I am going to make a case for Bayern and California Chrome for champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year, starting with Bayern. Chrome’s will come in the next blog. Also Main Sequence.
We’ve gone five years now without a male Horse of the Year who raced on dirt. You remember those horses, the ones who used to be voted Horse of the Year pretty much every year. There were rare exceptions, such as fillies Lady’s Secret in 1986 and Azeri in 2002, and a grass horse, Kotashaan in 1993. And you can go back to All Along, a grass filly, in 1983.
That means in a span of 37 years, we had 33 Horses of the Year who were male dirt horses.
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But in the past five years, we’ve had three consecutive fillies – Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, and Havre de Grace – and a grass miler, Wise Dan, take down top honors.
This year, the Breeders’ Cup has left us with a very interesting dilemma. In the latest NTRA poll, the leading point-getter was Main Sequence, another grass horse who, unlike Wise Dan, has raced for only four months in the United States, making his first start in this country in July.
There is no doubting that Main Sequence has put together a tremendous resume in those four months, winning four grade I stakes and certainly has crammed in a Horse of the Year campaign in that short period of time.
And, yes, we once again have a filly who deserves to be in the running, as Untapable has turned in a sensational and extensive 3-year-old campaign, with her only defeat coming against the boys in the Haskell Invitational Handicap, won easily by Bayern.
The most logical male dirt horses up for top honors are Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Bayern and Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome, who also captured the Santa Anita Derby and San Felipe, but has lost his last three races.
The main difference between these two 3-year-olds is that California Chrome has a large fan base after endearing himself to the American public back in the spring. And he did run a sensational race in the Classic, considering he had only one sixth-place finish in the past five months going into the Breeders’Cup. His third-place finish, beaten a neck, justified the reputation he had earned during the Triple Crown trail and proved a lot of people wrong who thought his best days were behind him.
Bayern does not have a large fan base and his name right now is being associated more with the controversial bumping incident at the start of the Classic than with the gutsy race he ran and his brilliant victories throughout the year all over the country.
You can make a case for any of the above choices, but I do feel compelled to remind people what Bayern accomplished this year in the hope that whether he is voted Horse of the Year and/or champion 3-year-old or not, his credentials are not clouded by the Classic start and whatever personal reasons people would have for not voting for him.
First off, Bayern did something few Eclipse contenders do any more. He ran in January, February, April, May, June, July, August, September, and November 1, competing at eight different racetracks in seven different states – California, New York, Kentucky, Arkansas, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
He was adaptable enough in that he had four equipment changes – blinkers off, then blinkers on, then blinkers off, then blinkers on.
In all, he won six of 10 starts, with a second and a third, and I’ll get into his two poor efforts in a bit.
But Bayern’s campaign is not about his defeats, but his victories. We long for throwback types who are consistently fast and can carry their speed in top-class company at all distances – in Bayern’s case from seven furlongs to 1 1/4 miles.
Well, Bayern ran the second fastest Woody Stephens Stakes in the last 20 years (1:20 3/5).
He ran the second fastest Haskell Invitational in the last 17 years (1:47 4/5).
He ran the fastest Pennsylvania Derby in the race’s 35-year history (1:46 4/5), breaking a 40-year-old track record.
And he won the above three races by 7 1/2 lengths, 7 1/4 lengths, and 5 3/4 lengths. So, he could beat you by huge margins or he could beat you in a dogfight.
He then ran the second fastest Breeders’ Cup Classic in the last 10 years (1:59 4/5), becoming only the seventh horse in 30 years to break the 2:00 mark. And he did it over a drying out track that seemed to get slower as the day wore on and wasn’t particularly fast for a Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita. Yet he still set testing fractions and ran both his third and fourth quarters in :23 4/5 and was able to hold off Toast of New York and California Chrome the entire length of the stretch.
Also, in his second career start back in February he won under a hand ride by 15 lengths in 1:35 3/5 and still came home his final two quarters in :24 flat.
Of his defeats, he was rushed into the Arkansas Derby off only two easy victories in his life in order to earn enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby, and was under pressure on the lead all the way, eventually finishing a game third, while getting beat a half-length for second.
In the Derby Trial Stakes, he battled on the lead the whole way through a pretty brutal :46 3/5 half over a deep, tiring track and still finished first, only to be disqualified for drifting out.
In the Preakness, he stumbled badly coming out of the gate and while he was down he got slammed into from the outside by Ria Antonia, who shoved him into Ring Weekend inside him. As soon as he recovered he was eased out into the clear to the six-path when Social Inclusion ducked out and nailed him hard, and then kept herding him out, forcing him to go five to six wide into the first turn. Even with all this, and being taken out of his game plan, getting pushed back to seventh, he made a nice run on the far turn to get up into fourth, but he had nothing left and faded to ninth.
That’s when Bob Baffert put the blinkers back on and he won four of his last five starts, with three of his wins coming in million-dollar races in three different states.
If Baffert has any regrets it is sending him back to California following his brilliant Haskell victory, in which he earned a career-high 111 Beyer Speed Figure, and then sending him back across the country to Saratoga for the Travers four weeks later. The colt had “bounce” written all over him, and when he tired badly after three-quarters, Martin Garcia pretty much protected him the rest of the way.
Speaking of “bounce,” it is worth noting that no Haskell winner in the last 13 years has come back to win the Travers. The last to accomplish the double was the well-seasoned giant of a horse Point Given, who was not nearly as brilliant in the Haskell as Bayern, winning by only a half-length and leaving a lot in the tank.
Bayern did return East four weeks after the Travers for the Pennsylvania Derby and rebounded to earn a 110 Beyer.
So, all in all, Bayern accomplished some great things in 2014, while racing at least once in nine different months from January to November, and he did it by pretty much running hard from gate to wire.
I’m not saying or suggesting that California Chrome doesn’t have a legitimate claim to at least the 3-year-old title, but so does Bayern.
Voters may have their reasons for not voting for Bayern. But it is hoped those reasons are not misguided and are based on objectivity. And objectivity tells us that Bayern would be a worthy 3-year-old champion and Horse of the Year.