Accelerate could fall prey to early pace in Pegasus

Audible_the_FL_Derby_credit_Lauren_King_(002)
Shown winning last year's Florida Derby, Audible will try to finish first again at Gulfstream Park, this time in the $9 million Pegasus World Cup. (Lauren King photo courtesy of Gulfstream Park)

Hallandale Beach, Fla.

If pace makes the race, it also makes the difference from one race to the next. And pace could be the Achilles heel for Accelerate.

That does not mean that he will definitely lose the last race of his championship career. More than two months after he won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Accelerate (9-5 morning line, 13-8 in live European betting per Oddschecker.com) is a bona-fide favorite to win the $9 million Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup Invitational. Post time is scheduled for Saturday at 5:36 p.m. EST here at Gulfstream Park.

But unlike that late afternoon at Churchill Downs in November, when four of the Classic’s 14 were bona-fide speed horses, as many as six of the 12 in the Pegasus may want the early lead in a race that is a furlong shorter. At 1 1/8 miles, the Pegasus is also the only distance at which the now 6-year-old Accelerate lost last year.

“The race has so much speed this year,” said Antonio Sano, trainer of Breeders’ Cup Classic runner-up and bona-fide closer Gunnevera (8-1, 9-1), the third-place finisher in the 2018 Pegasus. “That’s good for us. It’s all speed in this race. Three horses inside me and three horses outside me are all speed.”

A seasoned sprinter, 5-year-old City Of Light (5-2, 11-4) is one of those potential front-runners. Carrying three fewer pounds last April, he got a neck in front of Accelerate to win the Oaklawn Handicap at nine furlongs. Accelerate would avenge that loss the following month, outrunning a field that included City Of Light to win the Gold Cup in his 1¼-mile wheelhouse at Santa Anita.

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas hopes that his durable 4-year-old Bravazo (12-1, 14-1) can capitalize at the end of the race Saturday. But he said that jockey Luís Sáez will not have much time to think about when to use three-time Grade 1 runner-up’s tactical speed.

“Being in the 1-hole we’re going to have to use a little of it,” Lukas said. “Our strategy was to get into the race anyhow. Being on the rail we ask him a little bit more.”

If there is a breakdown of the early speed, Audible (10-1, 10-1) could also benefit if he can overcome being drawn wide into gate 10, not to mention a lackluster, runner-up finish around 1 1/16 miles of slop here last month in the Harlan’s Holiday Stakes.

“It looks like a race that should have a legitimate pace, and I think Audible should appreciate that,” his trainer Todd Pletcher said. “The Florida Derby last year had a hot, contested pace, and he ran very well (winning) in that situation. He’s the kind of horse that likes to run in a race where he can settle and later on make a run into solid fractions.”

But will any of this make a difference against Accelerate, a horse that will only stop being the best older horse in training in the U.S. because he will be retired stud next week at Lane’s End Farm in Kentucky? That is what the horseplayer has to decide. Sometimes the best horse carrying all the chalk cannot be beaten, even when there is a good case to make against him.

While I will key my ticket around Audible and include Bravazo, Gunnevera and even Cigar Mile runner-up True Timber (30-1, 50-1), I will not throw out Accelerate. If only his excellence were a well-kept secret.

Yoshida is a vulnerable Turf favorite

When the favorite for the inaugural $7 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational is a horse that has raced on dirt the last two times out, it could be said that the race is wide-open. Or that the field is not worthy of a $7 million purse.

Or more important, that it is ripe for a big payoff for bettors.

Bred in Japan but bought by Justify’s connections to race over here, Yoshida (5-2, 7-2) has a Grade 1 win on the turf and another on the dirt; that was in the Woodward before he wound up fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Accelerate’s stable mate Catapult (7-2, 9-2) could end up attracting more money from bettors, especially after his impressive, second-place finish to Expert Eye in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. The bigger question is whether he can stay the 1 3/8-mile distance.

The fact that Lasix-free horses in this race are getting a seven-pound weight allowance and that females will carry five fewer pounds could be a winning combination for the likes of front-running Magic Wand (9-2, 6-1), a Coolmore filly trained by Aidan O’Brien. Three-time group-winning speedster Aerolithe (8-1, 5-1), a filly from Japan, also gets a 12-pound weight break.

My ticket will include Catapult and Delta Prince (15-1, 20-1), a Jimmy Jerkens 6-year-old that returns to the turf from a forgettable move to a dirt sprint and loses the blinkers. He will come with a big price because of questions about whether he can last the distance.

Most of all, the tepid support expected for Yoshida might make it tempting for bettors playing horizontally to hit that magic button called “All.”

Racing notes and opinions

Triple Crown winner Justify easily outpointed Accelerate to win Horse of the Year at Thursday night’s Eclipse Awards here at Gulfstream Park. Justify got 191 of a possible 249 votes (including mine) followed by Accelerate with 54, Monomoy Girl with two and Enable with one. Curiously, there was one abstention. Justify was also voted champion 3-year-old male. The other Eclipse winners included: Game Winner (2-year-old male), Jaywalk (2-year-old female), Monomoy Girl (3-year-old filly), Accelerate (older dirt male), Unique Bella (older dirt female), Roy H (male sprinter), Shamrock Rose (female sprinter), Stormy Liberal (male turf horse), Sistercharlie (female turf horse), Zanjabeel (steeplechase), Hronis Racing (owner), John D. Gunther (breeder), Írad Ortiz Jr. (jockey), Weston Hamilton (apprentice jockey) and Chad Brown (trainer).

Gray Attempt (5-2), winner of last month’s Sugar Bowl Stakes sprint, is the morning-line favorite at chilly Oaklawn Park, Ark., for the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes, a Kentucky Derby points prep Friday at 4:52 p.m. EST. Steve Asmussen has three colts in the race – Springboard Mile winner Long Range Toddy (4-1), runner-up Bankit (7-2) and maiden winner Boldor (8-1). Since I have Bankit at 100-1 at William Hill to win the Kentucky Derby, he will have my money in this one.

Two colts and a filly jumped into the radar in the past eight days for the Kentucky Derby and Oaks. Trained by Bill Mott, Country House broke his maiden on his third try, winning by 3½ lengths over 1 1/16 miles despite a poor start Jan. 17 here at Gulfstream Park. Mott said he would put the Lookin At Lucky colt on the Triple Crown trail. Country House is 80-1 in William Hill’s Derby futures. ... What else is new for Bob Baffert? He trained 3-year-old Dessman to win on debut by 7½ lengths in a six-furlong maiden race Saturday at Santa Anita. Plans for the Union Rags colt are still in the words, but Dessman figures to get some play when he shows up in Derby futures. ... Another Godolphin contribution to the Baffert barn – Flor De La Mar – stamped her name among the fillies to watch with her victory on debut Sunday in a 6½-furlong maiden race. Sired by Tiznow, she has been outworking males in the Baffert barn like Dessman. It would not be a shock if she were the favorite in the Kentucky Oaks Future Wager, which will be opened by Churchill Downs the weekend of March 9-11.

The decision to aim McKinzie for the Santa Anita Handicap rather than the Dubai World Cup was a reminder that Baffert is a big as some of the most powerful figures in the sport. After entertaining the thought of going to the Pegasus run by the Stronach Group, Baffert decided that the $9 million race would come too soon after McKinzie’s victory last month in the Malibu Stakes. “We’re going to run here if all’s well,” Baffert said last weekend, planning a tune-up in the San Pasqual Stakes next Saturday before the $600,000 Big ’Cap on March 9. By deciding not to send McKinzie to Dubai, Baffert also took a significant attraction away from Sheikh Mohammed’s $12 million showcase. Of course, Baffert would be doing the Sheikh a solid if he were able to lead Godolphin colt Coliseum to win the Kentucky Derby, so these things may balance out.

Chris Kay resigned Wednesday as the boss at the New York Racing Association, a shot hear round the racing world. It was Topic No. 1 upon arrival here at Gulfstream Park, and it continues to ripple through coffee klatches and cocktail hours. In his more than five years on the job Kay was a polarizing figure who succeeded at turning a corner to deliver consistent profits for NYRA and alienating plenty of people who worked for and around him. I discuss Kay’s exit at length in this week’s Ron Flatter Racing Pod.

Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s edition features Gulfstream Park TV and XBTV host/handicapper Jason Blewitt previewing the Pegasus World Cup features and Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas discussing his Pegasus horse Bravazo. The feature Racehorses by the Letters considers the best horse with a name starting with “L.” The RFRP is also available at leading providers such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts and Stitcher, and it is sponsored by Xpressbet.

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