08/27/2017 10:43AM

Watchmaker: Little debate that today West Coast is best 3-year-old

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Debra A. Roma
West Coast earned a 108 Beyer Speed Figure for his performance in the Travers on Saturday.

West Coast’s victory in Saturday’s Travers Stakes at Saratoga was as thorough as you can ask for in a big race. West Coast made the early pace from 11 opponents, he turned back stretch challenges from Irap and Gunnevera, and strongly drew away in the late stages to win by an official margin of 3 1/4 lengths that fails to do justice to how isolated it felt like he was at the finish.

Obviously, this was one of, if not the best, performance by a 3-year-old this year. This is underscored by West Coast’s winning Beyer Figure in the Travers of 108, which was the highest so far this year by a member of his age group going a distance of ground.

There can be little debate that right now – today – West Coast is the best 3-year-old in the country. But at this moment, that doesn’t necessarily translate into anything. If Eclipse Award voting closed today, West Coast, being the best 3-year-old at the moment, would certainly get a good share of the vote.

“Best,” however, is not ”most accomplished,” and does not guarantee championship success. All you have to do is look back to last year, when Arrogate was demonstrably better winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic over California Chrome in their lone head-to-head meeting of 2016, and yet California Chrome handily outpaced Arrogate in Horse of the Year voting, 202 first-place votes to 40.

West Coast now sports stakes victories this year in the Grade 1 Travers, the Grade 3 Los Alamitos Derby, and the listed Easy Goer Stakes. That’s a nice resume, but it is not better than victories, say, in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby and Grade 1 Florida Derby.

Look, I want to strongly state that I am not supporting a championship candidacy for Kentucky Derby and Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming. I cannot cast an Eclipse Award vote for him for anything. Always Dreaming was bad when eighth in the Preakness, he ran poorly when third in the Jim Dandy, and was awful finishing ninth without apparent excuse in the Travers. More and more, Always Dreaming’s Kentucky Derby win is looking like a muddy track fluke, and in regard to his Florida Derby, as many of us know, Gulfstream can often be a lot like Las Vegas – what happens there, stays there.

Nevertheless, no one can take away Always Dreaming’s Kentucky and Florida Derby wins. And wins in the Kentucky and Florida Derbies, no matter the circumstances, significantly outweigh wins in the Travers, Los Alamitos Derby, and Easy Goer. They just do. And if you want, you could also play this game with Tapwrit (wins in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes and Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby), and Girvin (wins in the Grade 1 Haskell, Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, and Grade 2 Risen Star), even if both were walloped by West Coast in the Travers.

(As an aside, I should explain why I am purposely omitting Oscar Performance from this discussion. Oscar Performance sports wins in the Grade 1 Secretariat, the Grade 1 Belmont Derby, and the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge this year. However, all of those races were on turf. The 3-year-old divisions have always belonged to dirt performers, and in my mind always will. If fact, I would completely support renaming the 3-year-old Eclipse Award divisions the 3-year-old dirt male and 3-year-old dirt female divisions, much like the older dirt male and older dirt female divisions were renamed for Eclipse Award purposes a couple of years ago. If he wants to go for a championship, Oscar Performance has the turf male Eclipse Award division available to him.)

The good news here (maybe) is votes for Eclipse Awards aren’t due today, and West Coast and the rest of this crew of 3-year-olds still have time to burnish their reputations, or redeem them. Arrogate proved only last year that you can do huge things the latter part of the season. The Travers was, after all, Arrogate’s first start in a stakes race. But as well as West Coast ran Saturday, he didn’t win the Travers in the breathtaking, record-breaking fashion Arrogate won it, and it’s difficult envisioning him or any of his contemporaries beating the strong group of older males we have this year in the Breeders’ Cup.

But there is still time for them to sort themselves out. Here’s hoping.

Saturday Saratoga notes:

** I don’t want to take anything away from Forever Unbridled, who has been a high-class mare for three seasons now. But Forever Unbridled would never have nailed Songbird in the Personal Ensign if Songbird were the same filly she was last year at 3. Songbird had an easy, totally uncontested early lead in the Personal Ensign, and the deep-closing Forever Unbridled was completely up against it pace-wise. But Songbird could not hold on, and this was not exactly a shock for anyone who saw her struggle to win the Delaware Handicap last month over a poor field.

Saying Songbird isn’t the same as she was doesn’t make one a hater, or negate anything this two-time champion has accomplished in a career in which she has still won 13 of 15 starts. And this is not being overly critical, either. Consider some of what owner Rick Porter told the NYRA press staff after the Personal Ensign:

“Something is not right,” Porter said. “She is just not right, and I will get her checked out. This is not the same Songbird we have been seeing the last three races, just don’t seem to be the same Songbird.”

Songbird is lucky to have an owner like Porter.

** Lady Eli, on the other hand, continues to amaze at age 5. Full disclosure, I don’t like when horsemen call audibles with the schedules of their horses and was a little skeptical of Lady Eli in the Ballston Spa because the race was not on her original dance card. But she won again and is really something else.

I am very much against make-up Eclipse Awards, so I really hope Lady Eli keeps this going, because if a horse of recent vintage ever deserved an Eclipse Award, it’s her.

** Drefong might have had a big pace advantage in the Forego, but that doesn’t guarantee a thing (see Songbird), and he was still very good in a dominating score to take firm control atop the male sprint division.

** I was shocked how empty the European shippers were in the Sword Dancer.

** In a Saratoga meet where the main track has been speed-favoring on many days, it was good to see an even, fair track on such an important day as Travers Day.