Arrogate overhauls Chrome in epic encounter for the ages
The 33rd running of the Breeders' Cup Classic was billed as a clash of the titans. As the southern Californian sun went down on a crowd of 72,811 at Santa Anita, what America's most prestigious race delivered was nothing short of another epic.
For nine tenths of the mile-and-a-quarter event it looked as if California Chrome, the nation's most popular horse, would give his 'Chromie army' of fans the victory for which they craved in the $6 million contest as he loped around the track in his personalised metallic grey silks and blinkers in apparent command in the lead under Victor Espinoza.
Nemesis awaited in the last 100 yards, however, in the shape of lightly raced three-year-old upstart Arrogate – no one-hit wonder, this – who ran down Chrome in the dying strides to complete a hat-trick in the race for his trainer, the silver-haired Californian-based legend Bob Baffert.
"That was an incredible race by two incredible horses," said Baffert.
Twenty four hours after the Distaff served up a never-to-be-forgotten duel, this was another superlative encounter destined to go down in US racing folklore. This time it was odds-on favourite California Chrome who did the blinking, stride shortening noticeably in the final 100 yards as Arrogate asserted his power under Mike Smith to score by half a length. There were ten and three-quarters back to third-placed Keen Ice in what was the very definition of a two-horse race.
"After losing Pharoah, I thought, 'How are you going to beat that?'" added Baffert, who had saddled Triple Crown hero American Pharoah to win last year and Bayern in 2014.
"It's incredible I've been so lucky - somebody up there is really looking down on me. To run down a great horse like California Chrome, that's what the Breeders' Cup is all about, watching races like that.
"Any time you see two horses like we saw yesterday with Beholder and Songbird, you really don't want to see a loser. I could hear the whole grandstand screaming and yelling. I know most of them were screaming and yelling for Chrome, and I can't blame them, because he's done a lot for racing."
Arrogate is a son of Unbridled's Song who carries the colours of Khalid Abdullah's Juddmonte operation. He has now won five in a row, his breakout performance having come in Saratoga's midsummer derby the Travers Stakes, in which he broke the track record with a stunning all-the-way victory. That freakish performance was clearly no one-off: American racing has a shining new star.
Smith settled Arrogate behind California Chrome's even tempo before asking Arrogate for his effort as they turned for home. The lanky roan colt needed most of the stretch before he could grind down his celebrated opponent.
'Total respect for the horse'
"Deep down I really wasn't sure if we could beat California Chrome, because I still have total respect for the horse," admitted Baffert, who was added to the Juddmonte roster of trainers only recently as they sought to revive a west-coast presence dormant since the death of Bobby Frankel.
Smith, the most successful rider in Breeders' Cup history with 25 winners, is one ahead of the trainer in the Classic stakes, having won four times, with Skip Away (1997), Zenyatta (2009) and Drosselmeyer (2011) his previous winners. Perhaps that's why Baffert dubbed him 'Big money Mike' at the post-race media conference, where the jockey paid tribute to his mount.
"That was incredible, I’m at a loss for words," said the 51-year-old, before quicky relocating his tongue. "He’s such a young horse. He’s so talented, he’s got amazing stamina, he was relentless and doesn’t quit. He has only run five times and beat California Chrome. That's incredible.
"I became a fan in the last 20 yards. I was cheering with everybody else at that point, because I felt I had the race in hand at that point. I was in awe of what he did and the horse he beat."
For every winner there has to be a loser, and on this occasion it was California Chrome.
"No excuses, he just got outrun," said trainer Art Sherman. "He ran his eyeballs out but just got beat in those last couple of jumps. When we were in front turning for home, I thought he’d win, because he usually hangs on. He's been so good all year long, but it just shows you can’t win every race."
Rematch remains a possibility
California Chrome's sights will now be set on the inaugural $12m Pegasus World Cup, set to surpass Dubai as the world's richest race at Gulfstream Park on January 28.
Sherman would be keen for a rematch with Arrogate, who stays in training, but it may not come in Florida, because the winner's connections have not paid the $1m to secure a berth. There is a market for resale for a place in the gate, however, so it remains a possibility.
Sherman, though, does not sound confident of turning the tables should the Classic principals meet again.
"We saw two champions run - that winner is the real McCoy," he said. "I knew he was the one we had to beat, but I didn’t know how good he was."
Now nobody has any doubts, least of all Baffert, who may have had an inkling when he gave Arrogate stall 33 at his Santa Anita barn. Last year the same box housed another equine luminary. You may have heard of him. His name was American Pharoah.