03/27/2017 2:46PM

Hovdey: Assessing greatness requires history's lessons

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To know nothing of what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.

–Cicero

I watched the 2017 Dubai World Cup with my mother. It was her 89th birthday, and I’d promised her a first-class breakfast. She was duly impressed with Arrogate’s victory, but she is also dealing with the effects of mild cognitive impairment, so by the end of the day, she had forgotten all about the race, and breakfast, and everything else we had done to celebrate her birthday.

The first racehorse my mother adored – and still remembers – is Sun Beau, who retired with a victory in the 1931 Hawthorne Gold Cup as the leading money-winning Thoroughbred of all time. The details are sketchy, but she probably saw him run at Agua Caliente as a toddler, by the side of her sports-crazy father, and undoubtedly she heard Sun Beau’s name on Saturday afternoons booming from the RCA console radio that held a place of honor in their sitting room.

During her lifetime, my mother has had at least a casual fan’s passing familiarity with War Admiral, Seabiscuit, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Armed, Citation, Native Dancer, Swaps, Nashua, Round Table, Kelso, Buckpasser, Damascus, Dr. Fager, Ack Ack, Secretariat, Forego, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, John Henry, Cigar, and Rachel Alexandra. On her bookshelf is a picture of my mother smiling alongside Zenyatta.

These were all great horses. They were great because they offered a satisfactory answer to a difficult equation, similar to the formula that defines comedy as “tragedy plus time.” To be called great, and make the description stick, a racehorse must present a record in full and then step aside to let time pass for a final judgment.

As a teen, I thought Hill Rise was the greatest horse I had ever seen. He was big and leading-man handsome, with a stride that devoured the ground. He won everything in sight as a young 3-year-old, and he was unlucky to lose the Kentucky Derby when Bill Hartack worked his magic aboard Northern Dancer. Over time, Hill Rise added sparkling races to his record and even became a top-ranked horse in England. Not bad for a California boy. He did great things, but he was not great.

Later, after experience raised the bar, I thought Vigors was becoming one of the truly great horses. His winter of 1978 was without precedent. Here was a 5-year-old former grass horse who had shape-shifted into a dirt runner of mythic ability.

In race after race, there was the spectral sight of Vigors on the move from a distant last, his white tail streaming, running past very good horses around Santa Anita’s far turn as if they were nothing more than laundry hung out to dry. But he could not keep it up. His ankles betrayed him in the end, and his followers had to be content with very, very good, but not great.

To be remembered as great, all the right boxes of the era need to be checked. A horse of the 1930s had to run often and carry weight – Sun Beau race 74 times and won with 132 pounds – or win the nascent Triple Crown. To be called great, a horse of the 1940s had to survive cage fights over a span of seasons against a cadre of ruthless warriors who rarely flinched. Or win the Triple Crown.

Then onward, through changing standards, through the speed-crazy 1950s, when the best traveled far and wide – and fast – into the 1960s, dominated by a handful of equine giants, and finally to the 1970s, when greatness was distilled by Secretariat and embellished by Spectacular Bid.

If there is a Thoroughbred who comes to mind while enjoying the sight of Arrogate in action, it is Spectacular Bid, who ran as if resentful that other horses were involved. On the NBCSN broadcast of the Dubai World Cup, host Nick Luck described Arrogate’s attitude as “relentless,” which nails it. There is a no-frills, Joe Frazier discipline to the way Arrogate approaches his job, honoring the work with focus and determination, dismissing the opposition as lesser beasts, but never spiking the ball.

And, of course, he has the tools. John Gosden, who won the $6 million Dubai Sheema Classic with Jack Hobbs to set the stage for the $10 million World Cup, knows what it takes to win the grandest races on earth. He has won the Arc, the Epsom Derby twice, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and trained champions on both sides of the Atlantic. Still flushed from the glow of his own neat feat Saturday night, he was transported by the sight of Arrogate’s World Cup.

“His stride is so long and effortless,” Gosden said. “Like all great athletes of any discipline, he makes it look so easy, and he has so much time. Nothing is rushed, like Federer at his zenith. Graceful, so agile and smooth. The loose-limbed and perfect frame, and nothing wasted. And amazingly, he looks like a turf horse with his long reach for the ground, so unusual on dirt. Just a gorgeous sight.”

It should be noted that Gosden does train horses for Arrogate’s owner, Juddmonte Farms – including their 2014 Cartier Horse of the Year, Kingman – but he also trained Bates Motel, the Eclipse Award older male champion of 1983, so he gets points for perspective. He also wisely withheld any pronouncements of historical greatness, which cannot be said of certain racing journalists who allowed themselves to be caught up in a single exciting moment.

Bob Baffert summoned the name of Secretariat in the wake of Arrogate’s brave World Cup performance – blasphemy, yes, but you can hardly blame the man. The trainer was 20 and intent on a career in racing when Secretariat reigned, and the dramatic things we see and do when we are 20 become part of our everlasting DNA.

If Baffert wants to proclaim Arrogate the “greatest horse I’ve ever seen,” that’s fine. It is an opinion honestly held and deeply biased, though one that may be disputed in the ranks of Juddmonte Farms, where history was made with two other “greatest horses of all time,” Dancing Brave and Frankel.

It is true that Arrogate has put together a string that has never been done before, bearing in mind that three of the races in that string have been run only since 1984, 1996, and January.

His Travers, basically against the clock, was breathtaking. His Breeders’ Cup was as good a race as a horse could run, against a version of California Chrome primed to the minute. The Pegasus World Cup was nothing more than a glorified Donn Handicap – without the challenge of a handicap – but Baffert had to train his horse as if the same California Chrome would show up again.

As for winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic and then the Dubai World Cup, the prestigious double had been accomplished before by Cigar, Pleasantly Perfect, Invasor, and Curlin. Arrogate’s name looks good in that company, and the race he ran last Saturday must be labeled “great,” at least in terms of the adversity he faced with his dreadful break. As Gosden noted, the best make hard look easy.

But because he is a horse of his time, Arrogate’s eventual place among the greats will be defined by standards that would have been dismissed as mundane in bygone eras. He will never carry or concede significant weight. He will never be considered durable, with only a dozen or so starts. And while huge purses will continue to muster full fields around him, time is running out for a worthy challenger to come along.

Anyway, the idea that Arrogate should be moved to the front of the historical queue serves no good purpose. Such unfiltered sentiment has a way of dismissing decades of rich and wondrous racing lore, asserting the myopic view that “right now” is the most important time ever. Believe me, it’s not.

And yet what Arrogate does is unforgettable. Like a child anxious for Christmas, I can’t wait to see him run again.