LAS VEGAS — It may not have Saratoga’s bigger purses and deeper calendar. But Del Mar has Arrogate, and that is why it is center stage for U.S. horse racing the rest of the year.
Not to overhype it, but Saturday’s $1 million Grade 1 Pacific Classic will determine how big of a favorite Arrogate will be this fall in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at – yes – Del Mar. The same Del Mar where Arrogate absorbed a fourth-place fizz-out last month in what was supposed to be an easy tune-up.
And why not take this a step further? Since Arrogate’s closest pursuer for world’s No. 1 thoroughbred is racing an ocean away this weekend, what happens now at California’s nexus of surf and turf will have an impact on the entire racing world.
OK, before leaping to conclusions like Arrogate winning, it is high time to take a deep breath while looking ahead to Saturday.
In his second race since a Dubai World Cup victory in March that still resonates in world rankings, Arrogate (1-1) is the morning-line favorite for the Pacific Classic. He and Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith drew the outside post for Saturday’s race that will cover the very same 1¼ miles of dirt as the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 4.
“It’s a good draw; I’m happy with it,” said Bob Baffert, Arrogate’s Hall of Fame trainer. “It’s not that big of a deal. In a mile-and-a-quarter race there’s a long run to the turn to get positioned.”
Baffert also entered four-time graded-stakes winner Collected (5-2), a 4-year-old colt that is undefeated on fast tracks. He figures to set the early pace with Accelerate (3-1). Yes, the same Accelerate that delivered the upset victory last month in the San Diego Handicap, which was supposed to be a formality for Arrogate. Collected got gate 2 with jockey Martín García; Accelerate gate 3 with Víctor Espinoza.
“I was happy to draw outside of Collected, so it’s a good draw for us,” Accelerate’s trainer John Sadler said. “It’s pretty simple. Collected is going to go to the front, (Accelerate) is going to sit second, and Arrogate is going to sit third.”
“I would have preferred to have Collected more outside,” Baffert said, “but he should be fine from where he is.”
There are at least a couple others in the field, namely trainer Doug O’Neill’s pair – San Diego Handicap runner-up Donworth (15-1) and last month’s 1½-mile Cougar II Handicap winner Curlin Road (20-1). But there is also talk that as many as three entrants – Sadler’s closer Hard Aces (20-1), would-be turf convert Royal Albert Hall (30-1) and the outclassed Sorry Erik (30-1) – will be scratched before Saturday’s 8:30 p.m. EDT post time. So really, the Pacific Classic is a three-horse race between Arrogate, Collected and Accelerate.
Making the presumption that Arrogate wins without being asked for too much from Smith, he figures to shorten from his current 3-2 odds at Wynn Las Vegas in futures betting for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“If Arrogate just comes back to 90 percent of what he is, he should win Saturday,” said Johnny Avello, Wynn race and sports book director. “Since he’s supposed to beat the field, he’ll drop down just a notch for the Breeders’ Cup – maybe to 7-5 or 13-10.”
Gun Runner – the 5-1 second choice for the Breeders’ Cup Classic – will have a chance Labor Day weekend to answer whatever Arrogate does Saturday. He is the likely favorite in two weeks at Saratoga in the $750,000 Grade 1 Woodward Stakes.
“He continues to improve as he gets older where maybe Arrogate is not moving forward,” Avello said of Gun Runner. “But you’d still have two pretty strong favorites in that race that is supposed to determine the best horse in the country. Where they are right now is a little higher than they’d be on race day. I’d say Gun Runner would drop down to 8-5 or maybe 17-10. Both of them would be above even money.”
Shaman Ghost, 8-1 in the Wynn’s Breeders’ Cup Classic wagering, is out of the Woodward and now a big question mark for November at Del Mar. He is being shipped from Saratoga to Long Island, N.Y., to have a throat operation Monday. “He was making a little bit of noise that we didn’t like,” trainer Jimmy Jerkens said. “It needs to be addressed. That doesn’t always help – the surgery – but we certainly have to try it.”
While the odds for the Breeders’ Cup may gel into shape this weekend, there is also the unwinnable debate over which horse is No. 1 in the world. Both the Longines and Timeform rankings compiled by international handicappers say it is Arrogate because of his Dubai victory nearly five months ago. Since the Longines listings drop a race after six months, Arrogate is on borrowed time to match that effort.
The Australian mare Winx is looming at No. 2 on the Longines list and No. 3 with Timeform. She tries to run her winning streak to 18 at 1 a.m. EDT Saturday as the 7-100 favorite – yes, 7-100 – in the Group 2 Warwick Stakes at Randwick Racecourse in Sydney.
With Arrogate’s misfire last month, the prevailing notion in Australia is that Winx is already the world’s best racehorse. Her supporters point out that her winning streak includes 12 Group 1 races – highlighted by the last two runnings of the prestigious, weight-for-age Cox Plate. Critics argue that she has never raced outside Australia and not even at that country’s most storied track – Flemington.
Winx’s co-owner Peter Tighe told News Corp in Australia “if her streak of 17 wins stretches to 22 or 23 with another Cox Plate and a first success at Flemington, Winx will become indisputably the greatest performed horse of most lifetimes ... without leaving our shores.”
One neutral point of view came last week at Arlington Park from Charlie Johnston. He is a well-traveled assistant who works with his father, English trainer Mark Johnston, in the evaluation of horses for the mega-stable Godolphin.
“Arrogate is a bit on the back foot after his performance last time, and he’s got to come out and put that to bed,” Johnston said. “Winx has been absolutely phenomenal now for three years. The only thing that anyone can question her on is traveling. We would love to see her in Ascot for the Prince of Wales’s or something like that at the Royal meeting. If Winx could (win) that then she would really confirm herself as the world No. 1.”
Of course, Arrogate is not done making his case. Still holding a chance to successfully defend his wins in both the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Pegasus World Cup, and with a chance to obliterate the world record for career earnings, he may yet put his résumé out of immediate reach.
Then again, that all hinges on what happens Saturday.
Unchained Melody is righteous Alabama favorite
With the only pure, front-end speed in the race, Mother Goose winner Unchained Melody (3-1) is the morning-line favorite for Saturday’s running of the $600,000 Grade 1 Alabama Stakes at Saratoga.
“I don’t think there is a lot of speed,” Unchained Melody’s trainer Brian Lynch said. “If she (and jockey Joel Rosario have) a comfortable lead, then I’d leave her alone.”
But like most of the nine 3-year-old fillies in the Alabama, Unchained Melody has never raced 1¼ miles before. Holy Helena (4-1) has gone that far on fake dirt, winning by 3½ lengths against the boys early last month in the Queen’s Plate at Woodbine.
Even though this is Holy Helena’s graded-stakes debut, her trainer Jimmy Jerkens believes her win in a $1 million Canadian race was proof that she belongs in this field. “No question it shows she can do it,” he said. “She’s got a big, giant airway if you look between her jowls. She certainly has the wind at least.”
New Money Honey (6-1) has also gone 10 furlongs, but that was on turf to win last month’s Belmont Oaks Invitational. She breaks from the rail Saturday in her first dirt race for trainer Chad Brown.
“It’s something I’ve always thought about – running her on the dirt,” said Brown, who is in another neck-and-neck duel with Todd Pletcher for the Saratoga training title. “Running her on the dirt now seems like the right time to try it. The distance of the race should really suit her.”
Mark Casse’s closer Salty (9-2), Mother Goose runner-up Lockdown (5-1) and Coaching Club American Oaks runner-up Elate (6-1) are also among the nine fillies racing at 5:40 p.m. EDT.
The Pacific Classic and the Alabama are part of an “All-Stakes Pick 4” that also include the $300,000 Grade 2 Lake Placid at 5:02 p.m. EDT at Saratoga and the $300,000 Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks at 9:30 p.m. EDT.
Since Del Mar is hosting this special Pick 4, the minimum bet is 50 cents with a takeout on winning tickets of 23.68 percent.