Hallandale Beach, Fla.
Bob Baffert was not certain which of his horses to send to the $3 million Pegasus World Cup. At least that was what he said late last month.
With the $20 million Saudi Cup providing a rich, new lure come Leap Day, Baffert had committed his four-time Grade 1 winner McKinzie for the long trip to the Middle East.
What to do, what to do. Finally, he decided to ship Mucho Gusto and his assistant Jimmy Barnes here to Gulfstream Park rather than ship himself to a race he won in with Arrogate in 2017, when the purse was four times larger.
“I wasn’t really planning on taking him there,” Baffert said. “But he worked really well the other day.”
Winless in three previous Grade 1 tries and with Írad Ortiz Jr. riding him for the first time, Mucho Gusto (3-1) raced home a 4½-length winner over pacesetting Mr. Freeze (7-1) with the late-closing War Story (15-1) finishing third.
“When you don’t expect them, those are the most exciting ones,” Baffert said by telephone from Santa Anita. “I was going to run him in the San Pasqual next week. But after he worked so well I thought, you know what, I’m going to take a shot at the mile-and-a-eighth.”
It was the fourth time that Mucho Gusto had tried nine furlongs, all with his previous rider Joe Talamo. Setting the pace did not work last March when he finished third in the Sunland Derby. A bumpy start did not help him when he wound up second to eventual 3-year-old male champion Maximum Security in last summer’s Haskell. Then he stalked the pace only to finish fourth as the odds-on favorite four months ago in the Oklahoma Derby.
This time with Ortiz, Mucho Gusto had a perfect start from gate 8, settled in a rail pocket on the backstretch, went three wide in the turn and left no doubt in mid-stretch that he would deliver the victory.
“He relaxed so well, and we were able to save ground,” said Ortiz, who won his third Eclipse Award on Thursday night as the nation’s top jockey. “At the three-eighths pole I tipped him out, and he took off. He was much the best.”
“Írad Ortiz did a pretty masterful job,” Baffert said. “He had me a little bit worried when was down inside, but he knew what he was doing. When he tilted out, all I could say was damn, I wish I would have flown down there.”
When Ortiz got the call last week from Baffert to take the ride, that meant he took off of Spun To Run, the would-be second choice in this race. But a case of the hives Thursday led trainer Juan Carlos Guerrero to – pardon the pun – scratch Spun To Run. Hours later the expected favorite Omaha Beach was removed after trainer Richard Mandella and his team discovered the beginning of a cannon-bone fracture.
That left Mucho Gusto and another California shipper – Pacific Classic winner Higher Power (5-2) – to attract most of the betting dollars. After he closed as the favorite, Higher Power challenged the early pace, but he faded to come in last.
“Who would know that the race would come apart there at the end, unfortunately,” Baffert said, referring to Thursday’s scratches that moved Mucho Gusto from the 10 hole to post 8. “The way he broke he could have won from the 12 hole.”
Now Baffert hopes that the performance will earn Mucho Gusto an invitation to join McKinzie in the Saudi Cup.
“We’ve always wanted to see him run a race like that,” Baffert said. “But he got beat by Maximum Security, and he’s been chasing some really good horses. It was a different field today. He just showed up.”
Pegasus notes and opinions
With Tyler Gaffalione leaving him near the back of the pack for much of the race, Zulu Alpha (11-1) closed with a decisive rally along the rail on his way to a two-length victory in the $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational. “The sea parted,” winning owner Michael Hui said. “Zulu does what Zulu does in the stretch.” The 7-year-old gelding by Street Cry won a Grade 1 race for the first time in five tries for trainer Mike Maker. Shipped in from Ireland by Coolmore, the 5-year-old mare Magic Wand (7-2) placed second for the second year in a row. Instilled Regard (10-1), one of three in the race for trainer Chad Brown, finished third. Betting favorite Without Parole (3-1) weakened late to finish 11th of the 12 starters in the 1 3/16-mile race.
Despite five single tickets being alive to win the Rainbow Six going into the Pegasus World Cup, none of them cashed for the full $5 million prize, leaving a $3,612,594 carry-over for Sunday’s card. One of those tickets would have cashed if the favorite Higher Power had won rather than finish last. Gulfstream Park spokesman David Joseph said that the mandatory pay-out Sunday would probably be about $15 million. The all-sources handle Saturday was $47,896,435 for all sources, only $87,447 shy of the Pegasus record established two years ago.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column, which was posted daily during coverage of the Pegasus World Cup, usually appears every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod at VSiN.com/podcasts. The RFRP is also available via Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and is sponsored by Xpressbet.