I have little doubt that the best horse we will see run on American soil in 2018 is Gun Runner. The 2017 Horse of the Year made his triumphant swan song in the Pegasus World Cup, which will be his one and only start as a five-year-old. Three weeks since his retirement, it’s time to move on with the horses that will be regular performers in 2018. As such, I have removed the retired champion from my rankings, submitted each week for the NTRA poll. The new leader is the same horse that I predicted would be the next Horse of the Year in my annual early predictions article posted in December on Horse Racing Nation.
West Coast not only swept to the Eclipse Award as the Champion 3yo Male of 2017 with impressive wins in the Travers and the Pennsylvania Derby, plus a creditable third-place result in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but he demonstrated that he might be even better at four with a strong second-place finish behind Gun Runner in the Pegasus. Just look at how much better he was than the rest of the field at Gulfstream Park.
Now for the first time in his career, West Coast becomes the big man on campus. That lofty perch will soon be put to the test when he looms a strong favorite overseas in the rich Dubai World Cup. Proven at ten furlongs already, with that Travers victory over the demanding main track at Saratoga, the consistent four-year-old likely needs only to bring over the form he showed in the Pegasus to confirm his place as the top dirt horse in the world. Overall, the Bob Baffert trained, and Gary and Mary West owned runner has been nothing been consistent.
Second in his racing debut, which did not come until this very day one year ago, West Coast has only finished worse than second in his career one time. That one came at the hands of Gun Runner, when the then three-year-old West Coast moved up to challenge America’s best older runners to finish third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. In fact, after a heartbreaking defeat in the Lexington Stakes in his first two months of racing, West Coast rattled off five straight wins, which also included the Easy Goer Stakes on Belmont Stakes Day, as well as the Los Alamitos Derby. And he has done so with a versatile running style, able to run well and win from several different early positions in his races.
In the Dubai World Cup, West Coast will be saddled by a man who has made the most of his trips over for the Dubai World Cup. Baffert has already won the big race three times. At Nad Al Sheba he scored with Silver Charm in 1998, and then again with Captain Steve in 2001. Since the switch to Meydan, the Hall of Fame trainer has only won once, but that of course, came just last year with Arrogate. West Coast gives every indication of being primed to be Baffert’s fourth different horse to win the big one in Dubai, but he’s not the only horse on my rankings bound for the Dubai World Cup.
Here is my full Top 10 ballot sent in to the NTRA this morning …
1) West Coast – With Gun Runner off to the breeding shed, this son of Flatter appears primed for a big year in 2018.
2) World Approval – His return win in the Tampa Bay Stakes was not flashy, but enough to expect him to be much the same horse we saw close out 2017 with three big Grade 1 victories.
3) Roy H – If not for an unlucky defeat in the Bing Crosby, our Champion Sprinter would be unblemished since the summer of 2016, and most of them were powerful wins.
4) Forever Unbridled – Working well for her debut, the best older female of 2017 is being pointed for her biggest test to date, taking on West Coast and the males in the Dubai World Cup.
5) Unique Bella – Since her flub in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, the big gray filly has looked the part of a champion with smart wins in the La Brea and Santa Maria.
6) Beach Patrol – The Chad Brown charge proved to be America’s best turf distance runner in final three starts; has not yet returned to the worktab.
7) Abel Tasman – The champion 3yo filly is working well in California in advance of her return; has not finished worse than second since her career debut.
8) Itsinthepost – He gets little respect, but likes to win. He is the top turf horse in California right now; 5 stakes wins in last 11 months.
9) Gunnevera – The confirmed late runner rallied for third in the Pegasus, but was not close to the top two; Dubai World Cup is next.
10) X Y Jet – The fleet footed veteran has come back to top form with three straight wins; the Dubai Golden Shaheen is next.
West Coast photo courtesy of NYRA/ Annette Jasko