04/09/2014 12:33PM

Kentucky Derby: Bayern taking next step toward defying history in Arkansas Derby

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Bayern , a prime contender for Saturday's Arkansas Derby, did not make his career debut until Jan 4. No horse unraced at 2 has won the Kentucky Derby since 1882.

In 1882, the electric iron was patented, Jesse James was killed, and Apollo won the Kentucky Derby. The Derby was 8 years old. It turns the ripe old age of 140 this year, and in all the years since, no horse has equaled the feat of Apollo, who won the Derby after never racing at age 2.

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The numbers of horses who even attempted such a feat were fewer during the first part of the last century, when horses actually ran a lot, both at 2 and in prepping for the Derby at 3. Citation, for instance, ran nine times at 2 and seven more times at 3 prior to the 1948 Derby. Whirlaway ran 16 times at 2 and seven more times at 3 before Derby Day in 1941. Both won the Triple Crown.

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In modern times, the trend is for more time between starts, so the gap of experience between those who ran at 2 and those who didn’t isn’t quite so severe. Yet the ability to go from an unstarted maiden to Derby winner in four months – or less – has proven a hurdle too high to clear for horses with undeniable talent, recent examples being Bodemeister and Curlin.

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Since 1944, 58 horses have started in the Derby without racing at 2. Just seven have finished in the money, including Bodemeister (second, 2012) and Curlin (third, 2007). The only horse who tried it last year was Verrazano, who entered the Derby 4 for 4. He finished 14th.

Because of the change in training, the odds are increasing that a horse will win the Derby without having started at age 2. But it hasn’t happened in 132 years, making it the most daunting of Derby challenges.

This year, the starting gate could have its largest contingent of bidders. Constitution, who made his first start Jan. 11, is in the Derby following his victory in the Florida Derby. Hoppertunity, who debuted Jan. 4, is safely in following a victory in the Rebel Stakes and a second-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby.

And on Saturday, in the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby, Bayern – who debuted in the same Jan. 4 Santa Anita maiden race as stablemate Hoppertunity – will make his bid to join the Derby field. A finish in the top two gets him in.

The difficulty of even getting to the Derby with a horse unraced at 2 was underscored last Saturday, when Social Inclusion, who did not make his first start until Feb. 22, just failed to hold second in the Wood Memorial, a photo finish that might leave him short on points toward cracking the 20-horse Derby field.

Like Social Inclusion in the Wood and Constitution in the Florida Derby, Bayern will be making only his third lifetime start in the Arkansas Derby. But the circumstances regarding all three are quite different.

Social Inclusion had his time frame from starts 1 through 3 compressed into a mere six weeks, plus he had to travel from Florida to New York. Perhaps that was too much to ask.

Constitution had his starts well spaced. After his debut win Jan. 11, he won an allowance race six weeks later Feb. 22 and then the Florida Derby on March 29. All of his races were at Gulfstream, and he had five weeks between the allowance and Florida Derby, the exact amount of time he will have between the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby.

Bayern’s trajectory had a hiccup. After that sprint debut win Jan. 4, he rolled to a 15-length victory in a one-mile allowance race Feb. 13 and was set to go in the San Felipe Stakes on March 8 until a foot bruise forced him out of the race.

So, he comes into the Arkansas Derby not having raced in almost two months. And if he gets through this race, he will go into the Derby with one fewer start than initially intended.

Raw talent can overcome a lot, however, and Bayern’s trainer, Bob Baffert, said he thinks Bayern has the ability to make a huge impact Saturday and beyond.

Baffert said the foot bruise “wasn’t that bad.”

“He missed three days of training,” Baffert said. “He didn’t miss any works. It was just bad timing for the San Felipe. Any time you get a foot bruise that close, I don’t feel comfortable running. My thought when that happened: Arkansas.”

Baffert could have run Bayern in the Santa Anita Derby last Saturday, but there were several factors that made the Arkansas Derby more attractive. The Arkansas Derby afforded Bayern an extra week of training and another serious workout. Baffert had another horse, Hoppertunity, for the Santa Anita Derby. Gary Stevens, who rides Bayern, had Candy Boy for the Santa Anita Derby. And Baffert admits that he “didn’t want to run against California Chrome,” who won the Santa Anita Derby and is now the ante-post favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

But Bayern can’t afford a misstep in what will be his lone chance to earn critical Derby points.

“It’s Bodemeister or bust,” Baffert said, referring to the mercurial colt he sent to Oaklawn to win the 2012 Arkansas Derby. “He gets one shot at it.”