It was a performance for the ages by a horse for the ages.
Dead last early after a tardy start that then was exacerbated by being bumped a number of times in the opening strides like a piñata while being squeezed back, Arrogate amazingly still won last Saturday’s Group I Dubai World Cup.
Not only did Arrogate win, but after he had put away Gun Runner to open a clear lead in the final furlong, the Unbridled’s Song colt actually just strolled home to a ridiculously easy 2 1/4-length victory for owner Juddmonte Farms and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. In addition to Arrogate’s horrendous start, which would have spelled doom for most horses, he had a wide trip. If all that weren’t enough adversity for one race, it looked like Mubtaahij came out and bumped Arrogate at the top of the straight.
Arrogate’s sensational Dubai World Cup performance was one that will long be remembered for its improbability. A year ago, he had not yet raced. Arrogate did not make his career debut until April 17 last year at Los Alamitos. On that afternoon, he had a troubled trip and finished third in a six-furlong maiden contest. Since his loss at Los Al, he has been unstoppable in seven consecutive starts.
What Arrogate has done in his last four races is mind-blowing. Understandably, following each of his last four victories, there has been an outpouring of superlatives by rival jockeys, trainers and owners, as well as writers, broadcasters and fans.
When Arrogate won the Grade I Travers Stakes by 13 1/2 lengths last year on Aug. 27, I wrote “it was a Secretariat-like performance.” Completing 1 1/4 miles in 1:59 1/5 (1:59.36 in hundredths), Arrogate broke General Assembly’s track record. Arrogate shaved four-fifths of a second off a 38-year-old track record, even though he was running in a stakes race for the first time and had been shipped across the country to Saratoga from Del Mar.
I ranked Arrogate’s Travers victory at No. 1 on my list of Top 10 performances by a Thoroughbred in the United States in 2016. At No. 2 was Arrogate’s triumph in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park last Nov. 5. With an extraordinary late surge, Arrogate won by half-length by running down no less an older foe than California Chrome, who retired earlier this year after having been voted Horse of the Year in 2014 and 2016.
Years from now, when people take a look back at the 2016 BC Classic and see that California Chrome lost by just a half-length to Arrogate, I think many will conclude it quite possibly was the best performance of California Chrome’s outstanding career.
Even though Arrogate’s training schedule was not exactly ideal due to a very wet winter at Santa Anita, all he did in his 2017 debut was to break the track record for 1 1/8 miles at Gulfstream Park when he won the richest race ever run, the Grade I, $12 million Pegasus World Cup. He prevailed by 4 3/4 emphatic lengths while posting a final time of 1:46.83.
Bill Shoemaker rode many of the best racehorses of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. I once asked him after he had retired as a jockey who was the best horse he ever rode. Shoemaker did not hesitate, telling me it was Spectacular Bid. When I asked him why, he said it was because Spectacular Bid had more gears than any horse he ever rode. Shoemaker said Spectacular Bid could make more moves in a race than any other horse he had been on.
In this year’s Dubai World Cup, it appeared to me that Arrogate proved he is an equine athlete who is capable of making multiple moves during a race, a la Spectacular Bid.
When Arrogate was dead last early last Saturday, the painful look on his trainer’s face said it all. It was clear that the Baffert thought Arrogate had about the same chance to win as a team playing UConn women’s basketball team these days. UConn now has won 111 games in a row after crushing Oregon by a score of 90-52 on Monday.
When Arrogate was dead last early in the field of 14, his rider, Mike Smith, knew a victory in this $10 million race now would be much more difficult, possibly even almost impossible. But did “big money” Mike Smith panic? No, of course he didn’t. That’s why he is “big money” Mike Smith. That’s why he’s in the Hall of Fame. After the race, Smith said that when Arrogate was last early, he decided the best thing to do was “to ride him like Zenyatta.”
Smith and the wonderful win-machine Zenyatta won 16 graded stakes victories as a team, all in come-from-behind fashion.
It seemed like it was just seconds after Arrogate had crossed the finish line that people started trying to figure out where he belongs among the all-time greats. His last four races have led many, including yours truly, to reach the conclusion that he does deserve to be in the conversation. Just where Arrogate properly ranks among the all-time greats is difficult to say right now, however, because his racing career is still in progress.
Immediately after the Dubai World Cup on the NBCSN broadcast, an emotional Baffert appeared to be in awe of what he had just witnessed. He recalled saying to his wife, Jill, during the race that only a “super horse” could still win after Arrogate was so far back early.
During the stretch run, with about a furlong to go, Arrogate swept right past Gun Runner to take the lead. In what undoubtedly is going to be considered one of the finest performances by a racehorse that has ever been seen, Arrogate proved to Baffert -- and many others -- that he is indeed a “super horse.”
Poor Gun Runner. For me, his Dubai World Cup effort brought back memories of poor Sham, who ran so marvelously when losing to Secretariat in both the 1973 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. Sham finished second, 2 1/2 lengths behind Secretariat, in both of those races. Similarly, Gun Runner ran a terrific race in the Dubai World Cup, yet had to settle for second, 2 1/4 lengths behind Arrogate.
Baffert was asked after last Saturday’s race what he was thinking when Arrogate had such a terrible start.
“When he missed the break, I gave him no chance at all,” Baffert said. “I thought that was it. I was so mad at myself. I thought I shouldn’t have brought him [to Dubai]. But that’s the greatest horse I’ve ever seen run. That’s unbelievable. I mean, I can’t believe he won! That is a great horse, right there…When he turned for home, I said, ‘If he wins, this is the greatest horse that we’ve seen since Secretariat.’ Unbelievable.”
Is Arrogate the best horse we’ve seen since Secretariat? Maybe. Maybe not.
American Pharoah, also trained by Baffert, swept the Triple Crown to end a 37-year drought, a tremendous feat, as we all know. In American Pharoah’s final career start, he won the BC Classic by 6 1/2 lengths while facing older opponents.
After the 2015 BC Classic, Baffert said American Pharoah “is probably the greatest horse I’ll ever be involved with. I just have never seen anything like him, never trained anything like him.”
Incredibly, not long after American Pharoah headed off to stud, Baffert now is training another colt being talked about as an all-time great in Arrogate. As for who is better between Arrogate and American Pharoah, it is fair to say nobody is in a better position to offer an opinion on the matter than the man who trained them both. And so it’s significant that Baffert said Arrogate is the greatest horse that we’ve seen since Secretariat. Because if that is true, that then would mean Arrogate is greater than American Pharoah.
In comparing Arrogate and American Pharoah, I think perhaps one way to look at it is who would be the favorite if they clashed a few weeks from now in a 1 1/4-mile race. I would be very surprised if Arrogate was not the favorite. This view seemingly is supported by Thoroughbred Racing Commentary’s online poll. At last count, 68% in the poll said Arrogate is better than American Pharoah.
It is one thing to say Arrogate is better than American Pharoah. But to say Arrogate is the best horse that we’ve seen since Secretariat also would mean Arrogate is better than such greats as Spectacular Bid, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Ruffian. I am not yet ready to say that. I believe a much stronger case can be made that at this juncture, Arrogate is the best horse that we have seen since Spectacular Bid rather than Secretariat.
On Nov. 18, 2015, I presented my updated ranking of the top Thoroughbreds of the 20th and 21st centuries to have raced in North America. I had updated the list after American Pharoah’s racing career was over. I ranked American Pharoah at No. 15.
Based on what we have seen from Arrogate to date, particularly in his last four races, I feel comfortable ranking him No. 15, just ahead of American Pharoah. What Arrogate goes on to do during the remainder of his racing career will determine whether he moves up or down my list, or possibly even eventually remains at No. 15.
Here is my up-to-date list of the top 25 Thoroughbreds of the 20th and 21st centuries to have raced in North America:
- Man o’ War
- Spectacular Bid
- Native Dancer
- Dr. Fager
- Seattle Slew*
- Count Fleet*
- Phar Lap
- American Pharoah*
- Tom Fool
- Round Table
- War Admiral*
- John Henry
- Sunday Silence
*Triple Crown winner
RECALLING THE ONE WHO “WUZ DE MOSTEST HOSS”
It was 100 years ago today (March 29, 1917) that a son of Fair Play and Mahubah was born in Kentucky at August Belmont II’s Nursery Stud near Lexington. Eleanor Robson, an actress who starred on the stage in New York and London prior to becoming Mrs. Belmont, came up with the name Man o’ War for the young colt, whose dam was a daughter of 1903 English Triple Crown winner Rock Sand.
In the book “Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning,” Dorothy Ours wrote: Man o’ War “was born at the Nursery Stud, shortly before midnight on March 29. He resembled Fair Play, with a similar white star on his forehead and a narrow, slightly crooked white streak racing down the ridge of his nose. He was very tall for a newborn. Once he managed to stand, foaling attendants measured him as 42 inches -- 3 1/2 feet -- from the top of his shoulder blades (known as the withers) to the ground. His girth -- the circumference of his body just behind the shoulder blades, crucial to heart and lung capacity -- was a sturdy 33 inches. Farm manager Elizabeth Kane sent a telegram to August Belmont: ‘Mahubah foaled fine chestnut colt.’ ”
When the BloodHorse published its list of the Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century, Man o’ War was No. 1.
“Man o’ War was bred by one of the premier sportsmen of the American Turf, August Belmont II,” Edward L. Bowen wrote in 1999 for the BloodHorse book on the Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century. “It was not Belmont’s dream to raise a champion for someone else, for he had been racing his own champions for many years. Late in life, however, Belmont answered the call of his country and was a Major in the Quartermaster Corps in Spain on behalf of the World War I effort when Man o’ War was a youngster. The Belmont yearlings of the crop of 1917 were thus sent up for sale.”
Samuel D. Riddle purchased Man o’ War at the 1918 Saratoga yearling sale.
“Ed Buhler (uncle of present day equine artist Richard Stone Reeves) put in the winning bid of $5,000 to secure the handsome colt on behalf of Samuel D. Riddle of Pennsylvania,” Bowen wrote. “…Once trainer Louis Feustel unleashed Man o’War on the burgeoning post-World War I sports scene, the colt was quick about the business of ensuring that he would rank with such athletes as Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Red Grange among the hallowed sports figures produced by his era.”
As a 2-year-old, Man o’ War won nine of 10 starts. He carried 130 pounds in five of his victories at 2. His lone defeat as a 2-year-old came when he finished second to the aptly named Upset in the Sanford Stakes at Saratoga. This quite probably is the most famous loss in the history of American racing.
Man o’ War was an unstoppable force as a 3-year-old when executing a perfect 10-for-10 campaign. Eight of his wins that year were in record times, even though he won almost all of his races without being extended. Most of the time, he was under restraint in the stretch while on his way to yet another victory.
As a 3-year-old, Man o’ War tied or broke world, American or track records at seven different distances -- one mile, 1 1/16 miles, 1 1/8 miles, 1 1/4 miles, 1 3/8 miles, 1 1/2 miles and 1 5/8 miles.
These were Man o’ War’s record-breaking performances at 3 in 1920:
--On May 29 in the Withers Stakes, he broke the American record for one mile by two-fifths of a second.
--On June 12 in the Belmont Stakes, he broke the world record for a mile and three-eighths by 2 3/5 seconds. This stood as the fastest 1 3/8 miles run on dirt in America for 71 years.
--On July 10 in the Dwyer Stakes, he broke the world record for 1 1/8 miles by a fifth of a second.
--On Aug. 21 in the Travers, he tied the track record for 1 1/4 miles.
--On Sept. 4 in the Lawrence Realization, which he won by 100 lengths, he broke the world record for 1 5/8 miles by 1 3/5 seconds. This stood as the world record for 36 years until Swaps finally broke it.
--On Sept. 11 in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, he broke the American record for 1 1/2 miles by four-fifths of a second.
--On Sept. 18 in the Potomac Handicap, he won despite carrying 138 pounds and broke the track record for 1 1/16 miles by a fifth of a second.
--On Oct. 12, in the final start of his career, he defeated Triple Crown winner Sir Barton in a match race by seven lengths at Kenilworth Park in Canada. Man o’ War broke the track record for 1 1/4 miles by 6 2/5 seconds. No, that’s not a typo. He actually broke a track record by over six seconds or by more than 30 lengths!
As noted earlier, Man o’ War ranks No. 1 on my list of the Top Thoroughbreds to have raced in North America during the 20th and 21st centuries. In other words, I totally agree with the opinion of groom Will Harbut, who famously said Man o’ War “wuz de mostest hoss.”
At stud, Man o’ War sired 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral.
You will find Man o’ War in the pedigrees of both Arrogate and American Pharoah. Man o’ War’s name also appears in Zenyatta’s family tree.
Frankel, who like Arrogate raced for Juddmonte Farms, is regarded as one of Europe’s all-time greats. Never beaten in 14 career starts earlier this decade, Frankel (named after U.S. Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, who died in 2009) is yet another descendant of Man o’ War.
Turbulator, who in 1970 broke the world record for 6 1/2 furlongs by two-fifths of a second, was one of the best Thoroughbreds to ever race in the Pacific Northwest. Turbulator, my all-time favorite racehorse, was a grandson of War Admiral. And that meant Turbulator was a great-grandson of Man o’ War.
No doubt it is a huge testament to Man o’ War’s greatness that 100 years after his birth, his name was invoked by Terry Spargo during his superb call of last Saturday’s Dubai World Cup.
As Arrogate approached the finish, Spargo said: “ ‘A’ is for Arrogate. ‘A’ is for absolute superstar. ‘A’ is for anointing. And we’ve seen the anointing of the Man o’ War of the 21st century, Arrogate, a brilliant winner of the Dubai World Cup.”
Man o’ War’s name also is found in McCraken’s pedigree. Undefeated in four career starts and winner of this year’s Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 11 in his only 2017 start, McCraken is No. 1 again this week on my Kentucky Derby Top 10 list.
It is truly remarkable that a century after he was born, his influence still is such that all 10 horses on my current Kentucky Derby Top 10 list are descendants of Man o’ War.
Here is my Kentucky Derby Top 10 for this week:
- One Liner
- Irish War Cry
- Classic Empire
- J Boys Echo
- Practical Joke