On Track with Johnny D: Review as Preview

Horseplayers routinely ‘review as preview.’ That is they analyze what’s happened in the past in order to predict what might happen in the future. Prognostication is so at the heart of the game–for owners, trainers and jockeys, too– that along with racing licenses they ought to hand out crystal balls.

Perhaps, the game’s only contributors not interested in past performances or what happened ‘last time out’ are the horses. I’ve been told they don’t read the tote board, however, I’m not entirely sure that’s true. You see, I’ve also been informed that NFL players don’t monitor Vegas point spreads, and I know that’s false.

Usually, traditional handicapping methods are effective: race charts and comments, past performance running lines, video replays and post-race trainer and jockey interviews help players form intelligent opinions. However, in this particular case—the much-anticipated rematch between Arrogate and California Chrome in the $12 million Pegasus World Cup Jan. 28 at Gulfstream Park—there’s an additional invaluable resource available: the NBC network broadcast of the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Since I was at Santa Anita in person for Breeders’ Cup, I hadn’t seen the show. But, when it was awarded the Media Eclipse Award for Television, Live Racing Programming, I decided to check it out via DVR magic.

The show’s opening included requisite beauty shots of the California beach (con surfers), and the iconic Hollywood sign, images of Santa Anita patrons (real and fashioned), an armored car delivering money, champagne corks popping, horseplayers celebrating and California Chrome, Bob Baffert, Mike Smith and Arrogate winning. It was a spirited introduction that hinted at fearless challengers and concluded with an image of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships logo on a blanket of yellow and purple flowers. The voice over concluded, “The Breeders’ Cup Classic…let’s go for it, baby!”

An aerial shot of Santa Anita, in all her sparkling majesty at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, introduced the particular stage upon which the afternoon’s players performed. In the shot, the track’s unique downhill turf course jutted outward from the main arena at roughly a 50-degree angle. It merged with Colorado Boulevard neatly angled in the opposite direction. The track’s brown dirt backstretch served as the base for what, viewed from 20,000 feet, approximated an equilateral triangle. The area of the ‘triangle’ was a parking lot nearly filled to capacity.

As the camera zoomed-in on the racetrack proper, sliding closer and closer, the video then cut to a horde of people exiting the Santa Anita waking ring. There, to the left of the shot, nearly obscured by a tree, stood yours truly, alongside Steve Franklin, a New York racing fan, and Tom Quigley, Santa Anita simulcast host, handicapper and VIP Concierge.

Have no fear. This column won’t escort the reader step-by-step through the entire telecast. Instead, stage properly set, the following will concentrate on the race and its participants in possibly excruciating detail.

First, credit to Mike Smith for an insightful, pre-race, walk-and-talk interview with Laffit Pincay III. With apologies to Howard Cosell, Smith pretty much told it like it would be—from the outside box Arrogate would stalk the speed (most likely ‘Chrome) early.

Victor Espinoza, jockey for California Chrome, may have had a slightly hidden agenda when he flatly stated that ‘Chrome was the best horse he’s ever ridden—a direct slam at Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. The latter is formerly owned by Ahmed Zayat and trained by Bob Baffert and relations among the trio, reportedly, have been strained at times.

When the Classic gates opened, California Chrome broke like a shot and assumed the lead without much exertion. Arrogate didn’t show the same alacrity he had in the Travers, but it wasn’t required from the outside post. At Saratoga, in August, the 3-year-old had broken from the rail and Smith was forced to ask him to hustle early to avoid being trapped inside. This time, Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith was happy to stalk pacesetters, three wide into the first turn.

Down the backside ‘Chrome established a clear early advantage and was galloping comfortably, ears limp and flicking back and forth as if bent by the breeze. Big ‘Cap champ Melatonin was a length behind, followed by Arrogate, comfortably third.

California Chrome approached the far turn, completely in command (six panels in 1:10 4/5). Melatonin’s partner Joe Talamo hinted to him that it was time to approach the leader, but the gelding didn’t quicken. Arrogate was, maybe five lengths behind the leader, reins flapping loosely at his flanks. He resembled a .45 Magnum—grey-steel, foreboding, potentially deadly. But was it loaded or unloaded? That was the question.

Watching the replay for maybe the tenth time and, obviously aware of the results, at this point in the race my thoughts were similar to when I first witnessed it live at Santa Anita: ‘There’s no way California Chrome loses!’

Don’t lie. You thought the same.

Everything had gone ‘Chrome’s way, including some very acceptable fractional times. He had made a relatively easy early lead and had not been pressured at any point. With under a half-mile to go, aboard arguably the world’s best horse, jockey Espinoza had to feel extremely confident.

Just before the far turn, in a matter of strides, Espinoza took two quick peeks back over his right shoulder. In those rear-views he no doubt identified Talamo, wearing bright lime-green silks. However, the double take was necessary because, on the first try, Espinoza hadn’t located his primary threat—Arrogate and Smith in those unmistakable Juddmonte colors.

As ‘Chrome glided into the turn, Espinoza glanced behind again, this time toward the inside over his left shoulder. He saw nothing but empty space and the white inner rail.

Here is where Mike Smith manages the first of several inspired maneuvers that help Arrogate to win the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic. This particular performance confirms what aficionados already knew: that Smith is among the greatest big-money jocks of all time.

As Espinoza’s focus returned to forward, Smith angled Arrogate left, down toward the rail, assuming the area that just a few strides earlier Espinoza had verified as vacant.

Since he was unable to locate Arrogate inside, Espinoza turned and looked back to his right. Surprise! No Arrogate there, either.

Satisfied that his main competition was like a former lover and now ‘out of the picture,’ Espinoza permitted ‘Chrome to continue to stride along sans urgency.

Though the race’s outcome still was undecided, Smith already had triumphed in a high-stakes version of Hide and Seek. That a tiny jockey could vanish a massive Thoroughbred amazes this racing veteran, but that’s the magic trick Smith had deftly performed—at least as far as Espinoza was concerned.

Just before ‘Chrome straightened away for the stretch run, Espinoza took another confident right-shoulder glance and saw only Melatonin’s retreating bright lime-green silks. A quarter-mile from the finish it was time to begin counting chickens.

To his credit, outcome seemingly decided, Espinoza didn’t wrap up on ‘Chrome, stand in the irons, or primp for the cameras. However, he wasn’t busy in the saddle, either. As if to insure that the lights were out, the door locked and the race firmly in the bag, Espinoza took one final insurance peek to the inside. As he did, Smith again attempted to avoid detection and shifted Arrogate outside.

This time Espinoza caught them in the act. The jig was up! He instantly, but not frantically, asked ‘Chrome to quicken. Like the champ he is the muscular chestnut responded willingly.

At this point in the race, with about a furlong to run, if permitted, I (and many like me) would have doubled up on that earlier mid-race wager on California Chrome to win. The advantages he had enjoyed earlier now left him seemingly still full of run. Arrogate appeared to be doing his best, Smith encouraging him steadily with that famous left-handed strap, but he wasn’t gaining much ground. It still seemed like ‘Chrome would again do what he’d done all year long: Win.

A few strides more than a sixteenth of a mile to the finish, Smith switched the stick to his right hand and gave Arrogate a purposeful whack. How, exactly, Arrogate viewed that strike is unknowable. How he reacted to it, indisputable. He leveled out and roared into another gear—one for which ‘Chrome had no answer.

Following the race, the connections of both combatants were pure class. Winners gracious. Runner-ups disappointed, but complimentary to the victors and determined to get ‘em next time. Espinoza was quick to note that he might not have ridden his best race. Trainer Sherman matter-of-factly echoed the sentiment; their honesty refreshing and absent malicious finger-pointing.

Espinoza will ride Chrome differently in the Pegasus World Cup, he’s said as much, over a track that favors speed, at a distance that will be one-eighth mile shorter than the Breeders’ Cup Classic yardage. Those factors favor ‘Chrome. Still, we’ve seen what this Magic Mike can do fully clothed. And we’re in awe of what kind of horse Arrogate is becoming.

Unfortunately, my study of the DVR replay of the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic inadvertently may have brought into question the effectiveness of the ‘review as preview’ handicapping process. A commercial spot that aired during my version of the NBC broadcast showed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump using foul language, insulting a female journalist and flagrantly mocking a disabled reporter. This handicapper would argue that with those past performances there would be no way he could win a presidential race.

Oops! Wrong again.

Race On!

(Please Note: Thank you. You did it! You know who you are. Last week, in this space, I wrote, “Immediate family’s fine, although extended relations could use some potent prayers.” And you did it. A very ill young man suddenly is making progress. Please, don’t stop. He’s better, not cured. Thank You. You know who you are.)

On Track with Johnny D: Review as Preview

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