On a brilliant Saturday, at 10 minutes past high noon, a Bob Hubbard van arrived at the west side of the Bob Baffert barn at Santa Anita Park. Its spit-and-polish exterior reflected the sun’s rays, alerting the passel of photographers and fans with the immediacy of a neon sign. Hometown hero Arrogate had returned! It was April Fools’ Day, and the joke was on Baffert. Assured that he had reached the zenith of his career with American Pharoah, magnificent sleight of hand on the part of the racing gods now decreed otherwise. How could he have guessed, a mere two years removed from training the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, that another horse of such magnitude would come his way?
The crowd, somewhat smaller than the reception that greeted American Pharoah following his victory in the 2015 Belmont Stakes, had been standing patiently for over an hour beneath the huge pepper trees which border the barn. Baffert held court with an ease born of practice, a laid-back master-of-ceremonies trading banter with members of the public and press, at times sitting solitary in his director’s chair, savoring the moment. His young son Bode circulated freely, handing out water bottles on the warm day, at times attempting to carve his immortality into the trunk of a tree with a spare branch. King Louis, trainer Carla Gaines’ amply fleshed white Labrador retriever, wandered from his neighboring barn to check out the action and promptly collapsed in the sun, begging tummy rubs. The atmosphere was that of a family reunion, heightened by the anticipation of the arrival of a VIP relation who had made it BIG!
Mister calm and collected, Hoppertunity, who finished sixth in the Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline and had accompanied Arrogate on his travels, was the first to disembark, and appeared to have weathered the trip well. Arrogate followed hot on his heels, and if one expected to see a weary horse, they were sorely disappointed. Arrogate was like a tightly coiled spring, proving a handful for assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes as he bounced his way toward the barn. Onlookers made way like the parting of the Red Sea, and a wave of clicking shutters greeted racing's newly crowned king as he entered the area frequented by horses cooling out.
Jockey Mike Smith was on hand to welcome his best equine guy friend and business partner, and shared a few quiet moments with Arrogate after he had moved his body enough to lessen some of his excess energy. In an interview prior to Arrogate’s arrival, Mike had attempted to put into words the specialness of the horse which had become a phenomenon since his first race only one year ago. “This one just has something extra. I don’t know what it is, but it’s that something that’s relentless, and he keeps coming at you—and not just getting there—I mean coming at you with a head of steam.”
Arrogate was taken to the wash rack for a brief shower, weighed, and then returned to the cooling-out area for more unwinding. Baffert remarked that Arrogate had lost some weight, approximately 40 pounds, according to TVG commentator Simon Bray, but that it would not be problematic.
Baffert appeared to take almost as much pleasure in watching the spectators dote on his horse’s every move as he did himself. Musing about Arrogate’s meteoric rise, he spoke with the measure of a week’s worth of introspection following Arrogate’s mind-blowing win. “I think that night, that horse really, really showed us something," Baffert said. "... And he came back, and he wasn’t even tired. He came down the stretch like a great white shark, just gobbling up those horses like they were nothing. A lot of those people were in awe, even the other jocks were like, ‘Wow! Look at that horse!’ Even all of the people there that night in the infield and the winner’s circle, all of the local people, everybody, were just like, 'Man, what did we just witness? We saw something great!’ It was almost like when Zenyatta won the Breeders’ Cup. It was that kind of a performance.”
The crowd remained for over an hour, wanting to take in as much of Arrogate as their eyes, minds and hearts could hold. On the horse’s final lap before being retired to his stall, Barnes permitted a few thrilled fans the privilege of having their photo taken standing alongside their champion, which made for an over-the-top ending to an unforgettable day!