I won’t keep you in suspense, other than to say the premise of this column is a bit offbeat. The greatest horse of all time, if I may take the liberty, is Bob Baffert. Or to put it in equine terms, the greatest horse of all time, if I again may take the liberty, is Justamerigate. Or something to that effect. You see, Baffert, from 2015 to 2018, has trained the greatest horse of all time; only that horse occupied three different bodies.
No one is going to call American Pharoah the greatest of all time. And no one is going to call Arrogate the greatest of all time. And, considering Justify’s career no doubt will be cut short due to the lure of the breeding shed, he surely will not be considered the greatest of all time.
But put all three horses together, combine all their strengths,, their flawless mechanics, and what they accomplished, and you have the composite of a horse who could very well be considered the greatest of all time, at least over a three to four-year period. The emphasis is on the word ‘horse,’ and not gelding, which has the advantage of longevity.
So, what is the point of all this? The point is that American Pharoah, Arrogate, and Justify have come to represent the future in determining great horses and where they rank among the all-time greats. We are all aware that times have changed in racing, and that includes our interpretation of greatness. These three horses are a perfect example because of the fact they came from the same barn and in such a short period of time, which sort of melds them together into a single time capsule. But more on that later.
From a statistics standpoint, you can start with their combined record of 28 starts, 22 wins, two seconds, and a third, and if you believe that Arrogate was suffering from a physical problem, perhaps back related, in his last three starts, and are willing to ignore those races, then you can make that 22 wins in 25 starts.
You can add the fact that of their 22 wins, 16 were in Grade 1 stakes, accomplished at 11 different racetracks at distances from seven furlongs to 1 ½ miles on fast, sloppy, and muddy tracks. Also, of their 22 wins, 13 were on the lead, three were coming from second, four coming from third, one coming from fifth, and one coming from ninth. So they were far from one dimensional, and could adapt to any scenario. And their average margin of victory in those 22 wins was over 4 ½ lengths.
You can throw out weight carrying ability, because that criterion for greatness no longer exists, as handicaps have mutated into something farcical.
Together, they have defeated the winners of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness twice, Belmont Stakes, Breeders’ Cup Classic, Dubai World Cup, Met Mile twice, Whitney Stakes twice, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Travers Stakes, Pegasus World Cup, Woodward Stakes, Santa Anita Derby twice, and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. And two Horses of the Year.
They also combined to break track records at Saratoga, Gulfstream Park, and Keeneland (two at 1 ¼ miles and one at 1 1/8 miles), all in Grade 1 stakes, and set the record for the fastest fractions in the Kentucky Derby by the winning horse. And almost all of Justify’s races have been on wet or deep tracks, so he hasn’t been on tracks conducive to fast times. The only time he ran on a legitimately fast track he was going a mile and a half, hardly an indication of a horse’s true speed.
Finally, these three horses have captured two Kentucky Derbys, two Preaknesses, two Belmont Stakes, two Triple Crowns, two Breeders’ Cup Classics, the Dubai World Cup, Pegasus World Cup, Travers Stakes, Haskell Invitational, Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby, Del Mar Futurity, and FrontRunner Stakes.
Even in looks they covered all the bases, with American Pharoah being a bay, Justify a chestnut, and Arrogate a gray. All three were long-striding horses who glided over the ground with flawless mechanics and had such a smooth way of going they always looked to be running slower than they actually were. All their jockeys and exercise riders will tell you their strides were so fluid and efficient they could never feel them switch leads.
To have three horses like these come into your barn in a four-year period is unimaginable. Because of that, they tend to take on the persona of a single horse, having so many similar traits and sharing two Triple Crown sweeps following a 37-year drought. Just when Baffert thought he had found the ultimate racehorse and his crowning achievement in American Pharoah, along came Arrogate and then Justify to accomplish feats never before accomplished in such a relatively short period of time.
Many people may forget that Baffert, following his remarkable Triple Crown run with Cavonnier, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Point Given, and War Emblem from 1996 to 2002, won only one classic (the Preakness) in the next 13 years. He made his presence felt on the Triple Crown trail with Bodemeister, Pioneerof the Nile, and Dortmund, and his one classic winner Lookin At Lucky. But his biggest moments came in 3-year-old and up stakes, winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic with Bayern, the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Clark Handicap with Hoppertunity, and excelling with his big horse during those years, the brilliant and resolute Game On Dude, who became the first horse ever to win three Santa Anita Handicaps, as well as two Hollywood Gold Cups and a Pacific Classic.
So, as remarkable as these three horses have been, the common denominator is Baffert, who trained them for owners or co-owners who were born in the United States, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and China, giving them more of an international flavor than most horses.
The bottom line is that we have witnessed true greatness over the past four years, but because of the nature of the business and the long arms of the big stud farms, it is unlikely we will ever see a Spectacular Bid or a Seattle Slew or an Affirmed, who dominated the Triple Crown and were given an opportunity to solidify their greatness as 4-year-olds, when most horses actually reach their peak.
So we now settle for horses who either dominate the Triple Crown and retire at 3 or are late developers and miss the Triple Crown and are basically forced to remain in training at 4 (on a limited schedule) to establish their true worth.
Horses like American Pharoah and Justify will always be surrounded by the mystique of not knowing how great they could have been. So, we enjoy them while they last and try to determine just where they fit within the realm of greatness.
This is the way it likely will always be. It’s just the nature of the business. American Pharoah, Arrogate, and Justify have formed a composite picture of all-time greatness instead of having racing fans witnessing it through a single entity. Individually, they accomplished great things, but together they embodied all the attributes we look for in the greatest horse of all time.