09/21/2014 11:11AM

Watchmaker: Hard to get handle on Bayern


Bayern is becoming a polarizing horse. There are those who feel he is enormously talented, a borderline freak. And there are others who feel he is a mirage, a pure function of favorable track biases.

As with most matters like this, the truth probably falls somewhere in the middle. I believe Bayern is indeed a running fool. He convinced me of that when he won the Woody Stephens on the Belmont Stakes undercard. But I also believe we don’t yet have an accurate handle on just how good Bayern really is because his two biggest victories, the Haskell and Saturday’s Pennsylvania Derby, came on tracks that strongly favored his front-running style.

Bayern, who could only be found with a search warrant at the end of the Travers on a fair Saratoga track, had the Pennsylvania Derby won mere strides out of the gate when he seized an unchallenged clear early lead and established rail position. And when 24.07 was put up for the first quarter on a surface over which Favorite Tale dueled inside in the Gallant Bob two races earlier in 21.33 and 43.38 and drew off to snap a four-race losing streak, it was only a matter of how big Bayern’s win margin would be. It was almost six lengths.

Bayern also broke the track record, although Saturday’s surface at Parx might have been the fastest it has ever been in the multi-named history of the track – ever. But in fairness, it does say something very positive about Bayern that even if everything were in his favor, you knew even with a lap around the track still to go that he was going to win easily.

Tapiture and Candy Boy ran against the grain of the track in the Pennsylvania Derby, so they did OK finishing second and third. California Chrome didn’t do OK finishing sixth. He did race on the rail, which seemed by far the best part of the track. Then again, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner has given the strong impression in past races that he doesn’t like being inside and much prefers to race outside of horses.

Still, California Chrome has more than earned a pass for one dud outing and deserves a chance to make amends. The thing is: It’s hard to be cheery about California Chrome’s prospects going into the fall. As clear-cut a divisional leader as he was in the spring, we all knew California Chrome was going to have to raise his game if he was going be competitive in the big year-end events. Saturday was not a good start in that direction.

Now, the 3-year-old male title that once looked like a near lock for California Chrome seems very much up for grabs. And the divisional scenarios only get more intriguing Saturday when Shared Belief at Santa Anita and a group of 3-year-olds at Belmont take on capable but limited only opponents in their final Breeders’ Cup preps.

Other Saturday notes:

It goes without saying that Untapable has had more impressive races this year than her victory in the Cotillion. However, Untapable wasn’t on the lead or near the rail, so overcoming the bias, which good horses can do, makes up for any style points she lacked.

And I thought Sweet Reason was terrific finishing second, finally delivering a performance around two turns to match her high-quality one-turn efforts.

Jojo Warrior, third in the Cotillion, was carried by the track.

There was a decided rail and speed bias on the main track Friday at Belmont, and I think the bias still was there early Saturday. But by the time Artemis Agrotera came from way out of it to win the Gallant Bloom later on Saturday’s card, I think the bias was all but gone.

Why do I think Belmont’s track changed during the day Saturday? Artemis Agrotera won the Gallant Bloom with 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:15.49. Weak 3-year-old fillies won the first race with 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:15.48. I don’t think those fillies in the opener suddenly became stakes-fast, and I highly doubt Artemis Agrotera and everyone who finished behind her suddenly became much slower. So that makes me think the track became slower, and when it did, the bias in play Friday and early Saturday disappeared.

While Artemis Agrotera’s Silky Sullivan-like score was exciting, the uncharacteristic lethargy she displayed in the early stages, even in the face of very fast fractions, was a concern. She can’t do that in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint and expect to have a chance to compete.