Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert's wildly unpredictable summer takes what he hopes will be a better turn when he sends promising West Coast into the loaded $1.25-million Travers Stakes on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course.
He almost dares not to look.
"I got off to a really bad start," Baffert said of his summer campaign. "It's been tough. It's been really tough. But things are starting to kick into gear here."
His misadventures involve consecutive defeats in the Grade II San Diego Handicap and the Grade I Pacific Classic for Arrogate, who was viewed as practically unbeatable after he opened the season with easy wins in the Pegasus and the Dubai World Cup. Baffert drew some comfort in the Pacific Classic from knowing that Arrogate was a runner-up to stablemate Collected. He also endured an inauspicious season debut for reigning sprint champion Drefong, who ducked in and lost jockey Mike Smith after the start of the Bing Crosby Stakes on July 29 at Del Mar.
Drefong will look to atone for that behavior when he competes in the Grade I $600,000 Forego, part of the Travers undercard.
Baffert also will also have American Anthem in the Grade I $500,000 H. Allen Jerkens, formerly known as the King's Bishop. Smith has all three mounts. The Forego and H. Allen Jerkens will be run at seven furlongs.
West Coast is the 4-1 second choice in the morning line for the mile-and-a-quarter Travers after 7-2 favorite Tapwrit, who starts for the first time since he won the Belmont Stakes. The 12-horse field includes Kentucky Derby champion Always Dreaming (6-1) and Preakness winner Cloud Computing (8-1).
This will be only the third time in the 148-year history of the Travers that separate winners of each of the three Triple Crown races advanced to the "Mid-Summer Derby." That West Coast should be so highly regarded in his first Grade I attempt is a testament to Baffert and a tip of the cap to Arrogate's scorching track-record performance last year.
Baffert warns against comparing West Coast to Arrogate.
"Arrogate, we knew he would love the mile and a quarter and he had speed," the trainer said. "This horse, in his previous races, you can't ask him to go too early. He's more difficult to ride. They are two totally different types of horses."
West Coast was a $425,000 yearling purchase for Gary and Mary West. He comes off his first graded stakes victory, in the Grade III Los Alamitos Derby, on July 15, his fourth win in six career starts.
Baffert knows he is asking a great deal of West Coast in the Travers. But he added, "I feel the horse deserves to be in there. He should be one, two or three if he runs like we think he can."
Irap also came east for the Travers for trainer Doug O'Neill. Like West Coast, he fits the profile of a maturing colt who becomes more tractable with every start.
"He can definitely sit off a hot pace, and he can come inside, outside, in between," O'Neill said. "Months ago, I couldn't say that."
Baffert has high hopes for Drefong and American Anthem in their respective races. He predicted that Drefong's ducking in "will never happen again." Optimism abounds for American Anthem, who is undefeated in one-turn races such as the H. Allen Jerkens.
Recent missteps did not shake Baffert's confidence.