Horse racing got what it desperately needed Saturday afternoon at Santa Anita: a new superstar.
In a stirring stretch drive that was every bit a symbolic passing of the torch, California Chrome looked as if he was going to win the $6-million Breeders’ Cup Classic.
But as the finish line approached, jockey Mike Smith switched to a right-hand whip on Arrogate and the colt found another gear that propelled the 3-year-old to a half-length win over the 5-year-old, all-time leading money winner.
“At the eighth pole, all of a sudden, he started getting into that gear, and he’s coming, and he’s inching away at him,” said winning trainer Bob Baffert. “To run down a great horse like Chrome was just like — that’s what the Breeders’ Cup is all about.”
California Chrome, who had won six in a row this year, has one more race in his career, the Pegasus, a new $12-million race at Gulfstream Park in January, before heading to the breeding shed.
Chrome trainer Art Sherman has already challenged Arrogate’s connections to a rematch. However, any semblance of an answer was clearly dodged.
No one knows how many more races Arrogate has. And that’s good news for racing.
The horse’s owners have indicated they would like to run him as a 4-year-old. Great 3-year-olds are often retired because their value at stud is greater than their value as a race horse.
When Garrett O’Rourke, racing manager of Juddmonte Farms, reiterated the likelihood of a return, Baffert raised and thrust his fist as if he had all six numbers in the lottery.
“Yes,” Baffert said.
“Double yes,” Smith added.
In some ways, Baffert is already a multiple lottery winner. Saturday was his third straight Classic win, having been in the same spot the last two years with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and Bayern.
Listening to the participants, it was difficult to not get hit by the compliments flying back and forth between the trainers.
“He ran his race, but just got beat in those last couple of jumps,” Sherman said of California Chrome. “That winner is the real McCoy. I knew he was the one to beat, but I didn’t know how good he was. We had no excuses.”
Arrogate paid $5.40, $2.80 and $2.60. Chrome paid $2.60 and $2.40. Keen Ice paid $5.80 to show.
Jockey Mike Smith celebrates aboard Arrogate after winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park on Saturday.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Arrogate, ridden by jockey Mike Smith, defeats California Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park on Saturday.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Obviously beats Om in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint race on Saturday at Santa Anita Park.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
A trio of ladies watch as horses are prepped for the sixth race of the Breeders’ Cup on Saturday.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Horse racing fans wear fanciful hats during the second day of the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita Park.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
A groom waits with a horse in the tunnel between Breeders’ Cup races at Santa Anita Park on Saturday.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Mongolian grooms watch their entry, a thoroughbred named Mongolian, in the seventh race of the Breeders’ Cup on Saturday at Santa Anita Park.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Home of the Brave, with jockey James Doyle aboard, walks out of the paddock for the seventh race of the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita Park on Saturday.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Jockey Julien Leparoux is congratulated by a fan after winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile race aboard Classic Empire on Saturday at Santa Anita Park.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Dirt sticks to the nose of jockey Julien Laparoux after he guided Classic Empire to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Saturday at Santa Anita Park.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Before the race, Baffert was very explicit in how everyone should be rooting for Sherman and the respect he has for the 79-year-old trainer. Predictably, Saturday’s race didn’t alter his opinion a bit.
“All I can say is Art Sherman, they’ve done an incredible job with California Chrome,” Baffert said. “I mean that’s why this place was packed today [72,811 fans]. … I even became a fan of that horse.
“I could hear the whole grandstand 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.”
Arrogate certainly didn’t have the name recognition of his counterpart, partly because of his late start. He was not ready for the Triple Crown season, running only once at Los Alamitos in April and finishing second. He won his next race at Santa Anita in June and he hasn’t stopped since.
It was his eye-popping performance at Saratoga in the very competitive Travers Stakes that got everyone’s attention, winning by 13 ½ lengths in track-record time. Baffert would have liked to have given him a prep race leading into the Classic, but no race really fit the timing.
Rafael Bejarano had ridden Arrogate to all his wins going into the Travers, but Baffert also had American Freedom in that race and the owners wanted Bejarano to ride that horse.
“He was relentless, this horse,” Smith said. “He never stops. He’s got some stamina. Bob’s done a great job. The horse has only run five times and he beat California Chrome.”
It was a remarkable Breeders’ Cup, a collection 13 races worth $28 million. Friday was highlighted by a quarter-mile stretch duel for the ages between retiring 6-year-old Beholder and upstart Songbird, an undefeated 3-year-old. Beholder won.
It was almost as if horse racing had stepped into a time capsule and recaptured a relevance it had long ago lost. The success was no doubt tied to horses people had heard about. It was a perfect mix of the old and new and this time the new seems to be sticking around.
It reminded people of the ‘50s and ‘60s when people cared about the sport. A lot of them. The track sold out the grandstand Saturday with a crowd that was a Breeders’ Cup record outside of Churchill Downs. Add to that 45,763 on the warmup card on Friday, a record for the first day.
Like almost all sports, it showed the importance of having stars. And on this weekend, horse racing had the right names on the marquee.