Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
Since last year’s Travers Stakes, the racing world has been trying to place Arrogate’s astounding feats in historical perspective. With the Juddmonte colt having started in only three stakes races, it’s been nearly impossible to explain his mind-boggling performances and meteoric rise to stardom, because no one has seen anything like it before.
And because he likely will have no more than 10 or 11 career starts before retiring to stud, I look at his career – past and future – as a condensed version of the career of Spectacular Bid, the super horse he resembles most in his combination of speed, class, and versatility. A horse who can beat you from anywhere on the racetrack, adapt to any pace, run record times, and excel on any track across the country.
It is quite a tribute that his career is being perceived in such an elite manner so quickly and is being compared to a horse who won 26 of his 30 starts, breaking records from seven furlongs to 1 1/4 miles, a distance for which he still holds the world record of 1:57 4/5. Arrogate certainly hasn’t attained the status or ranking of "the Bid," but there is no escaping the similarities.
So, just what is it about Arrogate that has veteran racegoers so befuddled trying to explain what they are witnessing and putting his accomplishments in proper perspective?
It wasn’t until this morning when I heard football analysts referring to the growth of NFL rookie phenom Dak Prescott, a player to whom I actually compared Arrogate, that the explanation came to me. After all, both athletes shocked everyone with their immediate success and professionalism beyond their years.
Since Arrogate exploded on the racing scene and left jaws dropping with his record-shattering decimation of the Travers field in his first stakes appearance and only the fifth start of his career, his growth since that race has been a big fat zero. And that is actually meant as the highest form of compliment.
When any athlete comes along and immediately soars to heights never before attained in his or her first major test, the standards set are so lofty it is nearly impossible to maintain them, never mind grow from them. In fact, it is only natural to see some sort of decline, as minimal as it may be. No one is supposed to be able to retain the level of brilliance he demonstrated at Saratoga.
But in his three stakes appearances – the Travers, Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Pegasus World Cup – against the best horses in the country, Arrogate, despite two- and three-month layoffs between races, has not shown even the slightest decline. And what makes that so impressive is that when he won the Travers, his performance was so otherworldly it left him no room for growth. You simply cannot improve off that race. You can only regress. By Arrogate maintaining the high standard of the Travers over his next two races, he exhibited the trait that separates the good athletes from the great ones, and to go one better, the great ones from the superstars. And it looks as if that is where Arrogate is heading – into the realm of superstardom, if he isn’t there already. That is a bold statement for a horse with only three stakes victories.
No horse has ever attained the exalted title of superstar in his first three stakes appearances, in which he won the Travers by 13 lengths, shattering a 37-year-old track record and coming home his final quarter in a spectacular :23 4/5; turned certain defeat into victory by running down Horse of the Year California Chrome in the Breeders’ Cup Classic with an equally spectacular :24 flat final quarter, with Chrome finishing nearly 11 lengths ahead of the third-place finisher; and then winning the richest race in the world, the $12 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational by nearly five lengths geared down in the final sixteenth in a track-record 1:46 4/5 (an adjusted time some experts believe to actually be some two-fifths faster than that), charging to the lead and setting blazing fractions of 1:09 4/5 and 1:33 4/5 for the mile. By contrast, top-class horses in the $400,000 Poseidon Handicap earlier on the card ran those same fractional times in 1:12 1/5 and 1:36, while finishing in a photo in a time two full seconds (or 10 lengths) slower than Arrogate, who coasted to the wire after being wrapped up by jockey Mike Smith.
To repeat a statistic from a previous column, Arrogate, in those three starts, defeated these Grade 1 winners: Keen Ice (Travers) by 11 and 11 1/4 lengths; Hoppertunity (Jockey Club Gold Cup) by 11 1/2 lengths; Noble Bird (Stephen Foster) by 14 1/4 lengths; Gun Runner (Clark Handicap) by 15 lengths; Melatonin (Santa Anita Handicap and Santa Anita Gold Cup) by 15 3/4 lengths; Frosted (Met Mile and Whitney) by 19 1/4 lengths; Connect (Cigar Mile) by 21 3/4 lengths; Creator (Belmont Stakes) by 21 3/4 lengths; Effinex (Clark Handicap) by 24 lengths; and Exaggerator (Preakness, Santa Anita Derby, and Haskell) by 33 lengths. And that list doesn’t include California Chrome (29 1/2 lengths), because we have no idea what caused his dismal effort in the Pegasus.
It is obvious with Arrogate it is not about growth. It is about reaching the highest peak in your first attempt and staying up there.
It seems as if everything about Arrogate is unprecedented. Who, after only two stakes appearances, gets voted the Longines World’s Best Racehorse of 2016? That is the impact he made, not only on racing in the United States, but the entire world.
Is it logical to assume that Arrogate can remain on that peak and continue this extraordinary level of excellence while dazzling racing fans with new amazing feats? Anything can happen in a horse race on any given day, but right now there does not appear to be a horse anywhere who is even remotely in the same class as him. But, as mentioned earlier, by having such an abbreviated career, he needs to continue to perform at this level and maintain his mystique and air of invincibility.
Juddmonte has been down this road before in Europe with the legendary Frankel, who like Arrogate, set standards of brilliance never seen before, while towering over his opponents race after race.
What must also be recognized is the outstanding training job by Bob Baffert, who got the colt through his 2-year-old issues, brought him around slowly this year by running him in first and second-level allowance races before unleashing him on the unsuspected racing world. He then managed, as mentioned earlier, to get him to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic off a two-month layoff and the Pegasus World Cup off a three-month layoff, while somehow dodging the constant rainstorms in Southern California all winter that badly hampered many training schedules.
So, rather than waste time comparing Arrogate to American Pharoah or any other horse or trying to figure out where he fits or will fit in the history books, let’s just sit back and enjoy a show we likely will never seen again, as short as it may be. After all, right now, other than the Derby trail, it’s the only show in town.