Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Of Arrogate and Del Mar in the Fall

There was a conversation on Twitter Tuesday morning that began when my friend and great racing chronicler Steve Haskin of Bloodhorse made the observation that, based on Monday’s workout, Arrogate is back. As expected, there was much back and forth with Breeders' Cup approaching.

It may interest fans to know that I agree with Haskin, but only to a point. Indeed, Arrogate’s flesh looked fuller than when we last saw him a week earlier on xbtv.com. His energy level also was good, but in our view not as I remember it at any stage pre-Dubai World Cup.

It may turn out that Arrogate unequivocally hates Del Mar, but he didn’t hate Saratoga, Gulfstream or Meydan. The difference may be because his Dubai performance was in the same orbit as Secretariat’s Belmont, or Seattle Slew’s monstrous Jockey Club Gold Cup.

We’re not comparing these three and wouldn’t want to re-litigate that topic on some subsequent thread. We’re simply noting the top three male performances we’ve seen since we began doing this professionally in 1969.

The point is that his Dubai tour de force might have reached the bottom of him, if not somewhere close. His greatness might be summoned up one last time as he comes off a lengthy, needed freshening—his second freshening since returning from the Middle East.

Monday’s workout was clearly better than the one that preceded it Oct. 16. As Haskin noted, he finished strongly and galloped out well, but…

I was not as enamored of the gallop-out as Steve was. To my eyes, Arrogate’s behemoth stride—indelibly etched from his running down California Chrome in the final strides of the 2016 Classic—is not quite there. Rather, as the handicappers say, it’s there, thereabouts.

If he is all the way back, it should be enough for a relatively short-lived Best Horse in the World to rebound and win his career finale in storybook fashion. The horse certainly has earned that. Whether he can, of course, is the $6-million question.

This uncertainty could have been somewhat mitigated. In fact, all horsemen and the bettors are being short-changed by host track Del Mar. Is there some spectacular reason why Del Mar’s backstretch didn’t open until this week, at least for Breeders’ Cup horses?

Most of the serious work was completed this past weekend. There were fitness-insurers, leg stretchers or a stepping stone to a stiff blowout to come.

Wouldn’t it have been preferable to see horses work at least twice on the surface over which they are scheduled to race?

Track superintendent Dennis Moore is a legend in his field. He installed the new Del Mar surface for the prime summer meet and it was a rousing success based on vastly improved safety records for both equine and human athletes.

The stated goal was to make the surface exactly the same as Santa Anita’s, believing that familiarity was in the best interest of all parties, including horseplayers. But here’s another concern to reconcile:

For example, it’s widely accepted that Churchill Downs plays differently in spring than it does in the fall. And those in the know in California—mainly horsemen--insist that the surface played differently last fall than it did last summer on the “old” surface.

Moore says that on Nov. 3 and 4 the track will play the same as it did in July, August and September. I’m dubious because atmospherics change. I get that the climate is relatively stable in San Diego, but nature’s clock will do what it always does: affect things.

Moore has indicated that the track would be tighter--as opposed to looser--for Breeders’ Cup event days. But if Oceanside Del Mar does mimic inland Santa Anita, it’s useful to recall how dead the Arcadia track played at the beginning of the current meet.

Of course, if track condition turns out to be a factor—and it always does—the surmise is that much of the guess work could have been avoided, as if training and betting on race horses is easy to be good at. All horsemen, not just Bob Baffert, could have benefited from this option.

If Del Mar had opened its barn area a week earlier for a limited number of horses it would have been better for all practitioners. But, I suppose, not if there were no track-maintenance crew to monitor the situation.

Written by John Pricci

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