Arrogate came, saw and was conquered in the San Diego Handicap.
The horse lauded as the best in the world was anything but at Del Mar on Saturday. In terms of upsets, it was Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson to win the heavyweight title, it was the New York Jets defeating the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, it was Wile E. Coyote finally catching Roadrunner and kicking the “beep, beep” out of him (that hasn’t happened yet, but I’m still hopeful).
Before the race, the biggest question was not whether Arrogate would win — in the minds of many, that debate was settled in Dubai, where the son of Unbridled’s Song transcended from great to immortal with a sweeping move on the far turn that catapulted him to victory in the 2017 Dubai World Cup. No, the question before the San Diego was how many lengths Arrogate would win by and who, among his overmatched rivals, would round out the exacta and trifecta.
But just as the plans of mice and men often go awry, so too do the plans of men and horses — and that is exactly what happened on Saturday.
Sent off as the prohibitive 1-9 favorite, Arrogate never ran a step at the place where the surf meets the turf and finished in front of just one of his four foes (El Huerfano, who stumbled at the start, causing rider Evin Roman to lose his irons).
To me, the race was a textbook example of why races are run on the track and not on paper — and there are lessons to be gleaned for fans and bettors alike.
For the former, the message is clear: poor horses lose races, mediocre horses lose races and, yes, even great horses lose races.
Affirmed was trounced by 18 ¾ lengths in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup (his saddle slipped, but so did California Chrome’s in the 2016 Dubai World Cup) and his chief rival Alydar was defeated by 12 lengths in the 1979 Metropolitan Handicap (Met Mile).
Exceller, who beat the great Seattle Slew in that aforementioned ’78 Gold Cup, finished 22 lengths in arrears in the Turf Classic at Aqueduct seven months earlier. Seattle Slew, himself, was beaten by 16 lengths in the 1977 edition of the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park.
Then there’s Forego. Winner of eight Eclipse Awards, including Horse of the Year and Champion Sprinter, he was drubbed by double-digits four times in his illustrious career.
Show me an equine or human athlete that never lost and I’ll show you an athlete that didn’t compete or challenge him or herself enough. In fact, I’ll take it one step further: I believe today’s focus on always winning is precisely why we get races like the San Diego — an event that featured exactly one graded winner outside of Arrogate (you’ll never guess who) — in the first place.
The master blueprint these days seems to be race wherever and against whomever solely to get fit for the “really big” event(s). Hence, is it any wonder that racing fans are so quick to dismiss a horse when it loses — or even when it wins, but in less-than-impressive fashion?
From a betting standpoint, there are other, perhaps even more important, lessons to be gleaned from Arrogate’s Del Mar disaster.
The first one is obvious: Never, ever, ever… ever bet a 1-9 shot to win. As was demonstrated — again — on Saturday, nothing is guaranteed. Arrogate controlled 80.1 percent of the win pool, 94.3 percent of the place pool and 94.2 percent of the show pool in the San Diego Handicap.
Insane. I don’t care if it’s Spectacular Bid in the 1980 Woodward, you don’t take 1-9 on a horse — especially to win.
But there’s another, more subtle lesson to be learned from Arrogate and it relates to the exotic pools. Although I don’t have the statistics to back me up, it has been my observation over the years that the crowd wagers in certain, predictable ways on massive favorites. Mainly, they use bets like the exacta to obtain a better return, but they only utilize it one way, e.g. they play the favorite on top of other contenders (typically the second- and third-favorites). This can open up value opportunities when the race offers quinella wagering as well (which was the case in the San Diego).
Over and over again I have seen instances where the quinella, which requires bettors to pick the top two finishers in any order, pay almost as much or more than the exacta or exactor, which mandates that bettors select the top two finishers in exact order.
This was certainly true in the San Diego:
EXACTA PAYOFFS (ARROGATE WINNING)
QUINELLA PAYOFFS (ARROGATE FIRST OR SECOND)
Notice that only the 3-1 quinella combination paid less than its exacta counterpart. And, again, with a quinella, bettors cash on a 3-1 result as well as a 1-3 result. That, my friends, is what value betting is all about. It’s not (necessarily) getting a big price, it’s getting an inflated price.
So, even though Arrogate didn’t win the San Diego, making all these exacta/quinella scenarios moot, watch for this phenomenon in the future, as one is sure to see it again (probably the next time Songbird runs).