Horse Racing
Mike Watchmaker, DRF National Handicapper 25d

West Coast wears crown as top 3-year-old male

Horse Racing

There was little, if any, doubt following his romp in last month's Travers that West Coast had emerged as the best 3-year-old male in the country. But in our game, there can often be a big difference between "best," and "most accomplished," a distinction that can prove critical in an Eclipse Award context.

Just look back to last year, when Arrogate proved he was clearly the best horse by winning the Breeders' Cup Classic over California Chrome but was snubbed by the Eclipse Award electorate in the Horse of the Year vote, which California Chrome, the more accomplished horse in 2016, won easily.

As for West Coast, even in the wake of his dominant victory in the Travers, he still wasn't the most accomplished member of his division. Always Dreaming, even after being crushed by West Coast at Saratoga, was still the most accomplished 3-year-old this year. In a stark example of how wide the gulf can be between "best" and "most accomplished," Always Dreaming's wins in the Kentucky Derby and Florida Derby, despite three subsequent dismal performances, were still stronger than West Coast's wins in the Travers, Los Alamitos Derby, and Easy Goer Stakes.

As an aside, it would have been interesting to see how the Eclipse Award electorate would have handled this particular "best horse" vs. "more accomplished" question if the season had ended on Sept. 1. In contrast to the referenced example of Arrogate/California Chrome, my sense is that West Coast, the better horse, probably would have outpolled Always Dreaming, mainly because Always Dreaming performed so poorly after winning the Derby. But I don't think it would have been the slam dunk that it perhaps should have been.

Anyway (and thankfully), West Coast in all likelihood rendered this matter moot by winning Saturday's Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby. And West Coast won it the way you would want to see a horse making a case for a divisional title win it, scoring in thoroughly overwhelming fashion. Now, when you add the Pennsylvania Derby to his résumé, West Coast's overall record takes on an exponentially stronger look that is at the very least on a par with Always Dreaming's, if not better.

Clearly the best of his generation, and with a record that is second to none. That makes West Coast a thoroughly satisfying 3-year-old male champion.

* Abel Tasman went into Saturday's Grade 1 Cotillion as clearly the most accomplished 3-year-old filly in the land, with Grade 1 victories in the Kentucky Oaks, Acorn, and Coaching Club American Oaks, though not necessarily the best. Let's not forget that Unique Bella absolutely toyed with Abel Tasman when they met in March in the Santa Ysabel. But Unique Bella has not raced since then due to injury (though she is slated to return soon) and has no Grade 1 victories.

In any case, Abel Tasman was upset at odds-on in the Cotillion by It Tiz Well, but I suspect her second-place finish won't do much damage to her divisional-title aspirations. Nor should it.

I have no knocks whatsoever with the wild backstretch move Abel Tasman made from the back of the Cotillion pack to be a joint leader. She made a very similar move when she prevailed in the CCA Oaks over Elate, who came back to gallop in the Alabama.

However, I do have a problem with where Abel Tasman made that move. The Cotillion was the ninth dirt race of the day Saturday at Parx, and there was plenty of evidence in the first seven of those races that the inside was absolutely not the place to be, which has historically been true at Parx, with a few notable big-race-day exceptions. But Abel Tasman was steered to the inside entering the backstretch by Mike Smith, who, not surprisingly, found that part of the track wide open. It is no accident that Abel Tasman was able to pick off eight opponents with a thoroughly unobstructed backstretch inside run.

In this context, Abel Tasman actually ran very well to save second. That said, and despite all she has accomplished in two-turn races, I increasingly feel that Abel Tasman might be at her very best in extended one-turn races.

It should be noted that in the race following the Cotillion, Mike Smith never got anywhere near the inside with West Coast.

* It's going to take a long time to get over that video taken at Monmouth of trainer Jorge Navarro and one of his owners, the incredibly offensive one that has led to fines and Navarro being barred from racing at a few tracks. Many might never forget it, and I get that. In the meantime, the whole sordid affair is a good illustration of why you sometimes have to completely separate your feelings for a horse from your feelings for the people behind that horse.

Enter Sharp Azteca. He is a brilliant, top-class miler who can go a little shorter or a little longer when circumstances require it, and he was sensational again on Saturday in winning the Grade 2 Kelso Handicap at Belmont.

At times, Sharp Azteca has done some legitimately monstrous things. On his day, I think Sharp Azteca can win any race from seven furlongs to 1 1/16 miles, and I wouldn't be surprised if he could excel at six furlongs, too, if that ever became his focus.

Sharp Azteca is trained by Jorge Navarro. I am a big fan of Sharp Azteca, the horse.

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