Travers Undercard Eclipses Main Event

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Drefong | Sarah Andrew

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Drefong (Gio Ponti) manhandled top-notch sprinters with crushing, blunt-force torque and Lady Eli (Divine Park) expertly pulled off yet another Houdini-like escape by extricating herself from behind a blockade at the top of the stretch to throttle a smart field of turf distaffers. Three other undercard Grade I stakes at Saratoga Race Course Saturday unfolded in tactically interesting fashion, narrowly decided in photo-finish increments of a head, neck, and half a length.

But the GI Travers S. itself? The wire-to-wire win by West Coast (Flatter) seemed a touch underwhelming considering the California-based Bob Baffert trainee was allowed to establish a reasonable early pace and none of the colts perceived as top threats (including all three winners of this year's Triple Crown races) mounted credible challenges to either soften up West Coast early or mow him down late with stout closing kicks.

So the aftermath of the biggest day of the meet at the Spa (second-highest all-sources betting handle in Travers Day history) resonates as an afternoon when the supporting cast outshined the main attraction. And while the status of several divisional leaders solidified over the weekend, the sophomore rankings remain as wobbly as they have been for the past six months, with no 3-year-old colt firmly latching onto prolonged kingpin status at any time in 2017.

With only two graded two-turn stakes for 3-year-olds remaining on the national calendar (the GI Pennsylvania Derby and the GIII Oklahoma Derby on Sept. 23 and 24, respectively) and the prospect of facing older horses looming with the Breeders' Cup 10 weeks away, the entire division as a “field” bet at this point would still be an underdog to topple the likes of the surging Gun Runner (Candy Ride {Arg}) and the currently off-form Arrogate (Unbridled's Song) in the GI Classic on the first Saturday in November.

West Coast certainly has the potential to rise above his inconsistent crop-mates. As a late (May 14) foal, he was still establishing maiden and allowance-level form as the first two legs of the Triple Crown were being run this past spring. He's never been worse than second with five wins from seven starts, and all of his races have been at a mile or longer. West Coast's change of pace in the Travers–going to the lead when no one else was committed to it after having come from behind in his last two stakes wins–also bodes well for his future in terms of versatility.

Yet the inevitable comparisons to stablemate Arrogate should stop beyond establishing that both colts were late-developing Baffert 3-year-olds who shipped East to wire the Travers in consecutive seasons under jockey Mike smith.

Yes, West Coast's win on Saturday in 2:01.19 was the second-fastest Travers in the last 25 years, behind only Arrogate's track-record 1:59.36 in 2016. But Arrogate's internal splits over 10 furlongs were significantly quicker, and the visible flair he exhibited soaring through the Saratoga stretch 13 1/2 lengths clear of his rivals was an obvious beacon signaling his global dominance that followed. West Coast, by contrast, finished capably, but without the same level of panache.

The day after the Travers, Baffert elected not to commit to a next-race plan for West Coast.

If West Coast does end up on a path that matches him with stablemate Arrogate in the Classic, Baffert could be faced with the difficult dilemma of which horse will be ridden by Smith, who has regularly piloted Arrogate and has recently partnered with West Coast. Arrogate is the world-class older runner who has quizzically declined in form over his last two starts at Del Mar, while West Coast is the blossoming up-and-comer who has yet to be battle-tested beyond the ranks of a lukewarm collective of 3-year-olds.

Drefong Dominates

The truest semblance of outright dominance Saturday at Saratoga was provided by the Baffert/Smith powerhouse sprinter Drefong in the GI Forego S. Making his second start off an extended layoff, the 2016 champ left little doubt that he remains the continent's top six- and seven-furlong specialist after ripping straight to the front and swatting away the overmatched competition through lively fractions while geared down late and clear by four lengths at the wire.

When judging just how far the chasm is from Drefong back to the rest of the North American sprinters, consider that the three most recent important sprint stakes this summer all have asterisks attached to them because of which horses didn't perform in those races.

The July 29 GI Bing Crosby S. at Del Mar, won by Ransom the Moon (Malibu Moon), was the race in which champion Drefong ducked in at the gap and unseated his rider, vastly changing the complexion of that race.

The same-day GI Vanderbilt H. at Saratoga, won by El Deal (Munnings), similarly had its pace scenario altered about an hour before the race when morning-line favorite A. P. Indian (Indian Charlie) scratched with a career-ending ankle injury, leaving El Deal as the lone speed.

And this past Saturday's GII Pat O'Brien S. at Del Mar, won by Giant Expectations (Frost Giant), also lost its morning-line favorite–this time the day before the race, when Danzing Candy (Twirling Candy) was retired with a career-ending sesamoid fracture.

The bottom line? Drefong is rested and dangerous at a time when the sprint division is subtracting A-level candidates, not adding them.

Practical Joke (Into Mischief), whose ground-saving positioning combined with a nice stretch punch over seven furlongs resulted in a 1 1/4-length tally in Saturday's GI H. Allen Jerkens S. at the Spa, could be a candidate to run in the GI Breeders' Cup Sprint. But in the aftermath of the victory, trainer Chad Brown indicated the 5-for-5 one-turn winner was instead likely to be pointed toward the GI Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile because the distance seems “perfect” for the colt.

Just based on personal visual assessments, I'd similarly favor a mile over six furlongs for Practical Joke if he has to deviate from what appears to be a seven-furlong sweet spot. But his only two wins at a mile were one-turn races at Belmont Park, which will surely reignite the “0-for-two-turns” stigma that shadowed the colt through the Triple Crown season and beyond.

Lady Eli Tops Another Thriller

A thesaurus is now required to come up with new superlatives to describe Lady Eli's continued dominance of the North American distaff grass division.

And of course, whatever this long-running fan favorite does on a racecourse will always be emotionally linked to the longshot tale of how she overcame life-threatening laminitis in both front feet after stepping on a nail as a 3-year-old and missing nearly 14 months of racing.

When we last saw Lady Eli, she topped a corking, three-way photo finish in the GI Diana S. at Saratoga on July 22 after looping the field with a wide, powerful run.

In that race, her uncoupled stablemate, Antonoe (First Defence), finished third after committing to an inside run through traffic. A clear path to victory never materialized for Antonoe, and it was not a stretch to think that if their positioning had been reversed, Antonoe might have beaten Lady Eli that afternoon.

As fate would have it, that “reversal of fortune” scenario played out almost as if scripted in Saturday's GII Ballston Spa S. at Saratoga. This time, the field turned for home with Antonoe outside and in the clear, while Lady Eli was bottled up behind a wall of horses at the head of the lane.

An extremely patient and confident Irad Ortiz, Jr. waited for a three-wide passage to present itself, then committed fully to a shoulder-brushing sweep to the lead during which Lady Eli first wrested command from the target in front of her, then appeared to relish hearing and seeing another rival trying to run her down from the outside. Antonoe faded to fourth.

Trainer Brown said Sunday that Lady Eli was “50-50 right now whether she'll go into the [GI] Flower Bowl [S. on Oct. 8] or train up into the [GI] Breeders' Cup [Filly & Mare Turf].”

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