The champion has returned, far more accomplished than he was heading into this task a year ago, but shrouded with more questions than ever as his meteoric career nears its end.
His chief challenger has never looked so dangerous. Still, there is the lingering matter that the rival has yet to finish in front of the gray beast who has supposedly been overtaken atop the division.
Then there is the quiet one, the upstart chestnut who has done nothing but top himself—and his heralded stablemate—in every outing he had in 2017. Throw in the kids, the international invaders, and a veteran finding new life, and the 2017 edition of the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) is one to marvel.
Returning in 2017 is defending race winner and reigning 3-year-old champion male Arrogate , who drew the rail. The long-striding son of Unbridled's Song heads into his final start with the goal to reclaim the air of dominance he had just a handful of months ago. Coming out of his last-to-first victory over leading Classic contender Gun Runner in the March 25 Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (G1)—his fourth straight top-level triumph—it seemed there was no race scenario that could put a dent in his ability.
That narrative went out the window this summer, when North America's all-time leading money earner suffered back-to-back defeats over the Del Mar surface he will have to run on again Nov. 4. The first was a disinterested fourth-place run in the July 22 TVG San Diego Handicap (G2), which was followed by a runner-up effort to stablemate and fellow Classic entrant Collected in the $1 million TVG Pacific Classic Stakes (G1) Aug. 19.
Whether it was Arrogate's dislike for the track, lingering fatigue from his Dubai run, or some combination of unknown factors creating a less than perfect storm, his Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert knows there can be no margin for error for the slate-gray runner against a field full of horses on the upswing.
"It is a pretty deep field," said Baffert, who along with Arrogate and Collected is set to saddle veteran grade 1 winner Mubtaahij and this year's Travers Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1) and Pennsylvania Derby (G1) victor West Coast. "I'm not going to use (the Del Mar surface) as an excuse for Arrogate. I think he'll handle this fine. The Pacific Classic—he actually ran a pretty good race there, you know? But I'm not going to use that as an excuse. I think he just wasn't bringing it and I think now, he looks great.
"Collected, he really liked it. I think Collected ... he's a really good horse. They're just good horses."
If on-track experiences since Dubai has been rough for Arrogate, they have been a pleasure cruise for Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm's Gun Runner. Already a grade 1 winner and model of consistency during his sophomore season, the 4-year-old son of Candy Ride upped his game in steady increments since his Dubai venture and blew the doors off his challengers in the process.
His seven-length victory in the June 17 Stephen Foster Handicap (G1) amounted to a paid workout in his first start since returning from overseas. For those who thought he couldn't look more at ease during his 5 1/4-length victory in the Whitney Stakes (G1), he answered with an even more sublime 10 1/4-length demolition in the Sept. 2 Woodward Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1).
What the Steve Asmussen trainee hasn't done during his 10 victories from 17 starts, however, is win at the Classic's 1 1/4-mile distance, or manage to beat Arrogate the two times they have faced off.
"Well, I know whose side I'm on (of the Gun Runner-Arrogate debate) and I feel very good about where we're at right now," Asmussen said. "What has happened since the World Cup is surprising to a lot of people. We're just trying to get to the Classic in the best shape possible and prove where Gun Runner is at."
While the names of the top two have rightfully dominated the headlines of the main event of the Breeders' Cup, Speedway Stables' Collected arguably has the best momentum of the field. Following a 10th-place finish over a rain-soaked track in the 2016 Preakness Stakes (G1), the son of City Zip was given the rest of his sophomore year off and didn't emerge again until this April.
The 4-year-old colt proved a sight to see, winning each of his four starts this year, including a 14-length triumph in the Precisionist Stakes (G3) June 24 that prompted jockey Martin Garcia to declare his improving mount might just beat the star of the Baffert barn should the trainer let the two meet in a competitive setting.
Taken as a joke at the time, Garcia showed he wasn't kidding when he guided Collected to a gate-to-wire, half-length win over Arrogate in the 10-furlong Pacific Classic.
"I get what Gun Runner has accomplished—it's a lot. And Arrogate is Arrogate," Peter Fluor of Speedway Stable said of Collected. "But Collected is a lot better 4-year-old than he was a 3-year-old. We're excited to be in the race. He likes the track and he did OK at a mile and a quarter in the Pacific Classic. So here we go."
As maligned as the 3-year-old male class has been this season, it has produced a few representatives for the Classic, led by current divisional leader West Coast. The son of Flatter has only been beaten twice in eight starts and elicited some comparisons to Arrogate when he registered his frontrunning 3 1/4-length Travers victory.
Behind West Coast that day, in a sneaky-good effort, was the popular multiple graded stakes winner Gunnevera, winner of the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) earlier in the season. The Dialed In colt rebounded from a pair of off-the-board efforts in the first two legs of the Triple Crown to take the Aug. 6 Tangelo Stakes at Gulfstream Park by five lengths and should get the pace set up in the Classic to best unleash his closing kick.
In his first start since joining Baffert's barn this season, 5-year-old Mubtaahij knocked off his first top-level victory when he won the Awesome Again Stakes (G1) Sept. 30 at Santa Anita Park and snapped a 10-race losing skid that dated back to 2015. Trainer Aidan O'Brien will take two swings at earning his first win in the Classic, saddling dual Guineas winner Churchill and War Decree.
Del Mar, Saturday, November 04, 2017, Race 12
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Arrogate (KY) Mike E. Smith 126 Bob Baffert 2/1 2 2War Decree (KY) Seamus Heffernan 122 Aidan P. O'Brien 30/1 3 3Win the Space (KY) Joseph Talamo 126 George Papaprodromou 30/1 4 4War Story (KY) Jose L. Ortiz 126 Jorge Navarro 30/1 5 5Gun Runner (KY) Florent Geroux 126 Steven M. Asmussen 9/5 6 6Mubtaahij (IRE) Drayden Van Dyke 126 Bob Baffert 12/1 7 7Churchill (IRE) Ryan L. Moore 122 Aidan P. O'Brien 15/1 8 8West Coast (KY) Javier Castellano 122 Bob Baffert 6/1 9 9Gunnevera (KY) Edgard J. Zayas 122 Antonio Sano 30/1 10 10Pavel (KY) Mario Gutierrez 122 Doug F. O'Neill 20/1 11 11Collected (KY) Martin Garcia 126 Bob Baffert 6/1
Del Mar, Saturday, November 04, 2017, Race 12