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.

sd-sp-del-mar-arrogate-20170723
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.

Reputations Can Be Dangerous Things

SirBartonHeadDo great things enough and all fans expect is more great things to follow. After reeling off victories in what would become the Triple Crown plus the Withers in four weeks, Sir Barton had lost the mucky Dwyer to a fresher horse and a partially askew shoe. Trainer H.G. Bedwell then gave the son of Star Shoot a break, bypassing the three-year-old races at Saratoga and waiting eight weeks before sending his Triple Crown winner back to the barrier. The six-furlong Hip Hip Hooray should have been a tune-up.

Instead, it was a clunker, with Sir Barton coming in second, just behind his stablemate Billy Kelly. Rather, the Potomac Handicap, his next start only two days later, featured the stellar performance fans had come to expect from the Triple Crown winner.

earlsandesibBetween the Potomac and the Autumn came three other starts, a mixed bag of in-the-money finishes with only one win. By November 5th, the iron horse from the spring was starting to show signs of stress. Every time he stepped on the track, those in attendance expected something special. Every time he disappointed, he risked something: great performances could become more of a surprise than an expectation, an enduring hit to the reputation.

Facing the barrier with Sir Barton this day was Mad Hatter, another three-year-old colt trained by Sam Hildreth, who had also trained Purchase to a defeat of the Triple Crown winner. Mad Hatter was on a bit of hot streak at the moment: he had just won the inaugural $50,000 Latonia Championship Stakes among other wins that summer. Today’s start was a handicap, of course, each horse assigned a particular weight in order to level the playing field. Mad Hatter, despite his recent wins, was still a relative newcomer so he carried only 111 pounds to Sir Barton’s 132, a by-product of those great performances. So they stood at the barrier, Mad Hatter on the rail and Sir Barton on the outside, with three horses in the between, all getting weight from the Triple Crown winner.

Milkmaid and Bridesman jumped out to the lead from start, with Mad Hatter and Sir Barton stalking them. The two front-runners hung on until about the three-quarters pole, when Milkmaid faded, leaving Bridesman vulnerable on the lead. Mad Hatter took to the outside, no longer stalking and bearing down instead on the tiring front-runner. Johnny Loftus on Sir Barton decided to go to the rail and sneak by there, but, like in the Dwyer, that decision was problematic.

In the Dwyer, the day’s rains had made the track heavier toward the rail as the rain drained down toward the infield. The same went for Pimlico for the Autumn Handicap. Rain had made the going below the surface mucky, but the sunshine the day before had dried out the top layer, giving the impression that the track was drier than it was. Loftus had not had any mounts at Pimlico prior to the Autumn, same as Dwyer day at Aqueduct, so he had no idea that the rail could compromise his mount. But compromise it did.

Sure, it could have been the month layoff or the battery of races right before that. It might have been the heavier impost against a fresher and lighter horse or the heavier subsurface of the track. Whatever it was, Mad Hatter’s move in the middle of the track gave him the ground he needed to pass Bridesman and Sir Barton and win the race going away.  Loftus, sensing that Sir Barton was struggling and wouldn’t be able to make the effort needed to challenge Mad Hatter, eased up on the Triple Crown winner, who struggled home in third, eight lengths behind Bridesman.

Shockwaves

For Sir Barton, he would follow up this clunker of a race with two more wins that fall before retiring for the winter. Mad Hatter would go on to other good victories, including a number of handicaps after Sir Barton himself had retired. Their next meeting, in the 1920 Saratoga Handicap, saw the Triple Crown winner best Mad Hatter and every other horse in the field to set a track record for the mile and a quarter. Still, the seeming invincibility that Sir Barton had had during his Triple Crown run never seemed to fully recover from losses like this, though his reputation was stellar enough that he was tapped as Man o’War’s only worthy competitor for a match race in 1920.

johnnyIn the paddock after the race, trainer H.G. Bedwell and jockey Johnny Loftus argued over the race, with Bedwell’s fury at his champion’s performance outweighing any respect and affection he might have had for the country’s leading jockey. Loftus might have piloted Sir Barton through the first Triple Crown, but the words flying between trainer and jockey would have repercussions that would affect the reputation and future of one for years to come.

Read more in my book, tentatively titled Sir Barton & the Birth of the Triple Crown, due out in Spring 2019 from the University Press of Kentucky.

Back to the Big A

arrogatepegasusArrogate’s next start should be the TVG Pacific Classic at Del Mar on August 19th. Though the field itself is not yet official, other horses, such as Accelerate and the great filly Songbird, are also nominated for the Pacific Classic, meaning that Arrogate might meet some of the very best on the West Coast this week. I know I’ll be rooting for the Big A to come back to form and follow in Sir Barton’s footsteps to round out 2017 with more victories. Yet I know that we all have that little seed of doubt about the big gray colt that he laid in our minds when he laid that egg in the San Diego Handicap.

Nevertheless, the Arrogaters will be rooting for our horse, much as Sir Barton had his own fans cheering him on through the good and the bad.

Go Big A!

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