Surprises and expectations. Those are two words that I know certain coaches despise. So should racing bosses.
I can still see the snarled face of the late Bill Walsh when he was asked in a news conference if he was “surprised” at the outcome of a particular San Francisco 49ers game. I can still hear the patiently crafted words of the late baseball coach Augie Garrido when he was asked about “expectations” of one of his Texas Longhorns teams.
Their words – answers and even lectures in response to my youthful questions – ring loud and clear in contexts that go beyond what might have been throwaway exchanges for Hall of Fame coaches.
Which somehow brings us to The Stronach Group’s announcement last Sunday that the purses for next month’s pair of Pegasus World Cup invitational races at Gulfstream Park, Florida, have been cut 75 percent from $16 million to a combined $4 million.
Was I “surprised”? Did certain “expectations” go unmet?
The way the race came out of the chute when it was announced in the spring of 2016, it was like Facebook or the iPhone. Why didn’t I think of that? It was racing’s ultimate poker game, and the 12 seats at the table – each with a $1 million ante – were snatched up in less than a week by the likes of Coolmore and Godolphin.
But there was a flaw in Frank and Belinda Stronach’s concept (they were still working together back then). What incentive was there for any owner to help fill the field when finishing out of the money meant losing $750,000?
That criticism led the Stronach family to throw $4 million of its own money into the pool for the 2018 running. A $16 million purse was the stuff of humble brags. But instead of a rush for the starting gate, the race did not fill until two Stronach-owned long shots were entered late.
It was evident that the luster of the Pegasus had worn off. By then it was like the Pet Rock or the Cabbage Patch Kids. So it was split in two last year – a $9 million race on dirt, $7 million on turf – and the ante was cut to $500,000. Even then the combined fields came up two short of capacity; both openings went unfilled in the turf race. That meant that The Stronach Group had to put up $5 million of the $16 million.
Now the ante is gone. The extant $4 million Stronach contribution has been divvied into a $3 million purse for the dirt race and $1 million for the turf.
It is no longer the richest race in the world. But the dirt feature is still tied with the Kentucky Derby for the third largest purse in North America. And while the turf race is now one of 37 races on this continent worth at least $1 million, it did get off to a good start last January by providing a rainy springboard for Bricks And Mortar to launch what was probably a championship year.
One self-styled journalist in Australia claimed this week that the cutting of the purses was the result of racetrack deaths at Santa Anita, another TSG property. That might have been the reason for the new ban on Lasix from the Pegasus and, for that matter, racetracks nationwide over the next two years. But the purse cuts were always coming. They were truly the result of a flawed business model that was doomed as soon as the checks were signed in early 2017 and the promise of TV and merchandising money never materialized.
Lasting only three years, the original economic plan for the Pegasus may be considered a failure. But that does not necessarily mean that the races are.
Gary and Mary West have made noise about not wanting to show up to Gulfstream Park on Jan. 25 with this year’s likely 3-year-old champion Maximum Security. But that should not drown out the fact that Omaha Beach figures to be there after he races next Thursday in the Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita. Other Grade 1 winners like Higher Power and Tom’s d’Etat are also expected. So are familiar names like Gronkowski and Bravazo.
Actually, the biggest threat to the Pegasus is not economics or medication or the perceptions of some armchair finger-wagger from the land of cobalt. It is actually the Saudi Cup, the $20 million invitational race – without an entry fee – that will have its inaugural running Feb. 29. (That is when I may use the word “surprised.”) The Wests are talking about going there with Maximum Security. So are the connections for McKinzie, Tacitus and, yes, Midnight Bisou for her first run against the boys.
Maybe Pegasus day will settle into something more modest and therefore more enduring. Instead of the world’s richest race, it will be just a very rich race.
But even if next month were to mark the last time we see Pegasus day, it should not be considered an abject failure. Instead, it should be looked at as a noble, aggressive effort to try something new in racing. Indeed, the aforementioned Australia has the Pegasus to thank for its copycat creation of The Everest, the ante-in $9.6 million sprint that is the world’s richest turf race and one that appears to have some legs.
Here is hoping that downsizing of the Pegasus does not discourage more new innovations from the guardians of racing. They will not all work. But as long as being “surprised” becomes the “expectation,” the more the merrier.
Racing notes and opinions
The National Horseplayers Championship in seven weeks may go unscathed by the ongoing impasse between Churchill Downs Inc. and Nevada’s racebooks over fees paid to CDI. With Churchill Downs (the racetrack) closed for the winter, and with the co-owned Fair Grounds curiously unaffected by the stalemate, only CDI’s newly acquired Turfway Park is active but out of play in Nevada. That track was never going to be on the NHC menu. “We don’t use them anyway since they are a night signal,” said Keith Chamblin, chief operating officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which runs the NHC, a daytime event Feb. 7-9 at Bally’s Las Vegas.
Oh, there is one more yule log to throw on that fire. A Las Vegas casino source told VSiN that the Preakness Stakes may be the next big race that commands a much higher percentage of the Nevada racebooks’ hold. “They want a big increase to take their signal,” the source said. “They” would be to The Stronach Group, which owns the home of the Preakness – Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. One big difference here is that the Preakness is not the Kentucky Derby, so Nevada’s bargaining position should be stronger. But it is not exactly utopian. Between spats with racetracks, skimpy prices on futures and a ban on advance-deposit wagering, Las Vegas is not exactly a friendly oasis these days for horseplayers.
In a 17-page, pre-holiday news dump Thursday, Los Angeles County district attorney Jackie Lacey said there were no crimes committed and no evidence of animal cruelty during the past year at Santa Anita, where 49 racehorses died after being injured from July 2018 to June 2019. The report pointed out that the fatality rate – 2.04 per 1,000 starts – was higher than the national average of 1.68. Lacey’s task force made recommendations, then PETA countered with indignation, and the Stronach Group that owns Santa Anita said it welcomed the report. So it was a predictable Kabuki dance. There was one particular pair of SMH passages. The report said that eight legal drugs including Lasix and Bute were found in some of the horses’ bloodstreams, but there were no specifics. Later the report called for “transparency of racehorse veterinary records.” Yet that same report failed to identify the specific horses in which the legal drugs were found. Why Lacey did not implement her recommendation in her own report begs an explanation. The next chapter of this investigation may be written next month, when the California Horse Racing Board finally gets around to putting out its own report on the crisis.
Congratulations to Steve Byk, whose “At the Races” SiriusXM and internet program was named the Best Radio Show/Podcast in America’s Best Racing’s inaugural Fan Choice Awards. It is an overdue honor for someone whom I have referred to as the North Star of all of us who are racing broadcasters. It was an absolute privilege to have the Ron Flatter Racing Pod named as a finalist and even be mentioned in the same breath as Steve.
Oh, let me not forget this. Merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah and the best of holidays.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. On this week’s RFRP, Brent Musburger has horse stories from then and now, and Bo Derek talks about being at once a racing proponent and an animal-rights advocate. This holiday episode also includes a preview of the Malibu Stakes on opening day next Thursday at Santa Anita. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available via Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher, and it is sponsored by Xpressbet.