On Track with Johnny D: Arro-Great!

Trainer Bob Baffert was right on…again. He described Arrogate’s pre-Pegasus condition as “Super Cherry.” Urban Dictionary’s online definition of ‘cherry’ isn’t what Baffert meant. And he also wasn’t inferring that his horse was a strange color. By way of explanation for the under-60 crowd, ‘cherry’ is 1960’s slang for nice, good or terrific. Period synonyms for the word were boss, neat and bitchin’. While Baffert might have exposed his age with the ‘cherry’ reference (the white hair doesn’t count—he’s had that since before he turned 40) adding ‘super’ merely emphasized how well Arrogate was feeling!

Out of the gate from post position one in the world’s richest horserace, jockey Mike Smith immediately threw the reins at Arrogate and gave him several rapid backhand smacks with the stick. The maneuver may have reminded the jock of boyhood days spent hustling quarter horses from the gate in native New Mexico. Arrogate is a remarkable animal; he possesses a stride from-here-all-the-way-to-over-there and also has enough speed to stalk any early pace. Smith summoned that latter advantage.

From the far outside in the 12-horse field, California Chrome broke well—neither ahead nor behind other speed horses. Jockey Victor Espinoza tapped him backhanded on the neck to ‘hustle’ a bit. As the first turn in the mile and one-eighth race rapidly approached, Espinoza seemed hesitant to ask ‘Chrome for much more speed. To the left, the jock saw Noble Bird as the fastest, with War Story, Shaman Ghost and Breaking Lucky also stretched along the track. Espinoza knew that he and ‘Chrome would be forced wide, a not unexpected turn of events. However, his mount was comfortable and in the clear, so the jockey was content with his position.

Around the first turn, Arrogate advanced to third on the inside. ‘Chrome sat fourth, outside. Espinoza knew Arrogate was the horse to beat and heading down the backside he had him right where he wanted him—inside and behind a pair of front-runners that figured to tire.

Smith, who has had so much success in big races that he’s now known as ‘Money Mike,’ had to be pleased. He had asked his mount to ‘go’ early in order to maintain a ground-saving rail advantage. Mission accomplished. Now, here was Arrogate striding comfortably, stalking a decent pace. Smith knew that racing in tandem with ‘Chrome early was to his advantage because it was unlikely that ‘Chrome would out-finish Arrogate. However, Smith also realized that at some point he would need to find enough room to let his mount run.

For roughly one-quarter of the inaugural $12 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational those who had surrendered more than a few hard-earned dead presidents to attend got exactly what they desired. The world’s two best Thoroughbreds matched strides as one—Travers, BC Classic and 2016 Longines World’s Best Racehorse champ Arrogate and North America’s all-time richest horse, Dubai World Cup winner and two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome.

As the far turn loomed, Smith figured it was about time to escape the box inside California Chrome and behind pacesetters Noble Bird and Neolithic. He, along with veteran race watchers, recognized Espinoza’s intent to keep Arrogate trapped there …forever, if possible. A glance right suggested to Smith that California Chrome wasn’t travelling as effortlessly as Arrogate, so Smith angled the latter outside and around the pair of leaders. In a desperate effort to block Smith’s escape Espinoza asked Chrome to quicken. The champ’s response was inadequate.

In that moment, the 6-year-old veteran of 26 previous races and the richest Thoroughbred in history passed the baton to the next generation.

It’s as if he acknowledged Arrogate on the run, ‘Go get ‘em kid. It’s your turn, now.’

The tens of thousands of miles galloping, breezing, racing and jet-setting worldwide, apparently, had become too much. The humbly bred, overachieving son of a blue collar California couple finally had had enough. For the first time, under the care of Art and son Allan Sherman, California Chrome couldn’t answer the bell for the next round.

All things considered, the result wasn’t surprising. One week before the race, at the same Hallandale, FL location, California Chrome’s connections had accepted an award on behalf of the 2016 Horse of the Year. Meanwhile, a few days later, across the pond, Arrogate’s operatives ascended a stage in London to receive hardware honoring that 4-year-old colt as the 2016 Longines World’s Best Racehorse. Few could argue with either result.

‘Chrome owned the past; Arrogate the present. As always, the future answers to no one.

California Chrome gave us a lot. He displayed Hall-of-Fame speed, class and durability. He won a Kentucky Derby, a Preakness and a Dubai World Cup along with many other Grade 1 stakes. He proved it’s not a prerequisite for owners and breeders to bleed blue to enjoy the game’s pinnacle. In fact, he introduced us to Dumb Ass Partners—Steve Coburn and Perry Martin—a pair of fellows who unfortunately lived up to that billing on separate occasions. In a strange way, though, California Chrome and co-owner Steve Coburn may have been intimately responsible for precipitating the end of a 37-year-long Triple Crown drought. If ‘Chrome hadn’t failed in the 2015 Belmont and launched Coburn into a nationally televised NBC rant definitively proclaiming that no horse would ever win the Triple Crown…well, it’s doubtful that the very next year American Pharoah would have been ‘mushed’ into history books!

California Chrome also introduced Art and Alan Sherman to the world. The former is a racetrack ‘lifer’ and the ideal candidate to have a champion in his barn. Genuinely grateful to racing gods for delivering ‘one of the ones’ to his barn, Art generously shared time, energy and access to ‘Chrome with media and fans. Over the last four years, Art’s son Alan has spent more cumulative time with ‘Chrome than anyone else and he’s as generous and appreciative for the opportunity as dad. It’s nice when good things happen to good people.

As for Arrogate, last we left him in this blog, his right-hand blinker flashed as he and jockey Mike Smith shifted out and around a pair of obstacles. Quickly clear off the turn, Smith shook the reins at his mount and gave the colt a few left-handed reminders through the lane to keep him focused on his work.

It’s funny how great horses arrive in bunches. We witnessed a string of Triple Crown winners in the 70’s and some singular fantastic performers in selected seasons since then. But, to be graced with the likes of Arrogate on the heels of American Pharoah’s Triple Crown victory and in the shadow of California Chrome’s retirement, well, it’s a magical time for racing fans.

Like American Pharoah, Arrogate is a very special horse. That both colts landed in Bob Baffert’s care is testament to the trainer’s good fortune and expertise. For all Bob Baffert’s strengths as a conditioner, and he has so very many, he is not considered a master turf trainer. That Arrogate’s connections–Juddmonte Farms, Inc., historically renown for worldwide turf successes–would employ the Nogales, AZ native and former quarter horse trainer is unusual. However, it’s no accident that Juddmonte is one of the world’s leading breeding and racing operations. They clearly anticipated that Arrogate might prove to be an exceptional dirt horse, therefore, they sent him to Baffert—America’s top dirt trainer. Voila!

Since 1978, when he swept the Triple Crown, Affirmed’s been my favorite horse. A mere 37 years later, while winning the next Triple Crown, American Pharoah nearly stole my heart away. But a first love holds a special place in the heart.

The best horse yours truly has ever seen in person is Spectacular Bid. American Pharoah ranks right up there and, now, so does Arrogate. Like the ‘Bid—billed by his late trainer Buddy Delp as, “The best horse to ever look through a bridle!”—Arrogate has several racing gears and appears to get stronger during his races.

For several decades, yours truly has patiently waited to see horses that rival the best of his lifetime. Often, he wondered if that time would come. Amazingly, it has. Two years in a row! First, there was American Pharoah and now there is Arrogate. He was “Super Cherry” Saturday and I can’t wait to watch him perform again.

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: Arro-Great!

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