SARATOGA SPRINGS — Never underestimate the power of California speed, especially when Bob Baffert is involved. The Hall of Fame trainer didn’t leave the West Coast this week, but his colt West Coast showed up at Saratoga, and just like his stablemate Arrogate last year, he led all the way under Mike Smith in the Travers Stakes.
West Coast left the winners of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes far behind in Saturday’s 148th Midsummer Derby, beating deep closer Gunnevera by a widening 3¼ lengths before a crowd of 47,725. The 13½-length margin and track-record time set by Arrogate were never in danger, but like him, West Coast skipped the Triple Crown, and for the eighth straight year the Travers went to a horse who didn’t win a classic.
“This horse came into this race sneaky good, and he’s really getting good right now,” Smith said. “He came back sound and happy and is still full of himself. Bob and his whole crew, they get these horses ready. I am just happy I am the guy that keeps the weight on their back.”
The fractions were no burden, as Smith nursed West Coast through leisurely splits of 23.82 seconds for a quarter-mile, 48.12 for a half-mile and 1:12.23 for 6 furlongs while stalked by Always Dreaming. The Derby winner folded before Irap moved within a half-length of West Coast entering the stretch, with 24-1 shot Gunnevera surging into third from far back. The winner kept grinding, shaking off Irap before Gunnevera took second at the eighth pole, a length behind. West Coast responded and extended his margin by 2¼ lengths.
“I warmed him up sharp, I got him out of [the gate] and he was responsive,” Smith said. “He was in such a beautiful rhythm, and I said, ‘Guys, it’s going to be hard outrunning him from here.’ ”
That wasn’t going to happen. Gunnevera, despite being bumped hard at the start, still ran big and finished 2¼ lengths ahead of Irap. (There was an inquiry about an incident between those two in deep stretch, but the stewards took no action.) Belmont winner Tapwrit was fourth, 2½ lengths farther back, with 7-2 favorite Good Samaritan fifth. Behind them came Giuseppe the Great, McCraken, Preakness champ Cloud Computing, Always Dreaming, Lookin At Lee, Girvin and Fayeq.
West Coast extended his winning streak to four and improved to 5-for-7 lifetime, with two seconds. He ran 1¼ miles in 2:01.19, 1.83 seconds off Arrogate’s time, and paid $14.20. The $670,000 winner’s share from the $1.25 million purse raised his earnings to $993,800 for Gary and Mary West, whose hot pink and black colors will adorn the canoe in the infield lake. “We got control of the canoe for another year,” Baffert said.
No one had trained back-to-back Travers winners since Shug McGaughey did it with Easy Goer (1989) and Rhythm (1990). Baffert also won in 2001 with Point Given.
Some handicappers wondered whether Baffert’s decision to stay at Del Mar betrayed a lack of confidence in West Coast. Not so. Smith said he’d been told: “Listen, you ride him however you want and he’ll put in a big effort.’
“He was a happy horse all the way around there,’’ Smith said. “There was a time or two when they came to me, but when they did he’d just take a big old breath of air, and he just put them away.”
Predictably, in a year in which the 3-year-old class has been consistently inconsistent, the Travers further scrambled the picture. Perhaps it will clear up in the fall, but don’t bet on it.