West Coast Offense

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 years?

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 14.

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 broken.

"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 real excited."

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 never forget.

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