LAS VEGAS — We have plodded through a spring with little more than ephemeral impressions of the Triple Crown, so we may now resume our obsession with Arrogate.
When last we saw him he was a third of the way around the world, winning the Dubai World Cup and running his career earnings to a near-world record $17,084,600, all in less than a year. That came at the end of a tumultuous two weeks in March when injuries cut down the likely favorites for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks.
So before Arrogate makes his expected return July 22 at Del Mar, this is an opportune time to look back on the first half of 2017. Aside from Arrogate it has been a bumpy ride.
Horse of the Year – Fiscal Year, that is
At this time last year Arrogate was a late-blooming 3-year-old that never got a whiff of the Triple Crown trail. It would be nearly two months before his graded-stakes debut. That jaw-dropping, 13-length triumph in the Travers was like a smack in the face for racing fans who had missed his early races. That was followed by a thrilling duel with California Chrome to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic and then decisive victories in the inaugural $12 million Pegasus World Cup and the $10 million Dubai World Cup.
After seeing Arrogate recover from blowing the start in the Middle East, his trainer Bob Baffert said, “He’s the best I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Considering he also had American Pharoah two years ago and bore witness to the likes of Secretariat, Cigar and Zenyatta, Baffert walked that back some. But by the time this calendar year is over, another Breeders’ Cup victory could be on Arrogate’s résumé, and he may have less company worthy of a place on Baffert’s short list.
Quiet exit for a two-time champion
It should not have ended this way for California Chrome. He was supposed to finish his career in an even more thrilling duel to the finish in his final race than he had in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But racing in late January on maybe only three good legs he faded to a distant ninth in the Pegasus at Gulfstream Park.
“I feel like I didn’t have that power, not enough gas in there,” jockey Víctor Espinoza said. “It was empty.”
Thus ended a career that included $14.7 million in earnings, wins in the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, an owner who whined about a fresh horse daring to ruin his Triple Crown aspirations, the buying out of that owner after a disastrous visit to England that left Chrome horribly out of shape and, finally, a comeback that reminded us how good a trainer Chrome had in 80-year-old Art Sherman.
The $1 million ante: what a concept
The success of the first running of the Pegasus remains murky and debatable, especially since it was probably a money loser for most of the entrants who paid $1 million each to get in the starting gate. But the financially viable or not, the concept is being copied in Australia with the first running of the $7.6 million Everest in October.
If nothing else it has created a mine-is-bigger-than-yours rivalry between Frank Stronach, the Gulfstream Park owner who created the Pegasus, and Sheikh Mohammed, whose Dubai World Cup used to be the richest race in the world. His Highness said he would add to the $10 million purse. Stronach then committed 4 million more of his dollars to make next year’s Pegasus worth $16 million. It’s your move, Sheikh Mo.
The best 3-year-old is ... over there?
When Mastery won the San Felipe Stakes by 6¾ lengths in early March he instantly became the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby. Not 15 seconds later he suffered what turned out to be a career-ending fracture of the condylar bone in his left front leg. As his trainer Baffert put it, “the highest of highs and the lowest of lows within seconds.”
That started a merry-go-round of horses that took their turns as “The” 3-year-old. There was talk Kentucky Oaks favorite Unique Bella might face the boys before she suffered a shin injury in late March. Always Dreaming won the Kentucky Derby for only the second time for trainer Todd Pletcher, and then she faded to eighth in the Preakness. Cloud Computing won that day, but then his trainer Chad Brown decided he was not a 1½-mile horse. Then a watered-down Belmont Stakes went to Tapwrit.
So what horse is the best 3-year-old so far this year? That is easy. Churchill. He won both the English and Irish guineas in May. Oh, wait. He bounced last week, finishing fourth in the St. James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot.
Maybe the 3-year-old picture will be a bit clearer this summer. Maybe.
More duds coming to America from UAE
Not only has the UAE Derby in Dubai never produced a U.S. classic winner, the race’s reputation on this side of the Atlantic hit rock bottom this spring.
The race’s winner – Thunder Snow – sprang from the gate six weeks later as a 16-1 long shot at the Kentucky Derby and, instead of running, he started bucking. That is a word that rhymes with what was heard from bettors who wasted their money on him. Jockey Christophe Soumillon eased him about 150 yards from the start.
Then last month UAE Derby runner-up Epicharis, the pride of Japan, was diagnosed with a lame foot three days before the Belmont Stakes. He never got out of the Belmont Park barn on race day.
It is time to reconsider whether the UAE Derby should be a prep for our Triple Crown. The dreamer in me says it should be replaced on the Kentucky Derby prep trail by the Illinois Derby, but the realist in me says that will not happen. Oh, well.
Where have the Santa Anita horses gone?
Field sizes have shrunk in southern California at Santa Anita, where two race days were completely canceled in April and June because of a lack of horses. Too many other times there have been fields of four and even three horses in single races.
Part of the problem is the consolidation of more horses to fewer, more dominant owners and trainers who are reluctant to race stable mates against one another. Another factor has been the closing of Hollywood Park and Fairplex and, with that, the loss of 3,300 barn stalls. Fewer than half of them have been replaced at other southern California facilities. The horses have simply been sent elsewhere.
Stronach also owns Santa Anita, and he has sent in his right-hand man Tim Ritvo to try and fix the problem. “I can see what we can do to make things better,” he told the Daily Racing Form. But as Ritvo also said, “There are no silver bullets.”
Does it get better than Big Money Mike?
By winning five races, Mike Smith nearly stole the show on Belmont Stakes day without even winning the Belmont Stakes.
But that is the man labeled by Baffert as “Big Money Mike,” who may end up as Jockey of the Year simply on the strength of riding Arrogate to wins in the Pegasus and in Dubai. But he also rode Abel Tasman to win the Kentucky Oaks, another race with the word “million” on it.
Smith is on the verge of $20 million in earnings this year. That would be a good career for many jockeys. But it is just another six months in the life of a 51-year-old who is about to join fellow Hall of Famer John Velázquez as the only $300 million riders in history.
Monmouth, Belmont get weekend focus
The east coast will have the biggest American races Saturday with a turf race on the Jersey Shore and a traditional dirt feature for 3-year-old fillies in New York.
Trained by Chad Brown and ridden by Florent Geroux, Beach Patrol (5-2) is the morning-line favorite on the Monmouth Park turf to win Saturday’s 1 3/8-mile Grade 1 $300,000 United Nations Stakes.
Winless since last year’s Secretariat Stakes on Arlington Million day, the 4-year-old colt sired by Lemon Drop Kid was second in four straight graded races before finishing fourth in the Grade 1 Manhattan on the Belmont Stakes card. Beach Patrol will be challenged by eight horses including Keeneland Grade 2 winner Itsinthepost (7-2) and Sam Houston Grade 3 winner Bigger Picture (4-1).
Third in the Kentucky Oaks, Lockdown (2-1) is favored to win the Grade 2 $250,000 Mother Goose over 1 1/16 miles around one turn of the main, dirt track at Belmont Park.
With trainer Bill Mott and jockey José Ortiz, the filly sired by First Defence got her only win in a $100,000 stakes race this past winter at Aqueduct. Her six rivals include fourth-place Kentucky Oaks finisher Vexatious (5-2) and stakes debutante Unchained Melody (7-2).
Post times Saturday are 5:50 p.m. EDT for the Mother Goose and 5:57 p.m. for the United Nations.
Holy Helena (3-1), winner of a $385,650 stakes race at Woodbine last month is the favorite there in Sunday’s $771,300 Queen’s Plate Stakes, marking the start of the Canadian Triple Crown. One of two fillies in the field of 13, the 3-year-old by Ghostzapper is trained by Jimmy Jerkens and ridden by Luis Contreras. Post time is 5:36 p.m. EDT Sunday.