Arrogate: History Can Work Both Ways

Question: How good is Arrogate and do you think he can beat California Chrome in the Breeders’ Cup Classic?

Answer: I’ll let you know around the three-sixteenths pole.

No, that isn’t much of an answer, but what other answer can you give? Do we really have a clue if Arrogate is going to come close to or duplicate his freakish performance in the Travers Stakes or if he was, as Richard Dreyfus said in Let it Ride, simply “Having a very good day?”

Looking at his past performances, Arrogate gave no indication he was going to demolish every top 3-year-old in the country, with the exception of Nyquist, and shatter a 37-year-old track record. After all, he had never run in a stakes in four career starts and was coming off a 1 3/4-length victory over two opponents in an allowance race going 1 1/16 miles, the farthest he’d ever run.

Yes, he had turned in impressive scores in a previous allowance race and maiden race, but now he was flying cross-country and taking on 12 opponents, including the winners of the Belmont Stakes, Preakness, Haskell, Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby, Louisiana Derby, Tampa Bay Derby, Iowa Derby, and Jim Dandy Stakes.

A horse with zero stakes experience having never been farther than 1 1/16 miles and coming off a 1 3/4-length victory over two opponents isn’t supposed to win the Travers by 13 1/2 lengths in a record-breaking 1:59 1/5, earning a spectacular 122 Beyer speed figure and defeating two classic winners by 21 3/4 lengths and 33 lengths.

Arrogate's time equaled the fastest mile and a quarter ever run in New York by a 3-year-old. He also became the first horse to break the 2:00 mark at Saratoga, something past Travers winners Man o’ War, Whirlaway, Native Dancer, Buckpasser, Damascus, Arts and Letters, Alydar, Easy Goer, and Holy Bull failed to do.

Throughout history we have seen performances like Arrogate’s go both ways. They can be the introduction to a magnificent career, complete with championship honors, or they can be one of those other worldly performances that come plummeting back to earth; in other words, nothing more than an aberration.

You can speculate or make predictions all you want, but there simply is no way of knowing for sure in which category Arrogate falls. Your best bet is to measure trainer Bob Baffert’s enthusiasm level as the Classic gets closer. No one knows their horses better than he does, although not even the sharp-eyed Mr. Baffert could have been aware of the keg of dynamite he was sitting on at Saratoga.

Baffert actually has been in this position before, but not quite to this extent. In 2006, Sinister Minister had broken his maiden for a $62,500 claiming tag before finishing sixth, beaten 19 lengths, in the San Vicente Stakes and then second, beaten four lengths, in the non-graded California Derby at Golden Gate. Baffert sent the son of Old Trieste to Keeneland for the Blue Grass Stakes and the ridgling had jaws dropping as he blasted to the lead after breaking in the air, set blazing fractions of :45 4/5 and 1:09 4/5, and then drew off a stunning 12 3/4-length victory, earning a whopping 116 Beyer speed figure.

No one knew what to expect in the Kentucky Derby. Had Baffert unleashed a budding superstar out of nowhere? At Churchill, Sinister Minister proceeded to finish 16th, beaten 30 lengths, and never won another race.

Baffert has been on both ends in the same year. In 2014, he sent out One Lucky Dane to break his maiden by 9 1/2 lengths in a swift 1:35 1/5 for the mile, earning a lofty 95 Beyer speed figure. He would go on to finish a well-beaten sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the following year was injured after finishing second in the Santa Anita Derby and never raced again. On the other hand, Baffert that same year also sent out 3-year-old Bayern in an allowance race in his second career start and the son of Offlee Wild romped by 15 lengths in 1:35 3/5, earning a 98 Beyer. Bayern would go on to romp in the Haskell, Pennsylvania Derby, and Woody Stephens and conclude his 3-year-old campaign with a gutsy victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

In 2005, the racing world was stunned by one of the most spectacular Kentucky Derby preps ever witnessed, if not the most spectacular. In a year highlighted by dominating Derby trail victories by Afleet Alex and Bandini, the Run for the Roses found its favorite in the Wood Memorial when Bellamy Road, whose only stakes victory had come in the Cradle Stakes at River Downs, turned in a freakish performance that was almost identical to that of Arrogate’s. After setting rapid fractions of :46 and 1:09 4/5, Bellamy Road blew his field away in the stretch, opening up a 10-length lead at the eighth pole, then continued to draw away, winning by a staggering 17 1/2 lengths in a record 1:47 flat, earning him a 120 Beyer speed figure, unheard of for a Kentucky Derby prep. The fastest Wood Memorial in the 11 years since has been 1:49 1/5.

Sent off as the 5-2 favorite in the Kentucky Derby, and being called racing’s next superstar, Bellamy Road got caught up in a torrid pace and faded to finish seventh. He raced only one more time, finishing second in the Travers before being retired to stud.

In 1989, there was a Midwestern-based 3-year-old named Western Playboy, who had scored a narrow victory in the Blue Grass Stakes, run in a slow 1:51 1/5. After finishing 15th in the Kentucky Derby, beaten almost 23 lengths, Western Playboy proceeded to be beaten 12 1/2 lengths in the St. Paul Derby and 9 1/4 lengths in the Arlington Classic before finishing a non-threatening fourth in the American Derby and Fairmount Park Derby. He was put in a small stakes for Illinois-breds, which he won by 1 1/2 lengths. Trainer Harvey Vanier then put him in the Pennsylvania Derby. Where his performance in that race came from no one knows, but Western Playboy exploded on the far turn in the 12-horse field, then drew off to win by 17 lengths in 1:47 3/5, shattering the brilliant Afleet’s stakes record. In his next start, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he finished seventh of eight, 15 lengths behind Sunday Silence.

To a slightly lesser degree, in 2005, the D. Wayne Lukas-trained 3-year-old Consolidator had won two of his first eight career starts, finishing out of the money four times, including a fourth-place finish in the San Vicente Stakes in his 3-year-old debut. In the San Felipe Stakes, he was sent off at 7-1, went head and head early before drawing off to win by 6 1/2 lengths in a blazing 1:40 flat for the 1 1/16 miles, breaking the stakes record by more than a full second. Bet down to 3-1 in the subsequent Blue Grass Stakes, he finished fifth, beaten over 13 lengths, and never raced again.

These are just a few of the instances where a horse turned in a performance so far beyond anything he had shown before there simply was no explanation for it. To be fair, Bellamy Road did destroy his field in an allowance race at Gulfstream before the Wood Memorial, but few thought he could duplicate it in a grade I stakes in New York, never mind surpass it.

Obviously, there is no way knowing what Arrogate is going to do for an encore in the Breeders’ Cup Classic against California Chrome and other older horses, but on a positive note, it must be said that there have been other unexpected spectacular victories by unknown horses or horses with limited or no stakes experience, and those horses went on to be superstars.

Spectacular Bid, as a 2-year-old, won his first two starts, but then was upset in both the Tyro Stakes at Monmouth and Dover Stakes at Delaware. In the World’s Playground Stakes at Atlantic City he was sent off at odds of 5-1 and went right to the front, setting a blistering half in :44 3/5. In the stretch, he drew away with every stride to win by 15 lengths. What made the race even more remarkable was that over a deep dead racetrack he blazed the seven furlongs in 1:20 4/5. All he did was win 23 of his next 25 starts, breaking seven track records and the world record for 1 1/4 miles that still stands. Bid is considered by many as the greatest horse they have ever seen, especially over a three-year-career

In 2003, a sprinter named Ghostzapper had won two allowance sprints and a maiden sprint before finishing a fast-closing third in the King’s Bishop Stakes. Racing against older horses in the grade I Vosburgh Stakes next time out, Ghostzapper rallied from dead-last in the 10-horse field and seemed hopelessly out of it turning for home. Just then, he exploded with a spectacular burst of speed and in a flash blew by everyone, drawing off to a 6 1/2-length victory in a record 1:14 3/5 for the 6 1/2 furlongs, earning a 116 Beyer speed figure.

Ghostzapper never lost another race, recording the highest Beyer speed figure ever (128) in his 10 3/4-length laugher in the Iselin Handicap the next year, and after a victory in the Woodward Stakes in 1:46 1/5 he concluded his 4-year-old campaign with a resounding wire-to-wire win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, setting a stakes record of 1:59 flat and earning a 124 Beyer. He returned at 5 with a 6 1/4-length romp in 1:33 1/5 in the Met Mile, earning a 122 Beyer. Despite making only 11 starts in his career, he was voted into the Hall of Fame. And it all started with that amazing first ever stakes victory in the Vosburgh.

We all have our most memorable jaw-dropping performances, whether it was Easy Goer’s 13-length romp in the Gotham Stakes, which he won easily in 1:32 2/5, missing Dr. Fager’s sacred mile world record by a fifth of a second, or Rachel Alexandera’s demolitions in the Kentucky Oaks by 20 1/4 lengths and 19 1/2 lengths in the Mother Goose, in which she won under wraps in a near-record 1:46 1/5.

Speaking of Easy Goer, most everyone felt the Phipps colorbearer was a lock for the Kentucky Derby until an improving colt named Sunday Silence made his presence felt big-time by winning the Santa Anita Derby by 11 lengths in 1:47 3/5. We all know what happened after that.

Racing fans in 2008 had no idea what they were looking at when a second-time starter named Big Brown literally cruised to a 12 3/4-length victory in a Gulfstream allowance race in his 3-year-old debut, earning a 106 Beyer. In his only start at 2, he had broken his maiden on grass by 11 1/4 lengths in a blistering 1:40 1/5 for the 1 1/16 miles at odds of 14-1. Surely, he was way too far behind to be ready for the Kentucky Derby. But the fans finally realized what they were witnessing when Big Brown decisively won the Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness Stakes to become the first horse to win the Derby off only three career starts since Regret in 1915.

In 1968, after finishing second in his career debut at Monmouth, Top Knight was sent up to Belmont Park where he broke his maiden by 15 lengths in a track-record 1:04 flat for 5 1/2 furlongs. Top Knight would go to win the Hopeful, Futurity, and Champagne and be named champion 2-year-old, then captured the Flamingo and Florida Derby at 3 before going wrong.

Wayne Lukas was fortunate enough to have two juvenile fillies who decimated their fields, with Landaluce winning the Hollywood Lassie in her second career start by 21 lengths in a blazing 1:08 flat and Flanders winning the Frizette Stakes by the same 21-length margin. Both would go on to be named champion 2-year-old, but never raced after that. Landaluce died from colitis x and Flanders suffered a fracture pulling up after winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Then there was Seattle Slew’s nine-length romp in the Champagne Stakes in a record 1:34 2/5 in only his third career start and stakes debut and Curlin’s 12 3/4-length victory in his career debut, followed two races later with a 10 1/2-length score in the Arkansas Derby. Curlin would go to earn back-to-back Horse of the Year titles. These are just two more examples of a spectacular, out-of-the-blue performance that telegraphed a horse’s greatness. There have been plenty of others.

In 1974, no one knew much about Ruffian, who was sent off at odds of 4-1 in her career debut. Shooting to the lead through a half in :45 flat, the powerful near-black filly drew off to a 15-length score in 1:03 flat, equaling the track record.

History is full of these rare breathtaking victories, many of them by proven stars like Secretariat in the Belmont (the granddaddy of all victories), Dr. Fager in the Washington Park Handicap, Damascus in the Travers and Woodward Stakes, Count Fleet in the Belmont Stakes, Ruffian in the Spinaway Stakes, Inside Information in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, and recently Frosted in the Met Mile, just to name a few. And who could have predicted that Chris Evert would win her match race with Miss Musket by 50 lengths. Man o’War defeated one opponent by 100 lengths in the Lawrence Realization. And we saw it recently in Europe with Frankel.

You pretty much get the idea. Is Arrogate going into the Breeders’ Cup on the threshold of greatness or was the Travers some freakish performance that will never amount to anything more than what was witnessed at Saratoga?

He certainly looked like something very special, but whatever the answer, we at least know he is going to add a large measure of intrigue to the Classic. And with many having already anointed California Chrome as the best horse in America and the world, we welcome that intrigue.

See you at the three-sixteenths pole.

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