Bob Baffert gave the loser speech Nov. 5 at Del Mar.
Coffee in hand, blue-tinted sunglasses in place, the white-haired one had everything but a new Breeders' Cup victory to go with his California cool the morning after the World Championships.
"A lot of seconds. But they're better than fifths," he said of his stable's results at the two-day event.
A few stalls down the shedrow in Barn BB, Juddmonte Farms' 2016 Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) winner Arrogate stood alert and bright-eyed at the front of his stall—not off another victory, but off just such a mediocre fifth behind Gun Runner in this year's edition of the Classic run the night before.
Ranked the World's Best Racehorse after blazing to four straight grade 1 wins from the summer of 2016 to the Dubai World Cup (G1) this March, Arrogate emerged from his attempted Classic defense no worse for the wear. But the spark with which he dazzled en route to a course-record win in the Travers Stakes (G1), the dominance he showed handing Horse of the Year California Chrome sound defeats in the Classic and Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes (G1), and the brilliance with which he overcame Gun Runner in his Dubai World Cup victory, were missing from his final run.
"He didn't have the fire he usually has," the trainer said. "He just went through the motions."
Even before the Classic, plans called for Arrogate's retirement. The 4-year-old son of Unbridled's Song will ship Nov. 6 to Lexington to begin his career at stud. The Breeders' Cup curtain call left his record at 7-1-1 from 11 starts, with earnings of $17,422,600. In two starts between the Dubai World Cup and the Classic, he was a flat fourth in the TVG San Diego Handicap (G2) and ran second to Collected in the $1 million TVG Pacific Classic Stakes (G1), both at Del Mar.
"I was worried about bringing him back here (after those losses), but at Santa Anita I thought he was working well enough to do it," Baffert said. "At least he came out of it well. He's sound, he's healthy. It's gotta be mental with him right now. It's a shame now he didn't get Horse of the Year last year after winning the Breeders' Cup. But that's the way it goes, I guess."
With 14 Breeders' Cup wins already in the record books, including a 2015 Grand Slam with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah , Baffert does not have much to complain about. But the weight of expectations hangs heavy on Thoroughbreds who dare to gallop boldly into rarefied air, and for those who condition and care for them, the tailing off of form can be a bittersweet letdown at the end of a career.
"The biggest disappointment, other than not winning one, was the big horse not showing up," Baffert said. "I thought he would show up. I'm not blaming the track or anything. I think it's just him, mentally."
Further down the way from Arrogate's stall, Classic runner-up Collected moved about with restless energy. In Speedway Stable's fiery son of City Zip—who was defeated for the first time this year after running to four consecutive wins, topped by his half-length victory over Arrogate in the Pacific Classic—Baffert found a plucky contender with whom he wants to take on Gun Runner again in the Jan. 27 Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park. The chestnut colt pressed Gun Runner's quick pace throughout in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and finished second by 2 1/4 lengths.
"He just got a little tired there at the end," Baffert said. "For an instant there I thought maybe he was going to put him away, but Gun Runner was just too tough, the great horse that he is."
Gary and Mary West's West Coast, munching calmly on the contents of his hay net Sunday morning, will also be Pegasus-bound. The Flatter colt who won the Travers in August and Pennsylvania Derby (G1) in September—and jumped into deep waters after training from that score to the Classic—made a good account of himself in third.
"West Coast, I thought would be coming late, but I think he wanted to be a little bit closer, too. But I didn't want to have all of them too close..." Baffert reflected. "West Coast definitely is (pointing to the Pegasus). (Owner Gary West) bought a spot, and Collected, we will find a spot. Unfortunately I'm sure that Gun Runner will be there, but stranger things have happened."
Breeders' Cup results decide the fate of runners. Not just year-end championships, but careers are on the line. Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) winner Abel Tasman—second to Forever Unbridled in the Nov. 3 Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1)—will stay in training for a 4-year-old season, and talk of a potential Pegasus run has been thrown about by her connections since May. Mubtaahij, off the board in the Classic, will also stay in training with Baffert for Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa al Maktoum. Meanwhile, Coolmore connections retired grade 1 winner Cupid off a 10th-place run in the Las Vegas Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1), and where fellow Dirt Mile runner Mor Spirit is concerned off an eighth in that race for owner Michael Lund Petersen, "We've gotta figure something out on him, I'm not sure," Baffert said.
Baoma Corporation's Drefong, the champion sprinter of 2016, is another whose performance will be evaluated after a sixth while favored in the TwinSpires Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1). After dropping jockey Mike Smith in the July 29 Bing Crosby Stakes (G1) at Del Mar when he ducked to the chute via which he typically goes back to the barn, the son of Gio Ponti seemed to consider such shenanigans again when he broke from Post 2 in pursuit of his Sprint title defense.
"We're supposed to have a meeting about him, probably in the next week or so," Baffert said. "He's fine. He came over to that gap like he was wanting to try it again, and he lost all momentum.
"My two that I thought I really could win, it just didn't go right. I just didn't get the racing luck, and the big horse just didn't show up for some reason."
While many horsemen jetted straight from the World Championships to Kentucky for the breeding stock sales, Baffert will remain at home in California. He'll get his string in order, and they'll fight another day.
"I'm afraid if I go back there, I'll buy a mare, so I'm going to stay here," he joked with a wry grin. "I didn't make enough (at Breeders' Cup) to buy a horse."