Rightly or wrongly, the gift of longevity and saving your best for last can color perceptions.
The thought springs to mind in the wake of Gun Runner‘s glorious swan song in last weekend’s Pegasus World Cup (G1), which capped a remarkable eight-race window of his career in which he also captured the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), Woodward (G1), Whitney (G1), Stephen Foster H. (G1), and Clark H. (G1). His only loss during that span was in the Dubai World Cup (G1) to Arrogate.
Ah, Arrogate. Remember him? The one who was dazzling us before Gun Runner. The one who drummed a more experienced Gun Runner by 15 lengths in a track-record setting Travers (G1) and later overcame significant adversity to beat him again in Dubai by a widening 2 3/4 lengths. The one whose presence (along with California Chrome) in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita made Gun Runner more or less hightail it to the Dirt Mile (G1) instead.
This is not an argument about who the better racehorse was overall. Gun Runner obviously peaked in the final 40 percent of his career, while Arrogate reached his zenith in the middle third of his. There is plenty to admire and respect about both.
But going out on top has its advantages in the court of public opinion, and perception. Gun Runner’s window, from the 2016 Clark to the Pegasus World Cup, is right there among the best produced by an older dirt horse in the last quarter-century. As a rule we like our champions to retire in all their glory, leaving us wanting more. Gun Runner has done that and Arrogate did not. That means Gun Runner will also win his fourth match-up with Arrogate, the race for the Hall of Fame (and I do think Arrogate will get in someday).
While it would make moderately good entertainment and debating fodder, plugging the above names into a ranking of best dirt horses seen in the last 25 years is ultimately a futile exercise. The criteria of longevity and peaking at the end of one’s career is generally so powerful that an objective assessment for the less fortunate (or unlucky) is almost impossible.
A case in point could be made about Gun Runner’s own sire, Candy Ride. The native Argentinean retired undefeated from six starts, three of them Group/Grade 1s, and was proficient on both dirt and turf. His dominating score over Medaglia d’Oro in the 2003 Pacific Classic (G1) was easily among the most impressive of that season and the entire decade, but he never ran again. How can we adequately compare him against that year’s champion, Mineshaft, much less anyone else?
Go back a few years more and you have Skip Away, one of the most decorated runners of the era we’re speaking of. Innate talent and longevity were obviously good to him, but close observers of the 1997 season surely recall him being voted champion despite losing four of six head-to-head match-ups with Formal Gold. There are some to this day that consider the latter among the top horses of the era, but good luck seeing Formal Gold placed ahead of Skip Away on theoretical lists due to his relative lack of longevity.
A contemporary of Skip Away and Formal Gold, Gentlemen is another interesting case. His record in Argentina wasn’t as spotless as Candy Ride’s would be, but he was a multiple Group 1 winner on dirt and turf in his native land. After his importation, in a 10-race window from September 1996 through February 1998, he was arguably as good, if not better, than any horse in the country. He beat both Skip Away and Formal Gold in his only meetings with those two in 1997, and surely deserved more respect than he received in that year’s Eclipse Award voting.
Like many before and since, Gentlemen was one of those that peaked early, “hit a wall” if you like. His wall came in the 1998 Santa Anita H. (G1), where he had scared off all but three rivals and started at odds of 1-20, but he stopped badly in upper stretch and trailed the field. He lost five more races, was out-finished by Skip Away in two of their final three meetings, and is basically a footnote in the narrative of the modern era. Skip Away eventually hit his own wall. So did Silver Charm. Arrogate obviously did after Dubai.
Retiring prematurely due to injury or hitting a wall metaphorically can’t entirely erase the positive memories and attributes of notable Thoroughbreds, but it can muddy the waters in the “whom was better than whom” debates that inevitably arise when attempting to measure horses of this quality. Horses that go straight to the top and stay there are generally few and far between, and even they can be difficult to compare for a variety of reasons.
Where Gun Runner or even Arrogate belongs in a certain pecking order seems less important than the fact both, based solely on their peak form, are in the discussion. The Gun Runner of January 2018, the Arrogate of 2016, the Candy Ride of 2003, the Skip Away of 1998, and the Gentlemen and Formal Gold of 1997 would in fact make one hell of a horse race.