This was Miracle on Ice, on hooves. This was Buster Douglas KO’ing Mike Tyson, on dirt. This was mouths collectively agape, faces stunned and eyes drained of answers.
As Arrogate, the No. 1 ranked horse in the world, entered the starting gate Saturday at Del Mar in the San Diego Handicap, it was so ridiculously favored that the 1-20 odds produced too many digits to show on the track’s big board.
The sport’s biggest star didn’t win. Or finish second. Or third.
Accelerate, who beat Arrogate during his rookie debut last April before the celebrity in waiting piled up a record $17 million and change, roared to the front, never surrendered an inch and delivered the unthinkable.
That quickly mixed with the unfathomable: Donworth and Cat Burglar romped to the line before Arrogate too.
“I’m dumbfounded,” said jockey Mike Smith, who rode Arrogate when he battered Saratoga’s record in the Travers, humbled California Chrome not once but twice and showed Gun Runner that no lead is safe in Dubai.
“I have no idea. Your guess is as good as mine, to be honest with you. I’m at a loss for words.”
The moment, arguably the most monumental big-stage upset since Bing Crosby welcomed fans at the gates in 1937, spelled victory for the anything’s-possible crowd.
Be on the lookout: The sun might stubbornly steal the spotlight and rise in the west.
Dan Smith, Del Mar’s senior media coordinator who’s been around the track for 54 years, said he’d never seen money lean like this: Of the $2,671,938 bet in the win, place and show pools, an astounding $2,457,472 was wagered on the horse that finished fourth.
Donworth crushed records for place and show prices that had stood since 1955, at $119.80 and $67.40 respectively.
This was even more of a brain-melter, in Smith’s estimation, than Dare And Go snapping Cigar’s 16-race win streak at the 1996 Pacific Classic. In that race, Cigar finished second.
Arrogate was so regally regarded that the trumpeting lungs of Del Mar’s Les Kepics belted out the theme from “Superman” before the call to the post and Charlie Rose of “60 Minutes” shadowed trainer Bob Baffert’s every move.
The streak of seven consecutive wins, never to reach eight. The air of invincibility, snuffed. The predictability of champions, bruised purple.
Arrogate, astonishingly, lumbered to the line a staggering 15 ¼ lengths off the pace.
“He just laid an egg,” Baffert said.
Anyone wonder if trainer Keith Desormeaux, who scratched his horse Dalmore in a valor-be-darned shift to Sunday’s Wickerr Stakes, wants a do-over?
The San Diego Handicap has done a number on a couple of international stars. Silver Charm, winner of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Dubai World Cup, sputtered to fifth out of five during the 1998 race.
“We ran against the best horse in the world,” Accelerate trainer John Sadler said, “so it’s a huge win.”
The plan for jockey Victor Espinoza, Sadler said: Take the lead if you can, step on the champ’s throat and hold your hoof there until the sport found itself shaken and shocked.
What did it mean?
“Anything can happen,” Espinoza said.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. This couldn’t happen, right? As the race neared, trainer Peter Miller said of the field that included his horse El Huerfano: “Everyone’s running for second. That’s a win.”
Sports, at its most glorious and blood-pumping, crumples truths and certainties before running them through the wood chipper. It’s why we watch. It’s why we wiggle to the edge of our chairs.
Sometimes, Accelerate wins.
When asked if he ever felt a fraction of in-race comfort against Arrogate, who pieced together a mind-boggling, last-to-first run in Dubai, Sadler proved as efficient as his upset-minded horse.
“No,” he said.
This wasn’t a bad start or a bad trip for Arrogate. This was a horse that seemed to have more gears than any on the planet, suddenly lacking one. This was a champion, out-kicked, out-hearted, out-everything’d for the first time.
About an hour after the buzz subsided, Baffert texted that health didn’t offer answers, either: “All seems fine with him so far.”
“I took him outside, like I did in Dubai,” Smith said. “He just didn’t respond. No response. Hopefully, we’ll go back and regroup and get back on track.”
Without warning, Del Mar’s $1-million Pacific Classic on Aug. 19 added intrigue in bucket-fulls. Now, the Breeders’ Cup Classic thundering toward the turf and surf in November found drama almost no one expected.
Only 16,568 saw history being made and the notion of “untouchable” torched.
Where will the sun rise next? At this point, it’s anybody’s guess.