Seeing those familiar Juddmonte Stable silks flying way ahead of the others down the stretch in the Travers Stakes, and witnessing the sheer brilliance and dominance of the horse carrying those silks, all you had to do was replace the sandy loam of Saratoga Racetrack with the lush green grass of Europe’s finest racecourses and you might as well have been watching the great Frankel demolishing his opponents in unprecedented fashion.
The difference is, Frankel ran his foes off their feet in group I race after group I race. Although he did win his first four starts by an average margin of five lengths, including three group stakes, we didn’t get a true appreciation of just how special this colt was until he opened a 10-to-12-length lead midway through the 2,000 Guineas, unheard of in European racing, before coasting home by six lengths, also virtually unheard of in a European classic. It would be his first of nine consecutive group I victories, and when he retired after career 14 starts, his average margin of victory still was 5 1/2 lengths. In Europe, it is rare for any horse to win even one race by 5 1/2 lengths.
So, here was Juddmonte, four years later, and their newest U.S. trainer, Bob Baffert, one year after his historic Triple Crown sweep with American Pharoah, teaming up to unleash an extraordinary colt who appeared to embody all the greatest qualities of both Frankel and American Pharoah.
Just as European racing fans had never seen anything like Frankel, American racing fans had never witnessed that amazing a performance by such an unproven horse with no stakes experience in a race as prestigious as the Travers Stakes, which many regard as America’s fourth classic, dubbing it the Midsummer Derby.
Arrogate came into the Travers off a hard-luck defeat in his career debut, in which he broke poorly and ran into traffic problems, followed by a maiden victory and a pair of scores in allowance/optional claiming company, all three wins against older horses. His average margin of victory was nearly four lengths, but in all three of his victories he defeated a grand total of 10 horses. In the Travers, he would be facing 12 opponents, including the winners of the Preakness, Belmont Stakes, Haskell Invitational, Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby. Louisiana Derby, Jim Dandy Stakes, Tampa Bay Derby, Iowa Derby, and the runners-up in the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, Haskell, and Blue Grass Stakes. Arrogate’s stakes credentials were a big fat goose egg.
Many felt he wasn’t anywhere near ready for this tough an assignment, especially stretching out from 1 1/16-mile races to 1 1/4 miles, which is why he was sent off at 11-1 in the Travers. Normally the name Baffert alone will take in a ton of money, but the bettors were looking more closely at Baffert’s other starter, American Freedom, who they sent off at 5-1.
When it was over, the Travers Stakes was left in shambles. The decimation that was witnessed was unlike anything seen before, much like Frankel’s jaw-dropping rout in the 2,000 Guineas.
Arrogate had just about everyone totally bewildered how a horse, especially one with zero stakes credentials, could set testing fractions of :23 1/5, :46 4/5, 1:10 4/5, and 1:35 2/5 and then turn on the afterburners and come home his final quarter in an amazing :23 4/5, while bounding away to win by 13 1/2 lengths and shattering the previous stakes and track record set 37 years earlier. It was unfathomable that any horse could run a mile and a quarter at Saratoga in 1:59 1/5, breaking General Assembly’s track record by four-fifths of a second, and equaling the fastest mile and a quarter ever run by a 3-year-old in the state of New York, set by Albert the Great in the 2000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. This was the Saratoga track record everyone was expecting from General Assembly’s sire, Secretariat, who had to be withdrawn from the 1973 Travers with a viral infection and fever. It was also a full second faster than the fastest mile and quarter run at Saratoga over a fast track, as General Assembly’s victory came on a sloppy, but quick, surface.
So, where does that leave us as we turn our attention to the Breeders’ Cup Classic? We will not see Arrogate in action until then. That leaves, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, a pretty big matzo ball hanging over the Classic, as there is no way to predict just what we’re going to see from Arrogate on November 5. And it is for that reason that this perplexing situation is unprecedented in Breeders’ Cup history, or the history of any championship race for that matter. Does California Chrome, rated unanimously the best horse in America, have anything to fear from this young, basically inexperienced potential superstar and his single other-worldly performance in the Travers, or was this a one-shot blast heard ‘round the racing world that is incapable of being duplicated or even coming close to being duplicated?
No one can answer that question, because there is nothing to substantiate it either way. The closest example we can come up with was Bellamy Road’s equally spectacular victory in the 2005 Wood Memorial, in which he won by 17 lengths in a record 1:47 flat, earning an off-the-charts 121 Beyer speed figure, compared to Arrogate’s 122. The next fastest Beyer figure of any horse in this year’s Travers was 103 by Exaggerator in the Santa Anita Derby, the same figure earned by Arrogate in his first allowance victory. So that 122 Beyer put him in a different stratosphere.
Bellamy Road went into the Wood coming off 15 3/4-length victory in an allowance race, having won only one stakes at 2, the Cradle Stakes at River Downs, so, like Arrogate, no one had any idea whether he was a mortal lock in the Kentucky Derby or likely to regress (or bounce) big-time. As it turned out, Bellamy Road got burned up in a blistering pace at Churchill Downs and finished seventh. He would only race one more time in his career, finishing a gallant second in the Travers Stakes.
There is an old expression in racing: “Too fast to last.” We saw it with other phenoms like Graustark and Hoist the Flag, who had superstardom written all over them before an injury ended their careers prematurely. We know Arrogate’s sire, Unbridled’s Song, has a reputation for siring brilliant, but unsound horses, as he was. But we have no idea how long Arrogate can keep up this freak show and if he can for even one more race, or will he come back down to earth? On the other hand, you have to wonder if this is a Frankel-type monster that comes along on very rare occasions. What he has going for him is his late start due to sore shins and the fact he’s been able to get over his rambunctious nature and settle into being a professional racehorse, while filling into his big, lanky frame.
Baffert, who picked out Arrogate at the Keeneland September yearling sale for $560,000, has had the Breeders’ Cup Classic in mind for the colt ever since his allowance victory on June 24. When Baffert looks that far ahead with an unproven horse, you know he has something serious on his hands.
As good as Arrogate looked breaking his maiden, in which he was eased up in the final sixteenth and was eight lengths in front past the wire, it was that June 24 allowance race against older horses that had people really taking notice. Hustled hard out of the gate to establish the lead, he shrugged off the challenge of the second choice and opened up at will without ever being touched by the whip, yet still ran his final half in :47 3/5 and again was eased in the final sixteenth, while coming home in a quick :06 1/5.
With only two opponents in an August 4 allowance race at Del Mar, he was sent off at 1-10 and was expected to demolish his foes, the hard-knocking 5-year-old milers Kristo, who had some back stakes experience on the 2014 Kentucky Derby trail, and Teniente Coronel, a former Louisiana-based horse. In this race, he changed tactics and sat patiently back in third before disposing first of Teniente Coronel and then a stubborn Kristo, who he beat by only 1 3/4 lengths, but again under a confident hand ride by Rafael Bejarano. It was almost 18 lengths back to Teniente Coronel.
Despite the narrow margin, it was a positive sign to see Arrogate rate off slow fractions of :24, :48 1/5, and 1:12 and then fly home in :23 3/5 and :06 flat without being urged, completing the 1 1/16 miles in 1:41 3/5. Whether or not running against Arrogate took too much out of them, Kristo was beaten almost 14 lengths in his next start at 2-1 and Teniente Coronel was beaten 20 lengths at 7-2. Arrogate had now won three straight, all at 1 1/16 miles and all against older horses. But it seemed like an enormous leap from this race to a full field of graded stakes horses in the Travers at a mile and a quarter.
Just before leaving Del Mar, Arrogate turned in a bullet six-furlong work in 1:11 4/5. Any thoughts Baffert may have had of rating Arrogate again and letting his other horse, American Freedom, set the pace, pretty much went up in smoke when Arrogate drew post 1 and American Freedom post 2. As we all know, Arrogate was sent to the front by Mike Smith, took flight at the top of the stretch and then disappeared from view of the other horses, leaving what appeared to be only a vapor trail.
Was that the beginning of a superstar career, like Frankel, or was the Travers a one-shot freakish performance, like Bellamy Road’s Wood Memorial? We won’t know the answer until about the quarter pole of the Breeders’ Cup Classic when California Chrome looks him in the eye. That will be the biggest intrigue surrounding the Breeders’ Cup, along with the question of whether Frosted can duplicate his own freakish performance in the Met Mile going 10 furlongs, if he indeed points for the Classic. Whatever the outcome, the anticipation of seeing a current proven superstar taking on the challenge of a younger potential superstar should make for great theater.