Racing fans, in their own innocent and well-meaning way, can be selfish. And when I say racing fans, I am covering a broad spectrum, from the casual fan to the media. When we choose our icons, it is usually from the heart as much as it is performance and the perception we have of greatness, for which we all have our own criteria.
My equine deities, as most are well aware, go back to Damascus and Dr. Fager and Buckpasser and Gallant Bloom and Arts and Letters. These were my first idols of the Turf.
But that was a time long ago, when the Sport of Kings was far more popular, as was baseball and boxing. These were the kingpins of the sports world, as professional football and basketball were still in their infancy.
Although the overall popularity of racing no longer compares to the past, social media has brought a new brand of fan into the sport. These fans have far more exposure to their equine heroes through television, websites, and YouTube, and they root with more zeal, often engaging in spirited debate, which can even get ugly at times.
We even have a tendency to anthropomorphize Thoroughbreds to instill in them the attributes we hold dear in humans.
American Pharoah was one of the easiest horses to deify because of his heroics on the racetrack, the grace and beauty with which he moved, the historical significance of becoming the first horse in 37 years to sweep the elusive Triple Crown, and to top it all off his endearing personality and access to the people, which were often allowed to lavish their affection on him. He had taken on the persona of our hero, our pet, and our friend, all rolled into one.
The memory of American Pharoah was still fresh in everyone’s mind when another horse, named Arrogate, came along from the same barn. This horse performed feats so freakish, while defying all the rules we have always adhered to, that it was difficult to compare him to any of our past heroes, especially considering the short period of time we’ve gotten to know him.
It was if we were unprepared for this new phenom, coming so soon after American Pharoah. Arrogate wasn’t merely riding on the tail of a comet, he was blazing his own path across the sky. Frankly, we didn’t know how to react. We were stunned after his otherworldly Travers performance, in which he shattered a 37-year-old track record. We elevated him to a whole other plateau after he relentlessly ran down Horse of the Year and most people’s hero California Chrome with an unexpected stretch rally to snatch victory from certain defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The Arrogate juggernaut continued into 2017, as he broke the bank with another track-record victory in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational and a performance in the Dubai World Cup that will be marveled at for years to come.
Was there anything this horse couldn’t do? Was there any adversity he couldn’t overcome? Was there any horse he couldn’t beat? His ground-devouring stride had carried him to victories on the lead, just off the pace, from midpack, and from dead last in a 14-horse field after a horrendous start. With each race his presence loomed larger and larger and the superlatives grew stronger and stronger.
As he continued his amazing run of Herculean feats that were incomparable to anything seen before, were we, the fans and media, being unfaithful to American Pharoah by canonizing his successor to the degree many have?
Arrogate has reached a point in his career where he cannot afford to lose, because the mystique surrounding him and his perceived invincibility has grown to such a level, nothing short of perfection will suffice. In other words, unlike American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers, he cannot afford to appear mortal. That is how high he has set the bar. And that is the reverence in which we hold him.
But we seem to have been lulled to sleep by being in the eye of the storm for so long. It’s been over three months since the Dubai World Cup, and all we can do is wait another few weeks for him to return in what should be a stroll in the park in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap on July 22, unless we see the reincarnation of past racing secretaries who would not have hesitated in assigning him over 130 pounds. But the days of handicaps are past, and with so much exotic wagering, there is no need for them, especially in major stakes. In a sport longing for heroes, who wants to see its biggest stars handicapped by excessive weights? That no longer is a yardstick to measure greatness.
Getting back to the original premise, we as fans realize that Arrogate’s main objective is the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which is run at Del Mar this year. And we have no knowledge of the extent of his soundness. We understand that the way the colt is being handled is in his best interest and no one can object to that. But there is that little bit of selfishness in all of us that we want to see this remarkable colt explore new avenues, conquer new worlds, perform new unheard of deeds of valor, and make his presence felt at racetracks around the country, as American Pharoah did, logging an amazing 27,000 miles in 2015.
But we are all aware that is difficult to do when you commit a horse to Dubai and then have to put him in storage for four or five months. Because of the gaudy purses of the Pegasus and Dubai World Cups that are almost impossible to resist, we have forced once prestigious races like the Santa Anita Handicap to become second-tier events. Even races like the Met Mile and the former Hollywood Gold Cup have suffered to a degree, as superstars like Arrogate and California Chrome, who go to Dubai, await the summer races.
The more Arrogate accomplishes, the more we want to see if he can top it. Unlike the vast majority of today’s champions, we want to know just how high a ceiling our champions have, as we saw years ago when horses ran every two to three weeks and kept piling new feats on to their record. But many of those horses raced primarily in New York and didn’t do nearly as much traveling as today’s horses do.
Because of logistics this year, Arrogate likely will race three more times and all at the same racetrack. Fans across the country are not used to Del Mar being the center of the racing universe through the Breeders’ Cup, especially when it comes to the sport’s biggest star and main attraction.
Let’s look at the bright side. Fans at Santa Anita, Saratoga, Gulfstream Park, and Meydan all have had the opportunity to witness the heroics of Arrogate – but imagine if he had remained home instead of traveling to Dubai, and won the Big Cap and the Met Mile. How much more the fans would have embraced him then? But the fans cannot fight $12 million and $10 million purses, which are only going to keep increasing. Welcome to the new Thoroughbred racing.
So, unlike American Pharoah, Arrogate will remain just out of reach of the fans, most of whom will have to be content to worship him from afar.
Only time and his three races at Del Mar will tell how Arrogate will be treated in the history books. Perhaps he has earned the luxury of having his opponents come to him. All we can do is enjoy the final chapters of this amazing story the best we can and hope to see Arrogate break through new barriers and scale heights even he has yet to attain…if that’s possible.