I was at Santa Anita the day Affirmed destroyed the field in the 1978 Grade I Santa Anita Derby. I was at Hollywood Park when Seattle Slew, coming off his Triple Crown sweep, was beaten by J.O. Tobin in the 1977 Swaps Stakes in front of over 80,000 fans. I was there in person to see greats like John Henry, Zenyatta, and Spectacular Bid win multiple Grade I races in Southern California.
I was even at Los Alamitos when the best Quarter Horse I ever saw – Dash for Cash – won the inaugural Champion of Champions in 1976. With that background as a frame of reference, what Arrogate is accomplishing right now is unprecedented.
Still a Maiden who had yet to make his career debut a year ago at this time, Arrogate announced his presence in his Stakes debut with a dominant win in last year’s Travers Stakes, running the fastest 1-1/4 miles in the history of fabled Saratoga racetrack. He came right back to beat older horses, including a sharp California Chrome, in the $6 million Breeders Cup Classic in November, and toyed with his rivals in the new $12 million Pegasus World Invitational in January at Gulfstream Park.
What we saw on Saturday in the $10 million Dubai World Cup moves Arrogate to another level. He got wiped out at the start when slammed from both sides and was last entering the first turn over a Meydan City track with a reputation for promoting speed horses.
Trainer Bob Baffert said, “I gave him no chance at all… I hope Mike takes care of him… Maybe I shouldn’t have brought him.”
Jockey Mike Smith let Arrogate settle into stride, and he began to pick off the back markers to get within striking distance. Smith was able to split horses on the far turn, angle out for a clear path in the stretch, and Arrogate simply ran down Gun Runner to win again in hand.
With that victory, Arrogate is now the all-time leading North American based thoroughbred in earnings with $17,084,600. I saw Secretariat on television as a youngster, but as far as horses I have seen run in person I do not think I have ever seen a better dirt horse going 1-1/4 miles or farther. Ever.
Barring injury, we should get at least a couple of more chances to see Arrogate run in California in 2017, most likely in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar in August and in November to defend his Breeders Cup Classic title at that same track. You should try to make plans to be there in person. He is “must see” material.
Field size is one of the most important factors for horseplayers. Has anyone noticed how short the fields have been in the Graded Stakes on dirt at Santa Anita this winter? Daily Racing Form’s Brad Free reports the average field size in Graded Stakes on dirt so far at the Santa Anita meet is 5.8 horses per race.
Why? Santa Anita is the home base of such top class thoroughbreds as Arrogate, Stellar Wind, Songbird, etc. The problem may be the purses and the competition.
For example, when the ill-fated Mastery won the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 11, he was running for a purse of $400,000. By comparison, a similar Kentucky Derby prep, the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn March 18, had a purse of $900,000, a juicy option against arguably softer competition.
When California based American Pharoah put together his Triple Crown campaign in 2015, he started eight times – but not once in California.
The list of Santa Anita based Stakes horses scheduled to make their next starts out of town include Stellar Wind, Conquest Farenheit, Denman’s Call, Masochistic, Moe Candy, and Illuminate. This is in addition to recent shippers like Arrogate, Hoppertunity, American Anthem, Richard’s Boy, and St. Joe Bay.
The solution may involve adjusting the Stakes schedule. Races like the Pegasus World Invitational and the Dubai World Cup have made the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap much less of a priority for top older horses. No turf Stakes races for 3-year-olds from March until May results in many sophomores shipping out of town looking for opportunities.
It may be time to reinvent the Stakes schedule at Santa Anita in order to try and keep the best horses on the circuit competing at home.
Race 2 this Thursday at Santa Anita – Lady Espionage (No. 10). Cal-bred had some traffic problems coming down the hillside turf Feb. 20 but rallied to just miss. She should be closer to the pace from preferred outside post and is ready to graduate.