Arrogate catches California Chrome in Classic

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Overjoyed, amazed, thrilled, proud, chuffed and pretty much any other adjective you wanted to call up, Garrett O’Rourke basked in the magnificence that was Arrogate after Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California.

The race’s 33rd running added one more chapter to its heavy book of racing moments when Juddmonte Farm’s 3-year-old ran down 5-year-old Horse of the World California Chrome in the final yards to answer the “Who’s better?” question on the racetrack. Going 1 1/4 miles, on the first Saturday of November 2016 at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, the steel gray Arrogate was – though, like Friday’s Distaff throwdown between Beholder and Songbird – there was no real loser. Coming from off the pace with a brazen stretch run, Arrogate was brave and better. Racing on the front end throughout, California Chrome was brave and not quite as good.

Together, they provided a stirring climax to two days of world-class racing – from a roiling Friday battle in the Distaff to Saturday’s multiple crescendos including Highland Reel’s front-running show in the Turf, Tourist’s denial of Tepin in the Mile and Classic Empire’s score in the Juvenile.

Still, the Classic provided the encore to the concert. O’Rourke and the rest of the Juddmonte team, trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith had the joy of coming out winners by a half-length after 2:00.11. California Chrome, who lost for the first time since March 2015, and his people settled for second best. The American manager of Prince Khalid bin Abdullah’s worldwide Juddmonte operation, O’Rourke loved his horse’s performance, but also spoke like a racing fan after watching one Thoroughbred star prevail over another.

“We’re all fans that love experiences like yesterday with Songbird and Beholder and today with California Chrome and Arrogate,” O’Rourke said. “For three minutes afterward yesterday, I was hoping it was a dead heat because they were both so good. Today was similar. But if we’re going to win in a fantastic finish, who do you want to beat? You want to beat the best and you want to beat the best at their best with your best. There’s a tremendous satisfaction that we beat a brilliant horse at his absolute best today.”

Baffert agreed, paying full credit to California Chrome and stopping to shake assistant trainer Alan Sherman’s hand at the edge of the winner’s circle.

“They’ve done an incredible job with California Chrome,” Baffert said. “That’s why this place was packed today. I even became a fan of that horse. Anytime you see two horses like we saw yesterday with Beholder and Songbird, it was like you sit there and you really don’t want to see a loser. Even today in the stretch, you really don’t. If they could have come up dead heated, but I could hear the whole grandstand was just screaming and yelling. And 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.”

About the color of an old battleship in the shadows of Santa Anita, Arrogate took his opportunity to do the same Saturday evening – firing his best shot to knock off a horse two years older in the year’s most important race. The colt’s six-start racing career (all this year) stepped from an April maiden loss at Los Alamitos to maiden and allowance wins at Santa Anita in June, an allowance score at Del Mar in August, a stakes-debut for the ages in the Grade 1 Travers at Saratoga in August and now the $6 million Classic.

The race lived up to its billing of a matchup of the year’s best 3-year-old (who missed the spring classics) Arrogate and the year’s best older horse California Chrome. The latter, Horse of the Year in 2014 after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and finishing third in the Classic, put together a 5-year-old campaign with few peers – winning six in a row including the Dubai World Cup in March, Pacific Classic in August and Awesome Again in October. The sport’s all-time leading earner carried more than $13 million into the Classic and was sent off the 4-5 favorite by 72,811 in attendance.

Saturday, he did what he always does – breaking strongly from post four in a field of nine and racing on the lead while off the rail. Arrogate, a wire-to-wire winner of the Travers, rated early and was fifth after a quarter-mile in :23.28. California Chrome got some pressure from Melatonin during the second quarter as the half-mile split went up in :47.15. By then, Smith had Arrogate in third, just behind and outside Melatonin. Up the backstretch, California Chrome got away from Melatonin a bit and Arrogate backed off. After 6 furlongs in 1:10.96, the favorite led by a little more than a length. Arrogate, with Smith adding encouragement, was another 2 lengths back in third. Smith dropped inside to save ground on the turn, and advanced to second.

“I didn’t want to move too early; that will just make him pack us out more,” Smith said in the post-race press conference. “I winded up cutting the corner going into the far turn, and that really helped a lot. Because once I switched over and dropped into the far turn, he really picked it up at that point . . . Then he was relentless, this horse. He never stops. He’s got some stamina.”

Victor Espinoza, confidently checking over his inside and outside shoulders, looked back at the quarter pole – after a mile in 1:35.72 – and asked California Chrome. The champion responded and increased his lead while Smith sent Arrogate to the outside and posed the race’s final question. The long-striding gray responded, accelerating inside the final sixteenth to sweep past and give Baffert his third consecutive Classic victory after Bayern in 2014 and American Pharoah last year. Keen Ice was third, 10 3/4 lengths behind the runner-up.

Arrogate, purchased by Juddmonte for $560,000 at Keeneland September in 2014, surpassed classic winners Nyquist and Exaggerator in the race for the 3-year-old championship and landed at least beside California Chrome in the Horse of the Year discussion. Bred by Clearsky Farm in Kentucky (from the Distorted Humor mare Bubbler), Arrogate pushed his earnings to $4,084,600 in just six starts.

Baffert and Juddmonte opted not to run between the Travers and the Classic, and their horse duplicated the effort more than two months later.

“I just didn’t want to run him against California Chrome in the Awesome Again,” the trainer said. “Maybe if it he hadn’t been there I might have run him in there. I just felt with my team, (assistant) Jimmy Barnes, everybody that gets on him, Dana Barnes gets on him. I knew we could do it. We’re equipped to deal with these situations. It’s a lot of fun, especially, so we show up for the big days, we lead them up there, and you just pray and hope that they show up.”

Juddmonte’s first Classic win gets put on the list near the exploits of stars such Frankel, Empire Maker, Flintshire, Danehill, Oasis Dream, Banks Hill and others.

“It’ll have to be tomorrow before I could say it,” O’Rourke said when asked how it felt. “You could say it is a shock, but it’s not a shock because the horse was giving confidence all week long and yesterday for the first time in my whole involvement with Bob Baffert he acted nervous and I got a laugh out of that and I thought it was something. I took it as a real positive because I’ve been around enough trainers to know that when they can’t find anything else to do with a horse, or come up with reasons why your horse shouldn’t win, they start getting nervous.”

Baffert was confident, but also knew the task at hand.

“Going in, we knew we had a great horse,” he said. “We thought we could be competitive. But down deep I really wasn’t sure if we could beat California Chrome because I still have total respect for the horse. He’s a great horse . . . I told Mike, if he runs this race, you can win it. If he doesn’t, there’s nothing you can do.”

The win also helped ease some of the sting from Smith’s narrow loss with Songbird in Friday’s Distaff. He was the hunted in that one, as Beholder edged the previously undefeated 3-year-old filly in the final inch.

“Well, that still hurts, it’s always going to hurt,” Smith said. “You hate to get beat, especially the matter of maybe an inch. This was incredible today. This horse ran a race today that you just don’t see things like this from a young 3-year-old that’s only run five times.”

Yes you do.

NOTES: Let’s play racing trivia. Who beat Arrogate in his debut? Westbrook (who has yet to win again, and was ninth in allowance company at Santa Anita Friday) and Accelerate (a Grade 2 winner who was third in the Dirt Mile Friday) . . . Smith won three Breeders’ Cup races and finished second in three others to claim the Willie Shoemaker trophy as leading jockey over the two days. He also won in 2012 and 2013.