Three-year-olds face tough age hurdle in Breeder's Cup Classic

DEL MAR, Calif. -- In the 33 runnings of the Breeders' Cup Classic, to be renewed Saturday at Del Mar, a 3-year-old has won the race 12 times. That shows the formidable historical hurdle West Coast, Gunnevera, and Pavel face in taking on their elders, let alone the specifics of this year's top-heavy race, with outstanding older runners such as Arrogate, Gun Runner, and Collected.

The last three Classics, though, have been won by 3-year-olds, all trained by Bob Baffert, who sends out West Coast in this year's race. He's won it with a Triple Crown winner such as American Pharoah; a horse such as Bayern, who didn't race at 2 and couldn't handle the best 3-year-olds in the spring but carried his speed in the fall; and late developer Arrogate, who made the first start of his career a little more than six months before he won the Classic.

One of the challenges for 3-year-olds is that they must develop so far so fast. West Coast was a May foal, so when he finished second in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland earlier this year it was before his actual third birthday. But he comes into this race with five straight victories, including the Travers at Saratoga and Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing in his last two starts.

"He was a really late foal," Baffert said. "He was just a big baby. He was just figuring it out."

Baffert said owner Gary West said "train him like you own him," so Baffert chose to not push early. West Coast didn't even make his first start until Feb. 18. But he appears to be coming forward.

"The good 3-year-olds, they can run with older horses," Baffert said.

West Coast, he said, "won the race at Parx in a gallop."

"He was pretty impressive," Baffert said. "He's a big, strong horse who's just getting good."

Like West Coast, Gun Runner was one of the better 3-year-olds of his generation. But he didn't run in the Classic last year, instead going in the Dirt Mile, in which he finished second. It was the prudent move at the time. West Coast, like Arrogate last year, has developed enough physically to take on his elders in the richest race of the Breeders' Cup.

"He's better than Collected and Gun Runner were at this stage of their careers, and he should get better," Baffert said. "If this horse runs his race he could win it. But it's going to be a strong race."

Pavel -- like Arrogate, Bayern, and West Coast -- did not race at 2, but his debut at 3 was even later. He did not race until July, and has made just four starts, most recently finishing third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup against elders, an assignment Gunnevera and West Coast have yet to face.

"This is the time of year when I think a 3-year-old is caught up with his elders, or at least they're headed the right way," said Doug O'Neill, who trains Pavel for Paul Reddam.

Pavel had to grow up fast. After winning his first start, he has been fed a steady diet of stakes. He won the Smarty Jones at Parx in only his third start.

Compared to his rivals, Pavel's "legs might be a little more fresh," O'Neill said.

In addition to Arrogate and Bayern, other horses who won the Classic at 3 without having raced at age 2 include Tiznow and Curlin. That is the company West Coast and Pavel are seeking to join.

Gunnevera is the most experienced of all the 3-year-olds in this year's Classic. He has made 13 starts, more than Pavel and West Coast combined. Gunnevera was a top 2-year-old, winning the Saratoga Special and the Delta Downs Jackpot, and he has continued his good form at 3, with a victory in the Fountain of Youth, a second-place finish in the Holy Bull, and a third-place finish in the Florida Derby among his early season highlights.

Gunnevera, like all 3-year-olds who have succeeded in the Classic, seems to have blossomed this fall. From a figure standpoint, he comes off the best race of his career, a runner-up finish behind West Coast in the Travers, in which he had to rally wide on the far turn.

As with Arrogate last year and American Pharoah two years ago, Gunnevera is coming into the Classic straight from the Travers, without a prep.

In the early days of the Classic, the 3-year-olds who prevailed were winners of Triple Crown races, including Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled, Derby and Preakness winner Sunday Silence, and Belmont winner A.P. Indy. Since then, though, only Curlin and American Pharoah won Triple Crown races - in American Pharoah's case all of them - and then won the Classic at 3.

Not a single Triple Crown race winner from this year will compete, all having gone to the sidelines. So while Gunnevera, Pavel, and West Coast might not have been good enough or mature enough to win a classic in the spring, at least they are here, giving them a chance to win the Classic in the fall.