SARATOGA SPRINGS – It was a California state of mind as late afternoon shadows extended over the Saratoga Race Course on Saturday.
After New York-based horses swept all three legs of the Triple Crown, California-based West Coast cruised to a gate-to-wire victory in the 148th Travers Stakes before 47,725 at Saratoga. The win by West Coast sent the 3-year-old male division into further disarray, with yet another different winner in a major race.
Trainer Bob Baffert, who didn’t make the trip east to the track set at the foothills of the Adirondacks, became the fifth trainer to capture back-to-back Travers in the long tenure of the historic race.
Baffert, who won last year’s edition with Arrogate, followed that with West Coast’s 4 1/4-length victory over late closing 24-1 long shot Gunnevera. It was the third Travers training victory of the Hall of Famer’s career.
The son of Flatter set honest early fractions taking control of the race, repelled a drive from third-place finisher Irap at the top of the stretch, to complete the mile-and-a-quarter trek in 2:01.19. West Coast paid $14.20 for the win, $7.60 for place and $5.30 to show. Gunnevera paid a healthy $18.40 for second and $10.40 for third. Post time top selection Irap finished third and paid $5.40.
Assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes couldn’t believe that no one was pressing California-based jockey Mike Smith during the merry-go-round trip. “No one was pressing us early and it looked like he was just cruising the whole way,” Barnes said.
The win was the first Travers for owners Gary and Mary West, who extolled the virtues of Smith’s ride, and reflected on the importance of winning the feature race of the Saratoga meet.
“Next to the Kentucky Derby, it was the second most coveted race on our bucket list,” Gary West said.
Some kidding ensued in the post-race press conference when West was asked if Smith had a potential tough decision to make in who to ride in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He deferred that Smith would need “his head examined” if he didn’t choose Arrogate, the defending Classic winner. Smith grinned slyly when asked the same question, responding, “I thought he answered that very well.”
Smith, who won the Grade 1 Forego Stakes earlier in the card aboard Drefong for Baffert, credited that race with getting his head straight after consecutive defeats aboard Songbird (Personal Ensign) and American Anthem (Allen Jerkens). “Winning that race definitely boosted the confidence level,” said Smith.
He earned his fourth career Travers riding victory and now trails fellow Hall of Famer Javier Castellano by one in all-time Travers jockey wins.
Long shot Gunnevera, who sported a couple of impressive pre-Travers workouts in Florida after winning a non-graded stakes at Gulfstream, roared down the stretch to capture second. After surviving a steward’s inquiry regarding his stretch run, the son of Dialed In redeemed himself from two disappointing finishes on the Triple Crown trail.
Jockey Edgard Zayas knew Gunnevera was game but was resigned to knowing he had no chance to catch the winner. “We had a big shot to win, but Mike got out to a comfortable lead and he had plenty of horse left when I got to him,” said Zayas.
Trainer Antonio Sano, pleased with the efforts of his colt and jockey, will train Gunnevera up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Doug O’Neill, who trained Irap to consecutive wins in the Ohio and Indiana Derbies coming into the Travers, was proud of his horse’s effort. Another California-based horse who took it to the locals, Irap threatened at the top of the stretch and maintained his position before being corralled by Gunnevera in the stretch.
“I’m very proud of him, he ran great,” said O’Neill outside the winner’s circle. “Gosh, he gave us a real thrill, I thought he was going to get there, but he still ran a very credible race.”
The best any of the Triple Crown race winners could do was a fourth-place finish by Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit, who had been off since his win in the final leg of the Triple Crown. It was only the third time in history that the three winners squared off in the Travers, the last being in 1982.
Preakness winner Cloud Computing and Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming finished eighth and ninth, respectively. Good Samaritan, the Jim Dandy winner, sent off as the 4-1 post time favorite, finished fifth.
So the 3-year-old male division continues to be an enigma. The Pennsylvania Derby next month is the last restricted race for the division; after that race the crop will have to face older horses through the end of the racing year.
West Coast has definitely thrown his hat in the ring with the Travers win. O’Neill thinks he may have leaped past most of the group based on Saturday’s win. “I don’t know, I think West Coast has jumped to the top of the fray there,” he said. A win by West Coast in the Breeders’ Cup Classic would likely put him on top of the division and avoid all arguments.
Last year, Arrogate followed his Travers win with a Classic victory to capture the Eclipse Award after missing the entire Triple Crown season. Always Dreaming’s Florida and Kentucky Derby wins will have him in the discussion, but voters have short memories and who knows if we’ll ever see him on the track again.
The Breeders’ Cup Classic, as always, will play a big role in determining the year end championships at Del Mar in suburban San Diego on Nov. 4.
As “New York State of Mind” played in the empty grandstands over the loudspeakers while the long day came to a conclusion, the California invaders were the ones whistling all the way back to the West Coast, hardware in tow.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.