07/20/2017 12:36PM

Hovdey: Defeat always lurks, even for the great ones

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A dual classic winner to that point, Damascus was 1-5 in the 1967 William duPont Handicap at Delaware Park, but was upset by the decidedly inferior Exceedingly.

Trainer Louis Feustel did not wake up on the morning of Aug. 13, 1919, thinking it was possible for Man o’ War to lose the Sanford Stakes that afternoon at Saratoga. But he did, to a horse named Upset, and never lost again.

Trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons had Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox in good form for the Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 16, 1930. The muddy track was a concern, but who was going to beat the dominating favorite? Jim Dandy, a loser of 14 straight races? Yep.

The above recitation of historic anomalies is not meant to splash an ounce of cold water on the return of Arrogate in the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar on Saturday. This is a big deal, from all angles, because Arrogate has separated himself from his contemporaries with a series of performances that only the very best have ever matched.

Arrogate dismissed his entire generation of fellow 3-year-olds last summer with a record-setting Travers win. California Chrome was at the top of his game when he went down grudgingly to Arrogate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The Pegasus World Cup, a glorified Donn Handicap with an inflated payday, became easy pickings for Arrogate when California Chrome failed to fire. Then, in the Dubai World Cup, not even a tardy break could prevent Arrogate from lighting the desert sky.

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Faced with 1 1/16 miles and carrying only 126 pounds in the San Diego, Arrogate should have no trouble beating horses who, at least on paper, simply do not breathe the same air. As Bobby Jones once said of Jack Nicklaus, “He plays a game with which I am not familiar.” And yet …

Trainer Jimmy Jones barely gave the opposition a second thought as he saddled Citation for the Chesapeake Trial on April 12, 1948, at Havre de Grace. Then Saggy beat Citation by a length, after which Citation won his next 16 races, including the Triple Crown.

Trainer Bill Winfrey could not imagine that Native Dancer would not win the 1953 Kentucky Derby because Winfrey did not know what it looked like for Native Dancer to lose. The gray colt went into the race 11 for 11 and came out 11 for 12 when Dark Star beat him by a head.

Deep into the seventh month, the Best Horse in America has raced exactly once in these United States this year. Arrogate is being campaigned the way “Batman” movies are marketed, letting the effects of each release linger while amping up the anticipation for what comes next.

With its purse of $300,000, a win in the San Diego will not change the lives of Arrogate’s people. The race is a means to an end, and lucky Del Mar that the race was positioned just right in relation to the Pacific Classic, Arrogate’s primary goal of the summer. That means that jockey Mike Smith will want to leave something in the tank, so fans should not expect a lopsided tour de force. Trainer Bob Baffert will want his colt to come bouncing out of the race, happy and looking for more. Just like …

Trainer Mesh Tenney figured Swaps would easily walk his beat despite carrying 127 pounds in the Californian at Hollywood Park on May 26, 1956, having just won the Broward at Gulfstream Park under 130. But he did not account for Bill Shoemaker’s overly confident ride, and Shoemaker did not account for Milo Valenzuela’s inspired late burst aboard Porterhouse, who got up to win by a head.

Trainer Frank Whiteley did not mind the idea of Shoemaker giving Damascus an easy race in the William duPont Jr. Handicap on July 8, 1967, at Delaware Park. The winner of the Preakness and Belmont Stakes was 1-5 and supposed to win in a waltz. But Shoe left his colt with too much to do and fell a nose short of catching the modest 4-year-old Exceedingly, who never did anything that good again.

Baffert’s handling of Arrogate has been flawless. The colt’s lone loss in his first start was forgiven long ago. He is a pleasure to watch in action, a synthesis of the hallmark qualities of speed and endurance that make the Thoroughbred so enchanting. A racehorse like Arrogate makes you wonder why they all can’t be like that. Then he runs, and you understand.

Anyway, Baffert knows how it feels to have the rug pulled out from under him in a big way with a marquee horse, when American Pharoah was shocked in the 2015 Travers by the opportunistic Keen Ice. A trainer like Baffert – or Whiteley, Tenney, Winfrey, or Jones – does not let something like that happen twice in a lifetime. Still …

“It’s all in the game,” Fitzsimmons said in the wake of Gallant Fox’s downfall in the Travers. “I’ve been licked before, and I expect to be licked again. But if you’re afraid, you’d better remain in the house and keep your horses in the stable. It’s the uncertainty of the sport that makes it so popular. No man has it sewed up.”

So, enjoy the sight of Arrogate doing what he does best, which is run fast and win races. Put aside thoughts of historic upsets, take the day as it comes, and try not to dwell on the fact that the Sanford Stakes will be run at Saratoga four hours before the San Diego.