DEL MAR, Calif. — Maybe there is hope for Conor McGregor after all.
If a minus-2,000 favorite like Arrogate can lose a horse race – an ordinary, Grade 2 tune-up for bigger money later – and if a 7-1 horse that was 0-for-4 this year can take down the world’s top-ranked thoroughbred, maybe a 5-1 underdog like McGregor can stun Floyd Mayweather.
Back here on earth – albeit at one of its most heavenly venues – Arrogate was a no-show. More accurately, a no-win, no-place and no-show. He ran listlessly for most of the race, made up a little ground in the final turn but never fired in the stretch. So Arrogate finished fourth in the $300,000 Grade 2 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar.
“He just laid an egg,” trainer Bob Baffert said.
“He was just flat, so flat,” jockey Mike Smith said. “He wasn’t trying. I’m at a loss for words.”
So it seemed was the sun-drenched crowd that was full of anticipation when Arrogate exhibited what appeared to be a relaxed confidence in the paddock. Afterward there was a quiet, can-you-believe-it? murmur as most of the 16,568 retreated to the exits rather than to the very-empty betting windows.
There were those comparative few who bet on Accelerate, a third-place finisher in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. He stole the show in his first-ever race with blinkers on and, therefore, his first-ever gate-to-wire victory with – can you believe it? – Víctor Espinoza riding. Yes, the same Víctor Espinoza who rode American Pharoah to a Triple Crown two years ago. But after Saturday, Espinoza is not Batman anymore; he became the Joker.
“No pressure for me,” Espinoza said. “I was ready. Going into these races anything can happen. As long as I have a horse in the race I believe I have a chance to win.”
But Espinoza admitted that he was waiting for Arrogate to come along sometime – anytime – in the homestretch. Instead Accelerate’s lead over the stalking Donworth (24-1) just kept getting bigger before he finished 8½ lengths ahead. Cat Burglar (18-1), the 7-year-old horse that is Arrogate’s running mate in the mornings, finished third for Baffert, 11 lengths behind. Arrogate strolled home 15¼ lengths back, only better than El Huerfano (30-1), which stumbled so badly at the start that jockey Evin Roman lost his irons.
“You’ve just got to draw a line through it,” Baffert said. “It happens. Silver Charm did the same thing to me one time.”
Indeed, Baffert’s 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion came back from winning the 1998 Dubai World Cup to finish last in that year’s San Diego Handicap, although he finished second to Awesome Again in the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs in between. Arrogate was coming in off a four-month break after he won this year’s Dubai World Cup, returning from a trip that is often a lightning rod for conclusion jumpers to say the journey takes too much out of horses.
Really, though, this was more a case of déjà vu for Espinoza and for John Sadler, who not only trained Accelerate to Saturday’s win but also Stellar Wind to a 9-2 upset of minus-1,000 favorite Beholder last July in the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes here at Del Mar – on his 60th birthday, no less. And also with Espinoza.
“Last year we had an upset and the crowd went silent when we knocked out Beholder,” Sadler said. “Shades of last year.”
This time, though, the suddenly front-running Accelerate took care of business early – thank you, blinkers. Asked when he thought he had the victory sewn up, Sadler said, “Turning for home. He was opening up and the other horse really wasn’t really running that well. I wanted Víctor to be prepared to take the lead if he could get it. When he got to the front it was great.”
Accelerate’s winning fractions were 23.49, 47.06, 1:11.39, 1:35.78 and, for the 1 1/16 miles, 1:42.15. He paid $17.60 to win, $32.60 to place and $22 to show. Donworth returned $119.80 and $67.40, breaking 62-year-old records for place and show money at Del Mar. Cat Burglar’s show payoff was $38.20. With two double-digit long shots finishing second and third, the $1 exacta paid $98 and the 50-cent trifecta $108.65.
And with no superfecta betting on the five-horse field, Arrogate paid back nothing. He did, however, earn $18,000 n fourth-place money to run his career total to $17,102,600, still about $1.9 million shy of Orfèvre’s world record.
Far from throwing in his cards, Baffert sounded more than ready for a rematch here at Del Mar, and Sadler sounded game, too.
“We’re just going to have to work from here,” Baffert said. “If he’s all right he’ll run in the Pacific Classic. He’ll be ready.”
Asked if Accelerate would be pointed there, too, Sadler said, “I hope so. We’ll see how he comes out of it.”
That $1 million race, by the way, will be Aug. 19 – one week before a certain boxing mismatch is scheduled to happen in Las Vegas.
Then again, mismatches don’t always materialize, do they?