In the span of just one week, the sport of horse racing saw both extremes – unexpected victory and shocking defeat, both from stars of the sport.
Last week’s Delaware Handicap placed trainer Jerry Hollendorfer’s 4-year-old Songbird as the favorite in a five horse race. Songbird, whose only career defeat came from the magnificent, and now retired, mare Beholder in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff, won the Delaware as expected. Songbird faced a bit of pressure from Martini Glass but shook that off under guidance from jockey Mike Smith, landing her squarely in the winner’s circle at Delaware Park.
Smith didn’t fare nearly as well in Saturday’s San Diego Handicap on another 4-year-old, Arrogate. Ranked before the race as the world’s top racehorse, Arrogate earned that title for Juddmonte Farms and trainer Bob Baffert with seven consecutive wins including the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic (over California Chrome) and the 2017 Dubai World Cup. Fans were so sure that Arrogate would win the San Diego Handicap they bet him down to 1 to 20 odds, with 90% of the wagers in that race being put on his nose.
But then came the actual race. Arrogate broke well from post position three and didn’t seem fazed when El Huerfano stumbled at the opening, leaving his jockey Evan Roman to lose his footing in the irons.
Smith placed Arrogate at the back of the field, a spot he preferred in his Dubai victory. Meanwhile, Victor Espinoza of American Pharaoh’s Triple Crown fame, took John Sadler’s Accelerate to the lead…and kept him there the entire race much to the shock of the on-track crowd.
In the final turn toward home it looked like Arrogate was ready to make his move. When asked by Smith, Arrogate started a surge forward but then didn’t go anywhere. The San Diego Handicap was Accelerate’s for the taking, followed over eight lengths later by Doug O’Neill’s Donworth (which broke Del Mar records with a hefty $119.80 to Place), and Cat Burglar, Baffert’s other entry in the race. Arrogate came in fourth, leaving everyone wondering why.
All checks of Arrogate look good. According to both Baffert and Smith, he just was “flat.” Arrogate’s last race was 4 months ago in Dubai. Since then, his home track (Santa Anita) didn’t seem able to offer a race that would attract both the star and rivals, a sad state affairs for the track that first offered the highest purse in the nation with the Santa Anita Handicap.
So, did that layoff cut Arrogate’s competitive edge? Or, is he still adjusting to being at Del Mar? The exact reason will probably remain a mystery. But some things are certain. Baffert stated he still intends to run Arrogate in August 19’s Pacific Classic at Del Mar, the premiere race of the Del Mar summer season.
Second, Arrogate and Saturday’s victor Accelerate are an interesting match. Arrogate finished behind Accelerate in the first race of both their careers.
Third, Arrogate is still a force to be reckoned with. His previous record demonstrates that.
And, as any true sports fan will tell you, no athlete, human or equine, is perfect. Expecting the impossible is unrealistic and makes no sense in any sport. As Baffert joked to TVG’s Scott Hazelton, “It happens…and that’s why I have white hair.”