Defeat is an inherent part of athletic competition, save for the most rare of the most special. At some point, even the exceptionally gifted hit a series of circumstances that allows others to celebrate in their stead. Seismic as those moments can be, it is what transpires in the aftermath that can really define those who already bear the description of "great."
That Juddmonte Farms' champion Arrogate ended up losing his first start back after a four-month layoff wasn't the major source of angst for his connections so much as how disinterested North America's all-time leading money earner looked during his fourth-place finish behind Accelerate in the July 22 TVG San Diego Handicap (G2). Nothing about his effort that day bore resemblance to the previous big-race versions of the son of Unbridled's Song, but his connections maintain the horse they've seen since has been very much his usual self.
The only one capable of actually answering whether Arrogate is still the dominant force of the handicap ranks or a brilliant runner dealing a downturn is the gray beast himself. If he can put himself back on form against seven others when he breaks from the outside post in the Aug. 19 TVG Pacific Classic (G1) at Del Mar less than a month after the worst race of his life, hindsight could view his stunning setback as a blip that exposed him as mortal, but not lesser.
The notion that Arrogate would have something to prove seemed silly only a handful of weeks ago given the way he scoffed at challenges during a seven-race win streak that featured four grade/group 1 triumphs and some shattered records along the way. When one holds the distinction of being the world's top-ranked Thoroughbred racehorse, however, getting beat 15 1/4 lengths by the winner in his first loss since running third in his career debut inspires all sorts of levels of regrouping and reevaluation.
Arrogate's Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert put the blame on his white-haired head for the San Diego defeat, saying he was over-confident in the colt's level of fitness in his first start since his improbable last-to-first run in the March 25 Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (G1). While some speculated Baffert didn't turn the screws tight enough for what was expected to be a glorified workout in the San Diego, his connections theorized that the 4-year-old colt may have actually been a little too on the muscle in his last six-furlong work before the race and was more fatigued than anticipated when it came time to make a surge over a Del Mar surface more than one conditioner has labeled as tiring.
"It's a matter of what you ask of them," said Garrett O'Rourke, manager of Juddmonte Farms, which campaigned one of the exceptions to the rule in unbeaten European champion, Frankel. "Even (a horse like) Frankel, if he was asked to do something that he wasn't ready to do on a specific day, can (getting beat) happen? Yes. It happened to Secretariat, it happened to Seattle Slew. And I think Bob feels bad that he asked (Arrogate) to do that. Everyone makes mistakes, and Bob makes far fewer mistakes than 99% of trainers.
"The good thing if it was going to happen, better off that it happen in the San Diego, which was just a prep race anyway. He just wasn't himself that day. It's something now that we put behind us and hopefully move forward and go on with the old Arrogate."
Since Arrogate worked at Santa Anita Park in his final move before the 1 1/16-miles San Diego, he has put in three timed moves over the Del Mar surface including a bullet half-mile breeze in :47 1/5 on Aug. 1 in which Baffert said his charge "looked like he went in :49."
Baffert further declared all systems go after Arrogate's Aug. 14 four-furlong move in :47 3/5, and the Pacific Classic's 10-furlong distance is one the reigning Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) hero has never lost over in three tries. The betting public is expected to retain its faith as well as Arrogate was installed as the even-money favorite on the morning line.
"You learn from your losses, you learn what not to do," Baffert said. "You hate to get them beat but we know what a great horse he is and we're fine now."
The narrative heading into the Pacific Classic centers around Arrogate's potential redemption, but the team behind Accelerate wouldn't be nearly as stunned this time around if the end result is one where the chestnut colt proves his gate-to-wire, 8 1/2-length San Diego triumph was no one-off effort.
Prior to the San Diego, the John Sadler trainee had lost five straight races though he was not worse than third in any of those outings. The son of Lookin At Lucky did capture the 2016 Los Alamitos Derby Stakes (G2) in his first try against graded company and his connections figured if ever conditions were right to score an upset against the sport's top handicap horse, doing so while Arrogate had some rust to shake off was it.
"I personally felt that if there was ever a chance to run against the best horse in the world, it would be after a layoff, after Dubai, at 1 1/16-miles, at Del Mar," said Kosta Hronis, owner of Accelerate. "All those things, plus getting a good break, everything kind of aligned. All the boxes got checked and he ran the race of his life.
"Honestly, I don't think anyone beats Accelerate that day with the way he ran. The 1 1/4-miles (in the Pacific Classic) is concerning because he's never gone that far but we don't know until we try. So he is going to answer that question for us."
What is not in question is Accelerate's affinity for Del Mar. The 4-year-old colt is 3-for-3 at the track with two of those wins being eight-plus length blow outs. While he was third in the Las Vegas Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1) last November, a win or strong showing this Saturday will likely determine if Accelerate is pointed for the Classic this season.
"I don't know if it's the track or the weather or the fact he just likes to bring out his beach towel and have fun," laughed Hronis about his colt's Del Mar prowess. "(The track) does seem to be a little deeper and tiring (than Santa Anita) but he definitely thrives over it. If he's a mile-and-a-quarter horse and he proves that, he will be going to the Classic."
Given the way Speedway Stable's Collected has trained at Del Mar, Baffert may get his revenge on Accelerate and still have to explain away an Arrogate defeat. Where his stablemate has all the back class in the world, Collected owns impeccable recent form with three wins in as many outings this year including a 14-length victory in the June 24 Precisionist Stakes (G3) where he bested Accelerate and fellow Pacific Classic entrant, Donworth.
The mile and a quarter is a question for the 5-2 second choice on the morning line, but few of his barn mates have pleased Baffert as much with the way he has gotten over the Del Mar track in the mornings.
"He went very nice, looked really good, like his usual self," Baffert said after Collected's five-furlong work in 1:01 Aug. 13. "Nothing really serious, but we did his serious work last week (a mile in 1:37 2/5 Aug. 7)."