11/02/2014 10:03AM

Beyer: Stewards made right call in Classic, Bayern a deserving champ

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If the Super Bowl is decided by a pass play with contact between receiver and defender or the NBA finals by a drive to the basket on which there is obvious contact, a referee’s borderline decision can determine the outcome of a championship event. Whatever the official decides is sure to prompt endless debate.  

This essentially is what happened in the America’s richest horse race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, after Bayern bumped two key rivals in his first stride out of the gate, then led all the way to win by a nose. Santa Anita’s stewards posted the “inquiry” sign. When they allowed Bayern’s victory to stand, the non-disqualification was met with plenty of boos at the track and second guessing in the blogosphere and the media.

“Bayern didn’t win the race,” declared veteran turf writer Bill Finley at ESPN.com. “The stewards won it for him. He should have been disqualified, absolutely 100 percent.”

This was not a 100 percent situation by any means, like most judgment calls in other sports.  But unlike officials in football or basketball who may be reluctant to make a game-changing call with a championship on the line, the stewards did what most stewards would do in an ordinary race. They forgave the infraction – and rightly so.  Bayern earned this victory and deserves to be hailed as a worthy Classic winner – as well as the 3-year-old champion and Horse of the Year.

When the gate opened, Bayern (No. 7) broke inward and banged #6 Shared Belief, the favorite. A chain reaction continued as Shared Belief bumped #4 Moreno. Although he was a 28-1 shot with little chance to win, Moreno’s misfortune would be crucial to the outcome of the Classic. The speedster had been expected to put pressure on the front-running Bayern in the early stages of the race. Because of Moreno’s early difficulties, Bayern was able to seize a clear lead – a significant tactical advantage.

Both Shared Belief and Moreno got a double whammy. The European colt Toast of New York had broken cleanly from post 9, but after a few strides, he angled toward the rail and created more traffic trouble for Shared Belief and Moreno.  The latter never got into contention and wound up finishing a distant last.

There was no DQ because stewards almost never disqualify a horse – in any race, big or small – for actions like Bayern’s.  Horses don’t run like trains on a track. In the first stride or two of almost every Thoroughbred race, there is inevitable jostling and bumping. Penalizing horses for one unavoidable bump in the first stride would create chaos in the sport.

Stewards may be stricter if a jockey doesn’t get his mount on a straight path after a few strides, but Martin Garcia got control of Bayern almost immediately.

“There was nothing I could do [about the initial contact],” the jockey said. “But I corrected it right away.” 

The California Horse Racing Board explained the non-disqualification by saying Shared Belief and Moreno “were not cost the opportunity to place where they were reasonably expected to finish.” Certainly the stewards wouldn’t disqualify a winner for bumping a longshot who wound up losing by more than 30 lengths. But what about Shared Belief? Asked about the trouble he encountered, jockey Mike Smith said, “I think it cost me the race.”

Shared Belief suffered less from the initial bump than he did from the congestion approaching the first turn – trouble that principally was caused by Toast of New York. Disqualifying Bayern would have made Toast of New York the winner – hardly a just result.  Moreover, it is debatable how much the trouble cost Shared Belief. Despite his early travails, he reached the first turn in just about the position where Smith would have wanted to be: sitting about four lengths behind the leaders in striking position on the outside.  He still had a chance – but he didn’t have his usual acceleration.

The controversial start diverted many fans’ attention from a dramatic and memorable stretch run.  Bayern was on the rail, pressured by Toast of New York, with California Chrome bearing down outside them – the scenario that everyone wanted to see. ‘Chrome’ had become America’s most celebrated racehorse by winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and NBC had for two days been promoting the Classic as “California Chrome’s shot at redemption.” Now, he had his chance.  Both of the pursuers had had clean trips and a fair shot to catch the frontrunner. But Bayern was resolute.  As Garcia recounted the stretch drive, he said he felt as if his mount were telling his rivals: “No, you’re never going to get by me.”

It was an ennobling performance for all three colts involved in the photo finish. Running 1 1/4 miles in a fast 1:59.88, they all earned Beyer Speed Figures of 113 – the three best performances by 3-year-olds on a dirt surface in 2014. Shared Belief had earned a 115 on Del Mar’s synthetic track.

California Chrome fully redeemed himself for his Triple Crown failure – even in defeat, this was the best performance of his career. Bayern, who blossomed late, confirmed the brilliant form he had displayed in the second half of the season. After he led all the way to win the Haskell Invitational by more than seven lengths and the Pennsylvania Derby by nearly six, questions still remained about his stamina, and he answered those questions in the Santa Anita stretch. His performance brought the year’s 3-year-old competition to an exciting and definitive climax, and the stewards were right to avoid marring it with a disqualification.