After 4-5 favorite Bayern held on by a desperate nose from Embellishing Bob and Myositis Dan in Saturday night's Grade 3, $176,700 Derby Trial, the inquiry sign flashed, and the stewards looked into a rough stretch run at Churchill Downs. A weary Bayern had carried Embellishing Bob out in deep stretch, and he was accordingly disqualified for interfering with the runner-up. Embellishing Bob, a Martin Cherry homebred trained by Steve Margolis, was thus awarded the victory in his stakes debut.
Bayern was one of two Derby Trial entrants for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, along with Chitu. Both were under consideration for next Saturday's Kentucky Derby as well. Chitu is already assured of a berth in the Derby field, having won the March 23 Sunland Derby, and he is perched in 12th on the leaderboard with a 54-point total. Bayern, on the other hand, was on the outside looking in at number 23 on the Derby list after finishing third in the April 12 Arkansas Derby.
Baffert opted to scratch Chitu from the Derby Trial, planning to work the colt Sunday in preparation for the Kentucky Derby. That left Bayern to shoulder the stable's hopes on Saturday's opening night card at Churchill, and the highly-touted colt was bet down to odds-on favoritism.
Adding blinkers for this cutback to one turn, Bayern broke sharply from his rail post and grabbed the early lead. But Embellishing Bob, the 9-2 second choice off an impressive maiden score at Fair Grounds, had the speed to press him every step of the way. As Bayern carved out fractions of :23 1/5, :46 3/5 and 1:11 on the fast main track, his pace nemesis raced right alongside.
At the top of the stretch, Bayern and Embellishing Bob engaged in some body-slamming, but the dueling pair soon righted themselves. Bayern dug in gamely and tried to inch away from Embellishing Bob, but his advantage was tenuous as he reached the seven-furlong split in 1:23 2/5.
The farther they went, the more Bayern appeared to labor under left-handed urging by Rosie Napravnik, and Embellishing Bob came right back at him for Brian Hernandez Jr. Bayern drifted to his right in the final yards, floating Embellishing Bob out just as his rival was once more making headway. Then Myositis Dan, who had been held up far off the pace, flew fastest of all to join the longtime leaders at the line in a final time of 1:36 3/5 for the mile.
Bayern lunged at the exact instant that the trio crossed the wire, and the photo-finish revealed that his nose was in front. But Embellishing Bob's progress was affected by the herding in deep stretch. After the stewards demoted Bayern to second, Embellishing Bob rewarded his backers with $11.60 to win.
"She (Napravnik on Bayern) was getting out the whole way," Hernandez said. "She bumped us. That's why I claimed (foul).
"There didn't look to be a whole lot of speed in the race, so I just rode it the way it came up. He's a young horse, but he's talented and we tried to take advantage of that tonight. We asked him to run hard and he did. He showed just how good he is."
Napravnik saw it differently.
"It wasn't any more me than him," Napravnik said. "I was surprised he claimed on me. I thought we won it fair. My horse ran hard and ran well."
"They made the right call," Baffert said after having a chance to watch the replay.
"At first I thought he hung on and won. Then I saw the inquiry. I saw all the bumping, there was a lot of stuff going on there. He ran well, but he's still a young horse. We need to get him back, a little bit off the lead. He got a little tired at the end. The track is demanding tonight. He got a lot out of it."
Myositis Dan, who arrived on the scene a fraction too late, remained two noses away in third. Laddie Boy checked in another 1 3/4 lengths back in fourth, and Friendswith K Mill, Spot, Matador and Big Sugar Soda rounded out the order of finish. Aside from Chitu, Bitters 'n Bourbon was also scratched.
Embellishing Bob boosted his bankroll to $143,017 from his 4-2-1-1 line. Unraced at two, the Northern Afleet colt was third to the well-regarded The Trunk Monkey in his unveiling at Fair Grounds January 31. Embellishing Bob then switched to the New Orleans turf for a 5 1/2-furlong maiden on March 1, and he was just denied by Saint Finian. On the Louisiana Derby undercard March 29, Embellishing Bob reverted to a six-furlong dirt maiden and turned in a four-length wire job in a sparkling 1:09 2/5. He took a class hike, and stretch-out to a one-turn mile, in stride here.
"We were happy with his last race at the Fair Grounds," Margolis said. "And it was like Mr. (Martin) Cherry said, let's take a shot. He's been doing really good and I knew the one-turn mile wasn't out of his reach."
The Kentucky-bred bay is out of the unraced Defrere mare Kirsche, a half-sister to multiple Grade 3-placed stakes winner Watchfull, stakes scorer Sweet Sixteen, Grade 2-placed Hermione's Magic and the stakes-placed Rose Bay. Watchfull went on to produce Grade 3 victor Watchmon, and further back in the family, one finds Grade 3 winners Region of Merit and Habaneros.
"We've got to look at his family and take a little more conservative of a route," Margolis added regarding future targets. "His family is a lot of seven-furlong horses, maybe milers, so I'll talk with Mr. Cherry about it.
"There's the Woody Stephens on Belmont Day (June 7). We'll just have to kick it around, but he's a nice colt and he's run good every time we've run him. He did get bumped legitimately by Bob's (Baffert's) horse with his hind end and so we dug in and ran a big race."
Bayern's plans are to be determined.
"We'll see. We'll play it by ear," Baffert responded when asked if Bayern would advance to the May 17 Preakness.