“Horses for courses” is a horse racing adage that’s as old as the sport itself in the United States. They probably were saying it back in 1863 when Saratoga opened. I’d bet Pittsburgh Phil, the legendary gambler of the late 19th century, believed in it too.
Even though it’s an old thought, it has a modern application to the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Classic and specifically the defending champion, Arrogate.
The theory is simple: Certain horses perform better on specific tracks. It has never been empirically proven, but there are examples almost every day when you look at the Daily Racing Form, even if it is an 8-year-old gelding running in a claiming race at Penn National.
Probably the most recognizable example of the theory is Fourstardave, who won at least one race at Saratoga for nine consecutive years, including a stretch of six stakes races in five years. Now there’s a race named for him that’s run every summer at Saratoga.
This year’s Breeders’ Cup will be contested at Del Mar Race Course, a beautiful venue just north of San Diego where you can see the Pacific Ocean from the upper levels of the grandstand. (The proximity of the ocean can affect the track, but more on that later.)
Arrogate won last year’s Classic and followed that up with impressive victories in the Pegasus at Gulfstream Park in January and the Dubai World Cup in March.
He was being discussed as one of the great racehorses of all time when, following a break after winning in Dubai, he came to Del Mar.
In the San Diego Handicap on July 22, he lagged behind the field and never threatened, staggering up for a fourth-place finish. It would be kind to label the competition “nondescript.”
In the Pacific Classic at Del Mar Aug. 19, he improved a bit, finishing second to Collected, but he was still not even remotely the same horse that won the 2016 Classic.
Arrogate does have one victory at Del Mar, but it was a glorified workout against only two horses in June 2016.
The situation has regressed enough that Arrogate will be only the second choice in the Classic behind Gun Runner, who has won four of five this season. The loss was a second-place finish behind Arrogate in Dubai.
Arrogate’s trainer, Bob Baffert, says his methods were faulty following the return to Dubai. He feels Arrogate, based on his recent workouts at Santa Anita as opposed to Del Mar, will return to his former self. He also promised that after the San Diego Handicap.
Del Mar’s racing surface has been a point of discussion going back to maybe 1937 when founder Bing Crosby met fans at the gate. It can be quirky in the sense that there are periods when front-runners win an inordinate amount of the races. It has also gone the other way, to a lesser extent.
Again, not empirically proven, but there are those who believe ocean tides affect the track. When the tide is high during racing hours, there’s more moisture in the track. Front-runners benefit. Vice-versa when the tides are low. So check your tide tables for this weekend.
The tide theory aside, one could say Arrogate just doesn’t like running at Del Mar. He’ll have to win the Classic to prove otherwise.
Del Mar actually revamped its track last winter and reconstructed it using the same materials as Santa Anita does. So it should play like Santa Anita, but that hasn’t been the case, and the San Diego climate probably has an effect.
If you’re gambling on this race, and you believe Arrogate won’t win — or even finish second or third — because he’s not the horse for the course, then you have a chance to make some money playing against him.
You just have to accept that old-time adage.Joe Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeSullivan