He was a big colt — gangly, hardheaded and not particularly well-behaved. Arrogate required patience and often tried the patience of those charged with transforming him into a racehorse. Every now and then in the mornings, however, Arrogate would flash what might come, pumping those long gray legs like pistons and chugging down the track like a steamroller.
It would give his exercise rider, Dana Barnes, a thrill and put a smile on the face of his trainer, Bob Baffert. Still, it took awhile for Arrogate’s mind to catch up with his legs. He was not ready for the racetrack as a 2-year-old, nor could Baffert hurry him along for the Kentucky Derby preps. So Baffert and Barnes kept after him.
When jockey Mike Smith unleashed Arrogate in the stretch here in the 147th running of the Travers Stakes on Saturday, it was clear that their patience was going to pay off. Smith and the colt were 7 1/2 lengths ahead of the nearest competitor, and Arrogate looked every bit a fighter jet blasting off from an aircraft carrier.
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“I was amazed how he lengthened his stride and opened up,” Smith said.
The Midsummer Derby was not a race anymore, but a breathtaking exhibition of power. The roar of the 48,630 people enjoying a sun-splashed afternoon at this historic racetrack turned into murmurs of awe. Arrogate hit the finish line 13 1/2 lengths ahead of his stablemate American Freedom, stopping the clock (and the hearts of horse lovers) in a track-record 1 minute, 59.36 seconds for the mile-and-a-quarter route.
“We ran into a freak today,” said Steve Asmussen, the trainer of Gun Runner, the third-place finisher. “He never slowed down.”
There were plenty of people, however, who thought he would, including a plethora of bettors who let Arrogate go off at the long odds of 11 to 1. The colt, after all, had run only four times, none of them in a stakes race. Surely, Arrogate did not belong with the Preakness champ Exaggerator or the Belmont victor Creator?
Even the jockey who had ridden Arrogate to his three previous victories, Rafael Bejarano, had his doubts. He chose to ride Baffert’s American Freedom instead of Arrogate.
“The winner, he was just the best,” said Bejarano, a bit shellshocked after leaving a good bit of money on the table: 10 percent of the $670,000 first-place check Arrogate earned for his owner, Juddmonte Farms.
Instead, Smith, a Hall of Famer known as Big Money Mike for his knack of making great horses better in big races, climbed aboard. Smith was based in New York and among the nation’s finest jockeys when he won the Travers aboard Holy Bull in 1994 and Coronado’s Quest in 1998. He moved to California in 2001 and burnished his reputation as a gifted rider on a roster of all-star horses topped by the great race mare Zenyatta.
“Bob was very high on him,” Smith said of Arrogate.
So Smith caught a flight back east, a week after winning the Alabama Stakes with another supremely talented 3-year-old, the undefeated filly Songbird. In fact, shortly after that race, Baffert sent Smith a text that read simply, “We need an Alabama-Travers double.”
Smith’s reply? The thumbs-up emoji.
The Midsummer Derby has not been good to Baffert. He won it with Point Given in 2001 and went 0 for 5 in subsequent years. Last year, Baffert had come here with a great horse and got beat. After 15,000 people came out to see American Pharoah, the freshly minted Triple Crown champion, in a morning gallop, the colt survived a wickedly fast duel with a talented horse named Frosted only to be caught by a closer named Keen Ice.
“You could have poured me out of here in a shot glass,” Baffert said. “We were pretty dejected. The horse ran his heart out.”
He was worried about another heartbreak Saturday shortly after Smith gunned Arrogate out of the No. 1 gate and scooted him up the rail into an immediate lead. Like a metronome powered by amphetamines, Smith pushed the colt through a rapid half-mile of 46.84 seconds and an equally taxing mile in 1:35.52.
Jill Baffert nudged her husband and said, “I think they are going too fast.”
Baffert was startled by the quick pace but saw neither fatigue in Arrogate nor panic in Smith.
“He has a stride that is tremendous,” Smith said. “Although we were going quick, he was well within himself.”
Instead, it was the bigger-name colts that were struggling. Creator never found his stride and finished seventh. Exaggerator looked listless throughout the race and finished a badly beaten 11th.
“No excuses,” Exaggerator’s trainer, Keith Desormeaux, said.
Bejarano was in the same ZIP code with American Freedom, but he knew that his colt was not in the same class as Arrogate. “A mile and a quarter might have been too much for him, but he tried really hard,” he said.
While watching Arrogate sail down the stretch, Baffert thought about patience and luck and the way a fast horse makes him feel.
“I sat back and I just thought, Wow,” he said. “I knew there was no way they were going to catch him. The sky’s the limit for this horse.”