The calendar year was just three months old, with roughly 100 grade 1 races still to be contested. Eventual champions had yet to make their debut, and sophomores had yet to separate themselves en route to the American classics.
Conventional wisdom deemed it far too early to draw conclusions about who would reign over the 2017 Thoroughbred racing landscape. On the evening of March 25, it had seemed relatively clear. The horse crowned the world's best of 2016 in a splashy London ceremony sponsored by Longines appeared to validate himself over, of all things, a rain-soaked track in the desert. And of the plethora of predictions being tossed about following champion Arrogate's improbable, last-to-first victory over Gun Runner in the Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (G1), one thing seemed certain: A horse ostensibly impervious to adversity would be on that Stateside-bound flight home.
Eight months later that theory proved dead-on accurate, although not by the obvious choice.
What looked to be a coronation over the Meydan Racecourse would, by year's end, go down as the end of an era. After Arrogate recorded his fourth straight top-level triumph in a fashion that left his all-star connections grasping for adjectives, no crystal ball would have dared declare that he'd race on, but never again visit a winner's circle.
And as good as Gun Runner performed during, and before, that international test, the notion he was about to embark on a run that saw him barely challenged en route to a coup of the division would have required a level of arrogance learned horsemen know better than to boast.
The dominant story line of the year became the tale of two rivals—one going from the best of times to the most frustrating, and the other morphing from worthy adversary to unbeatable foe. Considering it transpired during a season that saw the iron lady Lady Eli unleash a campaign that figures to bring the death-defying mare an Eclipse Award for champion turf female, the return and retirement of champion Songbird, and the sophomore males play a wild game of hot potato with divisional leadership, it speaks to the leaders of the handicap ranks that they managed to overshadow virtually all others.
"We've always had a lot of confidence in (Gun Runner). He's always been highly regarded, but ... you probably wouldn't have gotten anyone to take that bet—that Gun Runner wouldn't be beaten the rest of the year, and Arrogate wouldn't win again (after Dubai)," said David Fiske, manager of Winchell Thoroughbreds, which co-owns Gun Runner with Three Chimneys Farm. "I mean, nobody expected that. As good as Arrogate was for those four races he strung together ... I think we were probably like everyone else. We were thinking we would have our work cut out for us the rest of the year, that we'd eventually run into Arrogate at some point and hopefully turn the tables.
"We were clearly in the same league, but we hadn't beaten him up to that point. Gun Runner just seemed to progress and get better, and I don't know that anyone knows what happened to Arrogate, but he didn't."
Gun Runner's hallmark has always been how unaffected he is by what transpires around him. Sure enough, hindsight reveals a sign as to what was to come after Dubai as the chestnut son of Candy Ride bounced off the return flight "with his usual swagger and confidence," according to trainer Steve Asmussen.
It would be nothing but facile brilliance from the 4-year-old colt from there on. If his connections thought he was in the midst of a form upswing when he cantered to a seven-length victory in the June 17 Stephen Foster Handicap (G1) at Churchill Downs, they were happily left wondering what his ceiling was following a pair of clinics in Saratoga, when he won the Whitney Stakes (G1) and the Woodward Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1) by a combined 15 1/2 lengths.
To appreciate just how formidable Gun Runner had become heading into his championship-clinching triumph in the Nov. 4 Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) at Del Mar is to juxtapose him against the gray beast he finished behind in their prior two meetings.
Rare is the horse that can burst into racing's consciousness the way Arrogate exploded during his record-setting victory in the 2016 Travers Stakes (G1), then ascend with ease during subsequent triumphs in that year's Breeders' Cup Classic, 2017 Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes (G1), and his Dubai World Cup masterpiece.
More singular is the puzzling manner in which the horse with the speed, stamina, and tractability to make greats look common performed in his final three career starts.
Where Gun Runner was able to unearth new levels in his form the second half of the year, Arrogate had trainer Bob Baffert and owner Juddmonte Farms at a loss for concrete explanations when the 4-year-old colt finished a disinterested fourth in the July 22 TVG San Diego Handicap (G2). He looked only a bit more engaged running second to stablemate Collected in the Aug. 19 $1 Million TVG Pacific Classic Stakes (G1), his penultimate career start.
They were hoping Arrogate would find his old self in time to remind the racing community why he had inspired an astonishing level of awe just months earlier. But when he hit the wire in a dead heat for fifth in the Breeders' Cup Classic—6 1/4 lengths behind Gun Runner—there were both angst over his anticlimactic finale and reflective appreciation for the fact his descent was stark considering how far from the stratosphere he had traveled.
"I'm going to put this aside immediately and return to all the memories of those fantastic victories, when he showed us he was one of the greatest horses we've ever seen," Garrett O'Rourke, manager of Juddmonte's U.S. operations, said after the Classic.
While the saga of Gun Runner and Arrogate played out, another yarn that produced prolonged suspense was the narrative of which 3-year-old male would emerge as the class of his generation.
For the second straight season, a trio of different sophomores took each leg of the Triple Crown. And for the second consecutive year a late-blooming Baffert-trained charge ended up taking advantage of what was left on the table.
When Always Dreaming earned his fourth straight win with a 2 3/4-length victory in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1), the Todd Pletcher-trained colt appeared to be the wunderkind his classmates would have to go through the remainder of the year. That went out the window when Cloud Computing and Tapwrit took the Preakness Stakes (G1) and Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (G1), respectively, and none of the classic winners ended up capturing another race for the rest of the season.
Though it wasn't achieved in the breath-snatching manner of Arrogate one year earlier, fellow Baffert protege West Coast, nonetheless, figures to follow in his former stablemate's footsteps as champion 3-year-old male, with triumphs in the Travers and Pennsylvania Derby (G1) to highlight a six-for-nine campaign in which he also finished third in the Breeders' Cup Classic. With only a maiden win to his credit as of March, his standing as the most prolific member of his division was another forecast not many saw coming.
It was a year that didn't exactly follow its early script, yet still produced a definitive luminary who was there all along.