A 100-foot statue of the mythical equine Pegasus looms over the Florida landscape, crushing into submission a writhing steel dragon. With no hint of understatement, this monstrous pair signal the location of Gulfstream Park, home of the Pegasus World Cup, the latest addition to the elite racing calendar and the world’s richest race. In an age where the spectacular has become the norm, Gulfstream hoped this titanic structure would draw global attention and provide an allegory for the epic battles their $12m purse sought to incite.
With the participation of established champion California Chrome and new-kid-on-the-block Arrogate, the inaugural edition of the Pegasus on 28th January 2017 had a ready rematch narrative, the pair having tussled up the Santa Anita straight in the 2016 Breeders´ Cup Classic. Arrogate came out on top on that occasion, wearing down his hardened elder in the final strides, and it was hoped a second clash would again leave hearts thumping at Gulfstream.
In the end, Chrome’s failure to fire and subsequent retirement took most of the headlines, but the utter dominance of effortless winner Arrogate suggested that as one champion waned, another was hitting cruising speed on a sharp upward trajectory.
Purchased by Juddmonte Farms for $560,000 at Keeneland yearling sales in September 2014, this steel-grey son of Unbridled’s Song had caught the eye of more than a few prospective buyers, with an enviable pedigree and scopey frame suggesting notable long-term potential for the dirt circuit.
Prince Khalid’s powerful operation would not be bested in the ring however as, with the remarkable foresight that has helped make the Juddmonte project such a success, they had earmarked this raw racer as harbouring the potential to be fashioned into a marketable dirt stallion for their expanding American roster.
With turf-steeped Juddmonte home-breds unlikely to excel in the lucrative American dirt programme, California trainer Bob Baffert, famed for his skilled handling of dirt performers, had been drafted in in 2012 to both purchase and train outside stock. Baffert had been part of the team that bought Arrogate and welcomed the colt to his barns in summer 2015.
But such is the unpredictable nature of the racing game that even those with the means and vision of Juddmonte are not immune to setbacks. And so it was that sore shins scuppered Arrogate’s 2yo career, leaving him to make a belated debut as a 3yo in April 2016.
With such esteemed connections, Arrogate predictably drew the money for his first outing in a 1200m Los Alamitos Maiden. A tardy break and troubled passage meant the best he could manage was 3rd, but a rapid final quarter provided reassurance that continued patience would soon be rewarded.
Indeed, it seems Arrogate has been keen to make up for lost time ever since, racking up 7 consecutive victories with an average winning distance of 4.5 lengths.
Without the reference of a 2yo season, the racing world did not immediately grasp just how good Arrogate might be. A relentless all-the-way win in the G1 Travers Stakes over 2000m at Saratoga in August of 2016 changed this, signalling exceptional talent and teeing up the aforementioned clash with California Chrome in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Despite having hit the track mere months before, Arrogate assured his place in racing history in effectively ending Chrome’s career with convincing victories at Santa Anita and then Gulfstream.
So Arrogate had seemingly been put into overdrive, zipping from debut defeat to G1 glory in the time it takes some horses to put one hoof in front of the other. With $10m already amassed, Baffert contemplated building his latest superstar’s future race programme around a defence of the Classic and the Pegasus. An entirely reasonable route to follow.
But racing is a global game these days and Arrogate already possessed the pedigree and race record to make an attractive American-based dirt stallion for Juddmonte. Only a prestigious international victory could really enhance his profile and they don’t come any more prestigious than the Dubai World Cup.
Top of the world
Until the Pegasus came along, the Dubai World Cup was the world’s richest horse race and a prize Baffert had landed on 2 occasions in 1998 and 2001. In Arrogate it appeared he had the horse to make it 3.
Having realised such impressive exploits in a short period of time, it was easy to forget that Arrogate was still a relative novice. Baffert appeared confident, but did sound one note of caution. “The break is going to be the most important part. Arrogate missed the break on his first start and he couldn’t get out and got beat.”
Drawn in stall 9 of 14, Arrogate was squeezed as they broke and found himself 20 lengths behind the leader. ‘If he wins, he’s the greatest horse since Secretariat,’ Baffert said to wife Jill.
But it wasn’t Secretariat who came to mind as Arrogate was coaxed down the back straight by rider Mike Smith. It was Zenyatta, the imposing mare whose trademark slow-starting fast-finishing style had been orchestrated to perfection by Smith throughout her prolific career (with one notable exception).
As had so often been the case for Zenyatta, Arrogate’s chances spanned the full spectrum of racing probability in a matter of minutes. From ‘impossible’ to ‘unstoppable’, his juggernaut action brought him from last to first in one of the most improbable runs even seasoned racing fans might recall.
This feat was notable not only for its athletic immensity. In crossing the winning line at Meydan, Arrogate superseded California Chrome as the highest-earning North American thoroughbred in the history of the sport. The bank of Arrogate now held assets of over $17m.
‘If he wins, he’s the greatest horse since Secretariat,’ Baffert said to wife Jill.
Arrogate had conquered the World Cup just 341 days into his career and the question could now be asked as to how he might possibly better himself.
The truth is that unless a superior prize is plucked Pegasus-like from the air, Arrogate already carries dirt racing’s most weighty titles in terms of both prestige and financial reward.
But for successful men like Baffert and Smith, and even more so for one as distinguished and wealthy as Prince Khalid Abdullah, the dollars and ratings can no longer be the main motivation behind their racing endeavours. Rather it is the realisation of ambitious projects through a series of judgement calls that drives their quest for success; the creation of moments such as Arrogate’s irresistible Meydan run that feed their passion.
After a delayed take-off, Arrogate has soared to heights unequalled. With returns to the Classic, the Pegasus, and the World Cup on the agenda, how long until he hits the stratosphere?