This could just as well be subtitled “confessing my unpopular opinion,” because I’m sure that California Chrome will be awarded his second Horse of the Year title. And he’ll be a thoroughly deserving honoree.
My point here isn’t to diminish California Chrome; on the contrary, it’s precisely “Chrome’s” status as a surefire Hall of Famer that increases my respect for what his rival for the Horse of the Year crown, Arrogate, has accomplished in so short a time. And therein lies Arrogate’s case for the golden statuette.
Before you take to the comment box, and fire your volleys at me from the Chrome cannon, just let me explain why there is a case for Arrogate.
First, a definition of terms. Some emphasize Horse of the Year, as though the award has to be taken as literally as possible, thereby undercutting anyone who burst onto the scene later in the season. My colleague Jen Caldwell effectively adopts this view in her Horse of the Year commentary.
Of course, it is imperative to consider the entire body of work. But the arc of progression is an important factor too, and I prefer to give the nod to a horse who, in my subjective opinion, ended up being the best overall by season’s end. My colleague Vance Hanson approaches Horse of the Year in a similar way.
You can disagree with my parameters if you like, and if so, Chrome is the slam-dunk choice. But if you agree that Arrogate has a rightful place in the discussion, then the argument largely turns on whether you take his Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) victory over Chrome at face value.
My colleague James Scully expresses the blame-Victor-Espinoza school of thought, contending that a better ride may have yielded a different outcome for Chrome. Thus Scully, refusing to endorse the Classic result uncritically, falls back on Chrome’s excellent C.V. throughout his campaign. And that resume argument is a very legitimate one, indeed probably the persuasive argument for the majority of the Eclipse electorate.
In contrast, I take the Classic result as a true bill. California Chrome couldn’t have drawn up a better scenario for himself. Indeed, halfway down the backstretch, I said, “They’re just going to hand it to him?” He was getting away with comfortable splits on the front end – eerily similar to the fractions he set in his Pacific Classic (G1) demolition job.
I think too much is being made of Espinoza’s looking around turning for home in the Breeders’ Cup. After all, he had looked over both shoulders turning for home in the Pacific Classic too, only no one was coming. This time, Arrogate was on the prowl.
If Chrome were the lazy type who only does just enough, and can be caught napping, you’d have more cause to blame Espinoza for not urging him desperately at the top of the lane. But since Chrome is an exuberant runner who loves nothing more than to put his foes away, without being hard driven, I think he was already giving Espinoza what he had. And Espinoza, feeling that, knew he had to hold him together in hopes that the wire would come in time, or that Arrogate would stall.
In fact, I’d argue the contrary point, that California Chrome had it all his own way, while Arrogate was in the less advantageous position, especially for a horse of his inexperienced profile. More used to being on the lead than rallying from off the pace, Arrogate needed all the wiles of Mike Smith to keep his head in the game. Smith rode a genius race to give Arrogate every chance, but the horse himself had to be good enough to benefit from his Hall of Fame craft.
It’s no mean feat to cut down Chrome in full flight, and that’s exactly what Arrogate did. In his three Grade 1s at 10 furlongs in 2016, Chrome has routinely finished in about :24 2/5. He did so in the Dubai World Cup (G1) (:24.58), the Pacific Classic (:24.44) and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Chrome ran as well as he could in the Breeders’ Cup – a view backed up by the fact that he recorded a career-best BRIS Speed rating of 115. The difference was that Arrogate was there to outfinish him.
I reach the same conclusion from a form perspective. There was a 10 3/4-length gap back to Keen Ice, who edged Hoppertunity, with Frosted further back in sixth. All three had also been beaten by Chrome in the Dubai World Cup. Chrome pummeled them by a significantly bigger margin in the Breeders’ Cup than he had in Dubai, yet he didn’t win. Again, the difference was that Arrogate was there to outfinish him.
But, it could be objected, surely one tough beat isn’t enough to knock Chrome off his perch? That’s a very fair point, and I would embrace it wholeheartedly if Chrome had run below form, or if the winner were an unlikely opportunist. Yet I don’t think either of those conditions obtain here. Chrome ran his race, and Arrogate’s no opportunist.
Arrogate had achieved something in his prior start that marked him out as an unusual talent. Going into the Travers (G1), I regarded him as an ambitious stakes debutant. You’re going to jump up from dispatching paltry-field allowance/optional claimers in Southern California to the vaunted “Midsummer Derby,” against two reigning classic winners and other upwardly mobile three-year-olds?
After Arrogate went out and obliterated a 37-year-old track record at Saratoga, drawing off by 13 1/2 lengths and stopping the clock in 1:59.36, I was a believer. You don’t often see a horse throwing in a final quarter in :23.84 in a 10-furlong dirt race, but we all saw it there. And to top it off, Arrogate earned the highest BRIS Speed figure ever assigned (124).
Aside from his jaw-dropping time and margin, Arrogate was flattered when the Travers form later stood up in Grade 1s versus older horses. Third-placer Gun Runner defeated elders in the Clark H. (G1), and Travers sixth Connect prevailed in the Cigar Mile (G1).
The Travers theoretically could have been a fluke, but Arrogate delivered again, in the year-end championship, to upset California Chrome. He nabbed the 2014 Horse of the Year, Dubai World Cup record-setter, and horse of unquestioned historical stature as North America’s all-time leading earner, fair and square. And as an historical footnote, Arrogate also became the first ever to turn the Travers/Breeders’ Cup Classic double.
But what of Scully’s point about versatility? Chrome won from 1 1/16 to 1 1/4 miles, while both of Arrogate’s marquee wins came at 1 1/4 miles. Given his brief career so far, it’s too soon to tell what Arrogate’s ideal distance is. In any event, I am inclined to favor a horse who excelled at the American classic distance.
One final thought: Arrogate has now surpassed California Chrome in the view of the racing officials and form experts who rate the top performers around the globe for the “World’s Best Racehorse Rankings.” I would find it anomalous to give Horse of the Year to someone other than the top-ranked U.S. horse.
Now feel free to unleash your broadsides in the comments!