By Alicia Wincze Hughes
The temptation to look ahead becomes easy to give into when dealing with an athlete who makes the complicated look routine. And trainer Bob Baffert didn't become the Hall of Famer he is by not being mindful of such traps.
So it is then that the legendary conditioner keeps steering back to the present those who want talk about Juddmonte Farms' champion Arrogate in forward-thinking terms. For every question he fields about the legacy the son of Unbridled's Song will own should his performance in the $10 million Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (G1) equal expectations, Baffert reminds all that gimmes simply do not exist in competitive sports.
One hurdle at a time, or risk tripping over what you don't pay attention to. For a man who doesn't put his horses on a plane unless he has peak confidence in their ability to represent, the last thing Baffert is going to do is go halfway around the world only to get sloppy.
"Right now we are just trying to stay focused that he is doing well, because you have to make sure that they show up," Baffert said. "Right now, we know he is an exceptional horse. He is the heavy favorite. But he still has to have racing luck."
The luck of draw was the latest obstacle to be cleared in Arrogate's favor with the 4-year-old gray colt landing post No. 9 in a field of 14 for the March 25 Dubai World Cup.
The draw for the 2,000 meter (1 1/4 miles) test was largely kind to its main contenders as fellow grade 1 winner Gun Runner—the consensus main threat to Arrogate—drew post No. 5 and Keen Ice, Neolithic and Hoppertunity set to break from posts 10, 11, and 12, respectively.
During his 10-month rise from allowance winner to world's best handicap horse in training, Arrogate has rendered his starting points moot. He captured both the $12 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes (G1) Jan. 28 and Travers Stakes (G1) last August after breaking from the rail, and departed from the No. 9 slot en route to reeling in champion California Chrome in the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) last November.
It was already going to take more than an unfortunate draw for Arrogate to be at any perceived disadvantage in the World Cup. With that now off the table, Baffert can take another deep breath as he prepares to hold his air for a few more days.
"He's settled in pretty well and everything has gone pretty smooth," said Baffert, who will also saddle Hoppertunity. "We're just playing the waiting game now. The draw is over so that's the last of the suspense. We just have to keep him happy the next couple of days.
"As long as he shows up, that's the key. But he's done everything well here. If he runs his race, we know what he can do."
What Arrogate can do is set a track ablaze and break his opponents' hearts all while looking like a big, goofy kid out for a stroll. What the connections of Gun Runner hope their colt can counter with is a high cruising speed that, when left to its own devices, has its own track record of running foes into the ground.
Since finishing a well-beaten third to Arrogate in the Travers, Gun Runner has delivered some of the best performances of his 13-race career. Twenty-one days after running second in the Las Vegas Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1), the 4-year-old son of Candy Ride capped his sophomore campaign by besting elders in the Nov. 25 Clark Handicap (G1).
His seasonal bow in the Feb. 20 Razorback Handicap (G3) at Oaklawn Park was a gate- to-wire 5 3/4-length victory that was every bit the definition of sublime. With Arrogate not always the fastest out of the gate, Gun Runner will likely have every chance to set the pace in the Dubai World Cup and make his champion rival have to go through him at the finish.
"I was happy with it," co-owner Ron Winchell of Winchell Thoroughbreds said of the draw. "Just let him use his natural speed and hopefully they'll let him go on the lead. The track seems to play speed-favoring."
Hoppertunity and Keen Ice are both closers who would welcome someone to keep Gun Runner honest on the front end. Neolithic could be one such candidate as he prompted pacesetter Noble Bird in the Pegasus World Cup and held for third-place honors.
"The ideal (race) scenario is one where Arrogate would not be involved," laughed Jack Wolf of Starlight Racing, which sold an interest in Neolithic to Qatar Racing. "That's the horse to beat obviously. I would think we'd be near or on the lead or at least stalking the pace and this track seems to be favoring the speed of the last few weeks. Hopefully we hit the board here."
Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (G1), March 25, 2017, Meydan Race 9
About 1 1/4M, Dirt, $10,000,000
PP, Horse, Jockey, Trainer
1 Apollo Kentucky, C. Lemaire, K. Yamauchi
2 Long River, M. Barzalona, S. bin Ghadayer
3 Gold Dream, J. Moreira, O. Hirata
4 Lani, R. Moore, M. Matsunaga
5 Gun Runner, F. Geroux, S. Asmussen
6 Move Up, A. De Vries, S. bin Suroor
7 Awardee, Y. Take, M. Matsunaga
8 Furia Cruzada, A. Fresu, E. Charpy
9 Arrogate, M. Smith, B. Baffert
10 Keen Ice, J. Castellano, T. Pletcher
11 Neolithic, J. Velazquez, T. Pletcher
12 Hoppertunity, F. Prat, B. Baffert
13 Special Fighter, F. Jara, M. Ritchie
14 Mubtaahij, C. Soumillon, M. de Kock