It was a cool, comfortable morning at barn 25 on the Saratoga Race Course backstretch on Sunday.
Under plenty of shade, cupcakes and a cake with a Saratoga racetrack scene painted in frosting rested on a picnic table.
The Travers blanket of red and white carnations rested on the rail outside stall 20. Inside it, Arrogate, the fastest horse in America, just chilled.
After all, he is the flavor of the month, and he achieved that status through flash-freezing on Saturday.
While the three winners of the Triple Crown races appear to be melting before our eyes, Arrogate suddenly looks like the best 3-year-old male in the country.
Whether he has time and circumstance to shoot for an Eclipse Award is not much of a consideration right now, certainly not for trainer Bob Baffert and Juddmonte Farms. Who cares. It’s not even September yet.
But based not only on his track-record performance in the Travers, but his previous races, Arrogate doesn’t look at all like a flash in the pan.
This is a horse who had not run in a stakes race until Saturday, but this is a serious racehorse who has all the momentum you could hope to have as fall approaches and the Breeders’ Cup looms, no longer a no-name to us on the east coast.
The Travers and the Alabama are the only mile-and-a-quarter races they run at Saratoga, but that doesn’t diminish the significance of Arrogate’s track-record 1:59.36.
On the contrary, the fact that the Travers has been run at that distance since 1904 and no horse had ever cracked two minutes (General Assembly won the 1979 Travers in 2:00) makes Arrogate’s achievement even more impressive.
“I think [jockey] Mike [Smith] was surprised. He didn’t think he was going that fast,” Baffert said. “I thought, ‘Wow, he’s either a superhorse, or he’s going to cave,’ like it’s going to be ugly turning for home.”
Saratoga fans can thank a little virus for starting a domino effect that brought Arrogate to the Travers.
Unraced as a 2-year-old, Arrogate got off to a slow start this season in much the same way that American Pharoah did in his career debut. Typical of many progeny of Unbridled’s Song, he was a handful in the mornings, so it was a long process by exercise rider Dana Barnes to get him to mellow out.
His first start, a third at Los Alamitos in April, was “disastrous,” Baffert said.
“He got tough with the pony, got away, ran off, they brought him back, got him in the gate, acted up in the gate, got left, zigzagged, every move was just . . . a horrendous trip,” Baffert said.
After Barnes gradually coaxed Arrogate not to be such a knucklehead during training, they brought him back in a maiden race in June, and he won by 4 1⁄2 lengths at Santa Anita.
Baffert thought highly enough of the colt to make a plan to send him to the San Diego Handicap and the Pacific Classic, running against older horses on barely any experience, but Arrogate came down with a temperature that put him on the shelf for three days, and that was just enough to blow up the plan and look for another option. So Saratoga it was, and Baffert knew he was sitting on a loaded bomb.
“In his allowance race at Del Mar, he ran as fast as Beholder and Dortmund did in the hard races, and he was galloping, so that was the tip-off there,” Baffert said.
All Arrogate did in just his fifth career start was produce one of the most spectacular performances of the year, a tall order considering Frosted’s Met Mile and California Chrome’s Pacific Classic.
His behavior issues were under wraps, even surrounded by a Travers crowd of almost 50,000 people, allowing his training and innate ability to show forth.
“He acted really well. Like [assistant] Jimmy [Barnes] was telling me, ‘This is about as close as you’re going to get to the Kentucky Derby,’ walking through that crowd and going to that paddock,” Baffert said. “American Freedom, he got in there and he got a little bit hot, a little bit anxious. But Arrogate handled it really well. I’m surprised how he’s getting better, because a lot of Unbridled’s Songs are known to get a little hot and anxious. But if you keep them happy, they’re fine. That motor of his, like yesterday, he got to rev it up pretty good, so we’ll let him come down a little bit now.”
“WOW, is all I can say. That was a wow,” said Frosted’s trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin. “That was very impressive. With California Chrome’s and Frosted’s, that was a ‘wow’ race.”
The rest of the 3-year-old male division, meanwhile, is looking to regroup.
Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist was fourth in the Haskell, Belmont winner Creator was sixth in the Jim Dandy and seventh in the Travers and Preakness and Haskell winner Exaggerator beat just two horses in the Travers — Laoban and Anaximandros.
Julie Clark, assistant to trainer Keith Desormeaux, said Exaggerator, who had a little mucus show up in his airways on Sunday morning, doesn’t have an affinity for deep, sandy tracks like Belmont and Saratoga. His affinity for Saratoga is probably even less so after he ate so much of it.
“He was also coughing a lot. He took a lot of dirt,” Clark said. “He was plastered there in the back.”
Arrogate was so good that trainer Chad Brown, who had three horses in the Travers, said it wouldn’t have mattered what kind of trip his horses got. In fact, Connect and Gift Box had dream trips, he said, but “it was just an outstanding, historic performance by the winner, and everyone else was left in the wake.”
Exaggerator will point toward the Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 24.
As far as Arrogate goes, Baffert said, “The way he ran, I’ll probably go easy on him. That’s one thing about training for the Juddmonte farm, they sort of let you do what you want to do. I could change my plan, but today I would say I could run him fresh into the Breeders’ Cup, after a race like that.”
Even if Arrogate goes into cold storage for a bit, it doesn’t mean he’s going away.
OK, I gave Destin another shot and he threw in a clunker, at no point looking like a horse who was on his way to the Travers victory despite decent stalking position, however briefly, through three-quarters of a mile.
The race was a dartboard, anyway, and anyone who didn’t have Arrogate was bringing Nerf darts to a bazooka fight.