SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert had a difficult act to follow in the $1.2 million, Grade 1 Travers Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course – his own.
West Coast was not able to match Arrogate’s scorching track-record performance in last year’s Travers, but he was plenty good enough to provide a front-running effort that allowed him to prevail by 3 ¼ lengths for Baffert against a rallying Gunnevera. Irap ran third.
“We’ve got control of the canoe for one more year,” joked Baffert during a post-race conference call, referring to the tradition of painting a canoe in the colors of the winner.
The Travers matched separate winners of each of the three Triple Crown races for the first time in 35 years. In 1982, Runaway Groom’s staged a dramatic rally from last to upend three more famous rivals in Gato Del Sol (Kentucky Derby winner), Aloma’s Ruler (Preakness Stakes) and heavily-favored Conquistador Cielo (Belmont Stakes). As far back as 1918, Sun Briar brought down Exterminator (Derby winner), War Cloud (Preakness) and Johren (Belmont).
Interestingly, history repeated itself. Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands winner Always Dreaming backed up from second in the early going to finish ninth, one position behind Preakness Stakes champ Cloud Computing. Tapwrit, who took the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, came in fourth but never threatened in his first start since the mile-and-a-half marathon.
Baffert said he flirted with the idea of running West Coast in the Belmont. That notion was scrapped after he talked to owner Gary West. “Gary looked at me and said, ‘Are you out of your mind? He’s not ready for that.’ And he was right.”
They instead opted for the Easy Goer Stakes, a much easier spot on the Belmont undercard, and were rewarded with a 3 ¾-length victory. The son of Flatter was given his first graded stakes try in the Grade 3 Los Alamitos Derby. He responded with a 2 ¾-length decision.
“After the Easy Goer, West Coast really woke up,” said Jimmy Barnes, Baffert’s top assistant. “He’s developed, he’s grown, he’s put on weight.”
According to Baffert, West Coast had been his own worst enemy, with a tendency to get worked up in the paddock and the starting gate. Then maturity kicked in.
Baffert said he could tell West Coast was ready for a big effort when he saw him enter the paddock.
“He looked unbelievable. He looked the part. You could tell he was a man among boys,” he said. “He was just slow coming around, but nobody was going to beat him today.”
Jockey Mike Smith, aboard Arrogate last year, also repeated in the Travers and picked up his fourth overall win in the “Midsummer Derby.” He and West Coast set the pace as the 6.10-1 fourth betting choice and finished up 1 ¼ miles in 2:01.19, well off of Arrogate’s track record of 1:59.36.
Trainer Todd Pletcher experienced mixed emotions with Tapwrit and Always Dreaming. “I thought Tapwrit ran really well and kind of finished steadily and didn’t have that big burst at the end that we needed. I thought he put forth a good effort,” he said. “Always Dreaming, he kind of came off the bridle at the half-mile pole. I can’t offer much excuse.”
After Tapwrit in fourth, Good Samaritan (the 3.85-1 favorite), Giuseppe the Great, McCraken, Cloud Computing, Always Dreaming, Lookin At Lee, Girvin, and Fayeq completed the order of finish.
In other major races on the Travers undercard (click here for a recap of the $700,000 Grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes):
Grade 1 $500,000 Ketel One Ballerina Stakes: By the Moon withstood Highway Star’s late rush to win by a head for trainer Michelle Nevin and jockey Rajiv Maragh in the Ballerina, worth an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. “It looked like there wasn’t a ton of speed in here,” said Nevin. “Rajiv had talked about it yesterday and this morning that he wanted to be prepared right out of the gate to see what kind of scenario was going to develop. Oh my God, did he give her a great ride.”
Grade 1 $600,000 Forego Stakes: Reigning sprint champion Drefong made an inauspicious 4-year-old debut when he ducked in and dumped Mike Smith in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Stakes on July 29 at Del Mar. He rebounded strongly in the seven-furlong Forego, taking command at the outset and never looking back in dominating by four lengths over Awesome Slew with Smith back in the irons. “You just saw the real Drefong,” trainer Bob Baffert said during a phone interview. “You would have seen him last time if Mike Smith had not fallen off.” Baffert said he might use a start at Santa Anita Park to prep for the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Drefong earned an automatic berth to the TwinSpires Sprint in the Forego.
Grade 1 $1 million Sword Dancer Stakes: Sadler’s Joy, third in each of his previous three starts, surged late under hard-driving jockey Julien Leparoux to pull the upset in this “Win and In” contest for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf. He finished a half-length ahead of Money Multiplier. Trainer Tom Albertrani, who gained his first win of the meet, said the Grade 1 $500,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic on Sept. 30 at Belmont Park is likely to be next.
Grade 1 $500,000 H. Allen Jerkens Stakes: Practical Joke responded to a cutback in distance from the mile-and-an-eighth betfair.com Haskell Invitational to this seven-furlong contest with a length-and-a-quarter decision against Takaful. American Anthem ran third in absorbing his first defeat in a one-turn race. Trainer Chad Brown said the likely Breeders’ Cup target will be the Las Vegas Dirt Mile. “It’s a tricky race because it’s around two runs. He’s undefeated on one turn,” Brown noted. “But the mile distance seems perfect for him.”
Grade 2 $400,000 Woodford Reserve Ballston Spa Stakes: Lady Eli showed the heart she is renowned for, getting the job done for the 10th time in 13 career starts. She has never finished worse than second. The 5-year-old mare, who overcame laminitis earlier in her career, showed she has not lost a step when she won the Diana Stakes during the opening weekend of the Saratoga meet.