Have you heard of Arrogate? No, neither had I, not until around this time (5 a.m.!) yesterday morning, writes Tony Stafford, but he might well be the best racehorse in the world. A three-year-old colt trained by Bob Baffert for Prince Khalid Abdullah, he did not make his racing debut until April, when he was an undistinguished third at the modest Los Alamitos track in Southern California, but on Saturday at Saratoga, he did something that even his illustrious predecessor, American Pharoah, could not manage.
In between the two events came successive wins in maiden and two allowance events, but when Arrogate lined up for the celebrated Travers Stakes, the three-year-old “Summer Classic”, last of six Grade 1 events on a wonderful Saratoga programme, he was not even his trainer’s first pick, where the betting numbers were concerned at any rate.
That distinction, as far as the market was concerned, fell on the progressive American Freedom, a 5-1 shot on Saturday after his good second to Preakness winner Exaggerator in the million-dollar Haskell at Monmouth Park four weeks before. Alloware, at 11-1, was still short enough considering how “deep” was the 13-strong line-up. But the fact that Mike Smith got the ride might have offered some clue to the hitherto hidden potential.
When do you know you are a top international trainer: probably when Khalid Abdullah asks you to buy him a champion dirt horse? The Prince’s Juddmonte Farms has had some of the best of almost every category of racehorse over the years, and few will question whether the finest of them all was Frankel.
That unbeaten champion and now already producer of top-class juveniles from his first crop was named after Bobby Frankel, his long-term and much-respected California-based trainer. Bobby died in 2009 and a few years later the Prince’s associate, Dr John Chandler, asked Baffert to try to fill his role and find the Prince a potential star for US racing. Considering just how self-sufficient the Juddmonte breeding operation has been over the past three decades, it was a considerable compliment.
The earliest intake from the association are now three-year-olds and at Saratoga on Saturday 560,000-dollar yearling buy Arrogate, a three-year-old son of Unbridled’s Song out of a mare by Distorted Humor, not only came to the fore when winning at Saratoga, he also helped Baffert erase the one negative memory of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah’s otherwise unblemished 2015 campaign.
After finishing fifth on debut, American Pharoah went unbeaten right through the major two-year-old and three-year-old races put before him until going under narrowly to Keen Ice in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, popularly known as the Graveyard of Champions.
Many of America’s best thoroughbreds have won this late-summer three-year-old Grade 1 over 10 furlongs, and it often signals a coming change in the classic generation hierarchy as the horses that have been battling in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, possibly followed by the Haskell, can be getting rather fatigued.
To his credit American Pharoah came good spectacularly when he was given an important final date after the Travers, easily winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic against all-generation opposition, with Keen Ice well behind in fourth. That was the perfect send-off for a career at Ashford stud, Coolmore’s Kentucky base.
Years ago, I was lucky enough to travel often to the US with Prince Ahmed Salman’s Thoroughbred Corporation team, which collected four consecutive Triple Crown races with Point Given 2001 Preakness and Belmont and War Emblem’s Kentucky Derby <I was there for that one, my only Derby> and Preakness the following year. Baffert trained both colts and was frustrated that Point Given had run unexpectedly below par at Churchill Downs and when War Emblem failed to stay the Belmont’s 12-furlong trip.
But that earlier experience probably helped Baffert navigate American Pharoah through the three races to be the first Triple Crown winner for 38 years. Previously Affirmed completed three narrow wins, all over Alydar, under Steve Cauthen in the years before that great jockey brought his saddle, skill and unaffected charm across the Atlantic to ride for Robert Sangster in the UK.
It was widely expected when the then unbeaten Nyquist duly collected the Kentucky Derby back in May that he might emulate American Pharoah under the London bus syndrome – “you wait an age for one and then two come along together” – but in the event there were three different Triple Crown winners in 2016.
My earlier reference to a deep field would be justified solely on the basis that two of those three winners, Exaggerator (Preakness) and Creator (Belmont) were in the line-up on Saturday, but Nyquist and Cupid (another Baffert colt) apart, this was a highly representative cross-section of the top American colts.
Taken in finishing order, they were: second American Freedom; he was an odds-on winner of the valuable Iowa Derby at Mountaineer before his excellent Haskell run. Third home, Gun Runner (9-1), had been third to Nyquist and Exaggerator in the Kentucky Derby while the fourth, Gift Box (17-1), was a good second to Connect in the Curlin Stakes at the start of the Saratoga meet.
Fifth-placed Governor Malibu was only 15-2 following his fourth behind Creator in the Belmont, with Connect a 10-1 shot in sixth, unable to confirm earlier course form with Gift Box. Then came one of the heavyweights, Belmont and earlier Arkansas Derby hero, Creator, allowed to start at 9-1, ahead of 26-1 shot My Man Sam, who was unplaced in the Derby but who previously collected the Blue Grass (Grade 1) at Keeneland.
Ninth-home Destin (7-1) was beaten a nose in the thrilling Belmont won by Creator, and trialled well for the Travers when third over the track in the Jim Dandy, and was ahead of Forever D’Oro, (76-1) after his Curlin third.
Exaggerator (5-2 fav) finally seems to be succumbing to his series of exacting tasks, initially shadowing Nyquist then taking the Preakness and Haskell with a disappointing probably non-staying effort in the Belmont in between. He finished a tired eleventh, with only the Jim Dandy winner Laoban (18-1) and complete outsider Anaximandros (131-1) behind him.
Apologies for such a lengthy list of his rivals’ accomplishments, but when I offer as a punchline that after taking a lead at the Clubhouse Turn, Arrogate stretched away to beat his stablemate an eye-opening 13.5 lengths, in the process beating the track record with 1 min 59.36 sec and becoming the only horse since the race was permanently settled at a mile and a quarter 108 years ago, to get inside two minutes.
I wish I’d seen the race live, but I watched it early yesterday on the Blood Horse site’s video and it was well worth the wait. It has not gone unnoticed, Racing Post Ratings settling on a conservative (in the circumstances) 131, 5lb better than Postponed’s latest and best figure. Pity potential Breeders’ Cup Classic hopefuls. They’ll be fighting an uphill battle.
Almost the best thing for Juddmonte Farms is that there’s only a minimal amount (Danzig line) of Northern Dancer blood in an otherwise Mr Prospector-dominated (4×4 inbred) pedigree. Is it too early to start waiting for the stream of Frankel mares to queue for Arrogate’s services? Probably not.