3-year-old ponies go up and down in circle game
The 3-year-old colts of 2017 have been more fun than a box full of kittens.
For eight hurly-burly months, they’ve rolled around in a fluffy ball, nibbling on each other’s tails, mewling for attention. Sometimes, one of them will claw his way up the side of the box, blink his big kitten eyes, and make a bunch of cat-crazy humans go “oooh” and “awww.” Then he’ll be dragged back into the pile.
The latest cutie-pie to pop out of the box is West Coast, a looker from California who had the speed and condition to lead the Travers field on a merry chase last Saturday at Saratoga. It was unquestionably the best in a string of increasingly good races the son of Flatter has run for owners Gary and Mary West, who have been playing the game for a long time and richly deserve a such an historic trophy.
To suggest, however, that West Coast has become the leader of the division flies in the face of easily accessible data. Never mind the canoe. His Travers and Los Alamitos Derby wins look no better or worse than Tapwrit’s Belmont Stakes and Tampa Bay Derby, or Girvin’s Haskell Invitational and Louisiana Derby-Risen Star package, or Irap’s Ohio and Indiana derbies on top of his Blue Grass, or the excellence of Always Dreaming in the derbies of Florida and Kentucky.
Even one-hit (so far) wonders like Cloud Computing, Good Samaritan, and Gunnevera need only one more big day to reach par with the others, while the owners of the underachieving Lookin At Lee ($753,000 in earnings this year) and McCraken ($672,228) are smiling all the way to the bank.
Alas, West Coast made them all look like chumps in the Travers, and in this day and age, it’s not that you’ve had an admirable campaign with highs and lows along the way that should be judged when all the evidence is in. It’s what you did last Saturday.
There are only a handful of races left to embellish 3-year-old résumés. The Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 23 looms large as the last Grade 1 race for the division, at least on dirt. Otherwise, it’s into the deep end against elders in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Awesome Again, the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Mark Casse had been thinking about the Pennsylvania Derby for John Oxley’s Classic Empire and said so out loud. But you always got the feeling he would rather change the subject.
The Arkansas Derby winner has been training off and on since he missed the June 10 Belmont Stakes with a flare-up of foot trouble. Since then, Classic Empire has had a recurrence of back problems as well and is now at Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, Fla. Recently, Casse has been getting good reports on the colt, but not good enough.
“We’re not going to make the Pennsylvania Derby,” the trainer said Monday from Saratoga. “He’s training every day, we’ve gone over him head to toe, and he’s doing fine. But when we ask him to do a little more, he’s like, ‘No, not yet.’ So there’s really no goal out there right now.”
Classic Empire was a 2-year-old champion who began his career in May of last year. He missed time earlier this year, won in Arkansas on sheer class, and then was a nightmare fourth in the Kentucky Derby before his stubborn second to Cloud Computing in the Preakness.
The only other top 3-year-old not in attendance at Saratoga was Battle of Midway, who celebrated Travers Day by winning the listed Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar, under a pull. Flavien Prat was aboard for Jerry Hollendorfer.
“I thought that was an outstanding effort on his part,” Hollendorfer said. “He didn’t have any luck in the Haskell, and he didn’t turn in his best performance.”
Battle of Midway has been shadowing the division “leaders” all year long. He was second in the Santa Anita Derby and third in the Kentucky Derby, then prepped for the Haskell by winning the Grade 3 Affirmed. He broke a step slowly in the Haskell, however, and never got in the game.
“After the race, Flavien said he ran a lot better than it looked,” Hollendorfer said. “He said he was running easy, but not focused. I asked if he thought blinkers would help, and he agreed. So we worked him in a set of French blinkers, and he worked well.”
French blinkers, French jockey – bingo! Battle of Midway won by more than six lengths, beating Grade 1 winners Klimt and Gormley in the bargain.
“Whether it was the blinkers, or he liked the track that day, or whatever, his race was impressive,” Hollendorfer added. “I enjoy working with people to get the job done, and Prat made a big contribution.”
Hollendorfer has suggested the $400,000 Oklahoma Derby on Sept. 24 as a possible free spot for Battle of Midway’s next race, but he seems to be leaning more toward the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby the previous day. After all, he’s got what he feels is a Grade 1 horse who has yet to win a Grade 1 race.
“That’s a problem,” Hollendorfer said, tongue in cheek. “He is an interesting horse to follow, one that could develop into something special. But we have a little more work to do.”