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Meat on Those Bones

by Johnny D

August 17, 2017

Even though Del Mar and Saratoga race meetings have eclipsed respective halfway points, there’s still plenty of juicy meat on those bones. A sizeable chunk will vanish from Del Mar holdings Saturday when reigning-but-reeling ‘Best Dirt Horse in the World’ Arrogate meets seven others in the $1 million Pacific Classic. The Spa serves up a savory slice the following Saturday in what figures to be the most wide-open and well-subscribed Travers Stakes in decades. While each will be decided at the classic American distance of one mile and one-quarter on the main track, the Pacific Classis is for 3-year-olds and upward and the Travers--the ‘Mid-Summer Derby’--is restricted to sophomores only.

The Pacific Classic is a golden opportunity for Arrogate to redeem himself after laying a dinosaur-sized egg July 22 in the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar. The world’s undisputed heavyweight champ shockingly was KO’d early in the race won by Accelerate. Although the winner’s fine performance had little bearing on Arrogate’s defeat, it ought to be noted that Accelerate now is the only horse ever to finish in front of Arrogate twice! A notable epitaph indeed.

Most incredulous regarding the San Diego result is that two other horses also managed to outrun Arrogate—Donworth and Cat Burgler. Nice fellows both, but not even considered moons in Arrogate’s orbit. If there had been any more runners in the San Diego they, too, would have finished in front of Arrogate. He ran like he didn’t care if got beat. Didn’t try at all. Only El Huerfano, who stumbled badly at the San Diego start, causing the rider to lose both irons, trailed Arrogate home. And he was eased!

Immediately after the race, following a positive physical report from jockey Mike Smith, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert didn’t seem all that concerned about his star and the dismal performance. Stunned fans, meanwhile, shrugged and exclaimed, ‘That’s racing.’ Opportunistic horseplayers that religiously chase ‘bridge-jumper’ scenarios cashed tickets juiced by inflated place and show mutuels. Bridge-jumpers headed south toward San Diego Bay and the Coronado span poised for a wet landing. In ensuing days and weeks, Arrogate was given the once over with the clichéd ‘fine-tooth comb.’ Blood was drawn, centrifuged, analyzed and the colt was pronounced healthy.

So, what the hell happened in the San Diego Handicap? Baffert ran interference for his steed and shouldered blame for not having the colt ‘tight’ for the race. OK. That explanation makes sense if Arrogate had contended throughout the race only to run out of steam in the final furlong. That Arrogate didn’t show up at all is another kettle of fish. To say that the world’s greatest racehorse didn’t ‘feel’ like running would be like saying a fish didn’t ‘feel’ like swimming. What got Arrogate so twisted? Was it the recent relocation to Del Mar? A different racing surface? Those new banked turns? The sand, the sea, the fresh ocean air?

Saturday’s NBCSN national broadcast of the Arlington Million from Chicago included an exchange between Nick Luck, a British presenter who moonlights in the US during big races, and Laffit Pincay, III, son of the Hall of Fame jockey and racing broadcast stalwart, designed to promote the network’s upcoming coverage of the Pacific Classic. Luck basically asked Pincay and, by extension, viewers why, after such a horrendous performance in the San Diego Handicap, racing fans should expect Arrogate immediately to return to his glorious form? Luck then challenged all to recall a similar situation where a world class racehorse had served up a complete stinker and then had rebounded in the very next start to win impressively.

Luck’s take was so intriguing that it diverted my attention away from past performance lines in the Daily Racing Form. That’s no easy feat, as my wife will attest.

Del Mar oddsmaker Russ Hudak’s Pacific Classic morning line has Arrogate as the even money choice to win. No word on Johnny Avello’s Wynn Vegas prop price for ‘Pacific Classic Margin of Victory,’ but one anticipates the ‘by-as-far-as-you-can-throw-a-rock’ option will be favored. As Luck asked, ‘Why do we expect Arrogate to immediately bounce back?” Because horses, like people, have bad days. Forgive and forget. Plus, based on past performance lines Arrogate’s by far the most accomplished horse in the race and, therefore, the most likely winner. Also, Baffert is the most recognizable and accomplished current conditioner of US-based Thoroughbred racehorses. Partly because of his distinctive white hair and partly because he wins major nationally televised races about as often as most folks pay utility bills. If Baffert says Arrogate’s fine, then who are we to argue?

Baffert has compared Arrogate’s current predicament to that of Silver Charm, another colt he trained to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown in ’97, the Dubai World Cup in ’98, among other graded stakes successes. In his second start after Dubai, Silver Charm finished fifth and last in the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar, beaten 27 lengths at just 30 cents to the dollar! Following that poor performance Silver Charm did not contest the Pacific Classic. Baffert waited two months to return the star colt to the races and then it was in a Grade 3 tune-up stakes at Turfway Park, which he won. Silver Charm later finished second to Awesome Again in that season’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. Bottom line: Baffert’s been here before with a world class racehorse…but not exactly. This time he’s wheeling Arrogate back quicker than he did Silver Charm and against tougher, Grade 1 foes for $1 million. Hmmm.

Perhaps a more accurate description of why most of us think Arrogate will bounce back and win the Pacific Classic is that we WANT him to do it. We’re fans…short for fanatics…and we love to experience magnificence. Arrogate’s already provided us with memories for a lifetime—the surprising and explosive Travers triumph, the determined Breeders’ Cup Classic conclusion, the incomparable Dubai World Cup performance. He owes us nothing. However, we selfishly demand more. If Arrogate’s not the best racehorse I’ve ever seen in person, he’s in the photo finish. I want him to succeed Saturday. In awesome fashion. In fact, I’ve got to restrain myself from salivating at the prospect of a Breeders’ Cup Classic stretch duel matching a mature, new and improved Gun Runner against a rejuvenated Arrogate. Since the latter blew by the former in Dubai their careers have taken divergent paths. It would be nice to see them meet again—both at the top of their games.

Perhaps some lyrics from a classic Rolling Stones hit express it best:

No, you can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime
You’ll find
You get what you need

What I want Saturday is for Arrogate to romp. What I need is for Arrogate to ‘try.’

Race On!