It's one thing to pass the torch, but the torch Bob Baffert's
horses have passed the last two years has been more like an inferno.
Winning the Triple Crown is the ultimate achievement in
Thoroughbred racing. There is a reason why there have been interminable gaps of
25 years and 37 years. If Baffert had never come close to having a horse like
American Pharoah again in his career, that would be understandable, and he
would always be grateful for having such a special horse come his way. I mean,
what can you possibly do with the torch after taking it from a Triple Crown and
Grand Slam (adding the Breeders' Cup Classic) winner?
Well, the unthinkable happened, and the horse who did take
the torch from American Pharoah the following year wound up achieving such
amazing and spectacular feats, people started comparing Arrogate to some of the
all-time greats of the sport.
Now that Arrogate's brief, but scintillating, career is
winding down, and he has come back down to earth, he no doubt is in the process
of passing the torch once again. But who could possibly hope to venture into
the realm of two such remarkable athletes as American Pharoah and Arrogate? How
can one trainer even dream of having racing's most blazing torch passed on not
once, but twice?
If someone had told you back in March that Baffert would
again have a 3-year-old the caliber of American Pharoah and Arrogate, everyone
would have been convinced you were talking about Mastery, the undefeated colt
who had romped by 7 1/4 lengths in the CashCall Futurity and by 6 3/4 lengths
in the San Felipe Stakes in his 3-year-old debut, and who possessed that same
magnificent fluid stride of his two illustrious predecessors.
But everyone would have been wrong, as Mastery would suffer
a career-ending injury in the San Felipe. In some ways, he also would pass on
the torch he held so briefly, as the very next day a horse would break his
maiden by 3 1/4 lengths that would raise Baffert's hopes that all was not lost
on the 3-year-old front.
However, it was little compensation for losing a horse like
Mastery, considering West Coast defeated only two outclassed opponents at odds
of 1-20, earning a mediocre 82 Beyer speed figure. Although he would run a
terrific race in his subsequent stakes debut, the Lexington Stakes, he was
beaten a head at 2-1.
But little did anyone know that the flickering ember from
Baffert's torch was about to reignite and turn into a conflagration once again.
With his 7 1/4-length romp in the grade 1, $1 million
Pennsylvania Derby, West Coast has now rattled off four consecutive stakes
victories, all dominating scores, including wins in the Travers Stakes, Los
Alamitos Derby, and now the Pennsylvania Derby, catapulting himself into a
clear-cut lead for the 3-year-old championship.
In the process, he has trounced the winners of the Kentucky
Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, Haskell Invitational, Florida Derby, Wood
Memorial, Blue Grass Stakes, Jim Dandy, Ohio Derby, Indiana Derby. Tampa Bay
Derby, and Fountain of Youth Stakes. And his average winning margin in his
four stakes wins is 4 1/4 lengths.
It is ironic in a way that racing's newest 3-year-old star,
and this year's Travers winner, is owned by Gary and Mary West. Last year, the
Wests came to the Travers with supposedly the stronger half of the Bob Baffert
duo in American Freedom. But American Freedom suffered a knee injury in the
race and finished a distant second to stablemate Arrogate, who was pretty much
unheard of at the time.
Baffert has always been high on West Coast, and in fact
contemplated running him in the Belmont Stakes off a three-quarter-length
victory in a Santa Anita allowance race. After the colt romped in the Easy Goer
Stakes on Belmont day, Baffert couldn't help but think he chose the wrong race.
If it was the wrong race, surely nothing has gone wrong since.
So, where did this brilliant colt come from, and how did he
wind up with Baffert, who has had an embarrassment of riches the past three
Turn the clocks back to the 2015 Keeneland September
yearling sale. As usual, the Wests' longtime bloodstock agent Ben Glass and
Ocala-based horseman Jeff Kirk, who breaks and trains their horses before
sending them to the track, were making up their short list and putting their
limits on the horses they liked.
One colt in particular had them excited - a son of Flatter,
out of the Honour and Glory mare Caressing, the 2-year-old filly champion of
2000. But there was one problem. Gary West had set a strict limit on the
foaling date for a yearling at May 10, and the Flatter colt was foaled on May
Normally, Glass would eliminate a horse with such a late
foaling date, but he had fallen in love with the colt and decided to keep his
options open. This was one colt he had to have. There were too many things about
him he loved. He could always convince West afterward that this was a special
case. So, he set a price limit at $350,000, which is a pretty hefty price for
Hip No. 1206 in the fifth session.
The colt had checked off all of Glass' boxes. He had a great
walk, he looked like an athlete, and he moved like an athlete. He scoped
beautifully, his X-rays were clean, and he had a great nick (in his pedigree).
"We're solid with the Werk guys (Werk Thoroughbred
Consultants)," Glass said. "We believe in them. If everything doesn't come
together, we don't buy them. I used to deal with Jack (the late Jack Werk); he
was my go-to guy. But now I deal with Sid (Fernando) and Roger (Lyons). I love
those guys; they're so knowledgeable. All they're telling you is the past
history, but what they tell you is really solid."
After missing him at $350,000, Glass had no choice but to go
over his limit and bid $375,000. But then someone bid $400,000. Should he go
$75,000 over his limit and bid $425,000? He decided to give it one final shot.
He upped it to $425,000 and that would be his final bid, especially considering
he was already going against West's May 10 limit.
"Gary doesn't like buying any yearling who was born past May
10, but I just loved this colt," Glass said. "I even wrote down, "I love him"
and circled the birth date. He was so charismatic and carried himself so well.
He had such a fluid walk he would slink along like a panther. He had good size
and a great big overstep on him. But with that May 14 foaling date we were
behind a jackpot.
"We never buy a horse that we don't really love. If I don't
love a horse I don't buy him. We really had to like this colt a lot with that
May 14 foaling date. Gary says, "Ben, we have to put a date limit and we have
to stick to it. We can't say a date and then go over it.' But I really wanted
this colt. I loved him so much I forgave that. Gary and I have been together
for some 30 years and he trusts me. Sometimes I'll stop on a horse and he'll
say, ‘Go one more bid. Get back in there.'"
So, Glass said the heck with the foaling date and the heck
with going $75,000 over his limit. He had to have this colt. After going to
$425,000, his absolute final bid, he waited nervously. There were no more bids.
Glass had the colt he loved.
Kirk added, "Gary is funny about foaling dates. But we
really did love this horse. He had such a great walk to him. When Gary puts a
price on a horse he kind of leaves it up to Benny. If he wants to go a little
bit more, that's fine with him. We've been over on horses we like. If you tell
him why, he'll understand.
"He scored high on everything we look at. He vetted really
good, he had a good throat, and a good presence about him. When you run into
one you really like you have to step up to the plate."
After being sent to Dell Ridge Farm in Lexington for a
couple of weeks to make sure he wasn't going to get sick from all the probing
and overall stress of the sale, the colt was shipped to Kirk in Ocala to be
"I remember Jeff telling me, "Man, this horse moves so easy.
Just look at him, he's here and then he's gone just like that," Glass said. "He
just floats and he covers so much ground..' I thought, ‘Well we've fallen in
love with horses before and it didn't work out, so maybe we just got lucky.'"
Kirk recalled, "He was such a good-looking horse, and the
more you did with him the more he developed into an even better looking horse.
He never gave me any problems and was always a gentleman. For a baby he was
very professional. He did everything you wanted him to do. He wasn't a real
fast horse because of his size; he was pretty big. But you could see he was
going to have a lot of stamina. And the more you did with him the more he liked
it. He was just a real fun horse to be around."
Kirk then sent him to Baffert, who had won the Breeders' Cup
Juvenile for the Wests with New Year's Day in 2013. "Bob liked him all along,"
Glass said. "No one can pinpoint a horse better than him. You can go to the
bank with what he tells you. After he worked a couple of times Bob said, ‘I
think we've got a real good one here.' When he says that, you start getting
Kirk feels the Wests deserve a horse this special after all
they have put into the sport. "It's so exciting to be part of a horse like
this," he said. "And to do it for people like the Wests make it all the more
special. You just beg for them to get a horse like this because they've put so
much into the business. They are so wonderful to work for, and I've worked for
them for 23 years. I spoke to Gary after the race and he couldn't thank me and
my wife Carolyn enough. They're just wonderful people."
The story of West Coast has exceeded even the highest hopes
Glass, Kirk, the Wests, and Fernando and Lyons had for the colt when they put
their collective minds together to purchase him from the consignment of Hermitage Farm (who foaled and raised the colt), as agent for Carl Pollard's CFP
Thoroughbreds. The sale had gone through 72 yearlings without a seeing a price
even rivaling the $425,000 purchase price, so you know it had to take a lot of
horse for Glass to go over his price limit and West's foaling date limit, at
this point in the sale.
And so the torch has been passed yet again and Baffert's
barn once again is ablaze, as torch carriers West Coast and Arrogate prepare to
possibly square off in the Breeders' Cup Classic, a race Baffert has won the
past three years.
As for Ben Glass, you can bet May 14 is one date he will