Arrogate and How We Define Greatness

In the emotional frenzy of Arrogate’s incredible victory in the Dubai World Cup, social media, as if often does, has run amok with comments, running the gamut from Arrogate being the greatest horse of all time to the greatest horse since Secretariat to the greatest horse of the 21st century to being an over-hyped horse who hasn’t beaten anyone and not in the same league as the greats of the past.

The truth is, none of it means anything. There is no stamp to signify a horse as the greatest ever or being overrated. It is what each person believes that defines a horse in their own mind. And that is all that’s important…what we as individuals believe. Nowhere in the National Museum of Racing is there a statue identifying the greatest horse of all time.

To some it is Secretariat, to others it is Man o' War, and some will claim it is Citation or Spectacular Bid or Kelso or Dr. Fager or Count Fleet or Native Dancer or Seattle Slew or  Arrogate or any one of a dozen others. What is in each person’s mind and heart is all that matters..

Is Muhammad Ali better than Joe Louis? Is Babe Ruth better than Joe DiMaggio? Is Wayne Gretzky better than Bobby Orr or Gordie Howe? Is Tom Brady better than Joe Montana or Johnny Unitas? Is Jack Nicklaus better than Tiger Woods?? You won’t find the answers in any sports history books because there are no answers other than what each person believes.

Many people keep harping on the quality of the horses Arrogate defeated in Dubai or in the Pegasus World Cup. History has shown us that performance -- in other words extraordinary feats -- overshadows competition. Without looking it up, can anyone name one horse Count Fleet, Whirlaway, and War Admiral defeated in their Triple Crown sweeps? Other than his own stablemate Coaltown, can anyone remember the names of the horses Citation beat in his sensational 3-year-old campaign? No, because it didn’t matter. It was how he won. Does anyone downplay Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes because he defeated such an inferior horse as Twice A Prince and only three other opponents? Does anyone knock Native Dancer for beating JamieK by a neck in both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes? Can anyone name a single horse Ruffian defeated when she swept the NYRA Filly Crown? I’ll even tell you -- Somethingregal, Gallant Trial, Sweet Old Girl, Sun and Snow, Equal Change, and Let Me Linger. Does anyone care? And finally, does anyone dare slander the name or greatness of Man o’ War because in his last 10 starts he defeated a total of 15 opponents, or 1.5 opponents per race? That’s two more than Arrogate defeated in the Dubai World Cup alone. No one cares that six of Man o’War’s races turned out to be match races. It was how he won them.

It is extremely rare throughout the annals of history to find great horses who beat great horses, which is why they still talk about the 1967 Woodward Stakes with Hall of Famers and Horses of the Year Damascus, Dr. Fager, and Buckpasser. And even there, Damascus’ detractors don’t hesitate to mention the use of two rabbits to kill off Dr. Fager or Buckpasser returning from an injury and no longer being the force he once was. The bottom line is that he defeated two of the greatest horses of all time by 10 lengths. Speaking of which, can you name one horse of note that Buckpasser defeated in his magnificent 3-year-old campaign? It didn’t matter.

It is true that these great horses raced many more times than Arrogate, but it was a different era, with sounder, more durable horses, with no focus on stallion value. It was all about racing. Back then you could count the number of horses who earned $1 million on both hands. Arrogate has earned $17 million in four races. Even with inflation, you don’t earn that outrageous amount of money running against inferior horses. It’s not the amount of races in which you compete, it is what you accomplish in those races. The most damaging storms in history were not the longest in duration; they were the most powerful. We remember Mike Tyson, not for the quality of his opponents or 15-round slugfests, but for his first-round knockouts.

Arrogate is as great as each individual perceives him, and it has nothing to do with competition or longevity. Years from now, Arrogate’s Hall of Fame plaque will be there among the others, and nowhere will it mention the quality of his competition.

How many times have you heard a trainer or owner call his own horse “great” following a grade 2 or even grade 3 race? Yes, we throw that word out there when it should be reserved for only a precious few. But in their mind, and with their emotions needing an escape route, they believe it. Therefore, at that very moment in time their horse is indeed great, just like our children are great when they recite the alphabet for the first time; like an actor on stage is great when he or she bring us to tears, even if it is the only role they will ever play.

That brings us back to all the banter that has been circulating about Arrogate’s place in history. There will be no labels put on him here, just one quick list, whether you want to put your own spin on it or not. It doesn’t matter whether you believe the horses he has defeated are good, mediocre or bad, although each person knows deep down they are not bad, and most are pretty darn good. Simply put, I defy anyone to claim that what you are about to read has been accomplished before or if any horse has even come remotely close to it.

OK, hold on your hats. In only four races, I repeat, four races, Arrogate has defeated:

The 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th place finishers of the Kentucky Derby

2 Preakness winners

The 1st and 2nd place finishers of the Belmont Stakes

The 1st and 2nd place finishers of the Dubai World Cup

2 Santa Anita Handicap winners

A Pacific Classic winner

A Jockey Club Gold Cup winner

A Travers Stakes winner

A Met Mile winner

A Whitney Stakes winner

A Woodward Stakes winner

A Stephen Foster winner

A Cigar Mile winner

A Haskell Invitational winner

A Queens Plate winner

2 Clark Handicap winners

2 UAE Derby winners

2 group I winners in Japan

2 group I winners in Dubai

A Group I winner in Argentina and Chile

A Group winner in England and Turkey

Once again, that is in only four races. And he defeated the majority of those horses by double-digit margins.

In those four races, at four different tracks and two countries, he ran Beyer speed figures of 122, 120, 119, and 115, broke two track records, including a 37-year-old record at Saratoga, and earned a 141 Timeform figure, the highest Timeform figure in the 25 years since it began rating horses in North America. And he’s won his four races on the lead in a 13-horse field, coming from third and fifth, and coming from dead-last in a 14-horse field.

How does a horse break his maiden in June and ship to Saratoga in late August and make his first stakes appearance in the 13-horse Travers Stakes and not only shatter the track record and win by 13 1/4 lengths, he sets all the pace and comes home his last quarter in a remarkable :23 4/5? And then he comes back and runs down a two-time Horse of the Year, California Chrome, who was in complete control of the Breeders’ Cup Classic and looked like a sure winner turning for home. Horses are just not supposed to do those things, yet he’s continued to do it.

So, bash Arrogate all you want. It doesn’t matter. If people wish to be in awe of him and canonize him and his performance in the Dubai World Cup, and marvel at his brief, but meteoric, career as a whole, that is their prerogative. They are the happier for it, as anyone would be having witnessed something out of the ordinary that they likely will never see again. And if they wish to put the label “great” or “all-time great” on Arrogate, then that’s what he is…to them. And when you get right down to it, who else matters?

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