On Track with Johnny D: Baffert, Sherman Exude Pegasus Confidence

Listen to Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert and ex-jockey turned veteran trainer Art Sherman talk, and you’d be positive that Arrogate, conditioned by the former, and California Chrome, saddled by the latter, can’t help but finish in a dead-heat Saturday in the world’s richest horse race—the $12 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park.

Both trainers exude confidence in their horses. No surprise there. That’s bound to be the case when one of those horses is 3-year-old Arrogate, winner of 5-of-6 and over $4 million in purses, including a stakes and track record performance in the Travers and victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and the other is 6-year-old California Chrome, winner of 16-of-26, including 7 of the last 8, and over $14 million!

A late-January collision between this spinning marble’s top two horses in the richest race ever is a rare occurrence. In fact, it’s never happened before. That’s because this will be the inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational, brainchild of Stronach Group founder and honorary chairman Frank Stronach.

Early last year, when the concept of shareholders purchasing a total of 12 starting gate spots at $1 million each first was floated, many snickered. Others outright belly laughed. However, those who embraced the vision now appear correct. First step out of the gate, Pegasus World Cup is a BC Classic rematch between the champ and the top-ranked challenger. Which is which depends on your point of view: Arrogate won the Classic, but ‘Chrome took home Horse of the Year honors.

Over the years, Bob Baffert has enjoyed more than his fair share of success in major races. Most recently, just two seasons ago, American Pharoah, one of Baffert’s runners, ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought and parlayed that into a Breeders’ Cup Classic triumph. No sooner had the unanimous 2015 Horse of the Year boarded a van and rode off into the sunset than Arrogate’s grey head appeared jutting out over yellow and blue webbing.

Until California Chrome came along Art Sherman’s experience running horses in big races was limited. As a journeyman trainer, mostly racing at tracks in Northern California, Sherman’s artillery was about as far from Baffert’s as a peashooter is to an AK 47.

A commonly uttered racetrack adage maintains that ‘a loaded gun is dangerous in anyone’s hands.’ It suggests that a gifted horse can overcome poor training and win anyway.

If that’s true, then it also must be fact that ‘a loaded gun in the hands of marksman is deadly.’ Bob Baffert and Art Sherman are sharpshooters.

Below is one horseplayer’s horse-by-horse analysis of the complete Pegasus World Cup lineup with a few suggested wagers.

  1. Arrogate   Baffert   Smith   7/5

Trainer Bob Baffert immediately deflected concerns regarding Arrogate drawing the rail in this race. “…It’s up to Mike Smith and he knows what to do. The horse is doing well and that’s more important than the post draw…” Out of the gate, Arrogate takes a few strides to get going, but don’t be fooled, he’s got speed. By the time the field reached the first turn in the Travers he was in front. Expect Smith to ask Arrogate away from the gate just enough to maintain his position and to stay in contact with California Chrome. Arrogate’s incredible stride and distance capabilities are his biggest weapons. At some point Smith will look to get off the rail and let the big hoss roll through the lane. Expect him to win or to finish second.

  1. Prayer for Relief   Romans   Geroux   50-1

This 9-year-old would be a shocking winner of this race. He’s been training well enough for Dale Romans, but he would need a massive turnaround in form to contend in here. Pass

  1. Neolithic   Pletcher   J. Velazquez   30-1

A sharp 9-length winner of his last race—a mile and one-sixteenth first-level allowance race at Gulfstream—Neolithic also broke maiden going around two turns at Gulfstream in 2015. He’s trained by the track’s runaway leading conditioner Todd Pletcher and will be ridden by Hall of Fame resident Johnny V. He’s been training every seven days at Palm Beach Downs, so his current condition seems fine. Asking this horse to outrun Arrogate or ‘Chrome on the square is a tall order, but it’s $1 million to the third-place finisher and that ain’t hay! Colt’s sharp, likes the track, has top connections and a bit of pace. Can he survive the raise in class is the question. An ‘in-the-super’ finish wouldn’t be a surprise.

  1. Noble Bird   Casse   Leparoux   25-1

This 6-year-old Grade 1 winner has a commendable record at the distance with 3 wins from 7 outings. This is his first start at Gulfstream. Noble Bird’s modus operandi is to go to the front. From this inside post expect jockey Leparoux to do just that. He’ll either be stalked or hooked by California Chrome from the outside. It’s doubtful jockey Victor Espinoza aboard California Chrome will permit Noble Bird to cruise along unchallenged on the lead. If ‘Chrome hooks ‘Bird early, the latter will become discouraged. He could fade from there. He’s not for me.

  1. War Story   Navarro   Gallardo   50-1

When War Story starts in this race for new trainer Jorge Navarro, since June of 2015 he will have had two more trainers than Arrogate has had starts. Is that good or bad? Not sure. Clearly, trainer Navarro wins races in bunches, especially with horses new to his barn (22%). War Story romped in his last start—a stakes race at Aqueduct—so he’s in good form. However, both recent wins have come on the lead and that figures to be a challenging place to be Saturday, with Noble Bird inside and ‘Chrome outside. Since he doesn’t figure to make an easy lead and really hasn’t closed that effectively, we’ll pass on this one except for maybe as a ‘super add-on.’

  1. War Envoy   Ruis   Saez   50-1

It’s difficult to make a case for this one hitting the board. Pass.

  1. Shaman Ghost   Jerkens   J. Ortiz   20-1

Here’s an interesting runner. This 5-year-old has won 6 of 13 starts, 1 for 2 at Gulfstream, and 1 for 2 at the distance. He comes from just off the pace, about fourth or fifth position, and should enjoy a similar trip Saturday. He’s delivered bullet workouts at Palm Meadows in his last two works. Trainer Jimmy Jerkens is the son of the late legend Allan Jerkens, who was known as the Giant Killer because of the many upsets he engineered over the years. Let’s see how far from the tree the apple falls. There are so many interesting angles with this horse that he has to be respected. He’s a Grade 1 winner—Woodward Stakes Sept. 3 when first-time Lasix. He was scratched from the BC Classic, reportedly because he had spiked a temperature. Last out he ran a flat race in the Clark Handicap at Churchill. Jerkens has pointed ‘Ghost for this race and all systems seem ‘go’ for Saturday. Is he talented enough to upend both favorites? Probably not. But he’s definitely one to use in the Trifecta and Super.

  1. Semper Fortis   O’Neill   Gafflione   50-1

Other than some interesting recent work, there’s nothing to suggest that this one could upset the applecart. However, we like his Malibu Stakes against a hot pace as a prep and his 1:11 4/5 blowout over a wet/fast Santa Anita strip is encouraging. He’s 50-1 for a reason, but this 4-year-ol has some positives and could be used as a Superfecta add-on.

  1. Keen Ice   Pletcher   Castellano   12-1

This 5-year-old followed up a well-beaten, third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic with a runner-up effort in a Grade 3 stakes race at Gulfstream in mid-December. ‘Ice has won 1 of his last 15 races, so it’s doubtful he’ll suddenly visit the winner’s circle Saturday. The real question in this race is if some other new shooter can fill in the 11 ¼-length gap between ‘Chrome and Keen Ice for second and third place in the BC Classic. We think they will. Still, Ice has trained well for this, has the ultimate Gulfstream connections in Pletcher and Castellano and employs a style that plays to a Trifecta or Superfecta finish.

  1. Breaking Lucky   Baker   Contreras   25-1

This 5-year-old figures ‘sneaky good’ in here since second last out in the Clark at Churchill when sandwiched between Gun Runner and Shaman Ghost. His Clark price of 46-1 suggests that the runner-up effort may have been an aberration, but he was beaten only a neck by Shaman Ghost in the Woodward and defeated that one by a neck in the Prince of Wales at Fort Erie in July of 2015. So, one could argue, if Shaman Ghost is expected to hit the board, doesn’t Breaking Lucky a similar chance? Yes and no. We’re looking for Shaman Ghost to run a ‘breakout’ race, while Breaking Lucky seems to have been exposed. Still, he’s going to be a massive price in here and we’re willing to use him lightly in Tris and Supers.

  1. Eragon   Wohlers  Prado   50-1

This 6-year-old Argentina-bred runner will be making his first start in the US. He has a couple of works at Gulfstream and has been galloping over the main track. From what we’ve seen and heard (he was making a breathing noise while galloping), we’ll pass on him.

  1. California Chrome   Sherman   Espinoza   6/5

Stuck in the dreaded 12-hole at a mile and one-eighth at Gulfstream Park, California Chrome is the kind of 6/5 shot you’d normally be dying to bet against. However, this is no ‘normal’ horse. His accomplishments are outlined above, but what ought to be his biggest edge in this race is his speed. He’s quick from the gate, has a high cruising speed and can carry it a mile and one-eighth. Here are just a few handicapping factors in Chrome’s favor: the mile and one-eighth distance is shorter than the mile and one-quarter BC Classic; the Gulfstream main track usually favors speed horses; the Pegasus field is larger than BC Classic which could cause Arrogate to go around horses; ‘Chrome has trained and galloped over the local oval and adjusted to the heat and humidity while Arrogate has been forced to dodge wet tracks all winter in California. Still, the number one handicapping factor that might keep California Chrome from winning this race is this: Arrogate is one of the most talented horses to come along in years and he’s still developing!

Suggested Plays ($100):

$50 Trifecta: 12 with 1 with 7 ($50)

$27 Trifecta: 12 with 1 with 3 ($27)

.50 Cent Superfecta: 1, 12 with 1, 7, 12 with 1, 3, 7, 9, 12 with 3, 7, 8, 9, 10 ($23)


Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: Baffert, Sherman Exude Pegasus Confidence

On Track with Johnny D |

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