It wasn't clear if it was a joke or not. It had to be.
As he exited the walking ring and headed toward the track July 22, trainer John Sadler was asked if he was going to shock the world with Hronis Racing's Accelerate in the $300,000 San Diego Handicap (G2) at Del Mar. To do so he would have to take down the top-rated racehorse in the world—Arrogate, bet down to odds of 1-20.
"I don't know," Sadler said. "We made it pretty tough on Zenyatta. It's closer than you think."
As Accelerate crossed the wire, it wasn't close at all, but not in the manner that was expected. Accelerate went straight to the front, set the pace, and blew the field away to win by 8 1/2 lengths. Arrogate, who trailed the five-horse field early, came in fourth—15 1/4 lengths behind the winner. Donworth finished second and Arrogate's Bob Baffert-trained stablemate, Cat Burglar, ran third.
With Victor Espinoza aboard, Accelerate finished off the 1 1/16-mile dirt test in 1:42.15 at odds of 7-1.
"He liked this track last year. You know he won two here last year," Sadler said after the race, referencing Accelerate's maiden-breaking win in July of 2016 and his Shared Belief Stakes score in August. "He trained really well Sunday up at Santa Anita and showed a lot of pop when Victor worked him from the gate, and they kept telling me it was $50,000 for second.
"You want to win. You don't want to concede anything, but I'm surprised we won, because Arrogate is the best horse in the world. A couple of things went right for us and one of them was Arrogate didn't fire his best. That's what has to happen for these big upsets."
Hronis, Sadler, and Espinoza are not unfamiliar with playing spoiler by the beach. Just a year ago it was Stellar Wind who brought the same connections a stunner over Beholder, a 1-9 favorite on the tote board, in the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (G1).
But Saturday was a very different tone. Stellar Wind's Hirsch win was a battle to the wire. Accelerate's San Diego was a romp, and Arrogate never really improved his position throughout the race. El Huerfano, who finished last, stumbled harshly at the start, which caused jockey Evin Roman to lose his irons.
Accelerate set fractions of :23.49, :47.06, and 1:11.39 through six furlongs, but with Roman bouncing around without control in the saddle, El Huerfano ran free on the outside to cut the margin to a half-length in the backstretch.
But the winning Lookin At Lucky colt, who last won six starts back in the Sept. 24 Los Alamitos Derby (G2), simply shrugged the unruly challenger off and kicked away. With a furlong to run, the advantage was seven lengths and Accelerate extended it as he powered home.
"I was surprised by how far I won," said Espinoza, who was aboard Accelerate for the first time. "I wasn't surprised that he won. I was here to win. I thought I'd sit second or third, but when that speed horse (El Huerfano) stumbled at the start, I made an easy lead. He got into a nice rhythm. He was going easy."
Arrogate's jockey, Mike Smith, didn't have much to offer as far as an explanation after the Unbridled's Song colt's long, slow jog back to the grandstand to get unsaddled.
"I'm at a loss for words," Smith said. "He was just flat—so flat. We were going around there OK, and then I took him outside like I did in the (Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline), but he just didn't pick it up.
"So I dropped him inside again and cut the corner, then wheeled him outside once more, and tried to get something from him. But he was just flat. He wasn't trying. So I just wrapped up on him and got him home safe. We've got to go back and start over again. Get it back right."
Baffert echoed Smith's sentiment.
"I think he was just flat," the Hall of Fame trainer said. "I knew coming down here can be tough. Maybe I should have (worked) him (down here). Mike said he was just flat and never in the race did he feel he had any horse. ... I think he just laid an egg."
Arrogate's off-the-board finish triggered outlandish payouts in the place and show pools. More than $1.3 million was wagered on Arrogate to show and $792,216 was wagered on the gray to place. In the win, place, and show pools, more than $2.4 million of the more than $2.6 million wagered was on Arrogate, according to the Del Mar publicity department.
Accelerate paid $17.60, $32.60, and $22 across the board. Donworth paid $119.80 to place (a Del Mar record) and $67.40 to show. Cat Burglar brought $38.20 to show.
The San Diego was Arrogate's second loss of his career. The eventual four-time grade/group 1 winner also lost his debut at Los Alamitos Race Course in April of 2016, when a troubled trip resulted in a third-place finish in a six-furlong maiden special weight race. Accelerate finished second in that race.
Accelerate, bred in Kentucky by Mike Abraham, now has a 4-3-4 record from 12 starts and $607,480 in earnings. He was a $380,000 purchase out of the 2014 Keeneland September yearling sale.