Bob Baffert's willingness to give well-bred horses ample time to develop ranks prominently among the many attributes that make him a Hall of Fame trainer.
His gentle handling of West Coast was rewarded when that 3-year-old produced an emphatic 3 1/4-length victory in the $1.25-million Travers Stakes on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course, giving Baffert his second consecutive win in what is known as the "Mid-Summer Derby."
"We've got control of the canoe for one more year," Baffert said during a conference call. He had remained at home, dispatching top assistant Jim Barnes to oversee the shipping and saddling. The colors of the winning owner are painted on a canoe that floats on the infield lake.
Baffert showed similar patience last year when Arrogate tore through the fastest Travers in its 147-year history. He blazed through the mile and a quarter in 1:59.36 in a 13 1/2-length tour de force.
Neither West Coast nor Arrogate raced as a 2-year-old. The Travers marked the seventh career start for West Coast, the fifth for Arrogate.
West Coast made the jump from the Grade III Los Alamitos Derby to the "Mid-Summer Derby." Arrogate advanced from the allowance ranks. Both never looked back in the Travers after jockey Mike Smith rocketed them to the lead at the outset.
Baffert said of West Coast's development: "He was just slow coming around, but nobody was going to beat him today."
That is quite a statement considering that this edition featured the three separate winners of the Triple Crown races for the first time in 35 years. None could stay with West Coast, a bay son of Flatter that was purchased for $425,000 as a yearling by owners Gary and Mary West.
Belmont winner Tapwrit, in his first start since he took the Belmont Stakes, was a one-paced fourth. Preakness victor Cloud Computing and Kentucky Derby champ Always Dreaming faltered in eighth and ninth, respectively, in the talent-laden field of 12.
According to Baffert, West Coast had a tendency to become unglued in the paddock before his races and to be uncomfortable in the starting gate. The still-maturing 3-year-old was a gentleman when it counted most.
Baffert could tell from his television that the colt was primed for a big effort. He said of the poise the youngster showed in the paddock, "He looked unbelievable. He looked great. You could tell he was a man among boys."
Drefong, the reigning sprint champion, also rewarded his deliberate care with a four-length rout in the Grade 1 $600,000 Forego Stakes, part of a rich Travers undercard. Baffert kept Drefong away from competition for an extended period after he won the Breeders' Cup Sprint last November at Santa Anita, not returning him to the starting gate until the Grade 1 Bing Crosby on July 29 at Del Mar.
He set his sights on the Forego after Drefong ducked in after the start of the Bing Crosby and dumped Smith.
"We just saw the real Drefong," Baffert said after the Forego. "You would have seen him last time if Mike Smith hadn't fallen off."
Also on the undercard, Songbird absorbed only her second defeat in 14 career starts when Forever Unbridled launched an extremely wide rally and nailed her by a head in the Grade 1 $700,000 Personal Ensign.
Owner Rick Porter suggested an injury might be to blame. Her previous two starts this year, one-length victories in the Ogden Phipps and Delaware Handicap, were relatively lackluster compared with the brilliance she displayed as a 3-year-old.
"I'm not comfortable that she's 100% healthy," Porter said.