I had this week’s column all researched and ready. Nothing mind-blowing, but something useful and interesting nonetheless. And then along came Arrogate.
He is a horse that defies definition and when trying to find words to describe him, one finds yourself frustratingly blank. You can use ‘great’, ‘amazing’, ‘fantastic’, but what does that really mean? Those words only have meaning when used in context and in this case, there simply isn’t any. Arrogate doesn’t fit the mould. If anything, he’s broken the mould, smashed it to bits and left everyone standing around going ‘um’.
I don’t know that there are too many horses that have done what he has done or presented quite such a puzzle to fans and turf writers alike. The horse is a machine. He does not seem to have even the remotest weakness or chink in his armour. It is as fascinating as it is difficult to process. I’ve watched most of his races several times and even though I am sure Youtube are not messing with me, I still can’t quite come to terms with them.
Who Is Arrogate?
Bred by Clearsky Farms, Arrogate is by Unbridled’s Song out of the 7-time winning mare Bubbler and was a $560,000 yearling purchase by Juddmonte on the 2014 Keeneland September sale. Although not particularly beautiful, he is instantly recognisable with his asymmetrical facial markings. He doesn’t appear to be sassy or quirky and other than the fact that he appears to be invincible, he does not appear to have any discernible traits that allow one to get a handle on him or a sense of who he is or how he works – but perhaps he hasn’t yet had the time.
Arrogate has been racing for less than a year and has only had a total of 8 lifetime starts. I’ll say that again – eight lifetime starts. He debuted in maiden company on 18 April 2016, finishing just over half a length 3rd in a Maiden Special Weight 6 furlong race on dirt at Los Alamitos. On 5 June, he was let loose over 1m ½f at Santa Anita and demolished a Maiden Special Weight field to break his maiden by 4 ½ lengths. He lined up in another 1m ½f Allowance race at Santa Anita on 24 June 2016 and then Bob Baffert talked Del Mar into putting together another 1m ½f Allowance on 4 August. Although the race did not fill initially, the Del Mar guys held it over for a day and eventually got 5 entries and carded the race. Two runners ended up scratching and Arrogate won his third race on the trot by 1 ¾ lengths in a 3-horse field. When Baffert came in to thank the Del Mar team for holding the race for him, he mentioned casually, “I think I have the best 3-year-old in America.” In an interview with Thoroughbred Racing Commentary, Executive Vice President for Racing and Industry Relations Tom Robbins said, “Bob generally doesn’t say those things. For him to just casually walk in, say thank you and oh, by the way, I think I have the best 3-year-old in the country, it meant something.”
At the Saratoga Yearling Sales, Baffert reportedly recorded an interview for Juddmonte stating that he thought this might be the horse they’d been waiting for since they started buying horses together. But he wasn’t quite ready to go public yet.
A star is born
Alongside stable companion American Freedom, who had been a runner up in the G1 Haskell Stakes, Arrogate lined up for the $1.25 million G1 Travers Stakes over 1m 2f at Saratoga on 27 August 2016. If the world didn’t know who Arrogate was before the Travers, they certainly did after he took on the best 3yo’s of his generation and won wire to wire, trouncing them by 13 ½ lengths and shattering the 37-year-old track record with a final time of 1:59.36.
They say the world seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before. Arrogate was making history. On 5 November came the G1 Breeders’ Cup Classic over 1m 2f at Santa Anita, where Arrogate took on the world’s darling, California Chrome, unbeaten in 2016 and coming off a 6-race win streak. It was unthinkable that California Chrome might be fallible and for most of the race, ‘Chrome’ looked to be cruising at the head of affairs and extending his winning tally to 7 seemed a mere formality. Around the far turn Arrogate, who had been racing wide, switched neatly through the inside of second placed Melatonin to grab a position on the rail as California Chrome led the field into the home straight by a comfortable margin. Mike Smith and Arrogate gave chase and suddenly Chrome had met his match. To the sound of the racing world’s collective jaws dropping, Arrogate challenged California Chrome every step of the way, grinding into the lead to win by half a length. An unknown 3yo with a single G1 win to his credit, beating a multiple G1 winning Champion 5yo? It couldn’t happen. It shouldn’t happen. But it did. I remember a post race debrief with a friend and debating what to make of this performance – and this horse – I decided ‘he could be anything’.
Those still rubbing their eyes in disbelief were treated to a repeat performance on 28 January 2017, when Arrogate lined up for the world’s richest race, the G1 Pegasus World Cup over 1m 1f at Gulfstream Park and cruised home an easy 4 ¾ length winner. The Racing Post’s notes on runner-up Shaman Ghost, who had stayed on in the straight and gone to second in the final furlong, read ‘no chance with winner’. Arrogate was named Champion 3yo Male for the 2016 season at the annual Eclipse Awards.
Then came his command performance at Meydan on 25 March 2017. In races like the World Cup, it is expected that no quarter is given, but even so Arrogate got a rough deal by anyone’s standards. Thanks to a disappearing handler, he did not get a clean jump and having survived that was immediately badly hampered, having to be strongly checked by Mike Smith to settle in last position. Unperturbed, the big colt kept his balance and regained his stride, powering through the kickback to work his way into contention. Rounding the far turn, Mike Smith asked for an effort and Arrogate lengthened his stride to sweep past the field, giving Mubtaahij a hefty bump as he passed. Arrogate sustained his charge all the way to the finish to win by 2 ¼ lengths going away, leaving a high class field of the world’s best horses trailing in his wake.
The Bloodhorse’s Steve Haskin wrote, “My brain was filled with so many awe inspiring and impassioned words and descriptions of what I had just seen it left my thought pattern in total disarray” and I think he summed up how most of us are feeling. We are in unchartered territory. You might as well try to describe the taste of tea to a Martian – the words mean nothing because there is no frame of reference. What’s Arrogate like? He’s great! How great? Well, the truth is we really don’t know.
We do know it was staggering.
But that’s Arrogate.
Give him a job and he gets on and does it – it just so happens that the way he does things is that much better than anyone else. He never seems particularly stressed or stretched, yet there is no arrogance or bullishness about the way he does business. He almost seems vaguely apologetic as he sweeps past yet another track star like they’re standing still, but well, what’s a horse supposed to do? Sorry mate, coming through. Perhaps that’s why no-one minded when he beat California Chrome in the Breeders Cup. Where one might ordinarily find reasons to dislike the horse that beat ‘your’ favourite, Arrogate is just so darn honest about it that you can’t.
A horse that has only had 8 runs should not be able to be the world’s highest earning horse, or indeed the world’s highest ranked horse. And yet. And yet.
In Neil Gaiman’s wonderful University of Arts address ‘Make Good Art’ he explains that people who know what they are doing know the rules, and know what is possible and impossible. People who do not yet know what they are doing, do not. And should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible are set by people who have not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. But those not bogged down by such nonsense, can. “If you don’t know it’s impossible, it’s easier to do. And because nobody’s done it before, they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone doing it yet.”
Eight races to go from maiden rank zero to eye-popping, top of the world hero is some feat. Horses are not supposed to do that. But what horses are or are not supposed to do does not concern Arrogate. He simply is who he is and does what he does and doesn’t waste too much time on the rest.
What the world has to say
It is interesting to read reports and feedback from Saturday’s performance. They tend to be short, because no-one really knows what to say, so they either say little or end up repeating themselves. Words are hopeless, superfluous, inadequate. Much as a competitor that can stretch Arrogate does not currently exist, so it is with the words to describe his performance. There simply aren’t any.
Post race, jockey Mike Smith was moved to comment, “He is the world’s horse now.” Oddly, amongst the myriad chat forums and discussions currently underway comparing him to past greats and debating whether Saturday’s performance was enough to merit mentioning the big grey in the same breath as such august company as Secretariat, Cigar, et al, a number of race fans have admitted feeling somewhat indifferent about the horse. Again, I don’t think that is unexpected, or even necessarily a bad thing.
Beryl Markham once said “A lovely horse is always an experience. It is an emotional experience of the kind that is spoiled by words.” And Arrogate is a lovely horse. I recently found another quote which reads “Work until you don’t need to introduce yourself.” I think that sums up Arrogate for me. He is simply Arrogate. And that is enough.