Sensational Arrogate paving the path for the future prosperity of Flat racing
In Dubai, laurels are never rested on for long. In the space of a little over 50 years, the city has been transformed from a humble trading outpost into a booming oil-based economy and then again into a worldwide financial and tourism hub. The transformation of the skyline in the last two decades alone has been utterly astounding and new developments continue to be built at a remarkable rate.
Horse racing in Dubai has also been quick to adapt to changing circumstances. Ever since the first running of the Dubai World Cup in 1996, the goal has been to attract the world’s best horses to the meeting and they haven’t been slow to make changes that they felt would help better achieve this objective.
Initially run at Nad Al Sheba, the World Cup was switched to the newly-built state-of-the-art Meydan racecourse in 2010 and was increased in value to make it the most valuable race in the world. With the wider racing world seeming to be making a move away from traditional dirt to synthetic surfaces at the time, the synthetic surface Tapeta was installed at Meydan rather than replicating the dirt surface that had been used at Nad Al Sheba. However, with the Americans soon beginning to shun synthetic surfaces both at home and abroad and with the Tapeta proving to be difficult to maintain in Dubai’s climate, the decision was taken to rip it up and install dirt at Meydan in time for the 2015 carnival.
It was a decision that attracted some criticism at the time, particularly from European connections that had enjoyed success on the synthetic surface both during the carnival and on World Cup night. However, the Dubai racing authorities were steadfast in their justification of seeking to attract top-class dirt performers from America on World Cup night, even if the depth of competition during the Carnival may suffer as a result, and they have duly achieved that in the three renewals since then. California Chrome was the headline act in both 2015 and 2016, but it was the attraction of ARROGATE into the fray last week that was the real prize for all concerned.
The Bob Baffert-trained four-year-old is currently the highest-rated horse in the world and became the highest-rated horse to ever run in Dubai when lining up for the World Cup on Saturday night. While there were seven individual Group/Grade 1 winners amongst his 13 rivals, the fact that he was officially rated 16lb or more clear of those rivals and was made an odds-on shot to break the track record very much put the expectations into context. Despite the fact that it was his first race outside of America, his first time to race on a wet track and that he would be doing so without his usual Lasix, Arrogate was expected to put up a big performance, one that consolidated his position as the best horse in the world.
However, as can so often happen in the great sport of horse racing, what had seemed such a straightforward task on paper very quickly became an altogether different proposition once the race got underway.
While Arrogate was expected to race prominently from stall nine, disaster struck in the opening strides. Having been slightly slowly away, he was badly hampered by two converging rivals either side of him which resulted in him being relegated to last position over a dozen lengths behind the leader. The uphill battle that he suddenly faced was soon made steeper as the pace was on the steady side of average at the front end, meaning that not only would the leading bunch be harder to peg back by those coming from off the pace, but also that the field would remain compressed for longer meaning that Arrogate would likely have to navigate a wide passage to get into contention.
Not only did Arrogate succeed in overcoming all of this to work his way into a challenging position, he surged past the game Gun Runner with a furlong to race and readily drew clear for a 2¼ lengths victory that stopped the clock at only 0.32 of a second off the track record set by California Chrome in last year’s renewal of the race. While it was a performance that ticked every box in terms of astounding race narrative and visual impression, what he achieved was given further context by the tracking data produced by Trakus. It revealed that due to the wide passage that Arrogate had been obliged to take, no horse had covered more ground in the race than he did, with him travelling no less than 13 metres further than the runner-up Gun Runner did through the race.
While the victory that he delivered on the day was in completely contrasting style to what most would have expected, what he did is likely to prove far more enduring and memorable than any wide-margin record-breaking performance would have been.
Champions with as much talent as Arrogate are unlikely to meet too many rivals with the ability to take them into deep water in a fair-and-square race in anywhere close to their optimum conditions. Thus, being faced with adversity in the shape of a new trip/surface or in-running misfortune such as what Arrogate experienced on Saturday night are some of the few ways we are likely to see them truly tested. Overcoming such adversity is what often leads to champions becoming greats and when the curtain comes down on Arrogate’s career, what he achieved at Meydan is likely to rank right alongside his epic Breeders’ Cup Classic victory in his list of achievements.
In terms of the bigger picture, Arrogate’s career to date has also perhaps been an indicator of the changing world of Flat racing. Less than a year after making his racecourse debut, he is now the highest-earning racehorse in the history of the sport. What has made this remarkable fact possible is that he hasn’t necessarily been targeted at races that aren’t the most historic and prestigious contests that he could have contested, but the ones that boast the most money.
While the Dubai World Cup has been around for over 20 years now and been established as one of the world’s most valuable races for many years now, the newly-created Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park that took over as the most valuable race in the world last year is perhaps the best example to use when assessing what the future for top-level Flat racing may look like.
To draw a comparison, in the mid-1970s promotor Don King took heavyweight boxing down the unorthodox route of making the staging of the highest-profile bouts available to the highest bidder, no matter how obscure the location. This is what resulted in the Rumble In The Jungle taking place in Zaire and the Thrilla In Manila in the Philippines. That those legendary contests took place in such obscure locations has taken nothing away from their legacy, if anything adding to the romanticism of the occasions, as well as making ample financial sense to the organisers at the time.
The biggest problem that Flat racing has as a spectator sport is that the light emitted by its brightest stars is often all too brief on the racecourse. The very best colts are often retired to stud just as they are beginning to come to real public prominence as their potential earnings in the breeding shed compare more favourably on the risk-reward scale than staying in training. However, perhaps the creation and success of innovative concept races such as the €12m Pegasus World Cup in America and the AUS$10m The Everest in Australia in tandem with existing highly-valuable races such as the Dubai World Cup are the solution to this problem.
Such substantial prize-money funds will make it far more commercially justifiable for horse owners to keep the most talented horses in training for longer, which can only be to the wider benefit of the sport. Some traditionalists are likely to bemoan any switching of emphasis from races with hundreds of years of prestige and history onto new races with inflated prize funds, but we live in a changing world and if that is what it takes to keep the best horses on the track for longer, many others will consider it a price worth paying.
It is surely only a matter of time before the Irish, British or French racing authorities identify which way the wind is blowing and create their own version of the Pegasus World Cup. As with everything in life, there is great value in being first and it will be very interesting to see which one if any of the major European racing nations makes the first move.