Following a performance in Saturday’s Dubai World Cup (G1) so impressive it gave goosebumps goosebumps, it’s not surprising that many racing fans were raving about Arrogate after the race. What was surprising, however, was the fact that Bob Baffert, a four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer with 2,733 wins (and counting) and former pupils such as Triple Crown champ American Pharoah, three-time Big ‘Cap winner Game On Dude and fellow Hall of Famer Silver Charm, was equally effusive in his praise for the 4-year-old son of Unbridled’s Song.
“This is the greatest horse we have seen since Secretariat,” Baffert said. “Unbelievable.”
That is high praise, indeed, especially since some of those horses since Secretariat include Ruffian, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid… oh, and did I forget to mention American Pharoah? He won the Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes) in 2015 — and was also trained by Baffert.
Still, the fact that Baffert’s words weren’t instantly dismissed as heresy speaks to just how good Arrogate is. So, despite the fact that several of my fellow racing fans will invariably cry, “why can’t we just appreciate all the great horses?” I thought it would be fun to dig into the data and see if the numbers back Baffert up.
But before we do, some definitions are in order:
ESR (Early Speed Ration): A measurement of a horse’s early energy expenditure in relation to the total race requirements. The lower the figure, the greater the horse’s early exertion in that event.
LSR (Late Speed Ration): A measurement of a horse’s late energy expenditure in relation to the total race requirements. The higher the figure, the greater the horse’s late exertion in that event. (Because late speed is measured at a time that each horse is being asked for his/her maximum effort, LSRs can be a great indication of form as well.)
Pace Profile: A simple comparison between a horse’s LSR and the pace of the race in which it was earned. A positive profile is greatly desired and serves to authenticate especially impressive LSRs. The Pace Profile is an easy, yet crucial, way to relate late speed to the pace of the race.
SR (Speed Rating): This is based on the old Daily Racing Form method of assigning the track record a rating of 100 and adding/subtracting one point for every fifth of a second the horse in question was faster/slower than that mark. In the “Totals” section, I tallied the ratings that each horse earned on a “fast” dirt track and, then, listed the median figure. (This method is obviously not ideal, but it is necessary given that commercial speed figures were not available to the public until the 1990s.)
Winner/Runner-Up: As the title implies, this is the name and lifetime record (through March 28, 2017) of the animal that either won or finished immediately behind our “great horse” in the race listed. This gives us some idea as to the level of competition the great horse faced.
Note: Earnings per start are in 2017 dollars.
We’ll begin the discussion with a by-the-numbers look at Baffert’s wonder horse:
COMMENTS: In many ways, rating Arrogate at this point of his career is unfair, because his rise to superstardom has come so quickly. In a very real sense, there are two Arrogates — the one before the Travers and the one after the Travers.
But no matter how you look at this guy, you see a champion. His overall pace figures are outstanding. His median LSR is a zero — on dirt. That is ridiculously good, better than all the past greats I considered, including Secretariat, who, as we all know, could move “like a tremendous machine” down the lane.
Arrogate has also faced surprisingly strong competition, despite the fact that his first four starts were in maiden and optional claiming company. Nonetheless, to see if Baffert is crazy like a fox or just plain crazy in thinking that Arrogate is the best horse since Secretariat, we need to look at some of the other great horses that raced after Big Red took the racing world by storm in 1973:
Comments: I know this will upset some people — and, remember, this is just a fun look at some horses that all achieved greatness in their own way (that’s my hate mail disclaimer) — but Ruffian really doesn’t belong in this discussion. To begin with, most of the horses on my “great” list were judged on their four-year-old campaigns and, sadly, Ruffian was not afforded that opportunity.
However, as you will see at the end of this article, when I summarize everything, the daughter of Reviewer was simply not as fast as her rival greats, nor did she face the same level of competition (the runner-ups in her races had a career winning rate of just 25 percent and earned less than $21,000 in real dollars per start).
Ruffian is remembered for her great speed, but she set no track records as a 3-year-old, only stakes records. By way of comparison, Secretariat set six track records as a sophomore, including several that still stand today.
Comments: Sorry Pharoah fans, but this guy isn’t in the discussion either. The fact that Baffert acknowledged as much in his statement about Arrogate hints at this — and the data drives home the point. American Pharoah’s pace figures are just so-so at best (relative to the other greats) and the horses he beat have a median lifetime win rate of 22 percent to date.
The only track record he set — in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland — was dubious too, as only one abbreviated meeting had taken place at the Lexington facility since it switched from Polytrack to dirt (the previous 1 ¼-mile record-holder was Proud Maxx, who covered the distance in 2:05.36 in a maiden special weight affair on Oct. 25, 2014).
Comments: Slew won the Triple Crown and became a very influential sire before passing away in his sleep 25 years to the day after he won the Kentucky Derby. He smashed a track record in the Woodward and had the best natural early speed among the greats being considered. His biggest knock is the quality of completion he faced. Yeah, he beat Affirmed in the Marlboro Gold Cup, but he did so by setting a very slow pace and lulling his younger rival to sleep.
Comments: This 1978 Triple Crown winner was not only fast — he set a track record in the Santa Anita Handicap on March 4, 1979, and was consistently within a few ticks of the track mark in most of his other races — he also faced some outstanding rivals.
Readers will notice that the great Alydar isn’t even among Affirmed’s four-year-old foes, but Spectacular Bid, Tiller and Sirlad are. It’s also interesting to note that Affirmed beat a younger Spectacular Bid in the same way that Seattle Slew beat him — by setting a very slow pace in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and hanging on by three parts of a length.
Comments: I consider Spectacular Bid to be one of the most underrated horses of all time. Most racing fans have a tendency to remember his near-miss at Triple Crown immortality (during what was arguably the greatest decade in the history of the Sport of Kings) and forget about the truly great 4-year-old campaign he had.
Spectacular Bid was undefeated in nine starts at the age of four, including a walkover in the Woodward Stakes (which he still completed in 2:02-2/5 for 10 furlongs), and set four track records.
Folks talk about Sham and Alydar, but how about Flying Paster? He captured 13-of-27 lifetime starts and was a three-time Grade I winner, but was 0-for-6 in his meetings with Bid.
OK, we’ve discussed all the great horses (at least the ones I chose to highlight); now, let’s summarize the data:
Based on the rankings for each horse in the categories I looked at, we can see that Spectacular Bid reigns supreme, with Affirmed second and Arrogate and Seattle Slew tied for third.
However, as I noted at the outset of this article, in my opinion, the Arrogate of today can be more accurately assessed by considering only his stakes appearances, all of which were Grade I affairs. This changes the rankings considerably:
Maybe Bob Baffert isn’t crazy after all.
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