West Coast rules in Pennsylvania Derby

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Twice, Bob Baffert put the tack on West Coast before the Pennsylvania Derby, and both times the trainer thought the same thing. Where in the world is Jimmy Barnes?

Baffert’s top assistant was back in California recovering from surgery to stabilize a broken pelvis suffered in a fall from the stable pony Sept. 17 – leaving the rollicking task of saddling West Coast for Saturday’s Grade 1 at Parx Racing to the boss.

Head facing the back wall, West Coast fidgeted, stepped left and right, swung his hips left, then right, then left again. Baffert and crew got the tack on and West Coast jigged back out to the walking ring, only to return a few minutes later for a reset. This time, West Coast reared up into the late-afternoon sun once but otherwise found some peace as the saddle was removed and replaced, and the girths were cinched.

“Wow, he’s tough,” Baffert said while walking away from the saddling stall at the far end of the Parx paddock.

Baffert has saddled worse, every trainer has, but West Coast brought his game face to Parx for the $1 million race. And then showed it to everyone with a 7 1/4-length win on the track. Gary and Mary West’s 3-year-old broke sharply for Mike Smith, stalked Outplay through fractions of :23.2, :47.24 and 1:11.18 before kicking away off the turn and drawing away in the stretch. Smith geared down late, but the issue was not in doubt. Irap rallied for second with Giuseppe The Great third.

Irap crossed the wire going lame and was pulled up with what was later diagnosed as a fractured left front sesamoid. He was attended to quickly, stabilized and placed on the horse ambulance. The injury was described as career- and potentially life-threatening by Dr. Celeste Kunz, the American Association of Equine Practitioners spokesperson.

West Coast’s win gave him two Grade 1 scores and a major claim to the 3-year-old championship. Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming is the only other two-time Grade 1 winner among the 3-year-olds this year, and West Coast won their Travers matchup at Saratoga as part of what is now a five-race winning streak. Unraced at 2, the son of Flatter made his debut in February, and won for the sixth time in eight starts (to go with two seconds) and blew past the $1 million mark in career earnings with a $550,000 payday.

The success makes the pre-race work for Baffert – and Barnes – well worth it.

“He was tough to saddle,” Baffert said in the winner’s circle. “He bounced me around in there pretty good. That’s why usually Jimmy saddles him. I usually say, ‘Jimmy you saddle him. I don’t want him to ruin my shoes and step on me. He’ll break my toes.’ I wish Jimmy was here. I felt so bad for him this week. He loves going on the road for me and watching everything.”

This time it was Baffert making a cross-country trip with Grade 1 stars, and watching everything. Abel Tasman finished second in the Grade 1 Cotillion one race before the Pennsylvania Derby, denying the team a perfect day.

“I’m glad I came, because I really enjoyed it here,” said Baffert after hearing three E-A-G-L-E-S cheers during post-race interviews. “Everybody was so nice. The fans, you have some real fans here. They love the racing. Everybody’s aware of it. It’s nice to come here with some good horses.”

Bred by Carl Pollard’s CFP Thoroughbreds and foaled at his Hermitage Farm, West Coast sold for $425,000 as a yearling – and was helped by a patient approach by the Wests.

“Gary’s really good about it, he says ‘Treat him like he’s your own horse,’ ” Baffert said. “He’s waited a long time for a horse like this. He was just a big horse, I took my time. If you see him, he’s just big. Gary said don’t worry about it. When you have the clientele that let you develop a horse like you own him yourself . . . it was the thing to do.”

West agreed with that assessment then, and still does.

“I’ve been in the game for a long time and I’ve realized that you’ve got to let horses tell you when they’re ready to do whatever it is that they’re going to do,” said the owner. “If you force them, you’ll ruin a good horse. He was a kind of a big, gangly, Baby Huey kind of thing when he was younger. He’s matured and he’s still maturing. He’s an awesome, awesome-looking animal right now. These kind don’t come around very often.”

• The Grade 1 Cotillion went to California shipper It Tiz Well, who ran down Abel Tasman in the stretch and scored for Tommy Town Thoroughbreds, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and jockey Drayden Van Dyke. The daughter of Arch won for the fourth time this year and collected her first Grade 1 win. Abel Tasman (4-5) finished second after breaking slowly and making the lead with a middle move. Lockdown finished third after making the early running from the inside.

• In other stakes action, Coal Front returned to winning in the Grade  3 Gallant Bob for Bob LaPenta and partners, trainer Todd Pletcher and John Velazquez. The son fo Stay Thirsty turned aside a stretch run from American Pastime with Petrov third. Pennsylvania-bred veteran Page McKenney prevailed in the Connect Stakes to win for the 20th time in 51 starts. Trained by Mary Eppler for Adam Staple and Jalin Stable, the 7-year-old pushed his career earnings past $1.7 million. StarLadies Racing’s Firsthand Report won the Alphabet Soup Stakes on the turf for Pletcher and jockey Javier Castellano. The son of Blame and Kinsey was bred by Linnie  Scott and Jane MacElree.