Trainer Bob Baffert has his own incentive program when it comes to racking up airline miles. And it has nothing to do with free rooms, upgrades, or any such amenities often associated with frequent travel.
The Hall of Fame conditioner doesn't like to put one of his horses in the air unless he is fairly certain the reward will be worth it. Hence, he kept vainly looking for a reason not to send Grade I winner Bayern from his California base to start in Saturday's Grade I, $1.25 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
"I want to make sure when I ship, we want to ship to make sure that it's going to be a winning ship," Baffert said during a national teleconference this week. "I'm always looking for an excuse not to get on the plane, but so far I haven't found that yet."
Bayern's arrival in New York on Wednesday was a fitting entrance for the colt who is threatening to turn the 3-year-old male division asunder. Off his gate-to-wire, 71/4-length victory in last month's Grade I, 11⁄8-mile Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, the dark bay son of Offlee Wild stands as the 2-1 morning-line favorite to overcome fellow Grade I winners Tonalist, Wicked Strong and seven others in the 11/4-mile Travers.
Not since Baffert-trained champion Point Given in 2001 has a Haskell winner come back to capture the Travers. By contrast, seven of the past 10 Travers victors have exited the Grade II Jim Dandy, the race in which Wicked Strong and Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist ran 1-2 on July 26.
"Will he take a step backward, I don't know. But he looks good," Baffert said of Bayern. "He's not a really big horse, but he's just fast. He's a handy horse and he's got a lot of speed. I think the faster the better for him.
"I'm not totally convinced yet he can get a mile and a quarter. But he's pretty fast, so what I've seen so far it looks pretty good."
Unraced at age 2, brilliance nonetheless came early to Bayern as Kaleem Shah's colt won his first two starts by a combined 181/4 lengths.
A heel bruise forced Baffert to play catch-up heading into what would be a third-place effort in the Grade I Arkansas Derby followed by a second-place run in the Derby Trial.
After Bayern was wiped out by the filly Ria Antonia coming out of the gate for the Preakness Stakes and ended up ninth, Baffert shortened him up in the Grade II, 7-furlong Woody Stephens at Belmont Park on June 7. Baffert came away convinced all over again about Bayern's talent when the front-running colt demolished that field by 71/2 lengths.
"I think he just needed to catch up. He just wasn't caught up to those horses," Baffert said. "Once he got the foundation ... he exploded at New York.
"I was waiting to see what he did in the Haskell, because I thought if he runs like he's been training, he should win. But after he ran in the Haskell, I didn't see any real reason not to maybe try him a little further, because it wasn't really taxing on him."
Who, if anyone, will go with Bayern in the Travers is the question heading into the 10-furlong test.
Wicked Strong, winner of the Grade I Wood Memorial and fourth in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, was outfitted with blinkers in the Jim Dandy and ran much closer to the pace than normal, tracking second before drawing off for his 21/4-length win.
"We needed to see that from him," trainer Jimmy Jerkens said. "He's been slowly developing all along. He certainly didn't run bad in those (Triple Crown) races, but he hadn't put it together like that.
"You can't compromise your chances by chasing (Bayern) too much. I don't think you can let him get too easy a lead, but at the same time you have to remember it's a long way."
Tonalist, who missed the Wood Memorial because of a lung infection, put it all together in edging out Commissioner for the win in the Belmont Stakes. The cutback to 11⁄8 miles in the Jim Dandy may have been a little short for him, and trainer Christophe Clement spoke before that race about wanting to have him at his peak for the Travers.
Though he too is a Grade I winner, Phipps Stables' Mr Speaker is a mystery in that he is unproven on dirt. The son of Pulpit won the Grade I, 11/4-mile Belmont Derby on the turf on July 5 but floundered in his lone dirt try, a seventh-place finish in the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream on Jan. 25.
"It's just a matter of whether he takes to the dirt or not," trainer Shug McGaughey said. "You never know on the dirt when you turn their head loose and ask them to run what they're going to do. If he takes to it and does fine, I think we'll be in the ball game."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.