.
Bayern himself has hit the road on numerous occasions this year, making cross-country trips to Oaklawn Park, Monmouth Park, Saratoga, and Parx Racing, which resulted in spectacular wire-to-wire victories in the Haskell Invitational Handicap (gr. I) and Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II), where he broke a 40-year-old track record.
This year’s Classic field was dominated by 3-year-olds after the injuries to or retirements of last year’s Classic one-two finishers Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge, as well as Palace Malice and Baffert’s old warrior Game On Dude, who, ironically, tried three times to get the trip in the Classic that Bayern did, but was never able to.
To demonstrate how the racing picture can change dramatically over the course of a year, when the 2013 Breeders’ Cup was run, Bayern, Belmont Stakes (gr. I) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr I) winner Tonalist, and Travers (gr. I) winner V.E. Day had never stepped foot on a racetrack; the undefeated Shared Belief was a maiden winner at Golden Gate Fields in the barn of Jed Josephson; California Chrome, winner of the grade I Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and Preakness Stakes, had won only two California-bred races and had been out of the money in his two open races; Toast of New York was running in maiden and novice races on the all-weather surface at tiny Wolverhampton Race Course in England; Suburban Handicap (gr. II) winner Zivo was running strictly in New York-bred races; Cigar Street was in the middle of a 17-month layoff; Charles Town Classic (gr. II) winner Imperative was running for a $40,000 claiming tag; Santa Anita Gold Cup (gr. I) winner Majestic Harbor had won four of 18 career starts, mostly in allowance company; Candy Boy was still a maiden: and Moreno, the only survivor from the previous year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, had finished 10th in that race, beaten 19 1/4 lengths.
As rewarding as Bayern’s victory was for Baffert, it had to be more so for Shah, a native of Bellary in South Central India who has embraced America with great fervor, donning his silks in red, white, and blue. He takes pride in saying, “You can’t get more American pie than me.” Shah had pursued the American dream and was living it after extensive schooling in this country and founding his company, which works closely with the United States government and supports its armed services all over the world.
That dream continued with his entrance into the Thoroughbred world. Although he has owned horses on a small scale since 1996, he finally came to a point in his life where he could reach for the stars and become a major force in the sport. It looked as if that would come to fruition in 2009 when he had several exciting young horses he had purchased at the sales, including the exciting maiden winner Clutch Player and an A.P. Indy – Azeri colt he bought for $1.9 million and named Take Control. But his dramatic impact on the sport was not to be, as Clutch Player died of pneumonia and Take Control was withdrawn from the Kentucky Derby trail with shin problems, all in the same month.
It was a painful initiation into the Thoroughbred business, and although more disappointments followed over the next several years, with only limited success, Shah, whose father and uncle were leading trainers in India, remained undaunted.
“I’ve been around horses all my life, and have been around the game since I was a baby, so I’m aware of the highs and the lows,” he said. “It’s part of life and you have to accept those highs and lows or you’ll wind up pulling your hair out. There’s nothing you can do other than hope and pray they all remain healthy. I knew I just had to hang in there and things would change. I realize that’s the way the cookie crumbles in this game and I always had faith in Bob. There was never any doubt in my mind that everything would turn around. I’m a very blessed man in more ways than one.”
That turnaround began when Shah’s son, Arman, now 15, along with Donato Lanni, picked out a colt by Offlee Wild, out of Alittlebitearly, by Thunder Gulch at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic 2-year-olds in training sale at Timonium after he breezed a quarter in :21 3/5. Arman's father purchased the colt for $320,000 and named him Bayern after his favorite soccer team, Bayern Munich.
“My son is the heart and soul of my operation,” Shah said. “My wife and daughter are not into horses very much, and being able to talk horses at home with Arman is very special to me. He likes watching the top five or 10 fastest workers at a sale, and has a gift for spotting the fluid motion in the horse.”
As for picking out Bayern, Arman said, “He had a nice stride, he was a fast horse, and he has a good pedigree for classic distances.”
Eddie Woods, who consigned the colt as agent, said after the sale, “He’s a fabulous horse. He has trained well all year and never had an issue. He's a racehorse.”
Bayern, bred in Kentucky by Helen Alexander, developed into a brilliantly fast colt, breaking his maiden first time out by 3 1/4 lengths and then romping by 15 lengths in a one-mile allowance race. In order to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, he was shipped to Oaklawn for the grade I Arkansas Derby (gr. I), and although he was game in defeat, he could finish no better than third. It was a lot to ask of the colt, but although he passed the Derby and faltered badly in the Preakness after a bad start, he responded to the addition of blinkers and went from strength to strength with a series of spectacular victories.
The main question going into the Classic was whether he could get the mile and a quarter. Most believed he couldn’t, and even Baffert wasn’t confident he would be as effective stretching out if pressed early. But when American Pharoah was injured, the burden fell on the shoulders of Bayern to boost Baffert’s morale and give him something to be excited about.
“With American Pharoah out, Bayern is carrying so much weight right now,” Baffert said four days before the Classic. “He can get the mile and a quarter, but at a certain pace. He can’t go his first quarter in :22, and they might be doing that.”
Baffert was referring to the presence of the brilliant, front-running Whitney Stakes (gr. I) winner Moreno. A speed duel appeared certain between two extraordinarily fast horses who needed the lead.
On the Sunday before the Classic Baffert worked Bayern five-furlongs in company with Shah’s American Pride as more of a maintenance work, and had jockey Martin Garcia aboard.
“Martin, put him where’s he’s comfortable, maybe about three-quarters of a length off (American Pride),” Baffert said over the two-way radio. Baffert then noticed another Classic starter, Majestic Harbor, ahead of his pair, and when he learned that horse was working a half, he told Garcia, “Tyler Baze is going to go a half with Majestic Harbor. I don’t want you hooking up with him, so slow down just a tad.”
Baffert didn’t say much to Garcia over the radio, as he was happy with the 1:00 work. “Good, that’s just what he needed,” he said.
One person who had no doubt Bayern would get the mile and a quarter was jockey Gary Stevens, who rode Bayern in his first three starts and again in his 7 1/2-length romp in the seven-furlong Woody Stephens Stakes (gr. II).
“I told Bob, ‘Believe me, he will go long,” Stevens said. “I made three different moves with him in the Woody Stephens and when a horse makes three moves and finishes up going seven-eighths like he did, that’s about as tough a test as they’re going to get. I had no doubts after that race he would get a mile and a quarter. I felt he was something special from the beginning. When he won going a mile by 15 lengths it was freaky good; more like a morning workout. I pretty much galloped him around there to the three-sixteenths pole and then chirped to him, and I mean he sprinted home like no horse I’ve had sprint home going a route of ground. He went right into the Arkansas Derby and I liked his race, but pulling up and galloping back his eyes were bugging out and he was rattled from me riding my (butt) off so he could get enough points to get in the Derby. I asked him for his life that last eighth of a mile and he just got beat for second. I knocked him out.”
If Stevens was right and Bayern was indeed a mile and a quarter horse, this was the time he needed to prove it – to ease Baffert’s pain and to reward Shah for all his patience supporting the industry and maintaining his passion and enthusiasm with very little to show for it.
Breeders’ Cup Saturday, Nov. 1, began with a few lingering showers after a rare overnight rain. Although Shared Belief was undefeated and on the verge of superstardom, the sentimental choice was California Chrome, who still had a huge following, despite a disappointing comeback race in the Pennsylvania Derby and the controversial incidents involving co-owner Steve Coburn, who made national news reports with his criticism of Churchill Downs and his unfortunate outburst following Chrome’s defeat in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).
Long after everyone had cleared out of Clocker’s Corner on the morning of the Classic, Coburn stood at a table with his family chowing down a ham and egg sandwich and looking very relaxed.
“We’ll never have another year like this; it’s been wonderful,” said Coburn’s wife Carolyn. “I keep saying the horse is famous and (Steve) is infamous. Everybody is going to remember him as that guy at the Belmont. It’s like, ‘That’s the guy who said those things.’ But what’s important now is that (California Chrome) has hung in there all year and he’s fit.”
Exercise rider William Delgado knows better than anyone how much stronger Chrome has been since the Pennsylvania Derby. “I’m just sitting here resting my back,” he said at Clocker’s Corner one morning after galloping the colt. “He hurt it this morning. Man, he was pulling me and dragging me around there. He’s a lot more alive now than he was before the Pennsylvania Derby. One good thing is, the pressure is off in that we got the target off our back.”
When Shared Belief arrived at Santa Anita from Golden Gate the Tuesday before the Classic, assistant trainer Dan Ward loved what he saw. “Of the four times he’s come down to Los Alamitos, Del Mar, and here twice, this is by far the best he’s looked as far as weight and coat, Ward said.”
Baffert called Shared Belief “an athletic little rocket ship.” His rider Mike Smith said of the gelding, “He adapts to anything. He has such amazing balance that things come so easy for him.” Majestic Harbor’s trainer Sean McCarthy said Shared Belief possesses a “sixth gear.” Footbridge's trainer Eoin Harty said, "When he walks he prowls, like a cougar. He's got that big prowling walk and he moves the same way on the racetrack."
At Lambourn in England, trainer Jamie Osborne had been having a ball on Twitter with his daily, light-hearted reports and photos of Toast of New York. “Believe me, I’m not completely obsessed no matter how it may seem.” Osborne said several weeks before shipping to America. “This horse has been so important to us over the past 12 months. He’s such a likeable character and an attractive horse and he’s captured the people’s imagination. He’s like the underdog and people like the underdog. We’re clearly taking a risk bringing him over there and racing him on a surface he’s never raced. But there is enough evidence to suggest he’ll be as good on dirt. Jamie Spencer rides him and he will be retiring right after, so this would be a great way to go out.”
The anticipation was great right up to the Classic. Shared Belief was made the 5-2 favorite, with California Chrome and Tonalist both 4-1 and Bayern getting late action at 6-1. Everyone else was in double figures.
The start was brutal, as Bayern breaking from post 7, ducked in sharply forcing Shared Belief into Moreno and causing V.E. Day to alter course to the rail. Then, Toast of New York, coming out of the 9-post, veered in several paths, also interfering with Shared Belief and Moreno. It was pretty obvious that Moreno and Shared Belief were victimized severely by both Bayern and Toast of New York. Shared Belief also was bothered again when Mike Smith came out looking for a clear path the same time California Chrome was easing in to save ground into the first turn. That caused Smith to have to check his horse, having his momentum stopped for the third time. In all, it was an ugly beginning to the Classic and caused quite an uproar on social media, as disgruntled fans vilified the stewards for leaving Bayern up. The winner sadly returned to a smattering of boos, despite his gutsy effort, refusing to let Toast of New York and California Chrome get by him the length of the stretch.
With Moreno back in fifth, the expected speed duel between him and Bayern never materialized, and that left the dangerous Bayern alone on the lead through legitimate fractions of :23.12 and :46.44. Garcia maintained a length advantage, but was being hounded by a tenacious Toast of New York, with California Chrome, breaking from post 13, sitting in a perfect spot in third. That was your race right there, as the top three would remain in that order to the wire.
Shared Belief recovered from the early incidents, but his problems weren’t over, as he was forced about five-wide into the first turn. Tonalist had dropped back to dead-last in the 14-horse field and found himself with a dozen lengths to make up.
After three-quarters in a sharp 1:10.22, Bayern began to put some distance between himself and the tracking Toast of New York and California Chrome, turning in a pair of brisk quarters in :23 4/5. Both Toast of New York and California Chrome began to close in at the top of the stretch, but Bayern, tested for the first time, dug in gamely, with Garcia going to a right-handed whip and then switching to his left hand, but mostly resorting to a vigorous hand ride. Toast of New York kept coming relentlessly and inching closer, while California Chrome didn’t corner as well as the top two and couldn’t make up any more ground in the final furlong, possibly being a bit short after having only one sixth-place finish in the past five months and not having run for six weeks. At the wire, it was Bayern by a nose, with California Chrome a neck back in third in a finish very reminiscent to last year, with a European horse in between two top American colts. The final time was a sharp 1:59.44.
Shared Belief raced evenly throughout, finishing fourth, 3 1/2 lengths behind California Chrome. Tonalist came charging late to finish fifth, just ahead of Candy Boy, as 3-year-olds occupied the first six places.
Jamie Osborne, although proud his colt’s effort, couldn’t hide his disappointment.
“He ran his heart out and nearly pulled off the impossible, but it’s all about winning I’m afraid,” he said. “I’ve been involved in the sport for a long time and whether you’re riding them or training them, second is a (expletive) place to be. I am very proud of the whole team and the horse and absolutely thrilled that he’s run such a great race, but to be so close is hard. I didn’t pay much attention to what was going on. I trust the stewards made the right decision. It’s sad for Jamie (Spencer) as well. He is about to pack it up and what a wonderful way that would have been to gone out. The fairy tale nearly happened. I hope we’ll be back again; with him and others.
Spencer was more philosophical. “Some things are meant to be and others aren’t,” he said.
Art Sherman was proud of California Chrome’s effort. “It was a great race for him, and a game race to get beat by a neck,” Sherman said. “Maybe with a stronger race the one before (Pennsylvania Derby) he might have won, but I don’t know.”
As for Shah, he finally is seeing his dreams become reality and is looking forward to running Bayern for the next few years. “It’s been a long wait, but it’s been worth it,” he said. “What a horse. He’s a throwback to the old times. Between races he doesn’t lose any weight. Most horses after a tough race will lose weight, but he always maintains his flesh. I think he deserves Horse of the Year. He’s won everywhere. They came at him from every side and he kept fighting. He dug in deep today and he got it done.
“My first grade I win with Eden’s Moon (in the 2012 Las Virgenes Stakes) I had to survive an inquiry. It’s a little different when you have to survive it in a $5 million race.”
This year, Shah and Baffert have won the Pennsylvania Derby, San Diego Handicap (gr. II) with Fed Biz, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“Now we have to win the Derby,” Baffert said.
“We’ll take it step by step,” replied Shah, who has learned the hard way that in the Thoroughbred business, patience and perseverance are often rewarded.
As the for the unfortunate aftermath of the Classic, it is a shame the incident had to detract from Bayern’s gutsy performance in the stretch, as the firestorm caused by the incident at the start reached a feverish pitch over the next couple of days. Lost in all the furor was the fact that not a single horse outside the three who were on or pressing the pace was able to close enough ground to make any impact on the race.
But, despite all the controversy, for Shah and Baffert and everyone close to Bayern, this was a special moment provided by a special horse.
Shah was happy to report Saturday night that earlier in the day Bayern Munich defeated their arch rival Dortmund 2-1, so it was quite a day for Bayern on two fronts. The following day, Shah and Baffert teamed up to win a 2-year-old maiden race at 6 1/2 furlongs with a first time starter who scored impressively by 4 3/4 lengths in a sprightly 1:15 4/5 as the even-money favorite. He came out of the same Timonium sale as Bayern the year before and had been working up a storm. His name: Dortmund. And so it starts all over again.