The crowd was ready. Packed into every nook and cranny of the Santa Anita grandstand on Saturday to witness America’s horse, their horse, take his rightful place in the winner’s circle draped in a Breeders’ Cup champion blanket. They roared as the gates opened and California Chrome took control of the field in just a few easy strides. They got louder as he kept to task through reasonable fractions, ears perked as jockey Victor Espinoza set the cruise control.
Sensing the inevitable was near, the sounds of the 73,000 reached a crescendo as Chrome rounded the far turn for home with a comfortable 1-1/2 lead. When the promising young colt Arrogate began to crank on the outside under the expert aim of Mike Smith, the roar of the crowd turned from exultation to desperation. And when the steel grey colt caught California Chrome a stride ahead of the finish line, a collective groan filled the air.
Art Sherman said it best, as only a man who has spent his entire career riding the ebbs and flows of racetrack life really can. “Sometimes good horses get beat. Just goes to show that you can’t win every race.”
California Chrome had won every race so far in 2016, propelling him to the top of the world rankings. Saturday’s Classic did nothing to diminish his luster, but it did create a new monster in Arrogate.
In just his sixth career start, his first against older company and off a two month layoff, the 3-year-old son of Unbridled’s Song took a swing and knocked it out of the park.
The Juddmonte homebred trained by “Big Game” Bob Baffert had garnered plenty of appeal this summer when he shipped to Saratoga for the Travers and set the track on fire in record fashion. It was a truly jaw-dropping performance that makes you wonder if any horse could possibly back it up next time out. Rather than risk the proverbial “bounce”, Baffert opted to train him up to The Classic from right here at Santa Anita.
“Deep down, I really wasn’t sure if we could beat California Chrome, because I still have total respect for the horse,” Baffert said. “When Chrome was out there cruising, I thought no way he’s going to catch him, he’s going to run second, but at least he showed up. Then all of a sudden, Mike’s riding and he’s catching up little by little with that big stride kicking in. I never thought he would be able to catch Chrome.”
“You just don’t see things like this from a young 3-year-old,” said jockey Mike Smith. “He literally was prancing after the race was over. He’s got amazing stamina. He doesn’t quit. He could have gone around again. He’s incredible.”
The win gives Bob Baffert an unprecedented third Classic winner in a row (Bayern, American Pharoah, Arrogate), while “Money” Mike Smith banked his 25th career Breeders’ Cup triumph. For Juddmonte, the famed international operation that has produced champions like Frankel, Danehill, Empire Maker and Oasis Dream, Arrogate is its first Classic winner. Juddmonte America manager Garrett O’Rourke announced after the race the colt will return to the track in 2017.
“That winner is the real McCoy,” Sherman said. “I knew he was the one we had to beat, but I didn’t know how good he was.”