07/26/2017 1:46PM

Hovdey: Top of the poll is in the eye of the voter

Barbara D. Livingston
Gun Runner received four votes as the top horse in the most recent NTRA weekly poll.

In the wake of Gun Runner’s seven-length victory in the Stephen Foster Handicap last month at Churchill Downs, among the comments that bubbled forth was an enthusiastic, “Wow! That makes Arrogate look even better.”

Fortunately, the reverse has not been heard after Arrogate’s baffling fourth in the San Diego Handicap last weekend. Gun Runner woke up at Saratoga on the morning after the San Diego the same talented colt he was the day before. No one looked at him funny because the horse who beat him in Dubai just fired a dud at Del Mar. In fact, Gun Runner will get a chance to compliment Arrogate once again Aug. 5 in the Whitney Stakes.

Horse racing’s ongoing quest to quantify the unquantifiable by various metrics is admirable and often entertaining. In the end, though, such endeavors are an innocently subversive attempt to reduce the mysteries of the game and make it about as fun as trading in penny stocks.

Timeform, the European ratings maker, seems to have cornered the market on the hoopla associated with the international ranking of horses, as well as jockeys, trainers, stallions, and, for all I know, boutique sushi. Arrogate is up there in the clouds at 141, while Gun Runner’s most recent number was 139. This makes things interesting, but only in conversation.

The two horses have met twice. Gun Runner was third and well beaten by Arrogate in the Travers last summer, then a stout second on that night in Dubai when Arrogate had more than enough trouble to lose, but didn’t. Gun Runner was supposed to face Arrogate and California Chrome in the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park in late January. However, the quarantine of barns at the Fair Grounds because of an equine herpesvirus outbreak during the winter kept him out of the race.

Gun Runner will not be able to challenge Arrogate’s lingering supremacy until they meet on the racetrack, which hopefully will be at Del Mar on Nov. 4 in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. In the meantime, we are left to speculation, idle and otherwise.

The NTRA solicits some 40 or so industry observers every week to assemble a Top 10. Since the first 2017 poll was taken, in the aftermath of the Pegasus, Arrogate had received every first-place vote every week.

Even after the San Diego, Arrogate’s support held firm – almost. Six of the 41 voters went elsewhere this time around, four of them elevating Gun Runner to the top spot and the other two switching to Songbird.

“No doubt Arrogate would be the betting favorite against any other horse, regardless of virtually any circumstance, and that’s usually my primary barometer in making such an apples-to-apples decision, as is the case of him versus Gun Runner,” noted Daily Racing Form’s Marty McGee. “On everyone’s best day, I still believe Arrogate is No. 1.

“However, it wasn’t like he got beat a nose, a head, or a neck,” McGee went on, in reference to Arrogate’s 15-length thumping. “It was an effort unbecoming of ‘the best’ horse. I defaulted to Gun Runner mostly because of a consistent record that lacks such a stinker.”

Debbie Arrington of the Sacremento Bee elevated Songbird, winner of the recent Delaware Handicap, to No. 2 in her poll after the filly won the Ogden Phipps at Belmont Park in June. In making the filly her No. 1 choice this week, it sounded as if she was not penalizing Arrogate for his loss as much as rewarding Songbird for the seamless continuation of a remarkable career.

“Was Arrogate’s fourth-place finish an aberration? Probably,” wrote Arrington. “He’ll have an opportunity to show he’s still tops. But for one week [at least], Songbird topped my ballot. She’s the best of her generation [and that may include both sexes] – and she’s getting better.”

Perhaps it is for the best that a horse with such a glaring imperfection on his otherwise spotless record should not be a unanimous choice atop any poll. Anyway, Arrogate’s supporters are still legion.

“One of the primary reasons I decided to stick with Arrogate on top after he laid an egg is his body of work this year vis-a-vis anyone else I considered putting in the top spot,” shared veteran turf writer Jon White, whose historically rich commentaries can be found on the Xpressbet.com website.

“According to the NTRA, the poll is supposed to reflect who might be crowned a champion in their division, as well as ultimately reflect who is elected Horse of the Year,” White pointed out. “To me, Arrogate is the leader in his division, not Gun Runner. And, beyond that, despite Arrogate’s dull performance in the San Diego, if I were voting for Horse of the Year today, my choice would be Arrogate.”

Gary West of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, for whom the word “erudite” was invented, also stuck to his No. 1 vote for Arrogate.

“His performance was about 20-25 lengths slower than what has become, for him, typical,” West said. “Do we judge Secretariat on the basis of his Wood? Or on the basis of his Triple Crown sweep? Most of us choose to forget the Wood, and perhaps we’ll choose to forget the San Diego. Belief largely depends on volition.

“So I was willing to give him a mulligan,” West added, “hoping, of course, I might get one myself when the time comes.”