Bob Baffert could have pushed the issue, and few would have questioned the decision.
With the 3-year-old ranks still absent a clear leader two legs deep into the Triple Crown, the Hall of Fame trainer gave serious consideration to starting then recent allowance winner West Coast in the June 10 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1).
The bay colt had shown a desire for a route of ground and finished second in his first graded stakes try. Considering a horse whose only prior win was a maiden race had just taken the Preakness Stakes (G1), the son of Flatter had credentials that would have made him as logical a choice as any to pull off a classic victory.
What West Coast was missing were the intangibles Baffert felt might be there, but had yet to come to the surface. So he asked the colt a more straightforward question instead in the Easy Goer Stakes on the Belmont undercard and got confirmation that the top-level sophomores had something to worry about in the near future.
"I wanted to run in the Belmont, but his race before that (May 20), he won but it wasn't a 'wow' race," Baffert said. "I'm glad I did what I did with him, because he wasn't ready for that. And his Easy Goer race was just phenomenal."
Heading into the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby (G1) Sept. 23 at Parx Racing, on the heels of his 3 1/4-length victory in the Aug. 26 Travers Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1), the son of champion Caressing enters Saturday's 1 1/8-mile test against nine others with an opportunity to become the latest Baffert trainee to use a second-half surge to take control of the division.
The Pennsylvania Derby represents the last substantive race exclusively for 3-year-olds and what a long, strange trip it has been for that group. For a second consecutive year, the Triple Crown series yielded three different winners in Always Dreaming, Cloud Computing, and Tapwrit —none of whom has won a race since—with the former still ranking as the only sophomore dirt male with more than one grade 1 win this season.
When he led every point of call in his Travers triumph, West Coast also made a case to be viewed among the most consistent performers of his class. Unraced as a juvenile, Gary and Mary West's colt has won five of seven starts this year, including a 2 3/4-length win in the Los Alamitos Derby (G3) July 15. His only defeats are a pair of runner-up finishes—in his debut at Santa Anita Park Feb. 19 and a head loss to Senior Investment when he tried stakes company for the first time in the April 15 Stonestreet Lexington Stakes (G3) at Keeneland.
"We're coming back a little quick (after the Travers), but he's doing really well," Baffert said. "He worked well (four furlongs in :47 2/5 at Santa Anita Sept. 18) and it's a good spot. It's the last chance for a 3-year-old to really run for a lot of money.
"I still can't believe he got beat (in the Lexington). I was so upset about that, but the track was really deep that day and we were still figuring him out. That's the one that kind of got away from us. But the distance is key with him. He wants 1 1/8 to 1 1/4 miles."
Racing fans saw a similar blueprint of patience from Baffert last season, when he unleashed eventual champion Arrogate on the scene in the second part of the year. While Baffert avoids speculating on year-end outcomes, a victory in the Pennsylvania Derby would give West Coast the powerful bragging right of owning multiple grade 1 wins this year, to go along with the distinction of having defeated all three classic winners during the Travers.
Among those West Coast got the best of at Saratoga Race Course was multiple graded stakes winner Irap, who himself would merit strong divisional consideration if he were to get over the grade 1 hump this weekend. The Doug O'Neill-trained son of Tiznow ran third last time out in the Travers, but has steadily improved since he broke his maiden with an upset in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) in April.
Following his 18th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1), Irap redeemed himself when he defeated eventual grade 1 winner Girvin in the June 24 Ohio Derby (G3) over the 1 1/8-mile distance and followed that up with a five-length victory in the July 15 Indiana Derby (G3).
Multiple graded stakes winner Irish War Cry has defeated most of those that have tried to lay claim to the top of the divisional hierarchy, but has also left trainer Graham Motion scratching his head on multiple occasions this year.
The son of Curlin owns victories in the Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2) and Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G2) and finished second in the Belmont, but has juxtaposed those efforts against a seventh-place finish in Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2), a 10th-place run in the Kentucky Derby, and a fourth last time out in the Betfair.com Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1) July 30.
"I could not have been happier with his last few breezes," Motion said. "I just feel like he's really done well in the last month or so after the Haskell. It's kind of the end of a long year, and if anything I would have thought he would be tailing off. But it's almost like he's grown up a little bit. So I feel very good about running him. But he still has to prove himself."
Chad Brown-trained Timeline, winner of the grade 3 Peter Pan Stakes and Betfair.com Pegasus Stakes, went off as the favorite in the Haskell before he finished fifth, his first loss in five starts.
Saturday's card at Parx will feature another test for 3-year-olds in the $300,000 Gallant Bob Stakes (G3) going six furlongs. Headlining that 10-horse field is the coupled entry of Petrov, trained by Ron Moquett, and Coal Front, conditioned by Todd Pletcher. Both horses have common ownership and Coal Front is the lone graded winner in the field with his victory in the July 29 Amsterdam Stakes (G2). Parx Racing, Saturday, September 23, 2017, Race 11
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Timeline (KY) Javier Castellano 122 Chad C. Brown 5/1 2 2Outplay (KY) John R. Velazquez 119 Todd A. Pletcher 12/1 3 3Watch Me Whip (KY) Robby Albarado 117 Dale L. Romans 20/1 4 4West Coast (KY) Mike E. Smith 124 Bob Baffert 8/5 5 5Irap (KY) Mario Gutierrez 122 Doug F. O'Neill 3/1 6 6Talk Logistics (FL) Frankie Pennington 117 Edward Plesa, Jr. 20/1 7 7Game Over (KY) Kendrick Carmouche 117 Jorge Navarro 15/1 8 8Irish War Cry (NJ) Feargal Lynch 122 H. Graham Motion 9/2 9 9Term of Art (KY) Drayden Van Dyke 117 Doug F. O'Neill 20/1 10 10Giuseppe the Great (KY) Luis Saez 117 Nicholas P. Zito 20/1
Parx Racing, Saturday, September 23, 2017, Race 11
Parx Racing, Saturday, September 23, 2017, Race 9
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 2 1Petrov (KY) Jose L. Ortiz 118 Ron Moquett 2/1 6 1ACoal Front (KY) John R. Velazquez 122 Todd A. Pletcher 2/1 1 2Ann Arbor Eddie (CA) Mario Gutierrez 120 Doug F. O'Neill 10/1 3 3Action Everyday (KY) Albin Jimenez 118 Anthony R. Margotta, Jr. 15/1 4 4Running Mate (KY) Brian Pedroza 118 J. Larry Jones 15/1 5 5American Pastime (KY) Kent J. Desormeaux 118 Robert B. Hess, Jr. 7/2 7 6Sonic Mule (KY) Kendrick Carmouche 118 Todd A. Pletcher 12/1 8 7Excitations (KY) Javier Castellano 118 Albert M. Stall, Jr. 5/2 9 8Aquamarine (FL) Luis Saez 118 D. Wayne Lukas 20/1 10 9Glory Stars (FL) Mychel J. Sanchez 118 Michael M. Moore 15/1
Parx Racing, Saturday, September 23, 2017, Race 9