There were 16,568 racing fans on hand at Del Mar racetrack to watch Saturday's Grade 2 San Diego Handicap – plus one notable no show.
Juddmonte Farms' Arrogate, billed by some as the Horse of the World, “laid an egg,” in the words of his trainer, Bob Baffert. In what was by far the worst performance by the Unbridled's Song colt in nine career starts, Arrogate was a non-threatening fourth, beaten 15 ¼ lengths by Accelerate.
The winner, a Lookin At Lucky colt owned by Hronis Racing and trained by John Sadler, had blinkers added to his equipment for the San Diego. Accelerate was winning for the fourth time in 12 starts, his biggest previous win in the G2 Los Alamitos Derby last September.
The San Diego was the second time Accelerate and Arrogate lined up in the same starting gate, the first coming when Accelerate was second and Arrogate third behind Westbrook in an April 2016 maiden race going six furlongs at Los Alamitos. Westbrook's only subsequent victory came in a $50,000 claimer.
Since that first defeat Arrogate rattled off seven consecutive wins – all at 1 1/16 miles or longer. One of those victories came in a three-horse allowance race at Del Mar last summer after Arrogate had broken his maiden and won an entry level allowance – both by open lengths at Santa Anita. At Del Mar he had to work pretty hard at 1-10 odds to defeat another Hronis-Sadler runner, Kristo, drawing off in deep stretch to win by just 1 ¾ lengths. Kristo, incidentally, hasn't won a race since April 2015 and is now 2-for-21 lifetime.
Maybe that Aug. 4, 2016, race was a clue Arrogate isn't crazy about the Del Mar surface.
Following his Del Mar allowance victory, Arrogate went on to a record-setting 13 ½-length win at Saratoga in the G1 Travers, defeated two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome by a half-length in the G1 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita, romped by 4 ¾ lengths over Shaman Ghost in the inaugural G1 Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park, then rallied from last to first in the G1 Dubai World Cup.
Baffert said after Arrogate's shocking defeat at 1-20 odds in the San Diego that he hadn't trained the colt hard enough, that Arrogate may have been a “short” horse.
Since returning from Dubai in late March, Arrogate had seven timed workouts – all at Santa Anita – starting with a three-furlong breeze in :36 1/5 on June 6. He followed with a :47 3/5 half-mile June 12, another in :46 4/5 June 18, six furlongs in 1:12 2/5 June 25, six furlongs in 1:12 3/5 July 2, seven furlongs in 1:25 3/5 July 8 and six furlongs in 1:11 July 15. Arrogate would only train lightly over the Del Mar surface after arriving six days before his start.
I've always thought a “short” horse was one that demonstrated his normal ability but didn't have the conditioning to sustain it for the entire race. In the San Diego, Arrogate never really looked like the horse we've come to expect to be invincible, either on the lead as he was in the Travers or from off the pace as in the three races that followed. He simply didn't show up.
Jockey Mike Smith said afterwards he'd never seen Arrogate so quiet in the paddock or post parade in the five races he'd been aboard, adding that he warmed him up more aggressively than usual.
“I'm at a loss for words,” Smith said afterwards. “He just was flat, so flat. … He wasn't trying.”
Despite the uncharacteristically poor performance by Arrogate, trainer Baffert was unfazed, saying the G1 Pacific Classic on Aug. 19 was still on target and that the real Arrogate would show up. Eleven weeks after that comes the Breeders' Cup Classic, to be run for the first time at Del Mar.
They're not machines and there's no such thing as a sure thing in horse racing, even though people across the country were betting on Arrogate like he couldn't lose. To this observer, it was the most shocking performance by a horse of this magnitude since undefeated Big Brown was eased by Kent Desormeaux at odds of 3-10 in the 2008 Belmont Stakes. Going further back, I was reminded of the time unbeaten Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew finished fourth at 1-5 odds, beaten 16 lengths by J.O. Tobin, in the 1977 Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park.
Big Brown would win twice more but was retired before the Breeders' Cup. Seattle Slew came back the following year as a 4-year-old to win G1 races like the Marlboro Cup and Woodward and earn an Eclipse Award as champion older horse.
I think Arrogate will come back, too. He had a really bad day, or hadn't trained enough on a racing surface that can be quirky. Let's not forget this is the same place where Dare And Go ended Cigar's 16-race win streak and a minor stakes winner named Anabaa's Creation came within a head of defeating Zenyatta.
Nearly every horse has a bad day now and then, which is all the more reason to appreciate those rarest of champions who bring their “A” game every time.
That's my view from the eighth pole.
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