Bayern had to fend off Toast of New York (middle) and California Chrome (outside) but he provided trainer Bob Baffert with his first Breeders' Cup winner. (Photos by Eclipse Sportswire)
By Tom Pedulla, America’s Best Racing
ARCADIA, Calif. – Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert endured anxious moments and a stewards’ inquiry before Bayern, one of the most brilliant frontrunners in recent history, presented him with his first victory in the $5-million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday before 61,114 roaring spectators at Santa Anita Park.
Bayern veered left after rocketing out of the starting gate and set comfortable fractions down the backside for jockey Martin Garcia before Toast of New York and California Chrome gave chase in earnest. “Lord, don’t take it from me now,” Baffert recalled thinking. Toast of New York nearly collared the leader in the stretch. California Chrome cut loose around the final turn and ranged up to the outside of those two.
“I don’t think I breathed for the last 20 yards,” Baffert said.
Baffert, a winner of three Kentucky Derbies, five Preakness Stakes and one Belmont Stakes, can finally exhale now that the pulsating finish to the mile-and-a-quarter contest is over. Bayern dug in the way the great ones do to barely withstand Toast of New York’s charge. California Chrome, the enormously popular California-bred after his sweep of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, flattened ever so slightly as they neared the wire, even as Victor Espinoza implored him for more.
“The last sixteenth, he was digging as hard as he could but getting just a little tired,” Espinoza said.
Previously undefeated Shared Belief ran fourth for jockey Mike Smith, who felt he lost all chance during the controversial start. “I was never able to get comfortable after getting hit at the break,” Smith said. “I kept getting bounced all the way around the turn and Moreno kept getting out and bumped through the backside.” Moreno, expected to apply early pressure to Bayern, was never a factor and faded to last among 14 starters.
As well as Baffert has done in the spring, he needed at least one Classic to fill a gaping hole in his resume and to prove that his 3-year-olds can have staying power. He felt that void as much as anyone. “This is the end of the year. This is when everything is on the line,” he said. “This is like the World Series.”
FOR THE SECOND YEAR IN A ROW, IT WAS A CLOSE THREE-WAY FINISH IN THE CLASSIC
Although supporters of California Chrome may back him to the end, Bayern’s win in the autumn Classic will almost surely lead voters for the Eclipse Awards to crown him as the top 3-year-old and as Horse of the Year. After a troubled early trip cost him all chances in the Preakness, his tour de force during the second half of the season was special.
Owner Kaleem Shah said of Bayern’s prospects for year-end honors: “On the world stage, he’s overcome everything and won. In my mind, he certainly deserves Horse of the Year and 3-year-old champion.”
Added Baffert: “We don’t vote, but we’re proud of our horse. He came through on the big day, and that’s what matters. That’s why they call it championship racing.”
Bayern won for the fourth time in his final five starts of the season and is 6-for-10 on the year after going unraced as a 2-year-old. His abrupt turnaround after his disappointing Preakness began when he roared off to a 7 ½-length rout in the Grade 2 Woody Stephens on June 7 at Belmont Park. He all but flew wire-to-wire in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, a race Baffert so dominates it might as well be re-named after him. The son of Offlee Wild was not himself when he struggled home tenth in the Travers, but he was back to himself when he romped by 5 ¾ lengths in the Pennsylvania Derby, his last start before he journeyed here for the ultimate test of his mettle.
Bayern returned $14.20 for a $2 win wager. He covered the mile-and-a-quarter in 1:59.88. Baffert, and those who backed the gritty frontrunner, waited for what seemed like forever while stewards took a long and hard look at the contact that occurred once the gate snapped open. Garcia said of Bayern’s left-hand turn, “There was nothing I could do. I mean, I corrected right away and then – but he was pretty clear.”
With the passage of time, the start will be forgotten. The finish will be remembered as the day Baffert ended decades of frustration and Bayern proved his brilliance.