The voice at the other end of the speaker, belonging to Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert in California, was relaxed and happy.
“I’m glad we get to control the canoe one more year.”
Assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes had said his boss wanted him to pick up last year’s.
That can’t happen. The canoe on Saratoga Race Course’s infield pond stays. Colors and designs change, modeled after the silks of each year’s winning owner in the Travers Stakes.
But two-thirds of the connections didn’t change. One year after Baffert and Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith led Arrogate to a coming-out-party Travers win, they teamed up with West Coast. And the son of Flatter delivered a 3 1/4-length win that wasn’t as visually stunning as Arrogate’s, but similar in that once again, the duo brought a rapidly improving horse to Union Avenue and walked away as winners. It was the fourth Travers victory for Smith and the third for Baffert.
Unlike last year, bettors were hip to this, and sent West Coast off at reasonable 6-1 odds. Reasonable, that is, because the field of 12 included the winners of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Jim Dandy, Haskell and any number of other stakes.
West Coast’s win was as much a tribute to distance learning as anything else. Baffert sent Barnes with three stakes horses for the day, with Smith riding all of them. American Anthem failed to run his race in the Allen Jerkens, finishing third.
Next, however, Drefong romped to a 4-length, front-running win in the Forego, and Baffert — who had been watching the Saratoga races and texting owner Gary West all day — had his plan.
“Drefong would tell us if the track was to our liking,” Baffert said via phone at the postrace press conference. “After Drefong won, I said to Mike, you can do whatever you want.”
“That made me feel like, ‘OK, maybe I’ve got the green light to get a little aggressive,’ ” Smith said. “I didn’t think there was much pace in there. I’m sure we all thought that. I thought, ‘Man, if I can catch a good jump, I’m going to take advantage of it.’ ”
Smith went on to say he had noticed Kentucky Derby winner American Anthem hadn’t been running on the lead like he once did.
So Smith took West Coast to the lead, then proceeded to run a half-mile in 48.12 seconds.
“Once I saw 48, I said, ‘we’re OK.’ Nobody was pressing us early and looked like he had plenty of horse the whole way,” Barnes said.
Always Dreaming had stayed right behind West Coast for 6 furlongs, but faded — much like his hopes of 3-year-old divisional honors. The biggest challenge West Coast faced once he reached the stretch was holding off 24-1 long shot Gunnevera, a solid closer. The lead was only a length with a furlong left, but West Coast had plenty left to separate. West said that’s because in his last win, the 1 1/8-mile Los Alamitos Derby, his horse seemingly ran 1 1/4 miles to do so.
The stewards inquired about second-place Gunnevera and third-place Irap, but made no change.
Gunnevera trainer Antonio Sano said he was pleased with his horse, whom he will train up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Irap jockey Mario Gutierrez wasn’t on board with the final ruling.
“(Gunnevera) did push me down, but I guess the stewards didn’t think it was enough to cost me my place,” Gutierrez said. “But who knows?”
Who knows? The same could be asked of the 3-year-old division, composed of horses who can’t string together two good performances. Belmont winner Tapwrit was fourth, the best of the Triple Crown race-winners: Preakness winner Cloud Computing was eighth and Always Dreaming was ninth. Jim Dandy winner Good Samaritan was fifth, 9 lengths back. Haskell winner Girvin pretty much had enough by the five-sixteenths pole and was 11th.
Maybe what the 3-year-old division is teaching us is to savor what we get because it may not last long.
But when Baffert turns on his television Sunday, he’ll see a canoe in pink and black, and it’ll stay that way for a year. Not a bad return, these days.