The other day I heard a historian lamenting that as the years pass, witnesses to history’s most significant events also pass. We’re left with the stories passed down, or the books that are written, but they are a poor second to the oral accounts of those who lived through events. Our great-grandparents lived through The War to End All Wars, our grandparents lived through the Great Depression, our parents – those whom Tom Brokaw called the Greatest Generation – changed the world during the second world war, and in the lifetimes of the baby boomers, we were witness to Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. Having been there we have a perspective that only comes from being an eyewitness to history.
When Arrogate won the Dubai World Cup the superlatives flew and many horseplayers were quick to anoint the performance, if not the horse itself, as the greatest of all time. No less an expert than Arrogate’s trainer, Bob Baffert, proclaimed Arrogate the “greatest horse since Secretariat.” Well, perhaps his bias as Arrogate’s caretaker had something to do with that opinion, but there is little doubt the horse we saw yesterday was a rare talent indeed.
Arrogate had a troubled start, pinched between two rivals right out of the gate and dead-last in the run to the first turn. Mike Smith, his rider, never panicked, instead steering Arrogate to the outside, biding his time down the backstretch, and making his move coming out of the far turn. He won in powerful fashion in a time of 2:02.23.
After the race, Baffert, clearly emotionally caught up in the moment, said, “When he missed the break, I gave him no chance at all. I was so mad at myself thinking I shouldn’t have brought him – that’s the greatest horse I’ve ever seen run, it’s unbelievable, I can’t believe he won. That is a great horse.”
Sure, Arrogate was up against it after the break, and no horse of ordinary talent may have won as convincingly as he did, but I’ve seen on more than one occasion high quality speed horses miss the break and instead of rushing to the lead (what I call the death move), were allowed to settle and ran by the field in the end with the same reaction from the trainer.
Horses that prefer to run from the front fall into a few categories. There are rank speed horses, need to lead types, but also horses like Arrogate that have push button speed that they can use at any time. They don’t need the lead, but they instinctively prefer to lead the herd. They are, what I have defined previously, class horses. The definition of class I have offered is the ability of a horse to hold its speed over longer distances. A lot of horses can run a :21.4 quarter, or a :44 half, but fewer horses can do that and finish in 1:08.2, or complete a mile in 1:34. What Secretariat did in the Kentucky Derby – running each successive quarter faster than the last – is as rare as a 56 game hitting streak in baseball. When Seattle Slew ran impossibly fast fractions – :45.1, 1:09.2, 1:35.2, 2:01.4 – and finished in 2:27.2, only to lose by a nose to Exceller, his performance was stamped as one of the greatest of the century. And don’t forget he demolished Triple Crown winner Affirmed in the process. Forego’s defeat of Kentucky Derby winner Honest Pleasure in the 1976 Marlboro Cup was equally one for the ages. The list could go on.
Class horses can simply do things that merely good horses could never accomplish.
As history points out over and over, those things to which you are witness seem larger than similar events from the past. Those who pronounced Arrogate the superior of Man o’ War were at least caught up in the moment, but let’s be realistic – nobody alive today can tell you they saw both horses and could pronounce the better of the two. And if you want to compare running times, you’d have to account for the different track composition and the lack of a sophisticated timing system. I’ll tell you this. The people I knew that had seen Man o’War and Citation would never concede any horses since were superior. It’s the nature of the horse being of your generation.
I never saw Man o’War or Citation or Native Dancer, and I have only hazy memories of Kelso, Dr. Fager, and Buckpasser, but I have vivid memories of Secretariat, Forego, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Alydar, and I can remember having the same thrill from some of their races that fans got from Arrogate’s performance.
Was Arrogate’s performance in the Dubai World Cup the greatest of all time? Is he a better horse than the two standards by which all other thoroughbreds are measured – Man o’War and Secretariat? Unfortunately nobody can know for sure, but we can say this for certain. We saw a great horse give a great performance, and who knows. If Arrogate keeps up what we saw in his last four races, maybe our children or grandchildren will talk about comparing some future thoroughbred of the moment to Secretariat, Man o’War…and Arrogate.