It's like the bat signal went out, and Bob Baffert was called again to save the three-year-old class. Last year, of course, he not only saved the three-year-old class but all of horse racing with the historic and spectacular Triple Crown run of American Pharoah. Early on this year he was in the mix with horses like Cupid, but he wasn't a huge factor. And then the rest of the three-year-old class kind of fell apart - Nyquist self-destructed in the Preakness, Exaggerator flopped in the Belmont, and no stars existed.
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So Baffert saved us again.
The Travers is the biggest three year old race of the summer. Baffert sent two horses there. American Freedom was a promising horse that hadn't quite found his full stride. Arrogate was making his stakes debut and was largely unknown to all but the most serious horseplayers. American Freedom was second, but he was ridiculously far behind the winner Arrogate. It was a tour de force performance - just incredible. He took the lead out of the gate, set a brisk early pace, and then looked like he was shot out of a cannon down the stretch. He won by 13 1/2 lengths and made it look easy. It was a serious statement, and it launched him into the Classic picture. It's also all we have seen from him - he hasn't raced since.
So, what do we make of this raw freak? Let's apply the nine factors we do to all these superstars leading into the Breeders' Cup to see what we can learn. Can Arrogate win the Breeders' Cup Classic?:
Big races: We've talked about his entire big-race career already. The Travers was his first stakes race. His performance was so strong that Baffert didn't want to risk a letdown race - he's a world-class promoter above all else - so he chose to train right up to the Classic. The sample size is small, but the big stage certainly hasn't bothered him so far. And, really, the crowd environment for the Breeders' Cup won't be as loud or any bigger than it was for the Travers. He shouldn't be intimidated.
Last race: This one is again redundant in this unique case. His last race was the Travers. Not only was it the fastest Travers ever run, but it set a new track record - impressive at a track as historic and ancient as Saratoga. It's been a longish layoff since that race, but it was planned from the outset, and he has been trained accordingly. Besides, there are a lot of trainers worse at handling layoffs than Baffert is.
Effort: We can assume that the Travers was harder on him that it appeared to be. If it wasn't then we likely would have seen him get more experience before jumping into the deep end here. This pattern of two-month layoffs has repeated in his career, though, so he obviously gets what he needs from these breaks.
Distance: He has raced only once at this mile and a quarter distance. That was the Travers, and he won by 14 lengths is a silly fast time. The distance is far from a concern.
Works: Like so many other Baffert horses, this guy is a workout warrior. He has had six registered works at Santa Anita since the Travers. He has looked very good each time. Most recently he posted a bullet and made things look as easy as you can while flying at ground level. His works give us every indication that he is ready for this test.
Older horses: This is the biggest knock he faces - he has never faced older horses before. The Travers field was solid in the context of this year, but it isn't a good crop of three year olds. Now he faces arguably the top horse in the world in California Chrome and another strong group of proven older horses - Frosted, Found, Melatonin, Effinex, stablemate Hoppertunity, and so on. This is a massive step up in class for Arrogate. Of course, the last outing was just as big of a class jump, and he did just fine in that one.
Jockey: Mike Smith has won 22 Breeders' Cup races - more than any other jockey by a wide margin. One of those wins was aboard Unbridled's Song, who just happens to be Arrogate's sire. The first time he rode this horse was in the Travers. Chemistry obviously didn't take long to establish. The colt is in good hands.
Trainer: Baffert won this race last year, so we know he can win it. He's won every big race there is over the years. He knows what it takes to get horses - especially freakishly-fast horses - ready for the spotlight.
Race shape: This is what makes this race so very interesting. Arrogate, if he has his way, would like to set the pace. So would California Chrome. Effinex and Melatonin like to be up front, too. And Nyquist won from the front back when he was actually good, too. Solving the pace puzzle is going to be a real struggle for the horses in this one. Arrogate, like all the others, needs to be sure he doesn't get burned out early by the pace. The advantage he has here, though, is he is just so fast. He set lightning-fast fractions in the Travers and then never slowed down. The combination of speed and stamina he showed in that race is exceptionally rare. The question we have to ask is whether it was a fluke or if he is just that good. A repeat performance of the Travers showing could probably win here. But can lightning be captured twice?
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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