The eyes of the racing world will be on Gulfstream Park when the Pegasus World Cup Invitational is run for the first time this Saturday. Its opulence in horse racing is unprecedented. The $12 million purse makes it the richest horse race that has ever been contested on the planet (or in the universe, for that matter).
What makes this Saturday’s Grade I Pegasus World Cup especially enticing, of course, is it features an Arrogate and California Chrome rematch. These are the two exceptional equine athletes who put on a terrific show in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park last Nov. 5, a race that had “only” a $6 million purse.
As far as I know, there has never been such an important race run so early in the year as this Saturday’s Pegasus World Cup. It will be televised live by NBC from 4:30-6 p.m. Eastern time Saturday.
Frank Stronach, founder and honorary chairman of The Stronach Group, and Belinda Stronach, the company’s chairman and president, both deserve considerable credit for the birth of the Pegasus World Cup. They have been imaginative in the creation of a race that is so very different from business as usual, with 12 stakeholders each putting up $1 million to participate.
“It is quite an accomplishment for the Pegasus World Cup to come onto the racing scene in such a relatively short period of time,” the BloodHorse’s Lenny Shulman recently wrote. The race “has been put together in a blazingly short amount of time, particularly given the staid pace of change in the Thoroughbred world.”
Added Shulman: “The Pegasus has succeeded already on a couple of key fronts. It has the Thoroughbred world buzzing about a race occurring during what is normally downtime on the racing calendar. Through a series of fortuitous circumstances, it also appears ready to host the rematch that fans and the racing world want to see between the soon-to-be-retired champion California Chrome and his conqueror in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic, Arrogate.”
The big question is, of course, who is going to win?
THE CASE FOR ARROGATE: Arrogate has much going for him, such as (a) his tremendous talent, (b) his versatility in terms of being able to win when either setting the pace or when coming from off the pace, (c) his outstanding trainer, and (d) his post position.
Just how talented is Arrogate? Well, we really don’t know yet, which is something that makes him downright scary. His victory in the Grade I Travers was a Secretariat-like performance. In one of the greatest stakes debuts ever seen at an American track, Arrogate set a brisk pace, running the first six furlongs in 1:10 4/5, a full second (or approximately five lengths) faster than the six-furlong fraction posted by the speedy Shecky Greene in the 1973 Kentucky Derby. Arrogate then poured it on in the stretch, drawing off to win by 13 1/2 lengths in 1:59 1/5 (1:59.36 in hundredths) to break General Assembly’s 1 1/4-mile track record set in 1979 by four-fifths of a second (or approximately four lengths). Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby in 1:59 2/5, a track record that still stands. In the Travers, Arrogate ran his final quarter-mile in :23 4/5, which was truly sensational in light of how fast he had run early in the race.
Whereas Arrogate won the Travers in front-running fashion, he came from off the pace to win the 1 1/4-mile BC Classic. Fifth early, he unleashed a powerful surge in the final yards to overtake a mighty older foe in California Chrome. Arrogate won by a half-length in 2:00.11. A year earlier, Triple Crown winner American Pharoah won the BC Classic at Keeneland in virtually the same time, 2:00.07.
In Arrogate’s corner is no less than a Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert. I think it is fair to say that Baffert has become racing’s equivalent to the NFL’s Bill Belichick when it comes to success at the highest level in their respective sports. It was Baffert who in 2015 executed the first Triple Crown sweep in 37 years with American Pharoah.
As for Arrogate, he is being shipped to Florida from his Santa Anita home for the Pegasus World Cup. Generally speaking, whenever Baffert sends a horse somewhere, look out. Baffert’s record when shipping horses out of town from his Southern California base has been extraordinary.
Adding to Arrogate’s appeal this Saturday is he again will be ridden by one of the finest big-money jockeys of all time in Mike Smith, who is two for two with Arrogate.
And there is no question Arrogate did appreciably better than California Chrome regarding their Pegasus World Cup post positions. Arrogate drew post 1, while California Chrome must break from post 12.
Baffert has said many times that he does not like post 1. And it has seemed that he has gotten post 1 a disproportionate amount of the time over the years. For example, Lookin At Lucky and Baffert were very unlucky to draw the inside post in the 2010 Kentucky Derby.
After Lookin At Lucky drew post 1, Baffert said Plan A “was to break well.” Plan B, Baffert added, “is we’re screwed.”
Lookin At Lucky did break okay. But not long after the start, Baffert’s Plan B came to fruition as Stately Victor slammed into Lookin At Lucky and nearly knocked Lookin At Lucky over the inside rail. Lookin At Lucky got shuffled back so badly that he was 18th when passing the finish line the first time.
After his early trouble, Lookin At Lucky found himself 22 lengths off the pace. He had never been farther than five lengths off the pace in any of his previous races. Lookin At Lucky finished sixth in the Kentucky Derby. He then rebounded from his nightmare in the Run for the Roses to win the Preakness Stakes two weeks later.
But as far as the Pegasus World Cup is concerned, if Arrogate were to have to start from either post 1 or post 12, I am sure this is one time that Baffert would unhesitatingly prefer post 1.
From post 1, Smith is going to have to try and get Arrogate away from the gate in good fashion. Keep in mind that prior to the Travers, he would not get away from the starting gate all that well, but then quickly would either get to the front or close to the pace.
In the Travers, with Smith aboard Arrogate for the first time, the colt did break well from post 1. And Arrogate also broke well for Smith in the BC Classic when they started from post 9. The Travers and BC Classic indicate that Arrogate probably will break well in the Pegasus World Cup. But I also would not be shocked if he did not break especially well because of how he was exiting the gate in his races prior to the Travers.
“He’s sharp right now, he’s been training very aggressive in the morning, and he needs to be aggressive leaving [from] the one hole,” Smith was quoted as saying in Bloodhorse Daily. “With a short run to the first turn, you’re going to have to hope your horse breaks really well and puts you into a good spot.”
The hand Arrogate has been dealt with respect to his starting position in the Pegasus World Cup is a whole lot better than California Chrome’s plight in having to break from post 12. Steve Haskin of the BloodHorse for years has made references about the “Derby gods” or the “racing gods.” Earlier this month, Haskin wrote: “Yes, there are deities out there who often take it upon themselves to alter the course of racing history.
I can’t help but wonder if perhaps the racing gods decided to punish California Chrome with his terrible post position for the Pegasus World Cup as a consequence of the ungracious remarks made by co-owner Perry Martin when he accepted the 2016 Horse of the Year trophy at last Saturday’s Eclipse Awards dinner at Gulfstream.
To illustrate just how ungracious Martin’s remarks were toward the racing media, Frank Taylor of Taylor Made Farm, also a co-owner of California Chrome, subsequently issued a statement to the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters (NTWAB) to distance his family and operation from Martin’s comments. In the statement, Taylor explained that he “wanted to express to the NTWAB and all racing media that Martin’s comments in no way represented the opinion of the Taylors.”
Taylor added: “I don’t want it to be any reflection of what the Taylors think about what you guys [in the media] have done. You all have been absolutely fantastic writing about Chrome and I want to pass on our appreciation to all the turf writers for what they have done for us and try to kill some of this negativity.”
Well, speaking of negativity, California Chrome’s post position this Saturday is, without a doubt, a great big negative. The Pegasus World Cup is a 1 1/8-mile race on a 1 1/8-mile oval. Since Gulfstream’s main track was expanded from one mile in circumference in 2006, only one horse has won a 1 1/8-mile race from post 12. And that one winner was a very special colt. Big Brown, the Eclipse Award-winning 3-year-old male of 2008, overcame post 12 to win the Grade I Florida Derby by five emphatic lengths in 2008. Other than Big Brown, post 12 is 0 for 17 in 1 1/8-mile races on Gulfstream’s main track going back to 2006.
If Arrogate had not been entered in the Pegasus World Cup, I think California Chrome quite likely could follow in Big Brown’s footsteps and win from the 12 hole going 1 1/8 miles on the Gulfstream main track. But history and statistics tell us that for California Chrome to break from the dreaded post 12 and beat Arrogate will be a tough task.
THE CASE FOR CALIFORNIA CHROME
When Arrogate defeated California Chrome in the BC Classic, they were competing in a 1 1/4-mile race. Their rematch takes place in a race that is a furlong shorter. Considering what we saw from Arrogate in his back-to-back 1 1/4-mile victories in the Travers and BC Classic, one wonders if it is perhaps a good thing for California Chrome that his rematch with Arrogate is not at 1 1/4 miles but rather at 1 1//8 miles. At the 1 1/8-mile point of the BC Classic, California Chrome did have a 1 1/2-length lead over Arrogate. (But it should be pointed out on behalf of Arrogate that he would have been trained and ridden differently if the BC Classic had been run at 1 1/8 miles instead of 1 1/4 miles.)
It could help California Chrome that Arrogate’s training situation could be a bit of a concern. Baffert has had to do the best he could with Arrogate’s training in what has been a very wet SoCal winter. Will this prove to be enough of an issue for Arrogate to get beat this Saturday? It does seem to be a possibility (though my feeling is if Arrogate’s training had been not good enough due to weather that makes umbrellas important, Baffert would not be running him).
While Arrogate has been training in rainy Southern California, California Chrome was sent to Gulfstream Park on Jan. 6, well in advance of the Pegasus World Cup. That has given California Chrome plenty of time to get familiar with Gulfstream Park’s main track. He’s had two workouts at Gulfstream, most recently drilling five furlongs in a snazzy :58 4/5 last Saturday.
It is true that California Chrome’s trainer, Art Sherman, is not, like Baffert, in the Hall of Fame. But it’s also true that Sherman has done nothing less than a fantastic job training California Chrome throughout his career, as evidenced by career earnings of $14,502,650 -- a record for a horse to have raced in North America -- and a pair of Horse of the Year titles.
And, yes, it is true that Arrogate will be ridden this Saturday by “big money” Mike Smith. But it’s also true that California Chrome’s pilot, Victor Espinoza, certainly has proven that he can get the job done despite the intense pressure of participating in an important event on the American racing stage. More than one rider has botched it in the Belmont Stakes when a Triple Crown was on the line. In my view, two examples would be Ron Franklin aboard Spectacular Bid in 1980 and Kent Desormeaux on Real Quiet in 1998. But Espinoza did not goof it up when he guided American Pharoah to his Triple Crown sweep.
It also helps California Chrome that Espinoza has ridden him so many times. Espinoza has been California Chrome’s pilot in 20 races. Espinoza certainly knows the horse like the back of his hand, as they say. Smith has considerably less familiarity with Arrogate, having ridden him in just two races.
Meanwhile, any way you slice it, the Pegasus World Cup weights are a plus for California Chrome in his rematch with Arrogate. When California Chrome finished second in the BC Classic, he lost by just a half-length despite having to spot four pounds to Arrogate. For the rematch, California Chrome and Arrogate each carry the same weight, 124 pounds, making it a four-pound shift in California Chrome’s favor.
THE CASE FOR AN UPSET
Arrogate and California Chrome were so dominant in the BC Classic -- with third-place finisher Keen Ice finishing almost 10 3/4 lengths behind runner-up California Chrome -- it is extremely difficult for me to envision the Pegasus World Cup being won by someone other than “the big two.” It is hard enough to try and beat either Arrogate or California Chrome. But I think it is darn near a mission impossible for someone to beat both titans this Saturday.
PEGASUS WORLD CUP SELECTION
I confess, deciding who to pick between Arrogate and California Chrome was not easy for me. I think it could go either way, even with California Chrome’s dreadful post position. I have the utmost respect for both Arrogate and California Chrome. But my gut tells me to go with the sky-is-the-limit-in-the-talent-department Arrogate. And so Arrogate is indeed my pick to win the 2017 Pegasus World Cup Invitational.
2016 ECLIPSE AWARD WINNERS ANNOUNCED
Whether or not California Chrome is victorious in this Saturday’s Pegasus World Cup, he was a big winner last Saturday evening. At Saturday’s 46th annual Eclipse Awards dinner at Gulfstream, it was announced that California Chrome had been voted 2016 Horse of the Year. He also was voted this honor in 2014.
The other two 2016 Horse of the Year finalists were Arrogate and Songbird.
During the Eclipse Awards era that dates back to 1971, California Chrome is only the second Thoroughbred to become a multiple Horse of the Year in non-consecutive years. John Henry was voted Horse of the Year in 1981 and 1984.
Congratulations to the following 2016 Eclipse Award winners that were announced during the Eclipse Awards dinner last Saturday at Gulfstream:
2-Year-Old Male: Classic Empire
2-Year-Old Filly: Champagne Room
3-Year-Old Male: Arrogate
3-Year-Old Filly: Songbird
Older Dirt Male: California Chrome
Older Dirt Female: Beholder
Male Sprinter: Drefong
Female Sprinter: Finest City
Male Turf Horse: Flintshire
Female Turf Horse: Tepin
Trainer: Chad Brown
Jockey: Javier Castellano
Apprentice Jockey: Luis Ocasio
Owner: Juddmonte Farms
Breeder: WinStar Farm
Horse of the Year: California Chrome