Bob Baffert may be the smartest thoroughbred trainer in the U.S., but he has one persistent flaw: inability to win very often in New York. His most recent flop was the Travers Stakes, when 2-1 favorite Bayern finished last in a 10-horse field.
Baffert was not present. He stayed home in SoCal, as he usually does when his horses run in New York, a state he makes no secret of not loving. In fairness, the 61-year-old limits his travel under doctor’s orders after suffering a heart attack two year ago.
That may explain why he had his assistants ship Bayern to Saratoga on Wednesday, hoping he would recover from jet lag by Saturday, and the $1.25 million “Midsummer Derby.” Baffert personally saddled up Game On Dude the next day in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar.
It was a bad weekend all around for Baffert, as 7-year-old gelding Game On trudged home fourth, looking like his A-game is gone. Shared Belief, champion 2-year-old who never got on the Derby Trail because of sore feet, won his sixth race in as many tries, for co-owner Jim Rome, the talk show star.
Even if he has a Californian’s disdain for the other coast, Baffert should have managed Bayern better. The blazing fast colt won the Grade 1 Haskell at Monmouth, N.J., July 27, and the logical next move was to Saratoga to prepare for the Travers, America’s most prestigious horse race of the summer.
Instead, Baffert flew Bayern back to California to a runway-hard surface that could not be more different from the deep, spongy dirt of the Spa. This is a pattern Baffert established years ago to no good effect. He usually refuses to condition his horses in New York, which may explain why he has little success at Saratoga or Belmont Park.
He’s won the Travers only once, in 2001 with Point Given. And while he’s finished in the money seven times in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, he’s been in the top three just four times in the Belmont Stakes. His stumbles there with Silver Charm and Real Quiet stopped quests for a Triple Crown.
The 145th Travers, 1 ¼ miles at the country’s loveliest racetrack set up well for Bayern, who had the only early speed. Under his usual rider Martin Garcia, he charged out of the gate to lead by three lengths approaching the first turn. But then he slowed, as if intimidated or confused by the sharp bend in the rail, which he had never seen before.
Another contender, Belmont winner Tonalist, unexpectedly challenged Bayern but lurched wide on the same turn, compromising his chances.
With Bayern all but backing up and Tonalist tiring in the stretch, Jimmy Jerkens, New York’s finest trainer, finished 1-2 in a photo. V.E. Day, with the peerless Javier Castellano (26% wins) aboard, won his fourth straight race, at 19-1 odds because the previous victories were against lesser competition.
Wicked Strong, winner of the Wood Memorial at Belmont and the recent Jim Dandy at Saratoga, finished second by a half nose. There’s something to be said for familiarity.
“He’s a good horseman,” Castellano said of Jerkens. “We’ve had good experiences in the past.”
Bayern deserved better from his own distinguished trainer.