Native Dancer: The Nearly Perfect Grey Ghost of Sagamore
Just when you thought you’ve heard it all. Every year, with the conclusion of the Thanksgiving weekend stakes at Aqueduct and Churchill Downs, the racing portion of the brain shuts down until Derby Dozen kicks in sometime in January. But because racing occupies such a large portion of my brain, there is still room for a few leftover unconventional thoughts that probably no one gives a hoot about other than me.
As an NFL football junkie, there is the rare occasion when these two worlds interact, and that’s when things really start to get strange. For those who have no interest in football, the following offbeat comparison will have little or no interest. And for those who do have an interest, you will think I’m nuts anyway. Normally I would not burden the unsuspecting public with this, but bizarre thoughts are part of my DNA and we are in that one-month lull.
Before you read this and cringe, be advised that the remaining thoughts in this column are much more normal. So, for the first, and hopefully last, weird thought this holiday season I am going to really push the envelope by comparing Arrogate to Dallas Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, who I’m sure a great deal of you have never even heard of. For those of you still with me, let’s look at these two remarkable athletes.
Both are inexperienced and are doing things they’re simply not supposed to be doing. As recently as mid August, most people knew little or anything about either one of them. Both lost their first start and have not lost since, Prescott guiding the Cowboys to 10 straight victories and Arrogate winning six straight races. Both have demonstrated uncanny professionalism and poise for athletes with such little experience and keep finding ways to win, making far more accomplished opponents look inferior race after race and game after game. The top minds in their respective sports have been unable to figure out how to beat them. It is difficult to believe both are basically rookies, and simply put, we have never seen anything like them.
Prescott plays for “America’s Team,” while Arrogate is conditioned by “America’s Trainer,” Bob Baffert. Both are owned by billionaires who paid little money for them, relatively speaking, with Prescott a fourth-round draft choice and Arrogate’s purchase price of $560,000 far from chicken feed, but far below that year’s Keeneland sales topper of $2.1 million and about half the price of the 11 yearlings that sold for seven figures.
In short, both have demonstrated extraordinary skills far beyond their years and experience, and have taken their respective sports by storm. Who knows, perhaps Prescott will lead the Cowboys to a Super Bowl victory around the same time Arrogate is winning an Eclipse Award.
I told you this was weird, but blame it on the holidays and having just spent a full week in Nebraska for Thanksgiving. After a week of watching my son-in-law bake bread and watching 32 episodes of “The West Wing” on Netflix, which I had never seen before, I just couldn’t wait to get back and share these deep thoughts with everyone.
In other, more rational, random thoughts, aren’t you curious to see how the new $12 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational is going to play out? Consider that nine of the 12 owners who have shelled out a million dollars to participate don’t have a horse to run in the race, and it is very possible that 10 of the starters will have little chance of defeating both California Chrome and Arrogate, if he runs. If Frank Stronach wants to create interest in this race, why not hold a contest to see who can come closest to predicting the starting field?
Once again, it always pays to wait until the end of the year before knocking a crop of 3-year-olds. It seemed like a safe bet to vilify this year’s crop when the three Triple Crown race winners all fizzled out by late August, as did many of the horses they competed against in the three races and on the Derby trail. But with Arrogate, Gun Runner, and Connect all defeating older horses in grade I stakes in the span of a month in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Clark Handicap, and Cigar Mile, respectively, the merits of this crop obviously need to be re-evaluated. Either that or the older horses, with the exception of California Chrome, simply are not that good, at least on a consistent basis.
Getting back to Arrogate, how freaky was his Travers victory, beating the Preakness winner and the Belmont Stakes winner by 33 lengths and 21 3/4 lengths, respectively, and the eventual Clark Handicap winner and Cigar Mile winner, by 15 lengths and 21 3/4 lengths, respectively? In the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he defeated the Met Mile and Whitney winner by 19 1/4 lengths and the Jockey Club Gold Cup winner by 11 1/2 lengths. No matter how you look at it, those are mind-blowing stats.
Speaking of the Travers and Met Mile, have there ever been two more freakish performances in one year, especially by horses who had never shown any indication they were capable of such astounding feats?
When was the last time a fairy tale story, such as that of Runhappy, had such a rotten ending? It makes you wonder what would have happened if the horse’s connections had not spent a million dollars to point for the Pegasus Cup, stretching him out to a mile twice instead of keeping him at sprint distances and defending his title.
Many people consider this year’s Breeders’ Cup one of the most memorable of all time, despite four of the most popular horses in America – California Chrome, Songbird, Tepin, and Lady Eli – all getting beat in heartbreaking fashion, and only one of the 13 Breeders’ Cup races being won by the favorite, and that one favorite was nearly 4-1.
What happened to Nyquist, who was a rock and the epitome of dependability through his championship 2-year-old campaign, and then through the Kentucky Derby where he remained unbeaten? Next came a suicidal opening quarter in the slop in the Preakness Stakes and he was never the same horse. His downfall will remain open to question and speculation, but we should not forget all that he accomplished and how dependable and machine-like he was for so many races and how he dominated his Preakness conqueror Exaggerator at 2 and 3.
When was the last time we had three different winners of the Triple Crown races all retired sound by October? Nyquist was “100 percent sound” upon his retirement. Exaggerator was “a sound horse,” who according to his connections was “asking for a rest,” whatever that means. And Creator was simply sold to Japanese interests because WinStar Farm already was standing a son of Tapit. Apparently, with 22 stallions, there was no room for two sons of one of the most successful stallions of all time, especially when the offer made was “too good of an opportunity to pass up.”
How come the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe has produced 10 Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf winners, but not a single winner of the Arc has been able to follow that up with a win the BC Turf? This year’s Arc winner, Found, managed to score an Arc–BC Turf double, but did it in reverse and in different years, winning the BC Turf after running ninth in the Arc in 2015, but then finishing third in the BC Turf after winning the Arc in 2016. Aidan O’Brien has won the BC Turf five times, each one after having lost the Arc.
Although he’s been a terrific trainer for many years, we welcomed Mark Casse into the realm of the elite this year, as he, with the help of his son Norman, became a bona fide superstar. And how outrageous a Saratoga meet did Chad Brown have as he booted Todd Pletcher off his throne with a record number of wins? Brown, like Casse, unveiled a number of top-class 2-year-olds on dirt, something he was not known for in the past. Let’s just say the ceiling for both trainers got awfully high this year.
Kentucky Derby Future Wager alert: One sneaky horse who was not included in Churchill Downs’ top 23 individual betting interests for obvious reasons is grass horse Good Samaritan. Even though he’s trained by Bill Mott, who leans heavily toward the grass with his young horses, this is a very talented colt with tremendous potential who is bred for the dirt on both sides. With so few opportunities on grass for a 3-year-old in the winter and spring, even Mott has to be tempted to try this colt on dirt. He possesses a powerful closing kick, is a grand-looking horse, and is bred to run all day. Here’s hoping Mott gives him a shot.
Remember, he was cross-entered in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, so Mott has at least given the dirt a thought already. He can always go back to grass if it doesn’t work out. Oh, yes, he came home his final eighth in his third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf in :11 1/5 and final quarter in :22 4/5. and he has all three Triple Crown winners from the ‘70s in his pedigree, and is inbred to two of them. One of them, Affirmed, is where he gets a good deal of his grass ability, as Affirmed has been a successful grass influence.