The thing with sequels is, they are often maligned for failing to live up to the original production. When the first staging of show delivers drama and apexes that surpass even the most optimistic expectations of the audience, it would stand to reason any subsequent revival would be up against an improbable bar to match.
Having previously knocked heads in what had been North America's richest race last November, champions California Chrome and Arrogate were lured to see if they could recreate that magic again with the world's biggest purse on the line Jan. 28.
One of them more than delivered on his part of the bargain.
The two-horse showdown that was supposed to be in the inaugural running of the $12 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes (G1) at Gulfstream Park turned into a torch-passing, one-star show. Doubling down on his stirring triumph over California Chrome in the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) Nov. 5, Arrogate made a mockery of the showdown when he drew off handily under Hall of Famer Mike Smith to prevail by 4 3/4 lengths over Shaman Ghost. Watch Video
Meanwhile, the two-time Horse of the Year faded badly to finish ninth and was later diagnosed with fluid in his right knee.
Trainer Art Sherman said California Chrome's ailment did not appear to be major, but added, if the issue persists, the 6-year-old chestnut would be examined by a veterinarian once he arrived in Kentucky Jan. 29. He said California Chrome could have a small bone chip.
"It looks like he scrambled away from there and couldn't get his footing," Sherman said. "It looked like he wasn't getting a hold of the racetrack, like maybe his feet were getting out from under him. I don't know why. He worked good over it."
The image of the lanky steel-colored colt sauntering his way into the winner's circle was by no means a stunner, for the story of Juddmonte Farms' Arrogate is one of meteoric brilliance that has yet reach its deepest depths.
Unraced at 2, the 4-year-old son of Unbridled's Song has become a world-beater in his seven starts, winning the Travers Stakes (G1) in record-setting fashion in his first graded stakes last August and running down California Chrome in the Breeders' Cup to hand the son of Lucky Pulpit the lone defeat in a campaign that saw him crowned the 2016 Horse of the Year.
What few saw coming was the fact that Arrogate would be uncontested as he polished off his sixth victory, one that brings his earnings to $11,084,600. Though hung wide on the first turn after having to break from the outside post in the 12-horse field, California Chrome settled in fourth down the backstretch but had zero response when jockey Victor Espinoza began to nudge him for more.
"Chrome just didn't fire his race today at all," Smith said during NBC's broadcast immediately after the race. "I was able to tip out and he was gone after that. Getting out was the anxious part. Once I was able to get him out and let him stretch his legs ... if you can let him use it to his advantage, why not?"
Those big, gray strides of Arrogate's have found no peers since he broke his maiden at Santa Anita Park June 5.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is notorious for not putting horses on a plane unless he feels they will represent him accordingly. So despite some chatter when Arrogate scratched out of the San Pasqual Stakes (G2) Jan. 1 and then had his workout schedule interrupted because of inclement weather in California, his mere presence at Gulfstream this week spoke volumes about his connections' confidence.
"He just ran his race," Baffert said. "I kept waiting for the matchup with Chrome, but he just didn't bring his race today. It's too bad. We expected to win, but he got a little tired at the end. He probably needed it badly."
California Chrome, meanwhile, shipped to Florida earlier in the month and was training like a horse ready to deliver a walk-off performance in his final start before he retired to stud at Taylor Made Farm.
With Arrogate breaking from the rail and his elder rival serving as the bookend in the gate, the early stages set up close to what was suggested on paper. Grade 1 winner Noble Bird took his expected position as the pacesetter through fractions of :23.46 and :46.14, with Arrogate tracking third along the rail and California Chrome to his outside off his hip.
When Smith tipped Arrogate out and asked him to roll past Neolithic and a fading Noble Bird approaching the final turn, he proved he was more than worthy of his recent designation as the Longines World's Best Racehorse. As California Chrome uncharacteristically began backing up, Arrogate opened up as he pleased in the lane. Smith said he geared him down in the final 100 yards as they hit wire in 1:47.61 for the 1 1/8 miles over a fast track.
"Once I got out going into the far turn, I knew we were going to be very tough to beat," Smith said. "He had a lot of run today and I was very happy. As far as winning the world's richest race, I'm absolutely numb."
Added Espinoza on California Chrome, "He was just empty today. At the first turn I thought I was good, but when we hit the five-eighths, he just completely shut down. I just couldn't keep up with the ones in front of me. He just started backing up and just wasn't the same. He's done a lot. Sometimes he's going to throw in one of those bad races and one of those bad times was today."
Arrogate paid $3.80, $2.80, and $2.20 across the board on a 12-race day when Gulfstream Park set an all-time handle record ($40.217 million). That number topped the previous mark of $32.082 million set last year on the 14-race Florida Derby (G1) card.
Behind Arrogate and Shaman Ghost came Neolithic, with Keen Ice, War Story, Noble Bird, Semper Fortis, Breaking Lucky, California Chrome, Prayer for Relief , and War Envoy. Eragon trailed from the start, was eased in the stretch, and walked off after finishing last.
As much as California Chrome's team and fans wanted the storybook finish for North America's all-time leading money earner, his final moment in no way takes away from a career that has yielded 16 wins from 27 starts and four Eclipse Awards.
"It's been an unbelievable journey with him, even in defeat," Sherman said. "You have such a good run. Not every horse can keep the record up like he has."
There is a new reality in racing, however. Because as jaw-dropping as Arrogate has been in his burgeoning career, the Clearsky Farms-bred colt seems to have only scratched the surface of what he is capable of.
Frank Angst contributed to this report.