When unbeaten Mastery crossed the finish line March 11 in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, just about everybody, including the colt’s trainer, Bob Baffert, thought they had just seen the 2017 Kentucky Derby winner. Mastery had won by 6¾ lengths. He was now unbeaten in four races, including three stakes, winning by combined margins of nearly 20 lengths.
Fifty yards past the finish line, however, jockey Mike Smith felt something go very wrong. Mastery was placed in a horse ambulance and taken back to his barn, where an examination revealed that the colt had a fractured left front ankle and would require surgery. Mastery’s racing career was over.
“It was really hard when Mastery got hurt,’’ Baffert said. “He was really tough.’’
Not having Mastery on the Derby trail, Baffert said `”was painful.’’ Thankfully, the surgery went well and the colt has recovered.
So Baffert, two years after American Pharoah won the Triple Crown, did not have a single horse in this year’s Derby, Preakness, or Belmont Stakes. Over the last 20 years, the man has had four horses win the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Silver Charm and Real Quiet ran well enough to win the Belmont, but were just beaten at the finish. Pharoah never let another horse close enough in the Belmont to make the finish matter and Baffert finally had his Triple Crown, the first one in 37 years.
Did he miss the Triple Crown races this year?
“If you don’t have a horse like Mastery, I don’t like showing up just to be in it,’’ Baffert said. “I’m not one of those. … I’ve had the best year and probably one of the worst years. I can’t catch a break.’’
He was not serious about the breaks. He knows how unforgiving this sport can be, and he knows just how fortunate he has been.
“Just enjoy the hell out of whatever good things that may happen,’’ Baffert said. “They don’t last long. I’ve learned that.’’
Even though Baffert was out of the Triple Crown races, he is now live with the hottest three-year-old in the country, West Coast, the morning-line favorite for Saturday’s Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing.
“We were very high on him from Day 1,’’ Baffert said. “We just took our time. He’s a big, strong horse. [Owner] Gary West is very patient. He always says treat him like you own him yourself. When you have an owner like that, it makes it easy.’’
If West Coast wins the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby, he will be the likely favorite for the 3-year-old championship, as the only other two-time Grade I winner would be Derby winner Always Dreaming, who has run very poorly in three races since the Derby.
“He’s got to win, first,’’ Baffert said. “I don’t get into the discussion of that. It’s not my deal. My deal is just to make sure he shows up.’’
West Coast has always shown up in his seven starts, with five wins and two seconds. The colt disappointed Baffert only once, and that was when he barely won an optional claimer May 20 at Santa Anita as the 3-10 favorite.
“That was going to be his tuneup for the Belmont,’’ Baffert said. “After that race, I just didn’t feel comfortable.’’
So he sent West Coast east for Belmont Stakes Day, but ran him in the second race on the card, the Easy Goer Stakes. West Coast crushed the field as Baffert and jockey Mike Smith, who will ride West Coast and Cotillion favorite Abel Tasman in the race just before the Pennsylvania Derby, were off on a historic four-stakes win day, with each performance more dazzling than the one that preceded it.
West Coast is a very good colt, but no cinch in the Pennsylvania Derby, with horses such as Wood Memorial winner Irish War Cry, Blue Grass Stakes winner Irap, and the talented Timeline in the field.
Abel Tasman is not an absolute cinch to win the Cotillion, but one of the other fillies might have to run the race of her life to beat the Kentucky Oaks winner.
“She’s a great filly,’’ Baffert said. “She just keeps getting better and better.’’
Indeed. Abel Tasman was one of the four Baffert/Smith winners on Belmont Stakes Day, cutting the corner in the Acorn. Then, she went to Saratoga and won the CCA Oaks. If she wins the Cotillion, it will be her fifth Grade I win in nine months and fourth in a row.
So Bob Baffert, after not even having a starter in the Triple Crown races, now trains the nation’s best three-year-old of either sex. And those two horses, along with their trainer, will be the main attractions Saturday at Parx.