11/07/2016 4:10PM

Hovdey: Battle to Arrogate, but Chrome's still a war hero

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In show business, it’s how you leave ’em that counts – laughing, crying, wanting even more. Last Saturday’s Day 2 of the Breeders’ Cup provided all that and then some.

Brilliant races from Arrogate, California Chrome, Highland Reel, and Tourist marked the day, while Peter Eurton, Phil D’Amato, Seamus Heffernan, and Flavien Prat joined the company of Breeders’ Cup winners.

Even the fans, 72,811 strong, got into the act by the end of the long, dramatic afternoon, although with varying effects. As the soft twilight settled and the dying sun glowed in the distance, those heading for the exits near the walking ring were greeted by a woman wearing a red dress and a broad grin proudly waggling a homemade banner that read, “Hillary for Prison.”

Times change. In 1996, signs at the Cup shouted “Cigar for President.” In 2009, it was “Girl Power! Go Zenyatta!” When someone suggested that perhaps this of all places on this of all days might be considered temporary sanctuary from the all-too-real concerns of the election, the woman declared her First Amendment rights, which apparently include freedom from good taste.

A more poignant endnote played out a short time later at the west end of the paddock gardens. The tableau included a stretch limousine, a befuddled chauffeur, a solicitous security guard, and a woman clearly over her prescribed alcoholic intake. The guard was gently urging her into the limo, but she resisted, shouting, “I’m being arrested! I’m being arrested! I wanted California Chrome to win!”

Ah, well, so did a whole lot of other people, for whom the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic was a more sobering moment. Heroes die hard – Tepin, Found, and Lady Eli also bit the dust in valiant efforts – and California Chrome went down with a ferocious fight, stretching Arrogate to be every inch of the colt he was in his breathtaking Travers last August.

The margin was half a length at the end of the Classic’s 1 1/4 miles, with the first two nearly 11 lengths afield of the third horse (Keen Ice). But whether it was the 3-year-old’s fresher legs that made the difference or a ride of wary calculation from Victor Espinoza, the verdict remains: The 2016 season may have been wall to wall California Chrome, but the Breeders’ Cup belonged to Arrogate.

“That’s a relief,” Bob Baffert said earlier in the day, after the 3-year-old Drefong defeated the favored Masochistic in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint. “You want to make sure you don’t get that doughnut.”

To that point, Baffert had run only four horses, but Dortmund and American Gal had been favored, and Baffert’s main chance in the Sprint, Lord Nelson, had been scratched. Drefong, a son of champion grass horse Gio Ponti, gave Baffert his fifth Sprint title dating to the 1992 running with Thirty Slews.

“When he won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, I thought that day at Gulfstream Park I had reached the pinnacle of my career,” Baffert said. “That was it. I never had that feeling again until I won a Kentucky Derby.”

Baffert had to wait just five years for that – when Silver Charm won at Churchill Downs in 1997 – but it was 22 years, a new family, a heart attack, and nine more Breeders’ Cup titles before the trainer scored his first win in the Classic.

Bayern was the horse who couldn’t break straight but could run very fast – fast enough to hold off the British colt Toast of New York and the 3-year-old version of California Chrome in 2014. Baffert rolled to his second straight Classic win last year with American Pharoah, while California Chrome was chilling at Taylor Made Farm … and 2-year-old Arrogate was nothing more than a gleam in Baffert’s eye.

The son of Unbridled’s Song clearly was designed by the same people who dreamed up the AT-ATs from “The Empire Strikes Back.” Time was required before his long legs and powerful torso struck a workable balance. It was April before Baffert dared unleash Arrogate – the result was a promising third – after which he worked his way through his conditions.

When Arrogate won the Travers by 13 1/2 lengths in his stakes debut, the 3-year-old picture was turned on its head. Preakness winner Exaggerator and Belmont winner Creator were among the humbled that day, while Derby winner Nyquist was a no-show.

By the time the Breeders’ Cup came around, all three had been retired. That makes Arrogate the latest in a select line of late-blooming 3-year-olds – including Kelso, Wajima, and Tiznow – who ended up champions of their generation without touching a Triple Crown event.

Arrogate is a fast-track version of the imposing Tiznow, with fewer starts and a limitless trajectory. Baffert had been convinced that his colt could climb buildings and swat biplanes, but even he had lingering doubts about the Classic.

“Going in, we knew we had a great horse,” Baffert said. “We thought we could be competitive. But down deep, I really wasn’t sure if we could beat California Chrome because I still have total respect for the horse. He’s a great horse.”

Unfortunately, the great horse did not get a comparable ride. At least that was the concession of Espinoza, whose work this year aboard California Chrome had been flawless. This time around, instead of cutting Chrome loose around the turn and into the stretch, he allowed the champ to idle briefly while looking for the oncoming Arrogate and Mike Smith.

“I could have maybe let him run sooner, opened up more,” Espinoza said.

Still, California Chrome took Arrogate deep, and Arrogate was best in only the final yards. Back at the barn, in the corner of the Santa Anita stables, California Chrome returned to an outpouring of affection from friends and family.

“It’s not your fault,” said assistant trainer Alan Sherman, giving the chestnut an affectionate pat.

“Look at him,” said trainer Art Sherman, Alan’s dad. “Just ran maybe the best race of his life, and he’s recovered already. What a horse.”

And what a horse race. How could anyone ask for more?