On Track with Johnny D: There’s a New Star

Reversing the maxim ‘Go West young man,’ West Coast shipped East and dominated Travers foes. Agreed, the performance wasn’t nearly as astonishing as the one delivered a season ago by barn-mate Arrogate in the same event. Still, message delivered: There’s a new star in the nighttime sky!

During winter and spring, as sophomores mature and develop at individual paces, we anticipate and welcome fluidity in 3-year-old rankings, especially at the top. The unpredictable nature of the beast stimulates interest in the pursuit of classic glory. Annually, by the Belmont Stakes, we’re usually convinced as to which is the best and brightest of the generation. However, in this topsy-turvy 2017 3-year-old racing season the crown has been ‘one-size-fits-all’ –Always Dreaming on the first Saturday in May; Cloud Computing just two weeks later; Tapwrit in June; Girvin in July and currently West Coast in August.

How good is this latest Bob Baffert bi-coastal bullet? Pretty darn good. Like with the trainer’s most recent soph stars—American Pharoah and Arrogate–West Coast did not win first time out. He finished second that afternoon and, after breaking maiden next out, was runner-up by a mere nose in his third start–the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. Since he’s considered no other horse’s rump at the conclusion of a race, including an Arcadia oval allowance race, the Easy Goer Stakes at Belmont, the Los Alamitos Derby in Cypress, CA and the Travers at Saratoga.

What’s most exciting about this son of Flatter is that he’s just now, as they say, ‘getting good.’ That’s a scary proposition for the rest for the 3-year-old division, because Saturday West Coast ran away from them easily–from start to finish. And he wasn’t even billed as a ‘speed’ horse. Once the gates opened and jockey Mike Smith gigged him to a comfortable early lead, victory for the bay colt wasn’t in doubt. A protracted, wide, late run from Fountain of Youth winner and former prep-season crown wearer Gunnevera momentarily appeared as if he might threaten, but the colt ran out of steam in the lane.

West Coast’s Travers performance was so smooth, workmanlike, and unassuming that it hasn’t attracted many rave reviews. The gaudy 108 Beyer Speed Figure assigned turned a few heads, but no one’s come out of their chair to embrace this horse. Guess that’s understandable. This season, after proclaiming each subsequent major race winner the ‘next coming’ turf media types have so much egg on their faces that they’ve run out of napkins.

Readers of weekly drivel occupying this space will attest that this scribe hasn’t yet enlisted any 3-year-old superlatives. Therefore, I’ve got plenty of napkins. I may need one, too, because I’m willing to prematurely anoint West Coast as the 2017 3-year-old Champion! And not just for what he did last Saturday. There’s more meat on that bone.

Baffert has mentioned the Pennsylvania Derby (Sept. 23) at Parx or the Jockey Club Gold Cup (Oct. 7) at Belmont Park as possible next starts for West Coast. I hope it’s the former in my backyard because I’d love to see this guy in person again. I don’t recognize a threat to West Coast in that $1 million race. If the colt starts in the Gold Cup instead, over a track he clearly favors, he also will catch a less than robust field of classmates and older foes.

Following victory in either race Baffert presumably will point West Coast toward the Breeders’ Cup Classic. That would give the trainer a true embarrassment of riches in a trio of live runners for the race—defending champ Arrogate, Pacific Classic winner Collected and West Coast. It also would leave Mike Smith with an interesting BC Classic decision: to ride Arrogate, the defending divisional champ and top-ranked horse in the world, or rising star West Coast.

Please forgive me. I’ve put the cart before the horse. A mistake no veteran turf observer ought to make. There’s so much training and competition ahead that anything can happen between now and then. Plus, racing gods assuredly have extraordinary fall plans to execute. Machinations aside, however, last Saturday at the Spa a colt distanced himself from the pack to win the Travers in remarkably easy fashion. He’s a star. How bright he will shine is the remaining question.

Travers day was not all about sophomores. In fact, minus a 3-year-old superstar, Travers may have occupied a back seat on the card for many fans. Lady Eli, a certified racing celebrity that has entertained, thrilled and amazed us for four years, won Saturday’s Grade 2 Ballston Spa in impressive fashion. She now has triumphed in 10 of 13 races, including five Grade 1s. However, as fantastic as she’s been on the track, her victory over laminitis in both front hooves is her greatest achievement. She’s an unequivocal joy to watch race and a living, breathing, winning tribute to advancements in modern veterinary medicine and to the training expertise of Chad Brown.

Lady Eli’s triumph concluded a string of seven consecutive graded stakes races on the card initiated by Forever Unbridled’s upset over multiple Grade 1 winning princess Songbird in the Grade 1 Personal Ensign. A winner of 13 out of 15, Songbird ran well but couldn’t match a razor-sharp foe in the final strides. That the former enjoyed a front-running advantage and couldn’t parlay that into victory is a bit worrisome for her fans only when juxtaposed against her previously nearly spotless record with such an advantage. Credit goes to winning trainer Dallas Stewart and jockey Joel Rosario for helping Forever Unbridled to deliver a career-best performance. The BC Distaff will be interesting.

By the Moon showed courage in winning the Grade 1 Ballerina and Practical Joke validated his trainer’s belief that he’s best around one turn by taking the Grade 1 H. A. Jerkens, formerly known as the King’s Bishop. He’s now 3 for 3 at the Spa, 2 for 2 at the distance and 5 for 10 overall! Drefong, last season’s Eclipse-earning top sprinter, rebounded from an unscheduled left turn after the start of his last race to absolutely dominate the Grade 1 Forego. He will be a short-priced favorite to defend his title in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

Sadler’s Joy flew home from last in a field of 7 to win the Sword Dancer. Perhaps, the most interesting byproduct of the race was not that Sadler’s Joy earned a ‘Win and You’re In’ Golden Ticket to Breeders’ Cup. Instead, NBC video of trainer Chad Brown in a box screaming at a television monitor while imploring Money Multiplier to win stole the show. For a guy whose horses this year have won more money than any other trainer’s except Todd Pletcher’s, Brown’s exhortations illustrate his intense (and perhaps a bit maniacal-looking) competitive nature.

Travers Day 2017 had a little bit for everyone—fans and gamblers alike. The weather couldn’t have been more pleasant and handle and attendance numbers had to make suits and bean counters smile. All things considered, despite the apparent lack of a glamor boy 3-year-old colt superstar, this year’s Travers Stakes turned out just fine and, (remember you heard it here first) the race again introduced a rising sophomore star to a national audience.

Race On!

 

On Track with Johnny D: There’s a New Star

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