Bob Baffert’s heart had to be in pieces on Saturday at Del Mar. There was no way he could watch the 27th running of the TVG Pacific Classic and not feel a tug of excitement here, a pang of regret there as the horses charged down the stretch.
The two colts Baffert trained for the $1 million race, Collected and Arrogate, were locked in a duel over the final yards. Collected was leading, but Arrogate was valiantly gaining after looking like he might have nothing left at the top of the stretch.
“He was really laying it down there at the end,” Baffert said.
It wouldn’t be enough, and for the second race in a row the world’s No. 1 horse was beaten, losing to a foe that is now on an impressive winning streak of his own.
In the lead from wire-to-wire with jockey Martin Garcia, Collected won his fourth straight race, eighth in 11 career starts, and scored his biggest payday of $600,000 in the Grade I feature that was a “Win and You’re In” opportunity for November’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar.
Collected ($8.00) bested Arrogate, the No. 1 money winner in North American racing history, by a half-length, with Accelerate finishing third in what ended up being a seven-horse race after Sorry Erik was scratched earlier in the day.
The on-track attendance for the Pacific Classic was the second-lowest ever -- 23,509 – while the total handle -- $24,929,218 -- was the second-highest for any day in the track’s history
If both are healthy, Collected and Arrogate are expected to next face off in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, with Baffert being forced to split his allegiance again.
Seated next to Peter Fluor, who is part of Collected’s ownership group at Speedway Stable, in the post-race press conference, Baffert admitted, “I feel like my older son got beat by my younger son. The older son is supposed to win. At least we got 1-2. They ran a great race.”
“I said if you ask for a dream trip, it’s Collected who wins, and Arrogate shows up. As I told Bob, I hope you run 1-2, but I have a preference.
“It’s a big thrill for us,” Fluor added. “Arrogate is a legend, and he’s done everything. I’m a great fan of his, and so I guess my first reaction would be that I’m a bit humbled.”
Baffert had plenty to celebrate. It was his fifth victory in the Pacific Classic and first since winning with Game On Dude in 2013. It also was the first stakes win in a meeting that has been rather dry for him, with only five victories in 24 starts going into the day.
The Hall of Famer trainer admitted that he felt more pressure than usual going into the Classic because of how poorly Arrogate performed in the San Diego Handicap on July 22, when he finished fourth, 15¼ lengths behind Accelerate. The stunning defeat halted a seven-race winning streak for the son of sire Unbridled’s Song who had earned more than $17 million.
“It’s one of those things where I was just so afraid,” Baffert said. “I couldn’t see him doing what he did last time. He had to show something today. If he didn’t show something, some will to win, it would have been devastating for all of us.”
When Arrogate, the race favorite at 3-5 odds, finally dug in during his stretch run, he looked something like himself, but there remain questions about his affinity for the Del Mar track that was made softer for this meet to ensure more safety for the horses.
Baffert played down the track issue, but Mike Smith, the Hall of Fame jockey who has ridden Arrogate in each of his last six races, said Arrogate didn’t respond with his usual verve when he ask for that on the backstretch.
Indeed, Smith said Arrogate never completely got his stride under him.
“At the time I asked him to go, he never went,” Smith said. “He just got longer and longer and longer (in stride). When he explodes, he gets compact. His back end goes way underneath him, and he just accelerates. He just seemed to be pulling himself out.
“It ain’t his favorite,” Smith said of the Del Mar track. “In saying that, he’s only a neck off the horse that is probably going to be favored in the Breeders’ Cup. So if that says anything, we’re not too far away from it.”
Indicative of how Arrogate was laboring under him, Smith admitted, “I didn’t know if I was going to run third, to be honest with you, around the turn. I’m glad I finished second.”
Baffert is now openly lamenting his choice to run Arrogate in the San Diego Handicap.
“It threw everything completely off,” Baffert said.
“I ran the wrong horse,” he added, saying he should have entered Collected in the San Diego instead of Arrogate.
Collected has benefited enormously from the patience shown by Baffert and the ownership group, which took a chance on the son of City Zip when the colt breezed poorly in preparation for the 2-year-old sale.
Purchased with Baffert in mind, Fluor said, Collected won four of his first six starts before struggling to 10th in the 2016 Preakness. He was rested for 10 months, and on his return won three times before arriving at Del Mar to train for the Pacific Classic.
Collected’s works at Del Mar were strong, and it also was evident that as a horse with excellent speed numbers, he would set the pace early in the Classic. It was just a matter of whether he was hearty enough to run 1 1/4 miles for the first time.
“You have to be good on that day, and Collected was good today,” Baffert said. “He’s a good horse. He likes the track, and he’s a fast horse. This win moved Collected way up in the bracket.”
The victory was significant for the jockey, too. Garcia has been lightly used during the meeting, with only one victory before Saturday. Baffert is among those trainers who have used Garcia less, but he’s had him ride Collected in all but two of the horse’s races.
“If I didn’t have confidence in him, I wouldn’t have had him on him,” Baffert said.