The Main Track: Baffert Finds Formula for Saratoga Success

Bob Baffert and family after Arrogate's 2016 Travers win. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Welcome to another edition of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track.

Each Tuesday in this space we spotlight the most meaningful story of the past week, detailing news that stands out because of its importance or perhaps the emotional response it generates.

Looking ahead, if you believe there’s a story this week that should be featured in next Tuesday’s edition of the Main Track, let us know by tweeting it to @ABRLive using the hashtag #ABRMainTrack.

As for this week, our featured story is a saying goodbye once and for all to the notion that trainer Bob Baffert does not like Saratoga, does not want to race at Saratoga and wants no part of the Travers Stakes.

It’s kind of funny to go back in time a little more than two years and review all of the conjecture that Baffert had some sort of allergy to the mountain air at the Spa and wanted no part of the place. The Keystone State and the Jersey Shore were his spots.

Well, he’s still a big fan of the Pennsylvania Derby and the Haskell, especially since he’s won Monmouth Park’s centerpiece stakes a staggering eight times.

But after Saturday you can now say without any qualms that he loves the Travers and in particular delights in seeing his owner’s colors on the canoe in Saratoga Race Course’s infield lake. Prior to the Travers, he said during an interview that one of his favorite television shows is the New York Racing Association’s Saratoga Live program. You see, they show the infield canoe during that show and Baffert got a huge kick out of seeing the green, pink and white colors of Juddmonte Farms and Arrogate on it.

Now Baffert can spend the bulk of the 2018 Saratoga season seeing a canoe with the hot pink and black colors of Gary and Mary West, whose West Coast gave Baffert back-to-back Travers wins and custody of the canoe for another 12 months – a point Baffert mentioned first during his teleconference after winning the Mid-Summer Derby for a third time.

“We got control of the canoe for one more year,” he said by phone from Del Mar.

He also stuck the proverbial fork in the notion that Saratoga is some sort of kryptonite to him and hopefully served up a powerful enough lesson to handicappers that his next Travers starter will be nowhere close to the 11-1 on Arrogate and the 6-1 that West Coast was dismissed at on Saturday.

Drefong wins the Forego at Saratoga.
Drefong wins the Forego at Saratoga. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Yes, Virginia, Bob Baffert can win at Saratoga. It’s surely not easy for him or anyone else, but these days when he deems a horse fit and ready and puts it on a plane, give it a very serious look, even if it lands in upstate New York. On Saturday, champion sprinter Drefong, who won the King’s Bishop (now the H. Allen Jerkens) on last year’s Travers undercard, took the Grade 1 Forego by four convincing lengths to become 2-for-2 at the Spa.

Earlier in the meet, Abel Tasman shipped in to Saratoga to win the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks for Baffert, beating Elate who went on to capture the Grade 1 Alabama in decisive fashion.

Baffert is indeed human as evidenced by American Anthem’s third in Saturday’s H. Allen Jerkens and Faypien finishing second earlier this month in the Grade 1 Test at the Spa. You can even add in the two recent losses by Arrogate in the Pacific Classic and San Diego at Del Mar to that mix or American Pharoah’s runner-up finish two years ago in the Travers. Yet don’t for a minute believe the hype from 2015 about Saratoga and the dude from California with the white hair and dark glasses. He can win there and will not hesitate to run there, if he has the right horse.

“People said I didn’t like Saratoga, that I didn’t like to run horses there,” he said. “But I had won big races at Saratoga before and I like Saratoga. I love being in Saratoga.”

Patience was the key to Baffert’s consecutive Travers wins and it elevates him far above most trainers. Both West Coast and Arrogate made their Grade 1 stakes debut in the late August classic and each won decisively over fields that included five different horses who had a Triple Crown victory to their credit - none of whom hit the board.

“We’re patient owners and Bob’s a patient trainer and in this case the patience paid off for us,” Gary West told Thoroughbred Racing Commentary.

Putting that patience into perspective, it shows how Baffert has that rare ability to develop outstanding 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds and then turn them into championship-caliber runners at 4.

He’s won the Del Mar Futurity a staggering 13 times, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile three times, the Kentucky Derby four times, the Preakness six times, the Belmont Stakes twice, Haskell eight times, Travers three times, Breeders’ Cup Classic three times, Dubai World Cup three times and was triumphant in the inaugural Pegasus World Cup.

Jimmy Barnes, West Coast, and Gary West after their Travers win.
Jimmy Barnes and Gary West escort West Coast into the Travers winner's circle (Eclipse Sportswire)

Those three BC Classic wins have come in the last three years and each of those victors have been 3-year-olds, though that streak of success in the Classic with sophomore runners seems destined to end in November. After the Travers, West said winning jockey Mike Smith should “have his head examined” if he opted to ride West Coast over Arrogate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He later talked about his interest in racing West Coast at 4, after Arrogate and Gun Runner leave the scene.

With that in mind, it would be no surprise if West Coast follows the path Gun Runner’s connections opted for a year ago, running in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

And when you look at how Pacific Classic winner Collected and Metropolitan Handicap winner Mor Spirit took quantum leaps forward at 4 for Baffert, continued patience by West as the year goes on would seem a wise move.

In trying to understand why Baffert has been so successful on so many fronts, the obvious answer is talent, skill and an amazingly accurate eye for ability in a young racehorse. Getting that Triple Crown-winning trainer tag affixed to his name thanks to American Pharoah in 2015 has also no doubt helped in regard to the patience that allowed him to steer clear of Triple Crown races that could have compromised the development of Arrogate and West Coast.

There’s also the huge importance of having main assistants, such as Jimmy Barnes and Mike Marlow, in place for about 20 years, which gives the operation the kind of stability that breeds success.

Barnes could probably be a highly successful trainer if he decided to open his own stable, but at the age of 57, he’s quite happy working for Baffert. Because of his expertise in overseeing day-to-day operations at Baffert’s barn or traveling with the stable’s stars, as he did with West Coast while Baffert remained in California on the famed “Grade 1 couch,” the stress on Baffert is reduced and he can focus on other vital areas of the operation, knowing he has a trusted assistant who can handle the horses and knows every syllable of the Baffert playbook.

It’s surely a winning formula that extends into every corner of the nation these days.

And to think people used to say he couldn’t win at Saratoga. My how times have changed.

The Also-Eligible List

Here are some of the other stories that made for a lively week in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry:

Forever Unbridled hands Songbird Personal Ensign defeat

Lady Eli surges to victory in Ballston Spa

Dominguez inducted into Saratoga Walk of Fame

Why Napravnik and Sharp go together like ham and eggs

American Pharoah ‘almost a romantic guy in the breeding shed’

Juarez buys, retires former mount Valid

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