Flight Pattern - By Evan Hammonds

Despite it being only the fifth running, the Jan. 23 Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes (G1), with its complement of undercard stakes, has come a long way.

Remember back in the day—all the way back in 2017—when owners were asked to pony up $1 million each for a starting berth in the inaugural Pegasus that carried a $12 million purse? While the format was a departure, The Stronach Group was able to pull the event off thanks to the star power of California Chrome and Arrogate that gave the race some much-needed traction to make it more than an one-off event.

The purse ballooned to $16 million for 2018, but has settled into stride with a $3 million purse. It’s now entrenched on the racing calendar, straddling the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) and the deep winter races that take place in the Middle East—the Saudi Cup and the Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (G1).

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused every business model on the planet to adapt and the Pegasus is no different. Marketed as a “see-and-be-seen” event in South Florida by horse-types and celebrities alike, being on site was out of sight this year. The program played well on national television and handle of $40.7 million compares favorably with last year’s figure of $41.8 million.

The winner, and heavy favorite, was Knicks Go, who races for the Korea Racing Authority. The KRA, which runs the sport in South Korea, has but four horses in training in the U.S.

The KRA paid $87,000 for Knicks Go as a yearling. He was talented enough to win at the grade 1 level at 2 and ran second in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) while with trainer Ben Colebrook. The horse’s form has been terrific of late since he joined the barn of Brad Cox.

The Maryland-bred registered a resounding score in last fall’s Big Ass Fans Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) at Keeneland in a track record 1:33.85. Knicks Go was left alone on the front end of the nine-furlong Pegasus, clicking off hot fractions en route to a 1:47.89 clocking.

“We’ve had some horses we’ve claimed who have won stakes, but I haven’t seen anything like this,” Cox said after the Pegasus. “I wish I could say why it happened, but I don’t know what was happening before. He was great at 2 and looked like a good horse when we got him.”

The Pegasus had its share of doubters early, but the management team at Gulfstream has been able to transform the program to a “must-see” race on the calendar. Cox, too, has come a long way since 2017.

Another transformation has been made by Louisville, Ky., native Cox, who got his start at Churchill Downs with local owner Richard Klein more than 15 years ago. He notched his first grade 1 victory in the spring of 2018 with champion Monomoy Girl and has seen his star ascend dramatically. His barn now runs deep with talent from the international stables of Juddmonte Farms and Darley. His Essential Quality ranks No. 1 on Byron King’s initial Derby Dozen.

The trappings that come with success in this business also come with suspicion. Social media is rife with detractors, a fertile breeding ground for those knocking the sport and its major players. Cox’s skills have risen to level that finds him a target. We’ll find out soon how thick his skin is.

A little more than a month ago the Thoroughbred world was stunned by a video expose by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals on the slaughter of racehorses in South Korea and learning that the stallion Private Vow had been slaughtered for meat.

Belinda Stronach, chair and president of The Stronach Group, announced at the time: “The Stronach Group is urging all North American auction companies, breeders, and owners to develop policies that prohibit the sale of Thoroughbred racehorses or brood mares to South Korea without the meaningful and binding assurances that these noble animals will be protected after their racing and breeding careers.”

Racing makes strange bedfellows, for sure. There appeared to be a cordial atmosphere as Stronach and the KRA’s Jun Park met in the winner’s circle.

Two days after the event Park politely declined to comment.

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