Why did the tears streaming down my face after the Breeders’ Cup Classic sting so bitterly?
With Gun Runner winning with such ease, I expected my tears to be a salve. I expected them to feel like relief, vindication, release. After two years so close, top billing in the Sport of Kings finally belonged to him alone.
Yet, just like the other two times Gun Runner had faced Arrogate, Arrogate had stolen the moment.
I had loved Gun Runner since his breezy domination of the Louisiana spur of the Kentucky Derby trail last year. Yet, there always seemed to be someone in the way, there to eclipse his place in the spotlight. There was Nyquist, undefeated down the Derby trail, still undefeated coming out of it. There was Exaggerator, making rainy days his own in the Preakness and the Haskell.
Then came that west coast allowance horse, the one I had dismissed as another soggy strand of spaghetti that Bob Baffert was flinging to the wall after a disappointing Classic season. I figured he needed a three-year-old, and that American Freedom was a dicey enough proposition that it made sense to try another one at the same time, to see if he stuck. 1:59.36 after they were off in the Travers, my mouth hung wide open. No, it wasn’t Gun Runner’s coming-out party; he stayed on well enough for third, but his day in the sun was delayed once more. Instead, it was that ambitiously-placed gray, the “west coast allowance horse”, who had just fired a belated, devastating opening salvo in the battle for the three-year-old championship.
From then until last Saturday, Arrogate cast his shadow over Gun Runner. In the 2016 Breeders’ Cup, Arrogate outshone California Chrome; Gun Runner, meanwhile, settled for second behind Tamarkuz in the Dirt Mile. Arrogate conquered Chrome again in the Pegasus World Cup this winter. Meanwhile, Gun Runner missed the world’s richest horse race after an EHV quarantine at Fair Grounds, and instead had to take his Dubai World Cup prep in the Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn. He won, but a romp over Hawaakom and Domain’s Rap in Hot Springs lacked the gravity of an eight-figure showdown with Chrome.
In the desert, Gun Runner overcame the sloppy track to run the best race of his career so far. Kindly rated, he took the lead through the far turn, and drew well clear of them all…but one. Arrogate, who had started so poorly, advanced like an unstoppable force through the far turn. He blasted past, forcing Gun Runner to settle for second after a top effort.
Through the summer, the shadow of that heroic performance hung over the racing world. Gun Runner did everything asked of him, and did it with style. The Foster, the Whitney, the Woodward: three Grade 1 races, zero moments during which it looked like he could lose. Gun Runner was coming into his own, but he still had one question to answer.
That question was Arrogate.
Even after Arrogate tasted defeat in both the San Diego Handicap (G2) and the Pacific Classic (G1), he still wore the laurels from Saratoga, Arcadia, Hallandale Beach, Dubai. Gun Runner’s victories showed strength, but they did not show he could beat Arrogate at the Classic distance of a mile and a quarter. Gun Runner had to come and get him.
At Del Mar, Gun Runner didn’t need to.
Much as the anticipated showdown between Arrogate and California Chrome never happened in the Pegasus World Cup, it didn’t happen between Gun Runner and Arrogate in the Breeders’ Cup. It was Arrogate’s stablemate, Collected, who tried to keep Gun Runner honest. He pressured Gun Runner throughout. And yet? Once again, Gun Runner went clear. But, unlike all those races over the summer, Gun Runner did so with Arrogate chasing him home. He answered the final question that lingered over him, in a resounding affirmative.
After the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Arrogate’s name seemed apt for the first time in his career: transitive verb, in the words of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “to claim or seize without justification”. The first two times he wrested my attention away from Gun Runner, I could justify it. In the Travers, he came out of nowhere with a performance for the ages. In the Dubai World Cup, he burnished his reputation by overcoming trouble, by showing a new dimension, by beating Gun Runner on his best day. But, in the Breeders’ Cup Classic? It was Gun Runner’s day, his coronation, so long in the making, but all I could think about was Arrogate.
I never thought I liked Arrogate. I respected him. I grudgingly admitted to feeling something — wonder? — after the Travers and the Dubai World Cup. But, I never hitched my dreams to his star, the way I did when I bucked the dismal Kentucky Derby record of Louisiana horses and picked Gun Runner last year.
Yet, I stood on the Del Mar horse path after the Breeders’ Cup Classic, tears streaming down my face, bitter that Arrogate’s career had to end the way it did. Arrogate made me feel like a witness to greatness in a way no horse had since I started following the sport. I knew the story of his career would be one I’d be telling for the rest of my life, and I wanted a happy ending.
I know racing well enough to know there are no guarantees. I can’t be sure Gun Runner will stay at his peak. But, I hope he can retain his Breeders’ Cup form through to January, to the Pegasus. I want to enjoy Gun Runner one last time — and enjoy the swift chestnut for who he his, without the twin gray spectres of Arrogate and his legacy getting in the way.