The question trainer Bob Baffert kept asking himself was the same one the racing community wondered: Just how good was Juddmonte Farms' Arrogate? And, what would possibly happen if jockey Mike Smith ever really asked him to unleash all of his talent?
The answer to those questions came roaring down the Santa Anita Park stretch with ever-increasing strides, catching a champion no one had been able to reel in this season, and ending all doubt about how legitimate Arrogate’s brilliance is.
The 33rd edition of the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic proved to be a two-horse race, as Travers Stakes winner Arrogate wore down 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome to win the 1 1/4-mile test by a half-length on Nov. 5. Arrogate’s win gave Baffert his third consecutive victory in the Classic.
The 3-year-old Arrogate has been a wunderkind in his brief career, winning the Travers by 13 ½ lengths on Aug. 27 in his first try against stakes company in what was just his fifth career start. After racing in third down the backstretch, as California Chrome set the pace, Arrogate drew closer through the far turn and then engaged his older, champion rival in midstretch. Arrogate was relentless, and got up in the final strides to hand California Chrome his first loss in seven starts this year. Arrogate, the Classic's second betting choice at odds of 1.70-1, covered 1 1/4 miles in 2:00.11.
"This was incredible today," Smith said. "You just don't see things like this from a young 3-year-old. He literally was prancing after the race was over... He's so talented. He's got amazing stamina. He doesn't quit. He could have gone around again. He's incredible."
Keen Ice edged Hopportunity for third, 10 ¾ lengths behind California Chrome.
"Deep down, I really wasn't sure if we could beat California Chrome, because I still have total respect for the horse. He's a great horse," Bob Baffert said. "Turning for home, I thought I was going to run second, but there's nothing wrong with that, because 'Chrome' is a really good horse, and running second to him is no bad thing.
"All I can say is, [trainer] Art Sherman has done an incredible job with California Chrome," Baffert added. "That's why this place was packed today."
Three straight years, now, Baffert has won the Classic with a 3-year-old. Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, whose Stall 33 on the Santa Anita backside is now Arrogate's home, romped in the 2015 Classic at Keeneland after Bayern upset the 2014 edition at Santa Anita. In that race, California Chrome ran third by a neck en route to Horse of the Year honors after taking the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
"To come back and sit on him for two months, it was something I used to do in the Quarter Horse business, and I wasn't worried about it," Baffert said.
The win was a first in the Breeders' Cup Classic for Prince Khalid Abdullah's Juddmonte Farms, whose operation bolstered its West Coast presence after the loss of the late Bobby Frankel by purchasing horses for Baffert to train. A $560,000 Keeneland September yearling sale purchase from the consignment of breeder Clearsky Farms, Arrogate showed his promise early on for Baffert.
"I remember calling [Juddmonte manager] Garrett [O'Rourke] around October," the trainer recalled. "I said, 'Garrett, I think I've found one that's going to pay for all of them.' I said, 'I think we've stumbled onto a really good horse.'
"He always showed run, but we never let him go in the mornings. We never let him run. He's a big horse. He came around on his own."
Arrogate's future, while bright, remains to be determined. His connections plan to race him next year, but which races remain to be seen.
In the moments after the Classic, Sherman called for a rematch in the Jan. 28 Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park, but Juddmonte does not own a spot – although they could buy in to the 12-horse field if another ownership group was willing to sell a spot. Along those lines, California Chrome's course is relatively set. Perhaps one race, perhaps not, and then a start in the inaugural edition of the $12 million event.
"That winner is the real McCoy," Sherman said. "I knew he was the one we had to beat, but I didn't know how good he was."
Arrogate, by the late sire Unbridled’s Song, was bred in Kentucky by Clearsky Farms. His dam (mother) is the stakes-winning Distorted Humor mare Bubbler. Juddmonte purchased Arrogate for $560,000 at the 2014 Keeneland September yearling sale.