What started out as a poker game with a $1 million ante grew into a $16 million blockbuster. It has since been cut down to size. Even if the fifth annual Pegasus World Cup Invitational is just worth walking-around money compared with those heady days of 2017 and 2018, it still commands the attention of horseplayers.
And yes, it is still flawed. Just ask Shug McGaughey after they run the $3 million Grade 1 dirt race this weekend in south Florida. He will not say so now – “I’m not going to let it keep me up tonight,” is what he told Horse Racing Nation – but his charge may have been dealt an unwinnable hand.
Code Of Honor (9-2 morning line) got a bad draw with post 10 in the 12-horse field for Saturday’s 5:44 p.m. Way out there in a 1⅛-mile race is a big disadvantage at Gulfstream Park, where the gate is set up only 150 yards up the track from the clubhouse turn.
The damning statistic is this. Since 2018-19 in the winter-spring meets, there have been 112 horses drawn into post 10 or wider for races of at least a mile on Gulfstream’s main track. Only six have won. Six. Although the stat includes one-turn miles that should not be so badly skewed, it is hard to find much optimism in that 5.4 percent strike rate.
Anyone gleaning the past four runnings of the Pegasus will have an a-ha moment with Gun Runner. He drew 10 three years ago and still won by 2½ lengths. History, however, has been more kind to him than it has to the field he vanquished. West Coast and Gunnevera had their moments, but they were not in the class of the Horse of the Year. Gun Runner could have run that race if he had started sitting down in the Silks simulcast center.
Other than him, horses drawn into double-digit posts have finished no better than fifth in the first four Pegasuses (Pegasi?). True, a lot of them were lousy; there was a 196-1 long shot among them two years ago. But California Chrome was no space filler. He carried odds of 6-5 when he drew the 12 hole in 2017. The hole was right. He finished ninth.
With last year’s winner Mucho Gusto retired and his stablemate Charlatan skipping this race to be aimed at next month’s $20 million Saudi Cup, two-time Pegasus winner Bob Baffert is leaving it for someone else to train the favorite this weekend. If young trainer Brad Cox takes the torch at least temporarily by winning the Eclipse Award next week, then his overachieving 5-year-old Knicks Go (5-2) could provide a signature performance Saturday.
The winning favorite two months ago in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, Knicks Go is 3-for-3 since the Korea Racing Authority transferred him and his 2-for-14 record this time last year from Ben Colebrook to Cox.
Has he become unbeatable? Perhaps. From post 4, Knicks Go is well-positioned to surge to an early lead and never give it up. With the rail draw, two-time graded-stakes winner Sleepy Eyes Todd (8-1) may press the pace at least early. So could the enigmatic Tax (5-1), the gelding that fouled up the start and finished ninth last year in the Pegasus before coming back from a seven-month break to win last month’s Grade 3 Harlan’s Holiday at Gulfstream. If a speed battle develops between any of those three, the race might set up for a first-run stalker or even a stone-cold closer to upset Knicks Go.
Jesús’ Team (8-1) could fill that bill. He certainly filled winning exotic tickets when he finished third at 40-1 to Swiss Skydiver and Authentic in the Preakness and second at 62-1 to Knicks Go in the Breeders’ Cup. Mid-pack runner Harpers First Ride (10-1) has won 4 of 5, all at stakes level. Dale Romans-trained stalker Mr Freeze (15-1) was second in this race last year, but that was from post 7, not the 11 he drew for this weekend. Bad post or not, Code Of Honor could even bide his time to make a decisive late run.
Maybe the biggest question is whether Knicks Go can go 110 yards longer than he has ever raced before. If he can, Cox thinks the horse sired by the obstinate Paynter has the most important ingredient.
“I think speed is always a good thing there,” Cox told the Gulfstream Park communications department about – well – Gulfstream Park. “I’m a big believer that speed is good at a mile-and-an-eighth and beyond. Obviously it depends on how much other speed is in the race. But I think he can get it. I think he’s a horse that once he gets free and loose, he runs with a lot of confidence.”
While the Pegasus “dirt” is flawed because of its layout, the Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational on Saturday at 4:59 p.m. EST is tainted by its inferior field. Really, when was the last time there was an important race on grass in the U.S. that did not have a horse trained by Chad Brown?
Put it another way. When was the last time a $1 million race for older horses had a morning-line favorite – Colonel Liam (7-2) – that had never before started in a graded stakes? Maybe this was a case of a handicapper being distracted by a shiny object on the past performances, specifically his $1.2 million price tag two years ago.
He may not be the titan of turf that Brown is, but Todd Pletcher has three starters in this race – Colonel Liam, Largent (9-2) and Social Paranoia (8-1). If “the other Pletcher” is the lean, then Largent should be the play. Without any obvious pace in the race, this 5-year-old Into Mischief gelding has shown versatility and a turn of foot in winning 6 of 9, including last month’s Grade 2 Fort Lauderdale over 1⅛ miles of the same turf course that will host Saturday’s race that is 110 yards longer.
If a change of trainer could work well for Knicks Go, the same may be said for Anothertwistafate (5-1). Moved by owner Peter Redekop from Blaine Wright in the east to Peter Miller in the west, the 5-year-old Scat Daddy horse won the nine-furlong Grade 2 San Gabriel three weeks ago at Santa Anita. A winner on dirt, synthetic and turf, this 5-year-old had more than a year-long break after a 10th-place finish in the 2019 Preakness. Whether Joel Rosario rides him forward or stays in mid-pack could go a long way toward determining whether he hits the board.
There are actually four Grade 1 winners in the Pegasus Turf, but they may not get much respect from bettors. Storm The Court (12-1) is 0-for-8 since his 2019 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile win on the dirt at Santa Anita. Aquaphobia (20-1) had a dream trip in the United Nations last summer at Monmouth Park, but that seemed a Grade 1 in designation only. Next Shares (20-1) finished first in the 2018 Shadwell Turf Mile but is 0-for-10 in Grade 1s since, including a last-place finish in this race two years ago.
Then there is Say The Word (6-1), a deep-closing victor Oct. 18 at Woodbine in the 1½-mile Northern Dancer for his former trainer Gail Cox. Now looked after by Phil D’Amato, he made his move with jockey Flavien Prat too late finishing third Thanksgiving weekend in the Grade 2 Hollywood Turf Cup at Del Mar. If Prat has the timing down, he could spring the minor upset.
The play here is on Largent and Say The Word with Knicks Go and Tax in a daily double.
Flaws or no flaws, the full Pegasus fields provide bettors a lot of options, and that is always good whether they are racing for $40,000 or $4 million. It has been easy take shots at the race, but credit should be given to The Stronach Group for investing so much money to put something more than worthwhile on the calendar in January.
A $3 million feature may pale in contrast to one worth $16 million, but it is still worth as much as the Kentucky Derby. For horseplayers who hunger for more days like the first Saturday in May, this weekend in January is not so bad.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big races, including a post-race report Saturday on the Pegasus World Cup. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week offers two episodes. A handicappers pop-up featuring Las Vegas bookmaker/horseplayers Chris Andrews, Johnny Avello, Duane Colucci and Vinny Magliulo analyzes all 12 horses in the Pegasus and all 12 in the Pegasus Turf. In the regular weekly episode Gulfstream Park TV analyst Acacia Courtney offers local insight into the Pegasus. Also, Ed Musselman talks about why he decided to stop publishing Indian Charlie. The RFRP is available for download and free subscription at Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.