When the Secretariat rocket ship soared to a galaxy never before reached in his 31-length procession in the Belmont Stakes, it gave the colt an aura of invincibility and made it seem inconceivable that he would ever be defeated again. He had raised the bar higher than any horse in history or at least the same level as the previous Big Red, Man o’ War.
But no matter how devastating he looked in the Triple Crown and in the subsequent Arlington Invitational, there was that nagging defeat in the Wood Memorial that hung over his head, reminding one that the chance of defeat, regardless how slim, still hangs over every horse in any particular race. We would be reminded of that on two more occasions. But even Secretariat’s two defeats at the hands of The Giant Killer, Allen Jerkens, couldn’t strip him of his immortality, especially closing out his career with a pair of spectacular victories on the grass.
But even when Secretariat lost he put in a good run, whether it was a third in the Wood Memorial while running with a reported abscess in his mouth or incubating a virus that knocked him out following his second-place finish in the Whitney or an ill-advised start in the Woodward Stakes just two weeks after setting a world record returning from his illness.
That bar that Secretariat set in the Belmont Stakes would never be reached, even through three more Triple Crown winners and a number of outstanding Hall of Famers. Then, 43 years later, a horse did come along to set the bar so high that defeat seemed unthinkable.
I wrote last month that Arrogate, following four of the most remarkable victories ever witnessed, was in a position that he could not afford to ever lose again because it would make him seem mortal, and he was only a few races away from becoming the most inexperienced horse ever to be admitted into the gates of the Pantheon.
After his mind-boggling victory in the Dubai World Cup, the thinking was that if he didn’t get beat in that race there was nothing that could get him beat back home. He just needed to defeat basically the same horses he he’d been beating to join the immortals of the Turf, even with such a small resume. That’s how spectacular his victories were over the best horses in America, including a two-time Horse of the Year in California Chrome. It was simple. He just couldn’t lose, for with it would go his aura of invincibility.
As we all know, Arrogate not only did lose his next race, unlike Secretariat, he shockingly was a total bust, never appearing to have any interest in running. One can only speculate what happened, but even his trainer has no clue. Several ideas were bantered about, from a dislike of the Del Mar surface, returning to Lasix (which on a rare occasion can leave a horse listless) after winning in Dubai without it, somehow not being fully recovered from his Del Mar trip, to some hidden physical malady. None of them seem likely.
Coming into the San Diego Handicap fresh off a layoff, it was expected that Arrogate would be on or right near the lead. So when he dropped some six lengths out of it and just stayed there with no inclination to run at all, everyone, needless to say, was shocked. Even going into the far turn one couldn’t help but feel he would still find a way to win, just as he did in Dubai and in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. After all, he was Arrogate and he was invincible. His Dubai World Cup had eliminated the word defeat from the vernacular.
Because it is futile to dwell on something we most likely will never get to the bottom of, we can only look ahead and wonder if there is anything Arrogate can do to restore his reputation, either all of it or at least salvaging some of it. Is there anything at all he can do in the Pacific Classic and Breeders’ Cup Classic to unlock those pantheon gates? Will mere victories do it or will he have to do something extraordinary in both races to wipe out that huge blot on his record? After all, he no longer is immortal, but perhaps that aura can be restored with a couple of other worldly victories, and we could then pretend the San Diego never happened.
In some ways, it might actually be easier for him to restore that aura having run such a dismal race as opposed to running his best race and just getting beaten by a better horse on that particular day. This way it can be perceived that Arrogate beat himself. By not running at all, something may have been bothering him physically or mentally, and because of that unknown factor, his performance, or lack of, can be excused more than getting beat legitimately.
But he will have to do something pretty remarkable over a track he apparently doesn’t exactly relish, considering this debacle and a rather uninspiring allowance victory over only two rivals last year prior to his bust-out performance in the Travers.
Baffert said if he feels the colt needs more time to convince him he’s at the very top of his game, there is always a return trip to Saratoga for the Woodward Stakes on Labor Day weekend. But you can be sure Baffert would prefer to keep him home and run him at 1 1/4 miles and get a big effort in him over the same track on which he’ll have to compete in the Breeders’ Cup. Baffert would love to have as much confidence as possible going into the Classic and a resounding victory at Del Mar would certainly help.
Whether Arrogate runs at Saratoga or Del Mar, you can bet the fans and curiosity seekers will be out in full force to see if the San Diego was an aberration or the beginning of the end of a brief whirlwind career, the likes of which we have never seen before and likely will never see again.