April 19, 2018

Where West Coast, Abel Tasman stand in the championship picture

West Coast #4 ridden by Mike Smith won the $1,000,000 Grade I Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing in Bensalem, Pennsylvania on September 23, 2017. Photo By Joe Labozzetta/EQUI-PHOTO

The result of Saturday’s Pennsylvania Derby (G1) appeared to answer one question while at the same time provoking spirited rebukes from certain quarters that another was also, virtually, settled.

Following up a wire-to-wire, 3 1/4-length win in last month’s Travers (G1) with an even bigger tour de force in the Pennsylvania Derby, West Coast is, by any objective measure, the leading three-year-old male in training. That was definitively answered in Philadelphia, and it’s not even close. Generating pushback of undetermined strength, though, is the notion that West Coast has more or less done enough to be preferred over all dirt-based candidates that came before him for his division’s Eclipse Award title.

While such thoughts generally go unspoken, there seems a certain whiff of animosity that surround three-year-olds like West Coast. Having not gone through the rigors of the Triple Crown and its preceding preps, the success West Coast has achieved in recent months is perhaps viewed by some to be that of an interloper or Johnny-come-lately, plundering the spoils without having not done any of the hard lifting. From that perspective, the perceived sanctity of the Triple Crown and/or its individual parts must feel like it’s under attack.

Far from taking an advantageous route to a possible Eclipse Award championship, it must be kept in mind that West Coast has, in fact, been taking the toughest one possible. In 81 prior seasons with year-end polling, having the precocity to participate in and/or the talent to achieve a modicum of success in the Triple Crown series has been, by far, the most favorable asset to have in winning divisional honors. A mere seven champion three-year-old males (< 9%) did not compete in any of the three Triple Crown races.

Eighty-four percent of champion three-year-old males since 1936 have won at least one classic. That’s an enormous advantage Always Dreaming, Cloud Computing, and Tapwrit had over West Coast at sundown June 10. The fact none are generally considered to be in West Coast’s current position is a them problem, not his. How could they be after they were beaten 18, 12 1/4, and eight lengths, respectively, by West Coast in the Travers? When you come down to it, the Travers, as is the case with most head-to-heads, was the mother of all tie-breakers.

Beginning about 20 years ago, the Eclipse Award electorate, of which I was a couple years away from joining, noticeably became more malleable and collectively open to making unconventional judgments on certain divisional races. From time to time, over-thinking has led to blurring unnecessarily the lines between “best” and “most accomplished.”

It truly should be, in all cases, a distinction without a difference.

***

Abel Tasman‘s position at the top three-year-old filly division wasn’t really compromised by her two-length loss in the Cotillion (G1) in what was for her a strangely run race.

Breaking slow and nine lengths behind the leading Lockdown after a quarter-mile, Abel Tasman dragged herself and jockey Mike Smith into contention with a huge surge along the rail down the backside. After that exertion, it was no surprise she couldn’t fend off It Tiz Well, who had a more favorable stalking trip, and only got past Lockdown in the final furlong for runner-up honors.

While connections reportedly might experiment with running her sans blinkers in the future in order to cease the intra-race moves that have become a habit, there are some indicators from her last two starts to suggest Abel Tasman might have peaked earlier in the year.

Not overly bullish on her chances of winning the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) against a tough group of older mares and the seemingly much-improved Alabama (G1) heroine Elate, Abel Tasman will indeed have to find her best form at Del Mar or potentially risk losing a championship she’s oh so close to claiming.

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