Bob Baffert wins hearts, minds and Pennsylvania Derby

Kentucky Oaks Horse Racing
Jockey Mike Smith and trainer Bob Baffert celebrate Kentucky Oaks win by Abel Tasman, who finished second in the Cotillion on Saturday at Parx Racing.

It was the Bob Baffert show from the moment he arrived for his first visit to Parx Racing late Wednesday afternoon. The most recognizable human in horse racing signed every autograph, posed for every picture, told wonderful stories to willing audiences and calmly got the favorites ready for Parx’s two biggest races of the year.

The bar is set so high in Baffert World that a second in Saturday’s $1 million Cotillion and an overwhelming win in the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby that followed could be considered a bit of a disappointment. But not in the real world when any win, especially in a Grade I race, must be celebrated.

Baffert’s Abel Tasman took off too soon in the Cotillion and was run down in the stretch by It Tiz Well. But the move the filly made on the backstretch along the rail will be long remembered.

The legendary trainer’s West Coast dominated the Pa. Derby, sitting second early and then running away from the field in the stretch to win by 7 1/4 lengths.

Even in the joy of West Coast’s victory, there was sadness just 100 yards beyond the finish line where second-place Irap was being placed in a horse ambulance with a lateral sesamoid fracture in his left front leg, according to on-call veterinarian Celeste Kunz.

“They stabilized the ankle with a splint … this is a very serious injury,’’ Kunz said.

Irap’s trainer Doug O’Neill texted that Irap “was resting comfortably in his stall. He has an appointment Monday morning at New Bolton Center with Dr. Dean Richardson to surgically repair his left front sesamoids. Prognosis is good.’’

That juxtaposition of elation and concern is the very essence of horse racing. So when your horse does win a big race, it’s almost euphoric because so much can go wrong in the sport

“This horse is just getting better and better,’’ Baffert said about West Coast.

West Coast has gotten so much better that he very likely clinched the 3-year-old championship with his second consecutive Grade I win, a month after he won the Travers convincingly. In a year of inconsistency by the 3-year-olds, West Coast has won five straight races.

“He is just better than they are right now,’’ jockey Mike Smith said.

West Coast ran the mile-and-an-eighth in 1:49.91 and paid $3.80.

It Tiz Well paid $12.60 as the second choice to 4-5 Abel Tasman. The filly won the July 8 Delaware Oaks, but this was even more impressive. Given a beautiful ride by young Drayden Van Dyke, who let Smith and Abel Tasman pass by on the backstretch, It Tiz Well came running in the homestretch to win by two lengths. She ran the mile-and-a-sixteenth in 1:43.67.

Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, like Baffert a member of racing’s Hall of Fame, took the Cotillion for the second consecutive year. The great Songbird crushed the field in 2016.

“When I saw [Smith] coming up on the inside, I waited and they kind of went away from me for a few seconds,’’ Van Dyke said.

Then, It Tiz Well caught up and pulled away in the final 100 yards.