By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
There’s no denying that Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome will be an overwhelming favorite to win the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) at Pimlico this Saturday, and trying to find a longshot that can beat him will likely prove fruitless.
But in my opinion, there is a horse pointing toward the Preakness Stakes that should not be overlooked, for if history repeats itself, he could be sitting on major step forward this Saturday. The horse is Bayern.
Granted, Bayern’s race record to date—although very good—doesn’t really suggest that he is capable of taking down California Chrome at Pimlico. He began his career with a pair of eye-catching victories at Santa Anita Park, winning a seven-furlong maiden race by 3 ¼ lengths and a one-mile allowance race by 15 lengths. A foot bruise derailed him from a planned start in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II), and surely left him a bit underprepared for his run in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) on April 12th. In that race—his first in two months—Bayern set a reasonable pace for six furlongs before tiring a bit in the final quarter mile, finishing third by 5 ¼ lengths. Two weeks later, with an impressive workout at Churchill Downs under his belt, Bayern went to post as the heavy favorite for the Derby Trial Stakes (gr. III), where he led from the start to finish first by a nose in tenacious fashion, only to be disqualified for interfering with the runner-up in the homestretch.
If you’re wondering how a colt that has yet to officially win a stakes race or earn a triple-digit Beyer speed figure could possibly unseat California Chrome in the Preakness Stakes—a race that will mark his third start in five weeks!—just examine the record of a colt named Paynter.
Like Bayern, Paynter was trained by five-time Preakness-winning trainer Bob Baffert, and also like Bayern, Paynter began his career with an eye-catching maiden victory sprinting at Santa Anita Park. Off of this impressive performance, Paynter was entered in the 2012 Santa Anita Derby—yes, the Santa Anita Derby, and after just one start!—where he finished fourth by 3 ¾ lengths behind subsequent Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another. Three weeks later, with an impressive workout at Hollywood Park under his belt, Paynter went to post as the heavy favorite for the Derby Trial Stakes, where he helped set a fast pace before tiring and finishing second by 1 ½ lengths.
Interestingly, it was at this time—building on his hard run in the Derby Trial—that Paynter underwent a metamorphosis from a colt of merely respectable caliber to one of the best colts of his generation. Three weeks after the Derby Trial, Paynter crushed an 8.5-furlong allowance race at Pimlico by 5 ¾ lengths, then wheeled back in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) and was beaten just a neck after leading from the start. In his final start of the year, Paynter dominated the Haskell Invitational by 3 ¾ lengths, stopping the clock for nine furlongs in a quick 1:48.87 seconds.
Now tell me—in the aftermath of Paynter’s defeat in the Derby Trial, would you have ever guessed that he would finish second in the Belmont Stakes six weeks later?
I admit that comparing Bayern to Paynter isn’t exactly comparing apples to apples. They are two completely different horses, and while their careers thus far have been strikingly similar, there’s no guarantee that Bayern will undergo the same metamorphosis that Paynter did in the summer of 2012. My point is that while Bayern would need to take a major step forward to win the Preakness, supporters of the colt can take heart in the fact that there is a recent precedent for such an improvement.
Stepping away from the Preakness for a moment, I would like to mention that entries for Pimlico’s Friday card were drawn recently, and the fields for the seven stakes races have come up very strong. In particular, I am really looking forward to the $300,000 Pimlico Special Stakes (gr. III), in which 2013 Travers Stakes (gr. I) runner-up Moreno and 2013 Kentucky Derby third-place finisher Revolutionary are the highlights of a nine-horse field.
On Thursday, after post positions for the Preakness are drawn, I will put up another blog post with my selections for the Preakness Stakes. But in the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts on Bayern, California Chrome, and the other potential Preakness starters!