It’s not a match race, really. When a race has twelve horses slated to start, each paying $1,000,000 for the privilege of running, the Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park is a true horse race. Twelve starters, many possible outcomes.
The coverage of the Pegasus, part of a slate of seven stakes races on Saturday, January 28th, pays lip service to the other ten starters, but really it all seems to come down to two horses: Arrogate and California Chrome. Arrogate, the four-year-old youngster, recently voted the world’s best racehorse by Longines, conqueror of the last year’s Travers Stakes and Breeder’s Cup Classic. California Chrome, six years old, on the verge of retirement and stud life, twice Horse of the Year, conquered by the upstart Arrogate both in the Classic and in the voting for world’s best racehorse.
The gate might hold twelve, but the world only sees two. Only two names matter.
Arrogate vs. California Chrome. Speedy wonder with only one loss in his racing career versus the veteran who nearly won a Triple Crown and beat all comers in 2016 except this newly minted rival. With one voted the best in the world, barely edging out the other, the question of supremacy becomes paramount.
Where have we seen this before?
Hullabaloo to Get These Two
Man O’War had whooshed by all comers — except one, a horse ironically named Upset — since he first stepped on a dirt track at age two in 1919, the same year that a short, compact chestnut colt named Sir Barton had won America’s first Triple Crown. Big Red had dominated every one of his starts in 1920, prevented from his own Triple Crown by his owner Samuel Riddle’s reluctance to send his star to Churchill Downs in early May. With each start and each conquering of his peers, turf writers and fans alike started clamoring for the colt to compete with older horses. Riddle, though, feared the weight handicappers would burden his colt with and, thus, Man O’War faced only his peers throughout both 1919 and 1920. He couldn’t deny the clamor directed his way forever, though, especially when promoters like Colonel Matt Winn, the father of the spectacle of the Kentucky Derby, came knocking at his door.
Sir Barton, on the other hand, had been trying his hand at horses of all ages since he had taken the racing world by storm in the spring of 1919, winning what would become America’s first Triple Crown (plus one more start) in thirty-two days. In August 1920, he carried 129 pounds in the Saratoga Handicap and beat four others, including Exterminator, in track record time, 2.01 4/5 for the 1 1/4 miles. His performance in the Saratoga pushed Sir Barton to the top of everyone’s list as the best older horse in racing, better even than Old Bones himself. Two weeks later, after Sir Barton had added the Dominion Handicap to his record, Matt Winn started talking match race, offering $25,000 plus a gold cup for Sir Barton and Man O’War to meet. Even though neither owner took the offer, Winn had opened the floodgates and no one, not even Samuel Riddle or JKL Ross, was going to stop the rising tide toward a match race now.
Unlike Chrome and Arrogate, who are meeting in a race with other horses, Riddle shirked several chances to put Man O’War in similar races with Sir Barton and other older horses. Both would be entered for races like the Saratoga Cup or the Jockey Club Gold Cup and neither would make it to the barrier. Abe Orpen of Kenilworth Park in Windsor, Ontario then offered a purse of $75,000 plus a $5,000 gold cup for a weight-for-age (older horses carry more weight) meeting. Five weeks after Winn’s initial offer, Riddle and Ross accepted Orpen’s terms and suddenly the spectacle was on.
The 1920 Kenilworth Park Gold Cup
By agreeing to weight-for-age, Riddle bought Man O’War a perceived edge in their mile-and-a-quarter contest, 121 pounds versus Sir Barton’s 126 pounds. It was not an edge that Big Red needed, though. On October 12th, nearly three weeks after agreeing to terms with Orpen, Riddle and Ross sent their prized thoroughbreds out onto the track for the Kenilworth Park Gold Cup.
Next to Man O’War, Sir Barton seemed like any other horse. Big Red was a hand taller, his muscles clean and rippling. Everything about the three-year-old exuded power and speed; even Sir Barton, ‘the king of them all’ according to his yearling breaker, Triple Crown winner and record holder in his own right, looked overmatched standing by his rival. The race’s result was clear before they even reached the barrier.
Sir Barton had a length or so advantage on Man O’War from the start until they hit the first straightaway and then Big Red, with his twenty-eight-foot stride, caught and then passed the Triple Crown winner. Barring an accident, the match race was clearly no match. Sure, as rumored, Sir Barton suffered from the effects of a long two years of campaigning; he was already hard to keep sound owing to his compromised hooves. Had Triple Crown winner been at the top of his form as he was at Saratoga, he might have had a better shot at this rival, but even that might not have changed the result in the end.
The country, already mad with Big Red Fever, lauded the colt with all of the superlatives they had, many similar to the ones they’d bestowed on Sir Barton only the year before. America’s first Triple Crown winner went back to Maryland to run his final three starts before being unceremoniously retired the following spring. He eventually stood stud at Audley Farm and then became a part of the United States Army Remount Service, his stud services devoted then to his country’s cavalry. Man O’War went on to become America’s most famous and beloved racehorse until Secretariat came long fifty years later. Much like Secretariat, Man O’War has stamped his place in thoroughbred racing both on the track and in the breeding shed, a mark evident to this day.
The Pegasus World Cup Invitational
Much like Sir Barton and Man O’War, California Chrome will mark the end of his career with this start against Arrogate and ten others in the Pegasus World Cup on Saturday. The effect this near-match race will have on his racing legacy remains unwritten much as the race itself does. For Arrogate, who will go on to race more before he calls it quits, this race can only augment who and what he is and always in relation to his competition like Chrome.
Unlike Sir Barton and Man O’War, who were only accessible through the words of the turf writers of the day, California Chrome and Arrogate are available to their fans in so many more ways. This accessibility and its immediacy might make their clash seem much less high-stakes than it was for Sir Barton and Man O’War, but the potential is there, nevertheless, to change and color the legacy of one or both horses, much as the Kenilworth Park Gold Cup did for Sir Barton and Man O’War.
By the way, I’ll take Arrogate over Chrome one more time. Chrome will start from the twelve post and Arrogate will start from the first post on the rail. Neither might take the lead, but, once Arrogate gets his head low and his stride lengthens out, he’s going to be hard to beat, even for Champion Chrome.