Pressure? Trainer Bob Baffert feels it daily, especially when it concerns the world’s richest racehorse.
Defending champion Arrogate will attempt to go out a winner Saturday in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar. With more than $17.3 million in earnings, the 4-year-old gray will make what’s expected to be the final start of his career in the $6 million Classic, a race Baffert has won three consecutive years.
“I think every race that he runs is pressure,” said Baffert, wearing his new “Team Arrogate” jacket. “I try not to think of it that way. I’m just trying to get him to this race as good as I can and hope that he brings his ‘A’ game. That’s the mindset with all these horses; just get them there as good as you can and get them in position to do their best.”
In addition to Arrogate, Baffert will saddle three more Classic contenders: Collected, West Coast and Mubtaahij. That gives Baffert four aces in an 11-horse field – but not the favorite.
Trained by Steve Asmussen, front-running speedster Gun Runner won three Grade I stakes at Saratoga and Churchill Downs by a combined 22 1/2 lengths. Although Arrogate beat Gun Runner in both their previous meetings, Gun Runner is a slight 9-5 favorite.
“Gun Runner has done everything right,” Baffert said. “He looks great, he’s healthy. I watched all his works; he’s fast! Speed is really dangerous on this track. You look at the numbers, Gun Runner is the horse to beat.
“But Arrogate; his numbers are off the chart. No horse has done what he’s done.”
Baffert, 64, already has won a record $24.8 million in Cup races with 14 victories in 97 starts.
“I was just hoping to win one,” he said. “First of all, I never dreamt I would be a horse trainer, maybe a quarter horse trainer because I loved that. But thoroughbred trainer? I never even thought about it. That’s a whole different league, a whole different level, like being in the majors.
“I still can’t believe I’ve accomplished what I’ve accomplished,” he added. “Every once in a while, I’ll look back and say, ‘Wow! I’ve done all this stuff.’ But memories, they go by so fast. You never really have time to stop and smell the roses.”
Based in California since he was a teenage jockey at Los Alamitos Race Course, the Hall of Famer trained 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, breaking a 36-year drought.
Then, Arrogate – a late bloomer who missed the 2016 Triple Crown races – strung together victories in four stakes worth a combined $29 million: the 2016 Travers Stakes, 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic, 2017 Pegasus World Classic and 2017 Dubai World Cup. He’s owned by Juddmonte Farms, the racing stable of Prince Khalid bin Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
“When Arrogate won the Breeders’ Cup, running down the great California Chrome; that was the most exciting Breeders’ Cup other than my first one with Thirty Slews (in the 1992 Sprint) that I’ve ever been involved in.”
But Arrogate returned from Dubai in late March underweight.
“I’ve had a hard time keeping the weight on him,” Baffert said. “That’s why I cut back on his workouts; he wanted to do too much. … (Dubai) took a lot out of him. We like to think they’re invincible but they’re not.”
Arrogate lost two preps at Del Mar including his last start Aug. 19 in the $1 million Pacific Classic to stablemate Collected.
“We saw that (Arrogate) struggled, he had a hard time getting around this course,” Baffert said. “It’s the tight turns and some horses really benefit. We saw that in Collected; he really loves this place. He just skips over the surface.”
Arrogate’s long stride, “his greatest strength,” works against him on tight turns, Baffert said. “His stride is longer than Secretariat’s; it’s incredible.”
Only one horse – Tiznow in 2000 and 2001 – has won back-to-back Classics.
All three of Baffert’s Classic champs – Bayern (2014), American Pharoah (2015) and Arrogate (2016) – won this race at age 3. West Coast, the 2017 Travers winner, follows that pattern; he’s won his last five starts and six of eight overall. He’s owned by Gary and Mary West, who live in Rancho Santa Fe near Del Mar.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if West Coast won,” Baffert said. “I’ve won with 3-year-olds before.”
Irish-bred Mubtaahij could be a surprise package. Owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa al Maktoum, the 5-year-old horse has won more than $4.5 million and was transferred to Baffert from Dubai’s Michael de Kock after finishing fourth behind Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup.
“I really think it’s going to be a hot pace and he could benefit from that,” Baffert said.
For his stable’s success, Baffert credits his crew, who has been with him for decades.
“We’re used to the pressure,” said Jimmy Barnes, Baffert’s longtime assistant. “It goes with this type of (expensive) runners. You just try to keep calm and make sure the horses are happy. Then, it’s up to the racing gods.”
Barnes, who became Baffert’s assistant in late 1998, said that his boss “is pretty much the same. We’re like a family here. We know what he wants. He has the respect of everyone.”
This Cup season, Barnes has been hobbled by his own injuries. On Sept. 17, a stable pony fell on him, breaking his pelvis. He’s getting around on crutches.
Most of the year, Barnes was on the road with Baffert’s stars.
“The hardest part was separating them, so they weren’t running against each other,” Barnes said. “We ended up shipping to New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Arkansas. We did a lot of traveling, but we traveled very successfully. This season really has been phenomenal.”
Exercise rider Dana Barnes, Jimmy’s wife, has been working for Baffert even longer – 20 years.
“Arrogate is awesome,” she said after giving him a gallop. “Everybody is doing really great. We usually don’t have all these good older horses; we’re known for our 2- and 3-year-olds. To have four in the Classic is amazing.”
When American Pharoah retired after his Classic win, Baffert and his crew cried. “We were sad to see him go,” he said.
“With Arrogate, this is his last race, but it’s different,” Baffert said. “He’s already accomplished so much; what more can you do with this horse? He’s won everything. I’d love to have him around until he’s 10 years old. But he’s done so much. … We just hope he shows up (Saturday).”
Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington.