April 25, 2018

A Day at the Races: 2017 Travers Day at Saratoga

West Coast and Mike Smith 8/26/17 (c) Jessie Holmes/EquiSport Photos

West Coast strutted onto the track with purpose, bouncing along as he headed toward the Travers starting gate, and he proceeded to dominate a deep group of rivals recording a wire-to-wire victory. Jockey Mike Smith said afterward, “He is still full of himself.”

In his first Grade 1 race, West Coast had his mind on business Saturday.

“I think the key to today was that (West Coast) was in his element in the paddock, and he looked great going to the gate,” said trainer Bob Baffert, who watched the Travers from home in California. “Usually, he gets all worked up and hot, and today he was perfect. He was a saint and that was the key to this horse today. He’s maturing. When I saw him in the paddock, he looked unbelievable. I mean, I’ve never seen him look so … great. You could tell he was like a man among boys. He looked the part.”

Unraced at age 2, West Coast came along too late for the Triple Crown limelight earlier this year. The fast-rising sophomore stretched his win streak to four in the 1 ¼-mile Travers (G1), registering a career-best 112 BRIS Speed rating for the 3 ¼-length decision, and thrust himself into a prime position to win an Eclipse Award.

West Coast established himself as the best 3-year-old male in training and will look to pad his resume in upcoming stakes this season.

I loved how Smith outfoxed his counterparts, putting the competition on their heels from the break. It proved to be another brilliant display from Thoroughbred’s racing greatest tactician.

Past performances offered no suggestion West Coast would be leading the way in the early going. The son of Flatter never set the pace in his first six starts, rallying from as far back as sixth-place in all three stakes attempts, and Kentucky Derby victor Always Dreaming held the role as presumed Travers pacesetter. The potential existed for others like Fayeq, Giuseppe the Great or Girvin to show speed during the opening stages, but West Coast wasn’t in the discussion.

Smith looked at the equation differently, figuring John Velazquez would be content to track in second aboard Always Dreaming if the opportunity presented itself. The potential was there for a comfortable early advantage and the Hall of Fame rider seized the initiative by hustling forward at the break. After leading the way on a short advantage, West Coast drew away superbly in the stretch drive.

I thoroughly enjoyed spending three days at Saratoga (Thursday-Saturday). The first couple of days featured good-sized crowds and a lively atmosphere, with anticipation building for the star-studded and stakes-packed event, and Travers Day lived up to expectations with perfect weather and dynamic performances.

Here were some of my observations:

  • None of the Triple Crown race winners hit the board in the Travers, with Tapwrit winding up best in fourth. The Belmont Stakes winner was making his first start in 77 days, so it wasn’t a terrible result finishing eight lengths back of the winner, but Tapwrit highlighted the inconsistencies of the 2017 Triple Crown performers by recording his third unplaced effort from the last four starts. Cloud Computing weakened to eighth, his second straight poor showing since upsetting the Preakness at 13-1. Always Dreaming earned some time away from the track after retreating to ninth in the latter stages.
  • Travers runner-up Gunnevera launched an eye-catching rally from off the pace and while he ran out of steam late, and had to survive an inquiry, he’s turned things around nicely for trainer Antonio Sano. A multiple graded winner as a juvenile, Gunnevera rose in Kentucky Derby stature when romping by 5 ¾ lengths in the Fountain of Youth (G2) in early March but tailed off significantly afterwards, logging three consecutive well-beaten efforts. He returned from a freshening earlier this month with an easy win over lesser rivals at Gulfstream and the late runner may have more to offer following an encouraging Travers performance.
  • Forever Unbridled made no attempt to corner sharply, swinging extremely wide into the stretch of the Personal Ensign (G1), but it did not lessen her acceleration. The 5-year-old closed dramatically to mow down Songbird nearing the wire, enhancing her Breeders’ Cup Distaff credentials, and let’s hope she stays on course for a dynamite match-up against Songbird and Stellar Wind at Del Mar. Connections are also considering a Classic bid but that would be an extremely tall task against the likes of Collected and Gun Runner. Forever Unbridled’s only realistic chance for winning an Eclipse Award comes in the Distaff.
  • Lady Eli delivered a rousing late kick to blow past pacesetter and eventual runner-up Dickinson in the Ballston Spa (G2) stretch, notching her third consecutive stakes win with the 1 ½-length tally, and strengthened her grasp upon the filly & mare turf division. She travels so well, winning the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf and this year’s Gamely (G1) at Santa Anita, and figures to pack another serious punch at Del Mar. The 5-year-old mare earned a career-best 111 BRIS Late Pace rating Saturday.
  • Drefong looked awesome winning the Forego (G1) in wire-to-wire fashion and appears well-positioned to defend his TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint title at Del Mar, receiving a 106 BRIS Speed for the four-length triumph. This may wind up being the third straight year the sprint champion competed on the Travers Day card.

Here are some of my photos:

West Coast winning the Travers
Saratoga clubhouse
Morning training
Forever Unbridled running down Songbird in deep stretch
Jockey statues outside of clubhouse entrance
Saratoga paddock
Paddock path in backyard grounds
Chad Brown, who won two of the seven stakes Saturday
Sea Hero statue in paddock
Big Red Spring for those who love the sulfur-taste!
Owner/breeder Charles Fipke & trainer Dallas Stewart with Forever Unbridled in Personal Ensign winner’s circle
Mike Smith celebrating with West Coast
Famed Saratoga awning & Curlin’s Corner stand
Fourstardave Bar in the Carousel
Walk of Fame tribute
Oklahoma training track
Saratoga grandstand on Travers Day
Travers Day handicapping seminar
Message greeting patrons every morning

 

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