On the morning after party poopers were the bane of New Year’s Eve gatherings, Bob Baffert played the role at Santa Anita.
The trainer scratched his latest luminary, Arrogate, from the San Pasqual Stakes. The move dampened the New Year’s Day mood among those race patrons who, like revelers counting down the seconds until midnight Saturday, had been counting down the days to the thoroughbred’s first outing since his dramatic Breeders’ Cup Classic triumph.
Track officials were somewhat prepared, given that Baffert had hedged from the moment Arrogate was entered. He voiced reluctance to subject his late-budding star, who has been training superbly, to a potentially soggy track, given the weather forecast.
Unpersuaded by the prospect of sunshine after two days of rain, Baffert yanked Arrogate, thus shrinking an already puny field to a wagering-unfriendly four.
The course was labeled “wet fast,” meaning a thin layer of water covered the surface without penetrating it.
Midnight Storm profited from Arrogate’s absence. Vaulting into the vacated role of odds-on favorite, he angled in from the outside post to a prompt lead and refused to yield it, winning by 1 1/4 lengths.
“We’re grateful Arrogate didn’t run, but we pointed to this race because Arrogate was in it,” said Alex Venneri, Midnight Storm’s principal owner, who holds his horse in high regard. “Arrogate may have beaten us by 50 lengths.”
Philip D’Amato, the champion’s trainer, was not quite as hyperbolic but said of the development, “Obviously, it definitely improved our chances of winning. In my eyes, Arrogate is the horse of the year.
“At the same time,” he added, “there is a little bit of you that wants to test the best.”
The withdrawal did not alter D’Amato’s strategy. Arrogate or not, he wanted jockey Rafael Bejarano to gun it from the starting gate. Once Midnight Storm motored ahead, he never was passed, though Dalmore appeared to draw even as they veered into the stretch.
Unlike the rest of Midnight Storm’s camp, Bejarano might have rued the scratch. He was Arrogate’s jockey until Baffert bounced him for Hall of Famer Mike Smith, whose introductory ride was a 13 1/2-length masterpiece in the Travers Stakes.
Baffert’s holiday spirits were doubly doused after he was informed that stable owner Kaleem Shah was transferring horses overseen by the trainer to two other barns.
Notably, Dortmund and Klimt were handed off Sunday to Art Sherman, trainer of California Chrome, Arrogate’s chief adversary for top horse honors. While barn switches are common, it is remarkable for an owner to cease operations with the most accomplished trainer of his era. Shah and Baffert teamed for eight years, generating five Grade 1 wins.
The San Pasqual, a Grade 2 stakes race, was intended as Arrogate’s tuneup for the inaugural Pegasus World Cup on Jan. 28 at Gulfstream Park. With the dozen contestants ponying up $1 million apiece, the lucrative race would offer the largest purse ever.
Baffert indicated that Arrogate would bypass other possible prep races. “We’re just going to train up to [the Pegasus] now,” he said in a text message. “We’ll just work around the rain. It shouldn’t be a problem.”
The scratch came as no surprise to his jockey. “They weren’t sure they were going to run him from the beginning anyway,” Smith said by telephone from his residence, where he planned to spend the work-free day watching football on TV. “If this were the Pegasus, it might have been different.”
“I’d love to have ridden him today,” Smith added. “This is just part of the game.”
Smith expressed no concern that the lack of a prep race would compromise the horse’s outlook in the Pegasus.
“Bob is such a tremendous horseman,” Smith said. “You saw that [with Arrogate] going into the Classic.”