03/22/2017 2:46PM

Baffert rides the ‘Blue Locomotive' back to Dubai

Andrew Watkins/Dubai Racing Club
Bob Baffert said that Arrogate (above) and American Pharoah are the most-talented horses he has trained.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Everyone knows Bob Baffert likes joking around. He likes it so much that he even will kid about returning to Dubai last weekend for the first time since he suffered a heart attack when he was here in 2012 to run Game On Dude in the Dubai World Cup.

“I e-mailed my doctor,” Baffert said. “I told him I’m coming in and to be on red alert, to be there at the paddock ready with the paddles.”

When the Baffert-trained Secret Circle won the Dubai Golden Shaheen here in 2015, exercise rider Dana Barnes accepted the trophy, with Baffert watching from California. So, what has brought Baffert back to Dubai this year? A horse for the $10 million Dubai World Cup. A horse who is as serious – well, as serious as a heart attack.

Arrogate is one of the best horses ever to race in Dubai. He will be the fifth Breeders’ Cup Classic winner since 1995 to race in the World Cup the following spring. Arrogate joins Dubai World Cup winners Cigar, Invasor, Curlin, and Pleasantly Perfect, and he is at least the equal of them for brilliance on the racetrack.

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In his stakes debut, the Grade 1 Travers last summer, he bolted home 13 1/2 lengths to the good while setting a Saratoga track record of 1:59.36 for 1 1/4 miles. In his next start, he ran down a champion and Kentucky Derby winner, California Chrome – the winner of the 2016 Dubai World Cup – to capture the BC Classic. Arrogate beat California Chrome by a half-length; Keen Ice was almost 11 lengths farther back in third.

To start his 4-year-old campaign, Arrogate crushed a misfiring California Chrome in the $12 million Pegasus World Cup while beating runner-up Shaman Ghost, who would return to win the Santa Anita Handicap by nearly five lengths.

Arrogate’s international rating is a 134, making him the highest-rated horse ever to run in Dubai. Back home, he has earned Beyer Speed Figures of 119, 120, and 122 for his last three starts, three of the top seven figures at one mile or longer on dirt since 2010. In just seven starts, Arrogate has earned $11.08 million. By any measure, the colt is exceptional.

“Him and Pharoah – those are my top two ever,” said Baffert, who won the World Cup in 1998 with Silver Charm and in 2001 with Captain Steve but since then has been blanked.

American Pharoah, the 2015 Triple Crown winner and Horse of the Year, was retired to stud after winning the BC Classic and before anyone beyond a handful of insiders had any inkling what Arrogate might become.

“It’s a tough call between the two of them,” Baffert said. “American Pharoah, he was a fast horse that kept going. I’ve never shipped a horse so many places, and he never regressed. Pharoah, he could lay down some early fractions. He could win from six furlongs to 1 1/4 miles. Arrogate, he could win going 6 1/2 furlongs if you trained him for that. I could have run him in the [seven-furlong] Malibu, and I think he would have won, but he loves going a mile and an eighth, a mile and a quarter.

“He’s not a one-dimensional horse. He can be on the lead, off the pace. Look what he did in the Breeders’ Cup, giving California Chrome a big head start and still running him down. To run down a horse that good . . . ”

Arrogate is a blue-gray colt – Baffert has called him the Blue Locomotive – solidly built but not unusually large, with a powerful gallop and, for a Thoroughbred, a relaxed demeanor. Baffert won’t even trouble to school him in the Meydan paddock this week. Arrogate’s cruising speed is high, but he is more athletic than most strong-galloping types, and he can turn in powerful finishes.

Baffert helped select Arrogate for purchase as a $560,000 yearling. A son of Unbridled’s Song out of the Distorted Humor mare Bubbler, Arrogate is owned by the Juddmonte Farms of Prince Khalid Abdullah, a member of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family. Juddmonte long has campaigned elite turf horses but brought Baffert into the fold several years ago to try to develop high-class dirt runners.

“As an individual, he was a very, very imposing horse as a yearling,” said Garrett O’Rourke, the manager of Juddmonte’s Kentucky farm who was part of the team that picked Arrogate out of Keeneland’s yearling sale in September 2014. “He was a lovely mover, had a presence to him.”

Juddmonte, under Scott Walker, a 37-year Juddmonte hand, breaks and pre-trains its homebreds and auction purchases – 50 or 60 per season – as yearlings at the farm outside Lexington, Ky., using a Polytrack training oval, an indoor arena for winter work, and a six-furlong turf gallop with an uphill finish.

“That’s where we teach them to go fast – if they’re able,” O’Rourke said.

In December, roughly half the young trainees are shipped to England to begin preparing for overseas careers on grass. Arrogate, of course, stayed behind and continued to catch the eye as an early 2-year-old.

“We don’t ask them too many questions on the farm, but he was always one of the best we had looks-wise and action-wise,” said O’Rourke.

Arrogate came to Baffert in the late spring of 2015 and had his first timed workout that June 19 at Los Alamitos. He breezed four times there and had gotten up to a half-mile when one of his shins became sore, a common 2-year-old malady. Baffert sent Arrogate back to Juddmonte. Through the fall and into the winter, as many of his contemporaries trained and raced toward the Triple Crown, Arrogate quietly blossomed at Juddmonte.

“That’s when we got the feeling he was really starting to emerge as a good horse, when he came back here,” O’Rourke said. “It allowed him to fill out and strengthen, and when we sent him back to Bob, he had developed into something above the norm.”

Back with Baffert, Arrogate began working again in mid-January 2016. He looked like something special, but it was too late for the Triple Crown. Arrogate debuted April 16 and finished third in a Los Alamitos sprint, then coasted to three easy wins in June and August at Santa Anita and Del Mar before his breathtaking Travers.

“Sure, we’d have loved to been involved in the Derby and all that, but you just can’t worry about it,” Baffert said. “Instead, I got to develop him in easy little spots. When he went to Saratoga, he had a great foundation.”

It was no sure thing that Arrogate would come to Dubai. Before the Pegasus World Cup, in fact, Baffert made comments suggesting Arrogate would get a break following the Gulfstream race to point for a late-season campaign. But when Arrogate bounced quickly back to form, showing no signs of wear, his connections opened the door to one more race before a rest.

“Prince Khalid doesn’t tell his trainers what to do, but he makes it very clear what he would like not to have happen,” O’Rourke said. “He didn’t want to have the horse get to the end of the year and not be fresh – that was paramount. So, we just waited. Four weeks from the Pegasus, and he was bursting with energy and working so well, didn’t have a pimple. We ran that through Prince Khalid, and that gave him the confidence to make this trip.”

For himself, Baffert was confident that his first Dubai journey since the heart attack posed no issue.

“You can’t worry about stuff like that,” he said. “I flew to London this year. I flew to Florida. And I’m just in a lot better shape than I was when that happened. When I looked back on it all, before I left, I was exhausted all the time. I’d run 20 yards, and I couldn’t even breathe.”

Now, Baffert has come back to Dubai with a horse who can run a mile and a quarter – very fast – and barely seem to draw a deep breath.