08/26/2017 7:57PM

West Coast cruises to front-running Travers victory

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Barbara D. Livingston
West Coast shook clear of Gunnevera and Irap to post a 3 1/4-length score in the Grade 1 Travers.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – From his home in Southern California, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert sent Mike Smith a text early in the day telling him to ride West Coast however he wanted in Saturday’s 148th Travers Stakes at Saratoga.

“The ever was in big letters,” Smith said.

Sensing a lack of pace in the 12-horse Travers field, Smith decided he would get aggressive with West Coast and break running “and just see where it puts me,” he said.

Smith and West Coast broke running and a little more than two minutes later those tactics put West Coast and Smith in the winner’s circle as they recorded a front-running, 3 1/4-length victory in the Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers Stakes before a crowd of 47,725 on a perfect summer day. Gunnevera made a wide, sustained bid to finish second by 2 1/4 lengths over Irap.

It was 2 1/2 lengths back to Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit in fourth. He was followed, in order, by Good Samaritan, Giuseppe the Great, McCraken, Preakness winner Cloud Computing, Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, Lookin At Lee, Girvin and Fayeq.

This was the first Travers since 1982 that included three separate winners of the Triple Crown races. Of course, that doesn’t count American Pharoah, the 2015 Triple Crown winner who was defeated in the Travers by Keen Ice.

For Baffert – the trainer of American Pharoah – it was his third Travers victory. For Smith, it was his fourth. The two teamed up to win it last year with Arrogate.

For owners Gary and Mary West, it was their first Travers victory after their American Freedom finished second to Arrogate last year.

For West Coast, it was his fourth consecutive victory, his two recent wins being the Los Alamitos Derby in July and the Easy Goer Stakes on the Belmont Stakes undercard in June.

“I wanted to run him in the Belmont,” Baffert said from California. “But Gary looked at me and said ‘Are you out of your mind? I don’t think he’s ready for that.’ And he was right, he wasn’t ready for it.”

Baffert said that both at Belmont and again at Los Alamitos, West Coast would act up in the paddock. Watching on television Saturday, he saw a different horse.

“When I saw him in the paddock, he looked unbelievable,” Baffert said. “He was like a man amongst boys.”

Breaking from post 3, West Coast went right to the lead and he ran comfortable fractions of 23.82 seconds for the quarter, 48.12 for the half-mile and 1:12.23 for six furlongs with Always Dreaming stalking him. At the three-eighths pole, Always Dreaming retreated and Irap moved into second with Gunnevera, second-to-last down the backstretch under Edgard Zayas, making a huge three-wide move into contention.

In upper stretch, Smith shook up West Coast and the son of Flatter responded, repelling Irap and Gunnevera and drawing clear.

West Coast covered the 1 1/4 miles in 2:01.19 and returned $14.20 as the 6-1 fourth choice.

“Man, I caught a good jump, put him on the lead and he just cruised from there,” said Smith, who teamed up earlier in the day with Baffert to win the Grade 1 Forego with Drefong. “He was a happy horse all the way around there. There was a time or two when they came to me and he just kept putting them away every time. He would take a big old breath of air so I felt confident he’d run well.”

Baffert said he was happy to win the Travers for the Wests, for whom he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in 2013 with New Year’s Day, a horse who got hurt before he could join the Triple Crown trail.

“When they turned for home I said ‘Do it for Gary, win it for Gary,’" Baffert said. “He hasn’t lost faith in me, he’s sent me some nice horses and I was just trying to get it done for him. That was huge.”

Gunnevera ran huge for a horse that had only one easy race since finishing fifth in the Preakness in May and bleeding through Lasix. Gunnevera had to withstand a jockey’s objection from Mario Gutierrez aboard third-place finisher Irap alleging interference against Gunnevera in the stretch. The objection was dismissed by the stewards.

“We expected first place when we came in, but we’re happy with it,” Antonio Sano, the trainer of Gunnevera said. “We’re going to rest him and take him to the Breeders’ Cup [Classic].”

Said Gutierrez: “The horse came down on me, but I guess the stewards didn’t feel it was enough to make a change. It is what it is. My trip in general was good other than my horse was a little bit rank, more than usual, but the fractions were good for a mile and a quarter.”

Jose Ortiz, the rider of Tapwrit, had his horse in fourth position down the backside and just stayed steady through the stretch.

“He didn’t give me a good kick in the end,” Ortiz said.

John Velazquez, the rider of Always Dreaming, said he was getting a perfect trip until the field entered the far turn.

“He got to the half-mile pole and he let go, that was it,” Velazquez said. “He didn’t put up any fight at all.”

West Coast will return to Southern California on Monday and his connections will attempt to plot out the rest of the year, which may or may not include a start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar on Nov. 4.

Gary West knows that should he elect to run West Coast in the Classic, he won’t be ridden by Smith, who will have the call on Arrogate.

“I fully expect Mike to ride what I think is the best horse in the world,” West said. “If he didn’t do that, I’d have his head examined.”

On Saturday, Smith was crazy. Like a fox.