Jockey Mike Smith celebrates aboard Arrogate after winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Nov. 5, 2016. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
When four-legged star Arrogate sauntered into the barns at Del Mar on Sunday morning, it was easy to bring up the analogy of Michael Jordan moving into your exclusive condo for the summer.
The horse, who ripped off an unprecedented seven-month run to become the richest winner in North American history, nudged revered trainer Bob Baffert to ask whether he’s the best the business has seen since standard-smashing Secretariat.
Arrogate is no Jordan, though.
Sure, Arrogate had the fastest time at the Travers Stakes in Saratoga in its 147 runnings … in his first stakes race. He chased down California Chrome — winner of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Dubai World Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic — in the most recent Classic at Santa Anita.
He confidently crushed the field in the $12-million Pegasus Cup, followed by a last-to-first stunner in Dubai.
Jordan was known — a face and resume as ubiquitous as Nike’s swoosh. Arrogate is a superstar in the shadows. He stirs awe in stables and straightaways, but lacks the mainstream exposure afforded Triple Crown darlings like American Pharoah.
The undisputed No. 1 horse in the world is calling Del Mar his home, all summer long. In a sport dangling at the edge of America’s fringe, will anyone notice?
“Well, he’s certainly Secretariat-like,” Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith said. “If he remains healthy and keeps doing what he’s doing, it would be a hell of an argument.”
Arrogate is greatness accelerated.
The best in the sport build their cases over time and from the start. Spectacular Bid, Seattle Slew, Zenyatta, Affirmed and Citation all won their first races before gobbling stakes races like carrots.
In April 2016, Arrogate finished third in a six-furlong maiden race at Los Alamitos. Westbrook and Accelerate, the race’s 1-2, now sit nearly $16.6 million behind the horse that eventually found the gas pedal — and jammed it through the floor board.
If the race had been 6½ furlongs, the hard-charging rookie would be unbeaten.
“I was there,” Baffert said. “He just had a bad trip. Didn’t break. Every spot he was in was a tough spot. When he tried to get in, a hole would close. The last 100 yards, he was coming like a steam train. He just ran out of ground. We knew he was a good horse.
“Hey, American Pharoah lost his first time out.”
Baffert showed unusual patience with Arrogate, keeping him out of Triple Crown races as a 3-year-old.
That slow, measured approach meant he failed to crash America’s consciousness — and TV lineups. It lined up Arrogate, however, to bank nearly $17.1 million and crush earnings records away from the spotlight.
“He’s the best horse in the world that nobody knows about,” Baffert said.
Hall of Fame jockey and NBC analyst Jerry Bailey said the route and rise feels unprecedented.
“I don’t ever remember taking a horse that was completely off the radar and saying, if this horse does this and that, it will be 3-year-old of the year,” Bailey said. “People would laugh at you. But that’s exactly what happened.
“It’s insane what this horse has done.”
Suddenly, the bounty of Arrogate’s dizzying climb benefits Del Mar, which opened its summer meeting Wednesday.
Baffert plans to position his star for a Breeders’ Cup Classic defense this November at Del Mar. To limit travel, Arrogate is also running in the track’s San Diego Handicap on Saturday and season gem, the Pacific Classic, on Aug. 19.
“We’re the case of being in the right place at the right time,” said Mac McBride, Del Mar’s director of media. “Horses are like strawberries. They can go south real fast. But he’s entered a whole new world. This tilts all perspective.”
Questions swirled about whether Baffert would run Arrogate in all three Del Mar races. His thought: Why not?
“If everything’s good, sure,” Baffert said. “Right now, I don’t see why I wouldn’t.”
The target on Arrogate’s back will continue to grow, Bailey insisted.
“So many times in this sport you have a horse that’s dominant, but he’s got a certain style,” he said. “If he’s a come-from-behind horse you can say, well, if we can get away with an easy lead with a quality horse and set a fast pace, maybe he won’t catch us.
“If he’s a front-runner, let’s put a rabbit out there [to push the pace] and soften him up and we can come from behind and beat him. Anybody plotting to beat this horse strategically, can’t possibly have a plan.
“This horse has no discernible weaknesses.”
Even Michael Jordan could appreciate that.