Trainer Bob Baffert stood on the dirt track at Gulfstream Park in January after watching soon-to- be-retired Gun Runner win the world’s richest race, the Pegasus World Cup, by 2 1/2 lengths over West Coast.
Baffert was proud of West Coast’s effort and was asked if the colt was now the best horse in racing.
“Unless they bring that son of a gun back,” Baffert said of Gun Runner.
Well, things didn’t quite go that way. West Coast ran second in the Dubai World Cup in March and hasn’t raced since.
West Coast makes his return Saturday by challenging top-rated Accelerate in the $300,000 Awesome Again Stakes, the last California prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. It is one of four Grade 1 races on the best day of racing in the six-week fall meeting at Santa Anita.
“I didn’t like the way he looked [after Dubai],” Baffert said. “His color didn’t look good. He just needed a break.”
Baffert ideally would have brought him back in an easier spot than against a horse that won the Santa Anita Handicap, Gold Cup and took the Pacific Classic by a record-breaking 12 1/2 lengths. Accelerate is currently ranked as the top horse in the National Thoroughbred Racing Assn. poll.
“He’s the horse to beat,” Baffert said of the John Sadler-trained Accelerate. “He’s a good horse. He’s gotten better and better with age. If I can just run close to him, or whatever. West Coast can run with him for a ways, but he’s going to get tired. He’s going to have to run a really credible race to think about the Breeders’ Cup.”
Accelerate is 3-5 on the morning line and West Coast is 7-5. The 1 1/8-mile race will be the 11th on a 12-race card. Joel Rosario will ride Accelerate for the second consecutive time, replacing Victor Espinoza, who was injured in a training accident at Del Mar. Mike Smith, who won the Travers Stakes and Pennsylvania Derby last year aboard West Coast, is replacing Javier Castellano as the jockey.
One problem with training West Coast is he isn’t a good work horse in the mornings.
“They just give you so much in the mornings,” Baffert said. “I think there are players who don’t like to practice too. He’s not an aggressive type of horse. Aggressive horses will work well.”
Baffert also has the favorite in the $300,000 American Pharoah Stakes for 2-year-olds with Kentucky Derby dreams. Game Winner, who won the Del Mar Futurity, is the 6-5 favorite in the five-horse field. The top two 2-year-olds in the Derby futures pool, Instagrand and Roadster, have been pulled from racing for the remainder of the year.
The filly version of the Pharoah, the $300,000 Chandelier Stakes, is headed by Bellafina, winner of her last two races, including the Del Mar Debutante. The remaining Grade 1 is the $300,000 Rodeo Drive, a 1 1/4-mile turf race for fillies and mares. Visilika, winner of her last six races, is the favorite at 8-5.
The track has an early post of noon.
The traditional featured stakes on opening day is usually over Santa Anita’s unique down the hill turf course. It’s the only course in the United States where there is a right turn and the horses cross over part of the dirt course. It is now called the Eddie D. Stakes, named for Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye, who was considered one of the best on the downhill course. It’s a Grade 3 race with a $100,000 purse.
The winner was supposed to come from two Peter Miller-trained horses, Stormy Liberal, winner of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, and Conquest Tsunami, who was undefeated in two tries down the hill. And that’s exactly what happened.
Conquest Tsunami went to the lead and at the top of the stretch looked as if he was going to win, but Stormy Liberal dug in, chipped away, and won in a head bob.
“I think [jockey Flavien] Prat [aboard Conquest Tsunami] was gone coming across the dirt,” Miller said. “But I know Stormy has such a big heart that you can never count him out. I was just saying, ‘One-two, boys. One-two, boys.’ Thank goodness that’s what happened.”
Stormy Liberal, ridden by Drayden Van Dyke, went off as the favorite at $2.20 to the dollar. Conquest Tsunami was $2.40.
Stormy Liberal paid $6.40, $3.40 and $2.60.
The trick for Miller was not show he had a favorite, which he claims he doesn’t.
“They are two of my best owners and two of my better horses and honestly didn’t care one way or the other,” Miller said. “I just wanted to win and I would have been equally as happy if Conquest Tsunami had won.”
The next step seems pretty easy for the turf specialists.
“I think the Breeders’ Cup would be a logical choice for both horses,” Miller said. “You just have to keep them healthy and happy for another month.”
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