Commentary

A new challenger arises

Can speed carry Bayern to the three-year-old championship?

Updated: July 28, 2014, 2:43 PM ET
By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

A speed-friendly surface reduced the sport to its most basic precept and distilled all of horse racing's complexities down to one predominant, determining factor. The fastest horse won at Monmouth Park on Sunday, when nothing mattered so much as speed.

And Bayern was an agent of speed. He was, quite simply and very boldly, the swiftest of all the speed, brilliant even. And he romped in the $1 million Haskell, where the sensational filly Untapable had been expected to showcase her talents while stepping outside her division against some of the best "boys" in the country. She finished fifth.

Had she won, Untapable would have put herself in the middle of any Horse of the Year discussion, but that debate can move along without her, allowing her to return to more accommodating company, against the fillies she has dominated, probably in next month's $600,000 Alabama at Saratoga or September's $1 million Cotillion at Parx. But the Haskell might spark another discussion. Could Bayern become the champion 3-year-old?

Except for her debut as a 2-year-old, Untapable never had been on the early lead in any of her races. Her strength has been graceful and relentless efficiency. Typically, she races a couple of lengths back early, advances gradually on the backstretch and then just flows, like a river, drawing clear and emptying into the estuary of the winner's circle. That's how she won the Kentucky Oaks by more than four lengths and the Mother Goose by more than nine. But Monmouth Park scoffed at that running style.

In Monmouth's four two-turn races prior to the Haskell, only one winner "rallied" from more than a half-length back after the opening half-mile, and he was only 1 ½ back. The Monmouth Cup was especially telling. Bradester and Valid ran one-two around the track for the entire 1 1/16 miles, exchanging positions in the stretch, and Pants On Fire was third throughout. Four of the day's nine winners on the main track, including sprints, led throughout. In the day's five two-turn races, including the Haskell, two winners led throughout, and the average winner was only a half-length back after the opening half-mile.

Bayern runs to victory in the 2014 Haskell Invitational.
Horsephotos.comThe Bob Baffert-trained Bayern ran away from the field in the Haskell Invitational.
Bumped at the start, Untapable raced in fifth early, nearly three back and four-wide. From there, on that surface, in that company, only greatness could have found the winner's circle. In other words, the circumstances of the Haskell severely compromised her. And so the loss shouldn't significantly diminish her standing. She's still the best 3-year-old filly in the country by many lengths, and somewhere down the road, under different circumstances, she could very well make a victorious intrusion on a stag party that's every bit as formidable as Sunday's.

But wasn't Bayern impressive? At end of 2013, before Bayern ever made his debut, his Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, described the colt as one of the most promising and talented in his barn. A late foal, born on May 3, Bayern didn't get to the races until January, and then a setback deferred his stakes debut until April. His owner, Kaleem Shah, said Sunday that he and Baffert had been waiting for a performance such as the Woody Stephens at Belmont, where Bayern set rapid fractions and won by more than seven lengths, and the Haskell, where the speedy colt again controlled the pace and again drew away in the stretch.

After the colt's victory, in a profound understatement, his taciturn but incisive jockey, Martin Garcia, described Bayern as "very fast." It's a race, after all, he seemed to be saying, and fast wins. And so on the speed-favoring surface, Bayern shot to the lead immediately and remained there easily, without a threat or a doubt, completing the 1 ⅛ miles in an admirable 1:47.82. He won by more seven lengths, pulling away so casually in the lane that between the eighth-pole and the wire his fans had time to wonder what's next. Albano, who raced in fourth early, got through along the rail to finish second, with Wildcat Red, who was second early, holding on for third.

But what's next indeed for Bayern? The Travers perhaps, or the Pennsylvania Derby maybe? And could Bayern challenge California Chrome, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, for the divisional title?

In the last 50 years, only five of the 26 horses that won two-thirds of the Triple Crown weren't named the champion 3-year-old at the conclusion of the season. Holy Bull was the champion 3-year-old of 1994, rather than Tabasco Cat; Key To The Mint in 1972, rather than Riva Ridge; Arts And Letter in 1969, rather than Majestic Prince; Stage Door Johnny in 1968, rather than Forward Pass; and Buckpasser in 1966, rather Kauai King. And of those five horses that won a title with late-season surges that displaced the star of the Triple Crown series, four won the Travers.

If Bayern's connections want him to be in the other discussion, the one that the Haskell possibly sparked, they should consider a trip to New York's famous spa.

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