The words of Carl Nafzger have never rang more true than on July 21, 2017. The setting was Del Mar and after the ninth race we all knew once again the two-time Kentucky Derby winning trainer knows a little something-something about something.
Years ago I asked this former champion bull rider if the wagering odds had ever decided the outcome of a horse race. Nafzger quickly gave me an emphatic “never”. When I inquired as to why, the veteran of the game retorted “Silly boy, it’s because horses can’t read”. Hmmmmmm
Fast forward to the 2017 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar. The current king of the Thoroughbred world is going to post as the high weight in the race at odds of 1 to 20. Of the roughly $2.9 million wagered on the race, $2.4 million is on Arrogate in some shape. A lot of it was in the place and show portion as folks knew he would win, but there was NO way he would not be in the top 3. With only four other horses in the race, this was like Akeem Olajuwan and Clyde Drexler…Phi Slamma Jamma. With over $17 million in career earnings and a seven race win streak, Arrogate was a SURE thing. And then they ran the race.
With the crafty jock Victor Espinoza aboard Accelerate broke from the gates alertly and sped to the lead. Having piloted California Chrome to greatness before finishing that hero’s career with two losses to Arrogate, Espinoza knew all about Bob Baffert’s big blue locomotive. Guiding his horse on a ground saving trip, Victor knew if this son of Lookin’ at Lucky was going to remain unbeaten at the seaside oval (3 for 3 at Del Mar) they would have to have a something for the stretch. After throwing down solid fractions of 23.49 for the opening quarter and 47.06 for the half mile, it looked as though things might be setting up for the late-running Arrogate as he ran a good six lengths behind the leader. But as the horses turned for home it was apparent somebody forgot to tell Accelerate he was supposed to be running for second place. Rolling over the Del Mar dirt in super impressive fashion under his hall of fame jockey, Accelerate won by 8 lengths and covered the mile and a sixteenth in 1:42.15. Arrogate was about 16 lengths back in a very lackluster fourth place finish. Clang, the ball bounces of the rim!
Hats off to Accelerate for running huge and to second place Donworth and his record $119.80 place payout. Arrogate came out of the race in good order according to his conditioner and will be ready to roll again hopefully in the August 19 Pacific Classic. Baffert blames himself and cites “trainer error” as the biggest reason for the monumental upset Make no mistake, the Thoroughbred game is a tough one and there are no givens. A bunch of folks found that out in the San Diego Handicap and yes, that is why they load’em in the gates before deciding who is going to the winner’s circle.
As for the Carl Nafzger philosophy, he couldn’t be more correct!