About 20 minutes before post time, a Hall of Fame trainer will saddle him up. Then, a few minutes after that, another Hall of Famer will climb aboard his back.
He’ll head to the starting gate for the eighth race on the card, line up in the outside post position, and to his left will be a handful of quality race horses. In front of him will be 1¼ miles of Del Mar’s main track.
The big question is what will be waiting for him at the end of all that? Redemption? History? Or is it possible that once again, the unthinkable will happen?
Arrogate is the richest North American thoroughbred ever with more than $17 million in earnings. And it is his trip around Del Mar’s one-mile oval that makes Saturday’s 27th running of the $1-million Pacific Classic perhaps as intriguing as any of the others that have come before it. (Post time is set for about 5:40 p.m., with NBCSN and TVG televising.)
The No. 1-ranked thoroughbred in the world, sent out at almost unheard-of odds of 1-20, ran like just another weekday claimer the last time he raced here. He never challenged in any way and finished a badly beaten fourth, more than 15 lengths behind Accelerate in the July 22 San Diego Handicap.
The result stunned the horse racing world. It still has many scratching their heads.
“To this day, I am still puzzled by it,” said the Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, who ought to know his champion horse better than anybody. “To see him run like that was devastating. But I haven’t seen anything since then that makes me think he won’t run like his old self (today).”
The “old” Arrogate had won four consecutive Grade I events and was riding a seven-race winning streak as impressive as any horse could have before falling flat (or as Baffert said that day, “laying an egg”) at Del Mar.
He had romped to victory in last August’s Travers Stakes by a record 13½ lengths. Then he toppled the great California Chrome, winning a thrilling stretch duel by a half-length in November’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. He opened 2017 with dominating wins in the $12-million Pegasus World Cup and the $10-million Dubai World Cup.
There seemed no stopping him. And most still feel he’ll get started again Saturday afternoon as the even-money morning-line favorite with Mike Smith aboard.
Any conversation of another upset has to start with Accelerate (3-1), ridden by another Hall of Famer, Victor Espinoza, who despite winning the San Diego and crushing Arrogate in the process, came out of the race as no better than back-page news. Accelerate has never lost in three starts at Del Mar, and had finished second when Arrogate ran third in his maiden race at Los Alamitos in April 2016.
“We thought he was going to run a big race that day,” said Accelerate’s trainer, John Sadler. “But to win it and beat Arrogate was a special thrill.
“Now, after a performance like that, there’s some hesitation when you run him back. We just decided to watch him closely and make sure he’s right on his game when he goes back out there. Obviously, we think he is.”
Both Baffert and Sadler are scheduled to have other entries in the race. Baffert will send out Collected, a winner of seven of 10 career races, including three in a row this spring at Santa Anita. The second choice on the morning line at 5-2, Collected seemingly has put behind him a 10th-place finish in last year’s Preakness, run in the mud at Pimlico, although like Accelerate, he has never started at 11/4 miles (Arrogate is 3-for-3 at the distance).
Sadler has said the distance-running Hard Aces is about 80 percent to start, and if he does, it would be his third consecutive appearance in the Pacific Classic (he was eighth and sixth the last two years).
Doug O’Neill, twice a Kentucky Derby-winning trainer with I’ll Have Another in 2012 and Nyquist in 2016, is going with two entries as well — Donworth, who finished second to Accelerate, albeit 8½ lengths behind in the San Diego, and Curlin Road, who won the 1½-mile Cougar II Handicap his last time out.
- Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens has seen this all before. He rode 1997 Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm, trained by Baffert, to a victory in the ’98 Dubai World Cup, then shockingly lost the ’98 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar, finishing last, 27 lengths off the pace. Very similar to what recently happened with Arrogate (although Silver Charm won a race at Churchill Downs the month before his Del Mar disaster). Silver Charm and Stevens came back to win their next race (the ’98 Kentucky Cup), and Stevens said he could see the same thing happening Saturday. “I hope (Arrogate) shows up again,” Stevens said. “Because when he does, he’s a treat to watch.”
- Besides the Pacific Classic, there are two other stakes races on the card. Hunt (3-1) is favored just ahead of defending champion Ashleylovessugar (7-2) in the Grade II $250,000 Del Mar Handicap. Con Te Partiro is the lukewarm 7-2 morning line choice for the Grade I $300,000 Del Mar Oaks.
- A two-day carryover created a big Pick Six payday on Friday evening. The 4-6-8-10-3-6 combination was worth $60,613.40 to 14 winning tickets. The single-ticket jackpot pool is up to $258,780.98 and will be included in today’s Pick Six, with a mandatory payout.
Ello is a freelance writer.