Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has a chance to win the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby for a second time in three years on Saturday, and again with a speedy colt who will have made his debut only three months previously.
The comparisons are inexact, but the undefeated Bayern is a progressive colt in the mold of Bodemeister, who romped to a 9 1/4-length victory for Baffert in the 2012 Arkansas Derby. Like Bodemeister, Bayern did not start until January of his three-year-old season and has shown an affinity for being on or near the lead.
The major difference between the two is that Bodemeister was a stakes-placed winner of one race in three outings before his Arkansas Derby procession, while Bayern enters the 1 1/8-mile Kentucky Derby prep undefeated from two starts -- a 3 1/4-length maiden over seven furlongs and a 15-length demolition of allowance foes at one mile.
The extra distance doesn't figure to pose a problem for Bayern, a son of Suburban Handicap winner Offlee Wild out of a daughter of dual classic winner Thunder Gulch, and his pilot is Gary Stevens, who captured the Arkansas Derby way back in 1985 with Tank's Prospect and in 1990 aboard Silver Ending.
The Baffert barn already has success against Bayern's primary foes. The stable's Hoppertunity prevailed by a half-length in last month's Rebel, defeating Tapiture, Strong Mandate, and Ride On Curlin. Hoppertunity subsequently finished second in last week's Santa Anita Derby.
Tapiture, who couldn't quite hold off the winner in a roughly-run Rebel, was made the 9-5 morning line favorite for the Arkansas Derby. His runner-up finish was his first defeat after back-to-back, 4 1/4-length victories in the Southwest and Kentucky Jockey Club. Joel Rosario, who rode Orb to victory in last year's Run for the Roses, replaces Ricardo Santana aboard the Tapit colt.
Strong Mandate, last year's Hopeful winner, was a wide-trip second to Tapiture in the Southwest, and then a fading fourth in the Rebel when encountering some trouble at the eighth pole after setting a pressured pace.
"I hope he'll get better racing luck this time and I think he has a little better conditioning now, too," trainer D. Wayne Lukas said earlier in the week. "I think he's had a good 30 days so I'm looking for a much better effort from him."
Ride On Curlin occupied the third slot in both the Southwest and Rebel, the latter as an 11-1 shot pressing Strong Mandate for nearly a mile. Like that rival, he might fare better coming from slightly off the pace.
Todd Pletcher, who won this race for a third time last season with Overanalyze, will saddle two here. Commissioner, to his detriment, has encountered speed-friendly surfaces in his two stakes appearances: a sixth-place finish in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream and a third in the Sunland Derby. The cleverly-named Danza, a son of Street Boss, was narrowly defeated in the Saratoga Special last August and was most recently a distant third in a seven-furlong allowance in his sophomore debut.
Trainer Mark Casse also starts two in the Arkansas Derby. Stakes winner Conquest Titan was second to Cairo Prince in the Holy Bull two back, but was a no-excuse fourth as the favorite in the Tampa Bay Derby last time. Casse's other entry, Thundergram, takes a big leap up in class after a first-level allowance loss at Oaklawn March 16.
The field is completed by Knock Em Flat, a probable pace player following a front-running, 5 3/4-length maiden win in the slop.