I have to admit, I have no idea what the inaugural Pegasus World Cup Invitational was intended to be, what it actually is, how it is going to play out this year, and what the future holds.
Although many have knocked its concept on social media, no one who cares about racing should be openly knocking anything that is innovative and might help the sport from a marketing standpoint. There are reasons for racing fans to believe this is going to work and reasons to believe it won’t. Other than the much anticipated showdown between superstars California Chrome and Arrogate, things have been a bit of a mess for some of the others, and there are issues still to be resolved, like finding three more horses at this late stage. An announcement on the final three slots is expected any time, with one of the slot holders possibly running one of his own horses, who has not done much at all to suggest he belongs in the race. If he runs him, it likely will be announced in the next day or two.
And there are serious questions regarding the handle that will be generated. With limited attendance at Gulfstream and exorbitant prices, this is not your typical event for the $2 bettor. But let’s see how this all plays out and what kind of response it gets and go in with an open mind.
We recently learned through original slot owner Dean Reeves’ Pegasus diary how difficult a road it has been to find a horse to fill his million-dollar starting gate stall. He has failed in his attempt to land Connect, Midnight Storm, Arrogate, Keen Ice, Gun Runner, and Conquest Enforcer. Finally, with only a little over two weeks to the race, he was able to make a deal for the grade I-placed Breaking Lucky, second in the Clark Handicap. With two weeks until the race, we still need to find three horses whose owners are willing to spend gobs of money for the privilege of facing California Chrome and Arrogate.
Some have held out hope over the past several weeks of possibly landing the classy and talented Gun Runner, but at this time it looks as if he will remained quarantined at Fair Grounds due to an outbreak of the equine herpes virus. Gun Runner certainly would have been highly sought after and would have added a great deal to the race.
Slot holder Paul Reddam, who had been hoping to run Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist until that colt suffered a career-ending injury, conceded defeat after Arrogate was snatched up by Coolmore in a likely breeding shares deal and just decided to run Semper Fortis, a decent enough horse who most recently finished sixth in the Malibu Stakes at odds of 34-1. He is one of many horses in the race who would have to improve some 15 lengths or more to even be competitive with Chrome and Arrogate. Did Reddam simply come to terms with his initial decision and accept his financial loss? Imagine Nyquist and Gun Runner in the field. Bad luck for the event.
To demonstrate how far the Pegasus horses would have to move up in the eyes of the public, Breaking Lucky, in two of his last three starts, was 48-1 and 46-1. War Story, in three of his last five starts, was 136-1, 104-1, and 44-1. Keen Ice, two races back, was 32-1. Neolithic, two races back, was 22-1 in a grade III race. The Argentine horse, Eragon has not been favored in his last 11 starts. Who knows who the three horses will be who will fill the last three spots. All we know is time is running out, as are horses of even reasonable quality, unless any of the three slot holders has something interesting in the works. The one possibility mentioned earlier has been running in turf sprints and was 32-1 and 28-1 in his last two starts, in which he was out of the money.
Although things did not go quite as expected for a number of the slot owners, from the fans’ point of view, it has brought a dream rematch of the two best horses in the world. While that is great for the fans and for racing, and the marketing of the race, where does that leave the owners of the other horses and their willingness to participate in future runnings of the race?
As mentioned earlier, there are many on social media who feel the Pegasus has no shot to move forward and generate interest next year. We all know anything can happen in a horse race, and although Gulfstream and the Stronach Group would love to see a competitive race this year and competitive fields in the future, with all 12 horses having a legitimate shot to win the big $7 million winner’s prize, do they really want to see one of these horses upset both California Chrome and Arrogate, which would throw the entire racing picture into turmoil?
So, while management has to have mixed feelings, the fans as a whole really have little interest in any horses other than the two superstars, except to see who fills out the exotics. Those who can afford to attend this elite event will look at it as just that; the place to be on January 28. They will be treated to a full card of stakes races, topped off by the most anticipated showdown in years.
But once again, what of the original slot holders and the owners of horses with whom they made deals? Whether they believe it or feel compelled to say it, it is good to see most of them express their satisfaction with the horses on whom they partnered up.
We all are well aware anything can happen in a horse race. Just ask the connections of Keen Ice who watched their colt stun Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the Travers. Stronach's Shaman Ghost did defeat the seemingly invincible Met Mile and Whitney winner Frosted in the Woodward Stakes. How much do we know about Eragon? How rapidly is Neolithic improving? Breaking Lucky was beaten only a neck by Shaman Ghost in the Woodward. How far has War Story come since last year after his big form improvement?
No one is claiming these horses even belong on the same racetrack as California Chrome and Arrogate. But why not hope they are least competitive and give their owners and partners who gambled big bucks something to cheer about. For the amount of money that’s been spent, and for the future of the event, it would not serve anyone’s purpose to see California Chrome and Arrogate again finish a sixteenth of a mile ahead of everyone else. But for ardent fans of both horses and many racing fans in general who don’t relate to the financial aspect of the race, that’s exactly what they want to see.
Although you may feel the original slot holders made a premature, impetuous move rushing into this (one original slot holder regretted his decision and quickly sold out), they did take a major risk by putting a million dollars into something totally unknown that they considered innovative and could have a future and benefit the sport. Each had their reasons to take such an unorthodox plunge, whether it be for the thrill of it or to be part of something huge or the wheeling and dealing aspect of it. But whatever their reason they did invest in the sport in a different manner rather than in yearlings or 2-year-olds like most everyone else.
So, although nine of the 12 slot holders are going to lose a good chunk of money, they knew that was a good possibility going in. If every owner had shunned Stronach's idea, there would be no Pegasus World Cup, no epic showdown between California Chrome and Arrogate, no columns and stories about the race all over the internet, no TV commercials featuring UFC champion Conor McGregor. All we would have on January 28 is a wide-open edition of the Donn Handicap with no star power and little interest.
It's easy to knock the Pegasus and the slot owners, and, yes, there are several aspects of the race that need changing, but why not embrace something new and different? If it doesn't catch on, so be it. You at least will get to see what should be a titanic battle between two spectacular horses. Or maybe you'll see the upset of the century.
So, let's just get those three final horses already and let the fun begin.