Reprinted from The Saratoga Special.
Dr. John Chandler stood alone. Facing away from the racetrack, across from the finish line, Juddmonte Farm’s president gazed from the step of the front-row box, mouth agape, smiling but silent, like he had heard a good joke but wasn’t sure he could tell it.
Bob Baffert careened between the two front rows of the clubhouse boxes, pivoted to go down the steps and then saw Chandler, still standing, smiling, silent.
“Hey, Dr. Chandler…” Baffert yelled, pointing at Chandler and then pointing at himself.
Chandler turned and cackled – a long, rhythmical chain of notes, seven in all, each one leading to the crescendo that lasted seconds. If you know the affable South African, you can hear it in your head.
“This one’s going to pay for all the other ones we bought,” Baffert said.
“Don’t tell me,” said Chandler, still laughing. “Hey, I know that.”
Baffert and Chandler walked down the stairs as Mike Smith slowed Juddmonte Farm’s Arrogate after a front-running, 13 1/2-length, track-record breaking decimation of the 147th Travers Stakes.
Baffert watched the Travers with his wife, Jill, who worried about the rapid fractions, especially 1:10.85 for the first 6 furlongs.
“How about that?” said Baffert, as he walked down the steps to the winner’s circle. “Jill said, ‘They’re going too fast,’ I said, ‘This is a running son of a…’ ”
That’s one way to describe the long-striding son of Unbridled’s Song who increased his win streak to four in his stakes debut. Arrogate’s win streak began at Santa Anita June 5, ripped through a first-level allowance at Santa Anita June 24 and a second-level allowance at Del Mar 23 days before the Travers. If you’re counting, that’s maiden to Grade 1 stakes winner in 83 days.
Drawing the inside post in the field of 13, Arrogate had one option, use his speed to establish position. Riding Arrogate for the first time, Smith made sure of it.
“I said, ‘Get him up in the doors, get him square, way up in the doors,’ ” Smith said, repeating his instructions to gateman Mike Mulligan. “You try to let them push off the back, but he’s weak behind, by the time he does it, he’s already given them a half-length head start. So at least this time, he came out with them, then I just set behind him for about three jumps, then I stood up and kept my weight back, then…”
It was over.
Arrogate broke a step slower than his stablemate, American Freedom, to his right, but Smith made sure that was his only misstep, slapping him right-handed and staying low to hammer his peg from the inside.
“Once he gets underneath himself, God, he jumps from here to that building,” Smith said, pointing in the distance.
Under the wire the first time, Haskell runner-up American Freedom and Jim Dandy winner Laoban led Arrogate as Kent Desormeaux anchored Haskell and Preakness winner Exaggerator on the rail in last.
Without effort, Arrogate led by a length after a quarter-mile in :23.23 as American Freedom and Laoban stayed close. Destin positioned himself in fourth on the rail, Gun Runner set up outside in fifth. Longshot Anaximandros was in a drive after a half-mile in :46.84. Curlin winner Connect found a spot alone in seventh. Curlin runner-up Gift Box sat a few lengths back in eighth. Longshot My Man Sam followed a length back, Belmont Stakes winner Creator chilled in 10th. Curlin-third Forever d’Oro lagged in 11th as Exaggerator passed Jim Dandy runner-up Governor Malibu. Fourteen lengths and a universe separated Arrogate and Governor Malibu as the field bent into the far turn.
Smith kept his hands low and wide as Arrogate posted a 1:10.85 split for 6 furlongs. Passing the quarter pole, American Freedom reached Arrogate’s quarter, but that’s all and not for long, as he plugged away in second. Gun Runner tried to close but couldn’t land a blow. The rest were either plummeting or paddling, Arrogate’s early speed walking them down the plank and the 10-furlong distance pushing them off.
“He took off when I asked him,” Smith said. “I thought, ‘all right, all right,’ then I asked him one more time, ‘Oh, that’s good enough,’ but you’ve got Exaggerator and all those closers, man, you just never know when one’s going to come down the middle of the track, but I said, ‘if they catch him, they’ve got to be unbelievable.’ ”
Smith stayed low, his wide-slung cross of the reins moving in unison with Arrogate’s long, efficient stride. Straightening in the stretch, Arrogate swapped smoothly to his right lead, Smith slapped him once right handed, waved his whip underhanded, then switched it to his left hand, turning it over in the same motion and hitting Arrogate once, as he neared the sixteenth pole.
“When I finally could see the TV, then I stopped,” Smith said, similar to his thoughts after Songbird romped in the Alabama. “I can’t see the damn TV, the sun is shining, it’s so bright, you can’t see crap. I don’t want to waste my time looking around, I don’t believe in moving my weight going that far, just stay with his rhythm.”
Smith and Arrogate kept their rhythm like Simon and Garfunkel, widening their lead with every stride and stopping the clock in 1:59.36, topping General Assembly’s 37-year-old track record of 2:00.
“That was freaky,” Smith said, speaking for any and all of the 48,630 in attendance. “I’m so blessed, I’m numb.”
As always in racing, there is one winner and many losers. Nobody lost like Rafael Bejarano. The California-based jockey had ridden Arrogate in his three wins. He had also ridden American Freedom to win the Iowa Derby and finish second in the Haskell. Bejarano wound up on American Freedom. On paper, it looked like it was his choice. Far from it.
As Smith kissed the sky and Arrogate paraded to the eighth pole after the Travers, Bejarano met Baffert in the winner’s circle.
“I’m sorry man, that was your horse,” Baffert said, putting his arm around Bejarano.
The jockey tried to brush it off, explaining his trip to Baffert and then made the long, lonely walk back to the jocks’ room. Second in the Travers can be a hard pill to swallow, second to a horse you were riding, whew, that’s bitter.
“Tough go, tough go,” Bejarano said. “It was very sad for me, I’ve been working him, riding him, I prepare the horse to win the race. A week before the race, the owner wanted me to stick with American Freedom, there was nothing I can do. Oh, I would have picked Arrogate for sure, I knew he was going to win the race. Oh, I knew. I knew.”
Baffert wasn’t so sure when he entered Arrogate and American Freedom in the $1.25 million race.
“I was nervous today,” Baffert said. “But it was a good nervous because they were both doing great.”
Purchased for $560,000 at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale in 2014, Arrogate took a while to come around. Long and tall, he missed his entire 2-year-old season for minor issues and didn’t get started until April, when most of his Travers foes were readying for the Triple Crown races. Out of the 13 runners, only Baffert’s pair, Chad Brown’s Connect and Gift Box and 131-1 Anaximandros didn’t make at least one start in a Triple Crown race.
Hired by Prince Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte Farm in 2012 to reignite its presence in California, dry since Bobby Frankel died in 2009, Baffert and his main bloodstock agent, Donato Lanni, went out and bought yearlings with one goal in mind.
“When I got the call, the whole deal was to try to get to the Kentucky Derby,” Baffert said. “We’re a little bit late.”
Juddmonte bought four yearlings at Keeneland September in 2012. Pimpernel, West Riding, Curlin To Mischief and Beach Hut didn’t make the Derby, actually they didn’t make much.
In 2013, Juddmonte purchased three yearlings at Keeneland, Bassanio, Planet and Lamu failed to make an impact.
In 2014, eight yearlings were added to the Juddmonte roster. And one of those just won the Travers.
“I was frustrated by it. But, you know, the prince is patient. Garrett O’Rourke said, ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing.’ You’re hoping that one of them will pay for the rest of them,” Baffert said. “I’m sure the prince is watching, they live for horses. He’s used to having horses like Frankel, Empire Maker . . . at least we have a good one. Finally.”