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We all got this one wrong, myself included.
Horse racing never seems to stop teaching us lessons. The lesson learned here was a valuable one: Don’t rush to rank one horse ahead of another until their careers are completely finished.
Arrogate left us in awe after his amazing four-race run that started at Saratoga and ended in Dubai, but he should not go down as one of the all-time greats like we all thought he would. In fact, he shouldn’t even go down as the best horse in his own crop. That’s almost astonishing to even write, but it’s true.
Before I continue, let me be clear: Arrogate was brilliant. His record-breaking performance in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes will likely live on for decades as the greatest version of that historic race. Beating California Chrome in the Breeders’ Cup Classic was out of this world. His Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup victory was dominating, and his win in the Group 1 Dubai World Cup will likely live on as the greatest performance that many of us have ever seen. Arrogate has a special place in history and should be an absolute lock to make the Hall of Fame.
This is not about bashing Arrogate. This is about how great Gun Runner became, and how his place in history should be greater than that of Arrogate. Gun Runner should be regarded as the best horse in his crop and one of the best horses of his generation.
Gun Runner retires with six Grade 1 victories; Arrogate had four.
Gun Runner won four Grade 2 or 3 races; Arrogate won zero.
Gun Runner carried his form for the better part of three years, winning races at age two, three, four, and five; Arrogate won races at just three and four.
Gun Runner had a five-race Grade 1 winning streak; Arrogate’s lasted four.
Each won 63% of his starts, but Gun Runner had a better on-the-board rate.
All of these major resume categories go to Gun Runner. If you’re into Eclipse Awards, here’s another one for you: Gun Runner won Horse of the Year, and Arrogate did not.
Arrogate does have some advantages. He has the head-to-head lead over Gun Runner, and earned just over $1 million more in eight fewer starts. However, let’s pretend that Gun Runner didn’t miss last year’s Pegasus World Cup. If you remember, there was an equine herpes outbreak at the Fair Grounds where Gun Runner was stabled, causing him to miss the race because Fair Grounds was under quarantine. If Gun Runner shows up in last year’s Pegasus, you could make a strong case that he would have at least finished second in the race. Finishing second in last year’s Pegasus would have pushed him ahead of Arrogate in career earnings.
As far as the head-to-head battle is concerned, note that Gun Runner was second and third in the two races that he lost to Arrogate, while Arrogate was a well-beaten fifth in his loss to Gun Runner. This is the biggest thing that should push Gun Runner ahead of Arrogate when all is said and done. He was able to hold his form longer, and he never turned in a poor performance.
These things should matter when examining the career of a race horse. Resume has to matter. Prolonged form has to matter. Consistency has to matter. These aren’t opinions; these are hard facts.
To put it in sports terms, Arrogate reminds me a lot of former NFL running back and MLB player Bo Jackson. Each athlete had freakish talents. Jackson may have been the greatest pure athlete that we’ve seen in the last 20 years. He excelled on the football and baseball fields and was named an All-Star in both sports. His stories are the stuff of legend; he could do anything that he was challenged to do. Sadly, an injury cut his career way too short, leaving the world to wonder what might have been, rather than becoming the greatest of all time.
Arrogate was much the same. His four-race winning streak, while short-lived, was absolutely incredible, it was just that: short. We didn’t see that brilliance after March 2017, and we didn’t really see it before the run, either. Maybe he just hated the track at Del Mar, or maybe he had some sort of small injury that bothered him. He could have just been a tired horse, having spent all of his energy on that glorious night in Dubai. Much like Bo Jackson, we’ll never know what might have been, or how far he could have taken if if he hadn’t lost form. They both had that freakish ability that you knew was special each time it was on display.
As for Gun Runner, he’s the equine version of Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith. Talented, continued to improve, displayed solid production over several years, and reliable. People that covered both Smith and Jackson would probably say that, based on talent alone, Jackson was better than Smith, but when it came to Hall of Fame voting and ranking the top NFL running backs ever, Smith ranked ahead of Jackson. You just can’t base things like that on “what might have been.” What actually happens on the field (or, in our case, on the track) is what matters.
In most sports, that’s a given, but in racing, that isn’t always the case. Will fans and media members rank Gun Runner ahead of Arrogate when all is said and done? I’m not so sure, but they should. We can debate back and forth forever as to who would beat whom on a given day, but the fact is that Gun Runner’s last three speed figures were just as high as anything that we ever saw from Arrogate. Does that mean that he could beat Arrogate at his very best? I’m not sure. It’s a hypothetical horse race; ACTUAL horse races are hard enough to predict. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that you know the answer to that question; all you can do is look at the actual facts.
When you do, you’ll see that Gun Runner’s resume is better.
A horse like Mastery comes to mind when thinking about this concept as well. Many will tell you that Mastery was actually the best horse in last year’s 3-year-old crop. How can this be? Yes, he ran one nice race as a 2-year-old and one fantastic race at 3, but there’s absolutely no way of knowing what he would have done past that. He could have become a champion, or he could have just been average. Soundness and the ability to hold form is what separates the good ones from the greats.
By and large, we let Arrogate overshadow Gun Runner up to the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Classic, and I’m as guilty as anyone. Gun Runner deserves way more credit than what he’s been given throughout his career, and his Pegasus World Cup victory was the perfect send-off for a horse that we should not forget anytime soon. The level of improvement that he displayed throughout his career was off-the-charts; he’s the most improved horse since I’ve been following this sport. Those of us on hand at Gulfstream Park should feel truly blessed that we got to see him go out on top, digging in and refusing to lose to West Coast, who ran a monster race. West Coast may be the next star, but for now, it’s still all about Gun Runner.
This was a well-deserved fairy-tale ending.
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