The microphones keep landing in the path of the white-haired trainer with the blue-tinted sunglasses.
He finishes one interview, apologizing in advance for any tangents brought on by exhaustion and jet lag. He then turns and walks toward his owners, braving an usually cool March 24 morning at Meydan Racecourse, and is met by more requests, more queries wanting one more nugget of insight into the gray locomotive that just blew by.
He is admittedly tired, but he grants every ask, talking openly about the pressure and privilege that comes when once-in-a-lifetime horses repeatedly land in his lap. His current champion carries freakish form that shows no signs of turning downward by the time he is loaded into the gate for the $10 million Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline on March 25. But Bob Baffert can give lectures about taking nothing for granted. It was a lesson reinforced the hard way at this very venue five years earlier.
“When I came here last time, I look back and I had signs that I wasn’t healthy,” the Hall of Fame conditioner recalled this week. “I just thought I was invincible.”
Frailty has never been Baffert’s thing. In his decades-long reign as one of the Thoroughbred racing’s sharpest horsemen, he has always been brash in the face of situations that would cause many of his brethren to completely wash out.
In 2012, as he gingerly walked into the parade ring at Meydan five days after suffering a heart attack in Dubai, he was noticeably affected —as one is when a near-death experience comes calling. And while he sent his charges back for the Dubai World Cup card since, Baffert himself had yet to return to the site where his life was nearly claimed.
So for all the exemplary words Baffert has said to all those who inquire about what makes Juddmonte Farms’ champion Arrogate the most fearsome older horse in training, it is the trainer’s presence in Dubai this week makes the most emphatic statement.
“I’m here because of the horse. I do believe I have the best horse,” Baffert said. “My job is to make sure I give him that chance and do everything in my will to let him be at the top of his game.”
FROM 2012: BOB BAFFERT, IN PERSPECTIVE
Seven starts into a career that began less than a year ago, Arrogate has taken connections that have routinely overseen transcendent ability and inspired them all to mention his name with breathless awe. In reeling off wins in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes, $6-million Breeders’ Cup Classic and $12-million Pegasus World Cup Invitational in his last three outings, the 4-year-old gray stunner has knocked even jaded observers back with a talent that breaks rivals’ hearts with stunning ease.
Juddmonte Farms’ U.S. manager Garrett O’Rourke doesn’t give all-time accolades to just any top-level runner, not after having witnessed the likes of Frankel, Flintshire, Kingman, Skimming and Sightseek carry Prince Khalid Abdullah’s colors with utmost distinction. And the hands of Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith have helped craft an entire wall of representatives in racing’s annals, from Zenyatta to Azeri to Inside Information to Holy Bull.
To a man, they echo the sentiments of the trainer who conditioned the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years in American Pharoah and agree that what Arrogate has already done and what he may still achieve is something those who have seen it all can hardly digest.
“What this horse is capable of, I’m just not even going to think about it because if you do it’s just ... too much to think about,” said Smith, who first got on the Unbridled’s Song colt during his record-setting Travers triumph. “He just seems to have everything it takes to be a good horse and then some. He just has that ‘and then some’ thing behind him. It’s just different. I can’t really explain what it is.”
Added O’Rourke, “I think we’ve had a lot of horses we thought had the potential to be good, but most of them don’t live up to the expectations. And even the ones that do don’t go on to be an Arrogate. A lot of them end up being graded stakes winner or Grade 1 winners, but not the superstar he is.”
Purchased by Juddmonte for $560,000 at the 2014 Keeneland September yearling sale — out of the same Clearsky Farms consignment that featured co-sale topper Mohaymen — Arrogate was picked to be part of a specific plan by the operation: to develop some top-class, West Coast-based dirt prospects under Baffert’s care.
The fact the colt had some minor shin issues and wasn’t going to be ready for the juvenile crush followed by the Triple Crown grind proved a blessing that helped that initial goal become a spectacular reality. Brilliant as Baffert is with fostering precocity, he was able to go a little old school with the big-bodied colt, taking his time with his foundation and letting him get some lessons in advance of his career debut last April.
Though Arrogate finished third in that first outing, the steps forward came quickly. His maiden win last June 5 was followed by a couple of handy allowance scores that told Baffert there was something rare bubbling beneath.
“Once he wasn’t ready for all of the classics, I got to really develop him sort of the right way,” Baffert said. “I was talking with [trainer] LeRoy Jolley and he was telling me, ‘You don’t see that these days. You see a horse break his maiden and boom, they’re in a Grade 1 or whatever because everyone is in a hurry to get them going. But you got to really take your time, taught [Arrogate] how to run, how to relax and that really helped.’
“I could have gotten crazy with him. But we had never let him run. With Mike Smith [in the Travers], that was the first time he let him run, put him on the lead.”
The most heartbroken person in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., after Arrogate cantered to a track record-setting, 13 1/2-length win in the Travers was jockey Rafael Bejarano, who had been aboard the colt in his three prior wins but was committed to ride runner-up American Freedom.
Coming into the stretch of the 1 ¼-mile test, Smith learned just why Bejarano was going to awash in angst.
What he felt from Arrogate was a horse who barely seemed to be working hard to extend his stride. When he looked at the video board, he saw just a result that happily didn’t match up.
“He does thing so easily you don’t realize what he’s actually doing until you go back and look at it,” Smith said. “Usually. when a horse opens up by 10, man, they drop forward, those ears come all the way back, and they’re getting it. They’re trying and you see it and understand how they’re opening up by 10 or whatever. He did it and it just felt like he opened up his stride.
“I came back from the Travers and, as I was crossing the wire or just before then, I looked at the big TV in the infield and I couldn’t believe it. Then you see how fast he did it. It was just incredible. He went under two minutes and it felt like he just took a breath of air when we pulled up and came back like ‘Alright, this was great.’ ”
When O’Rourke was doing his due diligence on his short list of yearlings at the 2014 Keeneland sale, one thing he tucked into his mind was the memory of how tough Arrogate’s dam, Bubbler, was when she bested future Grade 1 winner Never Retreat by a nose in the 2010 Marie G. Krantz Memorial Handicap.
Her big-bodied first foal showed in the Breeders’ Cup Classic that he, too, possessed that mettle, reeling in champion California Chrome in deep stretch to prevail by half a length and back up the brilliance showcased at the Spa. When the top two from the Breeders’ Cup lined up for a rematch on Jan. 28 in the inaugural running of the $12 million Pegasus World Cup, the newly minted champion 3-year-old male of 2016 trampled all over the hopes of those wanting to see the two-time Horse of the Year retire on top.
As California Chrome struggled home ninth in his final career start, Arrogate was alone up front — literally and figuratively — as he cruised to yet another track-record setting triumph.
“For excitement for us, nothing will ever rival the Breeders’ Cup, because it felt like we were coming in as the challenger and there was a fantastic champion and it was like an Ali-Frazier fight,” O’Rourke said. “It lived up to all the expectations and it went down to the last round. We now have the targets on our back and the pressure is on. But that’s what makes champions, if you can live up to the pressure and perform.”
The end game for Arrogate this season is a repeat outing in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and the idea of having a fresh horse for the second half of the year initially had Juddmonte tepid on the venture to the Dubai World Cup.
In his usual way, Arrogate forced their hand otherwise by acting as if the only thing the Pegasus took out of him was some lingering immaturity. And the majority opinion is, outside of Grade 1 winner Gun Runner — who ran third in the Travers — the biggest obstacle Arrogate has to overcome Saturday is what, if any, toll shipping halfway around the globe had on him.
All Baffert has heard since he arrived in Dubai last weekend is how blessed he is to have such a runner come along after American Pharoah and what kind of legacy Arrogate will own should he pocket the $6 million first-prize money and overtake California Chrome as the richest-ever North American-based racehorse.
He is quick to remind all who will listen that this is still a massive challenge, that even the greatest have moments of being mere mortals. He learned all about that on this very stage five years ago. He is better for it now he says, as a person and a trainer, which is why his current return is especially poetic.
“I remember [in 2012] all the owners were sitting at a table and they were all dejected because Game On Dude had run so poorly. I went up to the table and said, ‘You guys might be all bummed out, but I’m a happy son of a gun. I’m lucky I made it,’ ” he said. “I was the only one smiling afterwards. You worry about these horses so much, you forget to worry about yourself. Now, I’m taking care of both of us.”