The Big Three Face Off — Again

2017_TraversThis Saturday, Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, Preakness Stakes winner Cloud Computing, and Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit will square off in the mile-and-a-quarter Travers Stakes at Saratoga. Thirty-five years earlier, in 1982, the three classic winners — Gato Del Sol, Aloma’s Ruler, and Conquistador Cielo — all met in the Travers as well, but Runaway Groom, winner of the Prince of Wales Stakes in Canada, surprised them all in the stretch to win. In 1918, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont winners all faced off in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, also with a surprising result.

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Exterminator on the rail, with Sun Briar on the outside.

Early on in 1918, Sun Briar had been one of the leading two-year-olds from the previous year looking to dominate again in his three-year-old season. Along with War Cloud, he was one of the early favorites for the Kentucky Derby, but an injury that spring meant that trainer Henry McDaniel would not have the colt ready for the Run for the Roses. Owner Willis Sharpe Kilmer was in danger of going without a Derby horse until he picked up the gangly gelding Exterminator in the weeks leading up to the race. Exterminator surprised everyone by winning the Kentucky Derby. Now Kilmer had two great horses in his barn: Exterminator and Sun Briar, but the owner still preferred his bay champion over the chestnut newcomer.

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Great Expectations

Last year, I stood in the hot August sun holding my phone, looking puzzled at the conversation I was having with my husband.

“Who won the Travers?” I asked him over chat.

“Arrogate.” He replied.

“Who?” I asked.

After watching the 2016 Triple Crown season, from preps to the Travers, I thought I knew every three-year-old out there. Having been a Nyquist fan to that point, I reluctantly had picked Exaggerator to win after his win in the Haskell. After watching Arrogate’s speedy triumph later, I was more than happy to be wrong about my pick.

I rooted for Arrogate against California Chrome in the Breeder’s Cup Classic even though I had been a Chromie since his Kentucky Derby win in 2014. I rooted for Arrogate again in the Pegasus World Cup. I cried when Arrogate valiantly moved like a comet around the crowded field of horses to win the Dubai World Cup.

I’m an Arrogater through and through.

Before the San Diego Handicap, though, I had felt a twinge of doubt in my gut. What if? What if? ran through my mind as I read bedtime stories to my sons, anticipating watching the race after both were safely ensconced in their beds. As my phone blew up with tweets and comments, I knew that twinge had grown into a storm that was raining on my Facebook feed.

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Arrogate struggles in fourth behind Accelerate, the winner of the San Diego Handicap.

“What did I just see?” “Did that just happen?” “What’s wrong with Arrogate?”

The way he had struggled home behind the aptly named Accelerate, the only horse to that point that had finished in front of Arrogate in all of his starts since his late start on the track in 2016, felt like a punch to the gut. After all, despite my years of watching horses run and studying the ups and downs on countless horses over the last 100 years, I’m still a fan and this horse had captured my heart in a way that few had.

As Baffert and the rest of us tried to understand Arrogate’s performance, I felt like I had seen a moment like this before. Horses lose: Man o’War, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Songbird, etc. They aren’t machines, but animals and, like their human handlers, they have bad days too. Yet, when a horse is the class of one like Arrogate or Man o’War or Secretariat or California Chrome, losing a race is a different animal altogether. When had I seen a moment like this one, where a super-sized favorite barely seems to show up? Sir Barton had his own moment like this and its repercussions reverberated beyond the race itself.

November 5, 1919, the Autumn Handicap at Pimlico.

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