07/27/2014 10:27PM

Watchmaker: Bayern capitalizes in Haskell, Tonalist preps in Jim Dandy


Bayern capitalizes in Haskell

Sunday’s Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park was an excellent reminder that horses are rarely as good as they look when they win big and equally rarely as bad as they look when they lose ugly. This applies, in particular, to Haskell winner Bayern and to Untapable, the best 3-year-old filly in the country, who finished a soundly beaten fifth as the strong Haskell favorite.

No one has been a bigger proponent of Bayern winning the Haskell since he won the Woody Stephens on the Belmont Stakes undercard than I have. But it would be silly to take bows, because this wasn’t rocket science. Just because Bayern ran huge in the seven furlong Stephens – and he ran giant – that didn’t mean he was just a seven-furlong horse. Bayern had real excuses in two of his three prior two-turn attempts – he was obliterated early in the Preakness and was short in the Arkansas Derby off a layoff in an attempt to gain points to make a start in the Kentucky Derby he never made – and in his other two-turn outing, he won by 15 lengths.

That said, while Bayern’s 7 1/4-length score in the Haskell was eye-catching on the surface, it did not take place in a vacuum. As Monmouth’s Sunday card progressed, the main track became increasingly speed-favoring, and no one in the Haskell was better positioned to capitalize on that than Bayern, breaking from post 2. And when jockey Martin Garcia indeed attempted to capitalize on the situation, school was out. Bayern toyed with his field for the first seven furlongs or so and then made a show of them.

The thinking in the Bayern camp going into the Haskell was he would shorten up afterward and target the Grade 1 King’s Bishop at Saratoga on Travers Day at the same seven-furlong distance at which he won the Stephens. But now, that is apparently out the window, and longer races like the Travers are under consideration, with a decision due Monday. I’m a big fan of Bayern’s, but I’m skeptical of him getting 10 furlongs on a fair track like Saratoga in the Travers. I would love to see his people think a little differently and consider the nine-furlong Woodward at Saratoga against older horses one week after the Travers. We’ll see.

As for Untapable, I feared from the get-go that as sporting as it was for her connections to take on males in the Haskell, it wouldn’t work because she would face a sustained pace the likes of which she had never seen before. But the way the Monmouth track played Sunday, her difficult task was made nearly impossible. However, the good news is Untapable’s Haskell loss won’t harm her dominant position within her division one iota. We just have to hope that the Haskell didn’t take too much out of her.

Expect more from Tonalist in the Travers

I think we saw the Travers winner in Saturday’s Jim Dandy at Saratoga, but I’m not sure yet if it’s Jim Dandy winner Wicked Strong or runner-up Tonalist. I liked Wicked Strong Saturday because I thought blinkers would make a huge difference for a colt whose major knock was his lack of focus. But the blinkers made an even bigger difference than I anticipated. Even though the Jim Dandy pace was pedestrian, and even if the addition of blinkers was meant to put him in the game earlier, it was a surprise to see Wicked Strong right with the early lead. Credit jockey Rajiv Maragh for that astute move. But the striking thing is, despite being far more involved early, Wicked Strong still finished strongly to turn away Tonalist.

Tonalist might have disappointed as the favorite, but I think the Jim Dandy outing will do him a world of good. My sense all along was that Tonalist’s connections were approaching the Jim Dandy much more as a mere prep than Wicked Strong’s connections were, and I don’t think the Belmont Stakes winner was close to being at peak. But he will be, after this, for the Travers.

Comparing 3-year old sprinters

The Big Beast is a serious 3-year-old sprinter who belongs in next month’s Grade 1 King’s Bishop, judging from his stunning allowance win on Saturday’s undercard. The Big Beast (he is indeed a big beast) was most impressive in a maiden win at Belmont in his last start, but his effort Saturday, drawing off after absorbing early pace pressure, was at least a couple of notches better.

There was an immediate comparison of 3-year-old sprinters available as in the race following The Big Beast, Coup de Grace charged from well off the pace to prove clearly the best in the Amsterdam Stakes, improving his record in one-turn races to 5 for 6.

Truth be told, I’ve been skeptical of Coup de Grace because he got fabulous, contested-pace setups in his two sprint stakes wins before the Amsterdam. And he got another great setup Saturday. But you have to give Coup de Grace some credit for being good enough to capitalize on good setups, because not every horse does, and for winning more decisively in the Amsterdam than he ever had before.

Still, Coup de Grace strikes me as an opportunist. The Big Beast strikes me as one who makes his own luck. I tend to gravitate toward the latter.

Competitive Edge shows star potential

It’s not smart policy to anoint anyone a star after only one performance, but Competitive Edge’s debut Saturday at Saratoga was one that would make you take the chance. The high speed and the sense of purpose Competitive Edge showed running away from his field through the stretch was a powerful combination. And what’s even more compelling is the fact that Competitive Edge is considered clearly the best of trainer Todd Pletcher’s 2-year-olds. If we were talking about a lower-profile outfit, that point wouldn’t pack much of an impact. But we’re talking about Pletcher here, a man with a serious frame of reference.

And as unwise as it is to jump too far off one race, it is also premature to write any horse off based on one poor effort. That said, you have to wonder about Aldrin and all the hype that surrounded him going into this same 2-year-old maiden race. I mean, Aldrin never ran a jump, from flag fall to finish. The only excuse I could find for him was he was bumped in upper stretch. But he was well out of it by that point and seemed to give up after the incident. Weird.

Don't expect much from Curlin field

The group who contested Friday’s Curlin Stakes put on a nice show, but with one possible exception, they should not be mistaken for significant players near the top of the 3-year-old division. The only one of the Curlin bunch who might prove to be above average going forward was fourth-place finisher Viva Majorca. In stretching out to two turns for the first time after four sprints to begin his career, I’m not sure why Viva Majorca was as far back early as he was. But that approach wound up getting him in traffic late on the far turn and in upper stretch as he searched for clear sailing. But once clear, Viva Majorca finished well, if belatedly, to be beaten less than a length.