A Mystery Horse No More

“Take,” “seize,” “confiscate.” Those are just some of the synonyms on Thesaurus.com for the word arrogate. Those synonyms seemed appropriate watching racing’s newest and most dynamic powerhouse, Arrogate, take, seize, and confiscate California Chrome’s sole sovereignty of Thoroughbred racing and a Breeders’ Cup Classic victory that looked to be his on the far turn and for a good portion of the stretch run.

In the past three years, what California Chrome has accomplished has been extraordinary. What American Pharoah accomplished was historic and spectacular. What Arrogate has accomplished in the Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic has been, well, abnormal, meaning there is no way to gauge the true magnitude of his accomplishment, because there has never been anything with which to compare it.

No one is putting Arrogate in the same breath as Secretariat, but based on these past two victories, I don’t know if I’ve seen a horse with an engine like this colt’s since Big Red. No matter what he does he never gets tired. His heart measurement and lung capacity must be off the charts. Although he no doubt gets his brilliant two-turn speed and his massive stride from his sire Unbridled’s Song, they are nothing alike in action, as Unbridled’s Song ran with his head up and Arrogate runs with his head down with the bulldog tenacity of In Reality, to whom he is inbred top and bottom, and the determination and grit of his great-grandsire Forty Niner and great-granddam Meadow Star, both champions. Meadow Star also ran with her head down. By running so low, Arrogate gets maximum thrust up front and behind when he extends his stride, generating an enormous amount of power, while always remaining balanced. It is rare to see such a perfecftly packaged machine.

He needed all those attributes – speed, grit, determination, and the stamina of paternal grandsire Unbridled --  to relentlessly wear down California Chrome, who looked to be in complete control of the race from the five-eighths pole to the eighth pole, separating himself from the field while under restraint. A 3-year-old with so little racing foundation and coming off a two-month layoff simply isn’t supposed to do what Arrogate did.

How do you fully comprehend a 3-year-old with only six lifetime starts running back-to-back Beyer speed figures of 122 and 120? This may have been accomplished before, but even if it has, never by such an inexperienced horse.

To get a clearer picture, imagine immediately after his resounding victory in the Dubai World Cup, someone told you that California Chrome would win his next three starts, elevating himself to superstardom and No. 1 ranking in the world, and then lose Breeders’ Cup Classic to a 3-year-old who at that time had never run in his life and who would finish third in his career debut 22 days later. Oh, yes, and that Chrome in the Classic would earn a career-high 119 Beyer figure, six points higher than anything he’s ever run before and still get beat.

Imagine after Frosted’s other-worldly performance in the Met Mile, which he won by over 14 lengths in a blistering 1:32 3/5, earning a monstrous 123 Beyer figure, someone told you that he would add a swiftly-run Whitney victory to his resume, and then in the Breeders’ Cup Classic would finish more than 19 lengths behind a 3-year-old who had just broken his maiden in his second career start six days earlier.

Imagine last year, after Effinex finished second to Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, someone told you he would win or place in five major stakes, just get beat in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and then in the Breeders’ Cup Classic get beat 24 lengths by a then 2-year-old who would not make his career debut for another six months.

Imagine after American Pharoah’s shocking defeat in last year’s Travers Stakes, someone told Bob Baffert, he would come back the following year and not only win the Midsummer Derby with a then unraced 2-year-old, but that colt would win by 13 1/2 lengths and shatter the stakes and track record set 37 years earlier, and his time of 1:59 1/5 would equal the fastest mile and a quarter ever run in New York by a 3-year-old.

All this adds up to racing’s version of “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” As the great British announcer Peter O’Sullevan used to call whenever he witnessed an extraordinary performance by an extraordinary horse, “What manner of horse is this?”

All one say is, what manner of horse is Arrogate? There simply is no answer to that question. Two races hardly defines a career, but after an artist paints two masterpieces, one can hardly wait to see what emerges from his next blank canvas.

As for California Chrome, he lost nothing in defeat, and under normal circumstances he would have won the Classic by nearly 11 lengths and be acclaimed one of the all-time greats. But, as mentioned earlier, he wasn’t dealing with normal circumstances or a normal opponent.

When he was able to get away with a :47 half without being pushed and then separate himself from the field, including Arrogate, who was already being ridden by Mike Smith, he appeared to be home free. It looked like a repeat of the Pacific Classic, as Chrome coasted to the quarter pole, with a seemingly overconfident Victor Espinoza looking back over both shoulders a total of seven times instead of just letting Chrome roll and keep building up momentum.

Espinoza, riding up in the saddle and keeping Chrome under wraps, suddenly saw the big gray train being vigorously handled by Smith, roaring up behind him. When Espinoza finally set Chrome down he threw his head up ever so slightly. Although it was not the smoothest transition, it still looked like Chrome was going to hold off Arrogate. But when Smith, who had hit Arrogate several times left-handed, switched to a right-handed whip, the Juddmonte colt seemed to find another gear and was relentless as he began to bear down on Chrome.

A 3-year-old making his sixth lifetime start and only his second stakes appearance is not supposed to pull off a victory like this, not against California Chrome, making up three to four lengths and coming home his final two quarters in :24 1/5 and :24 flat.

To show how fast Arrogate and Chrome ran, if Beholder, fully extended at the finish of the Breeders' Cup Distaff, had run another eighth in :12 flat, which is highly unlikely, considering she came home her final eighth in :13, she still would have finished six lengths behind Arrogate.

The bottom line is that California Chrome has achieved greatness in his career and is headed for the Hall of Fame. But the ceiling for Arrogate is limitless, depending how sound he stays. After this performance, one has to ask if there any horse in America who has even a slight chance of beating him, and, other than Chrome, coming within striking distance of him.

It took a mighty big horse to fill American Pharoah’s stall, but the big gray colt who resides in there now might just be one of the giants.

Behold the Return of the Queen

Very often, one’s greatness is defined by others, and in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Distaff Beholder and Songbird defined each other’s greatness.

Beholder had been here before, having been tested twice under fire by a champion filly, Stellar Wind, and although she was narrowly defeated both times after thrilling stretch duels, she would use the experience she gained from those battles when confronting a truly great champion in Songbird. Unlike the hardened veteran eyeballing her the length of the Santa Anita stretch, the younger Songbird had no such experience, having coasted to easy victories in all 11 of her starts. Now, for the first time in her life she was in a dogfight against a future Hall of Famer prepared to belt out a swan song for the ages.

That was the script that was playing out in front of over 45,000 screaming fans on a cloudless Friday afternoon. Who would come out on the winning end of this titanic struggle, the 6-year-old former champion and Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner, fully extended and running her heart out on the outside, or the 3-year-old former champion and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner, giving every ounce of herself, on the inside?

Veteran racegoers had actually witnessed this exact same scene played out in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff 26 years earlier, but were too engaged in the epic battle unfolding before them to remember; perhaps because it was such a painful memory.

But on October 27, 1990, there was the 3-year-old Go For Wand, also a champion and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner, on the inside battling eyeball to eyeball with the 6-year-old Bayakoa, also a champion and Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner. Like this year’s Distaff, it was a battle for the ages, as the pair charged down the Belmont Park stretch as if glued to each other, neither giving an inch.

And then it happened, in the blink of an eye. It what can best be described as a surreal, horrific moment, Go for Wand fell to the ground in midstretch, as a stunned crowd watched in disbelief. Go for Wand’s death all but washed away that year’s Breeders’ Cup with a steady stream of tears and a heartbreak that still haunts Belmont Park in much the same way Ruffian’s death in 1975 still does.

This year, however, it was tears of joy that flowed, as 53-year-old jockey Gary Stevens, 66-year-old trainer Richard Mandella, and 83-year-old owner B. Wayne Hughes celebrated their horse of a lifetime.

As eerily similar as this battle was to the abbreviated one between Go for Wand and Bayakoa, it was even more so with the fatal injury to Corona Del Inca, who like Bayakoa, was bred in Argentina and was a grade I winner in her native country before coming to the United States.

Once again, racing barraged our psyche with conflicting feelings, with the sheer jubilation and exhilaration of seeing two magnificent fillies run their hearts out and the simultaneous sadness of seeing a 5-year-old mare travel all the way from another continent only to break down and be taken off the track in an ambulance as the victor’s connections and the vast majority of fans were immersed in celebration.   

But in the end, the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Distaff will be remembered for the emotionally filled drama that unfolded down the Santa Anita stretch, with Stevens and Mike Smith both throwing crosses on their fillies after turning for home, readying for the slugfest that was to come. Then both going to an occasional left-handed whip and finally getting down and pushing forward for every ounce of strength they could muster. Both fillies hit the wire fully extended, having dug down to the very bottom of the well.

Although an inch separated them at the wire, there was no loser, other than a slight smudge on Songbird’s record, similar to the one on Zenyatta’s record. She was every bit as much a winner as was Beholder. But for Songbird, there are plenty of songs left to be sung. For Beholder, this was her big farewell, and with four straight defeats staring her in the face, she refused to go out anything less than what she has been her entire career – a winner.

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