“He was a little rambunctious,” trainer Bob Baffert said of his record-setting Travers victor Arrogate, thinking back to when the horse first arrived in his barn last year.
Bred by Clearsky Farm, Arrogate made it onto Baffert's short list at the 2014 Keeneland September Yearling sale, where the veteran is aided by Donato Lanni. Baffert was shopping for Prince Khalid Abdullah's Juddmonte Farm, so manager Garret O'Rourke was also a part of the team.
“After Bobby [Frankel] died, we didn't have any horses in California,” said Juddmonte USA president Dr. John Chandler. “[The Prince] said he'd like to have some horses in California. Obviously, he chose Bob. Our breeding program wasn't quite – didn't quite produce the sort of horses that Bob trained, and [the Prince] said, well, buy some horses then.”
Baffert remembered the call from O'Rourke almost giddily.
“Every time you looked up and you saw these [Juddmonte] colors, it was Bobby Frankel, one of the greatest trainers ever,” Baffert said. “When I got the call, he said, this is Garrett O'Rourke from Juddmonte Farms. I thought he dialed me by mistake or something. He said, the Prince would like you to get involved in California, and we'd like you to come in December and pick some horses out. I thought, sure, okay.
“When I hung up, my dad, whose hearing is sort of bad, he goes, 'Who is that?' I said, 'Oh, it's a new client, they want me to buy some horses for them. It's Juddmonte Farms.' 'Juddmonte Farms, hey, I know who they are.' So I remember he was with me there, and we were thinking, wow, I thought like, man, this is really, really incredible when you get picked by that organization. You just feel like it was even an honor to be involved with them.”
At the sales, said Baffert, the Prince “not only wants to try to get a good horse, but a good stallion with a good pedigree.” Arrogate checked all the boxes.
The son of Unbridled's Song out of a Distorted Humor mare hammered for $560,000 at the sale. When he later came into Baffert's program as a 2-year-old, minor issues kept Arrogate from starting as a juvenile.
“He was a really big horse,” Baffert explained. “That's one thing about the organization, which is take your time. Just let him develop on his own. He's big. As you see, he's a big lanky horse. He might have had maybe like some baby issues, shin, nothing really serious. So we just let him come on his own. And finally, we brought him in, and like my assistant said, boy, this horse is ready to come over. So we started working.”
But Arrogate wasn't easy, as few of the best ones ever are. His first start came in April of his 3-year-old season, and it was “a disaster,” Baffert said, explaining that Arrogate had gotten away from the pony and desperately wanted to run. The colt finished third, beaten less than three-quarters of a length for everything after a slow start.
“All of a sudden, Dana Barnes, who gets on him every day, just really spent a lot of time with him,” Baffert said. “He's like a big kid. We just try to stay out of his way, and he responded. He was perfect in the paddock; he was quiet, he was good. A lot of Unbridled's Song's, they can get a little hot.”
The colt started to win. He broke his maiden by 4 1/2 lengths at Santa Anita in June, the won a pair of allowance races back to back.
“It's a rather semi-European thing to take a horse from an allowance race straight into a grade one,” admitted Chandler. “He did it the right way – pretty well.”
Pretty well might be an understatement. Arrogate took the lead by the first turn and never relinquished it, exploding at the top of the stretch to win Saratoga's 147th running of the Travers by a remarkable 13 1/2 lengths, in track-record time of 1:59.36.
“Yeah, [Baffert] said you might need to help him out of the gate,” said jockey Mike Smith. “I give a lot of credit to my gate man, Mike Mulligan. He did a really good job of getting him up in the doors and holding him there. He actually jumped very well. After that, once he got up underneath himself, he has a stride that's tremendous, as you saw. Although we were going quick, he was doing it well within himself. When I asked him down the lane, he responded.”
“Once Mike is on a horse like that, he doesn't take away their speed from them,” Baffert said. “Turning for home, I sat back, and I just thought, wow, he is just what I was hoping he was like, and I knew there was no way they were going to catch him. He was just getting in gear.”
The old track record belonged to General Assembly and was set in 1979 – a record that had stood for 37 years.
It was an emotional day for Baffert, especially after last year's Travers loss to Keen Ice with Triple Crown champion American Pharoah.
“Last year you probably could have poured me out of a shot glass,” Baffert recalled. “We were pretty dejected. It's not only me, I felt bad for the horse. The horse got beat. He ran hard. He got in a speed, whatever, but he ran his heart out. So we were sitting here, and it was just emotional. The whole town came out to see him do something like Arrogate did today. We were all looking for that turn for home, cheer up, great end of a movie theme, whatever, but I'm just glad to be back here with another chance at it.
“And my horse is like what he did today is pretty incredible. He looks like a superstar in the making. So I think the fans, they'll remember watching a horse like this because I know, when I see performances like this, very rare. We've been lucky to see some great performances. You saw Songbird come up here, and then Mike come on this horse. It's been a great meet, like today the horse that we saw run today, I mean, Saratoga, best horses here. So I'm glad to be a part of it, and everything went well.”
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