“The ride with you was worth the fall, my friend, Didn’t we almost have it all” Whitney Houston
By Alex Steedman at Del Mar
Being the best, losing everything then trying to win it all back again is a rare experience. Racing has seen it’s share of the rise and the fall but nothing is more glorious in sport or life than returning to the very summit of your world. This weekend Arrogate has to prove he can be the main man again.
In 2015 nobody in the racing world had an earthly about Arrogate. Within a year he was the very centre of that universe as the best horse on the planet and the most splendid money winner in history. He even beat America’s darling, California Chrome, in last year’s Classic before producing one of those sporting Wow moments in the Dubai World Cup. Here was an American dirt star that made everyone sit up and take notice.
And then the wheels came off. Just four months after that marvel at Meydan, Arrogate spluttered to a 15- length defeat on his reappearance in a mile handicap at Del Mar and though much better on his next start at the track where he will defend his crown this weekend, the rolling thunder and relentlessness of his previous dominance seemed distant yet.
Which begs one important question: have we seen the very best of Arrogate or is he gradually winding his way back just as others have done before him?
There is a little, or perhaps a lot, of the mighty Denman in Arrogate; the brooding presence, powerful shoulders and that relentless ability to gallop at proper, racing pace.
And just as the historic, jaw-dropping performance in Dubai is likely to have been the precursor to Arrogate’s fall from grace, so Denman’s finest moment of Gold Cup glory precipitated the descent.
Denman, as Harry Findlay said on Racing UK recently, literally broke his heart in thumping Kauto Star as well as a subsequent Grand National winner when victorious at Cheltenham in 2008.
Arrogate was brilliant when powering to Dubai World Cup glory in March
That seven-length demolition job was the climax of two jumping seasons when The Tank went unbeaten in nine starts over fences including two Festival successes and a Hennessy off top weight.
By the summer’s end Denman was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat that was treated ahead of his belated comeback, a scarcely believable taming at the hands of Madison Du Berlais. There was a light that somehow had gone out.
But just as Arrogate’s latest run offers hope that he’s getting there, so Denman came back, to a point. By most standards, a second Hennessy win just a few months after that painful first chasing defeat and three subsequent Gold Cup 2nds must be considered a return to the top. But the standards set by Denman himself were extraordinary, shadow making. He came back but was never quite the beast of 2008.
If supporters of Arrogate are looking for encouragement they could do worse than recall the changing fortunes of another recent jumping star in Sprinter Sacre with a story echoing Denman’s.
Sprinter Sacre went undefeated in 10 chase starts, including seven Grade 1s, and Festival wins by margins of seven and 19 lengths. That his slump came on the back of a unique Cheltenham/Aintree/Punchestown treble underlines how winning well can be harder than it looks. The slump included heart issues similar to Denman’s enforcing a year break and then a winless season. Sprinter Sacre was, in the eyes of most, gone at the game.
But something strange happened in 2016. Just as Arrogate was beginning his run to greatness, Sprinter Sacre was back on top, winning four successive races including another Champion Chase. Arrogate has hinted at return in less time.
Arrogate got the better of California Chrome in the Classic last year
And remember every man and his dog urging Paul Nicholls to retire Kauto Star at the age of 11 after he had disappointed at Punchestown? Within seven months he’d won a fourth Betfair Chase and a record fifth King George VI Chase. Maybe these great horses come back after all.
Or maybe it is just the National Hunt types are just a bit hardier. Maybe it was the Northern jumping know-how that helped Michael Dickinson prepare Da Hoss to produce the greatest comeback in Breeders’ Cup history to date.
Then again, we had learned with Dickinson to expect almost anything. This was the man who’d commandeered the first five positions in a Cheltenham Gold Cup before turning his attentions to the Flat in America, launching Da Hoss into the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Mile as a four-race maiden. He won, of course.
Nearly two years later, Da Hoss was still in his barn. A much belated reappearance win set him up for a crack at his old title at Churchill Downs with new jockey John Velazquez on board. Former pilot Gary Stevens suffered a distant view of them both as Da Hoss roared into the history books, the comeback king.
So Da Hoss is the precedent, yes, but trainer Bob Baffert has one ace up his sleeve in his attempt to bring Arrogate back to his best and that is the knowledge that he has been here before.
A decade ago in the slop at Monmouth Park, even mud on his shoes couldn’t dampen Baffert’s enthusiasm for Midnight Lute who ran away from his Sprint field by nearly five lengths. Soon, though, smiles turned to grimaces as a hock injury kept the champ off the track for nine months.
When Lute returned to Del Mar in August, he beat only two horses home in a handicap. The jury was definitely out. Then the hard work started. Baffert got stuck in and Midnight Lute blossomed. Returning to defend his Breeders’ Cup crown on his next start, on the new pro-ride surface, Midnight Lute returned to his very best with a dominant display.
Mike Smith suggested Arrogate "didn't try" when well beaten on his penultimate start
Then Baffert described Lute as the best he had trained though American Pharoah and ultimately Arrogate have intervened wonderfully since. It’s true Arrogate has had one return run more than his predecessor and that was an encouraging effort behind rival Collected but he’s had the same break since August for Baffert to freshen him up then uncork once again.
There has been outspoken concern about the surface at Del Mar, replaced since Arrogate last ran there.
Jockey Mike Smith had described it as deep and difficult for Arrogate to tract or purchase on. Watch this space on that story. The reigning champ has won at the track previously before his reappearance disappointment and the latest, more forward effort. In truth, that alone puts him right in the picture without factoring in potential and perhaps significant improvement.
More worrying were Smith’s comments on Arrogate; where the horse might be mentally, what he might be willing to risk physically. Smith recently told the Racing Post, “He didn’t even try to run (on his reappearance) but if he goes there and tries then I think he’s going to be hard to beat” hints at vulnerability which will not sit easily with fans or punters on this stage, at this track.
Under normal circumstances, Arrogate’s return to ‘form’ last time would be seen as a precursor to something special. But then Arrogate has not previously appeared normal at all. Maybe he’s more like Denman than we’ve imagined, perhaps he’s not Da Hoss he used to be. If he is though - and most fans must surely hope that is the case - the stage is set for another of racing’s great comebacks.