Pegasus World Cup Illustrates What is Right, Wrong with Horse Racing

One of the greatest horses in the world won the first-ever Pegasus World Cup; Gulfstream Park set an all-time single-day handle record ($40.217 million); and the buzz among racing fans was more intense than I’ve ever seen at this time of year.

All in all, the Pegasus World Cup was a rousing success, despite complaints about high ticket prices and restricted access for attendees.

“We are extremely pleased with the inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup,” said P.J. Campo, vice president of racing for The Stronach Group and general manager of Gulfstream Park. “From early morning until late afternoon, Gulfstream was electric. From the amenities to our guests to the blue carpet to the incredible performance by Arrogate, the inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational was incredible. We feel we introduced a number of new fans to the sport of thoroughbred racing and the great entertainment and amenities at Gulfstream Park on Pegasus World Cup Day.”

Yet, lost in all this enthusiasm was the dismal end to a spectacular career.

California Chrome, who, a mere week ago, was named Horse of the Year for the second time in an awards ceremony at the very track where he would be dealt his most ignominious defeat, straggled home ninth.

California Chrome

California Chrome prepares to head to the track for the 27th and final time in his career (photo by Jonathan Stettin).

“I could understand him being outrun,” trainer Art Sherman said, “but he never even tried. He never fired. That’s just not like him. I’ve never seen him hang like that before.”

Of course, Chrome’s loss brought out the usual naysayers and cynics (I think they live for such things). Among the nicer comments I saw on social media was that the 2014 Kentucky Derby winner was “overrated” and had “ducked” many top horses en route to compiling a career record of 16 wins and over $14.7 million in earnings from 27 career starts.

Lost in this sea of snark was the fact that California Chrome was the first Kentucky Derby winner since Funny Cide to compete as a six-year-old — and Funny Cide was a gelding. Chrome’s 27 lifetime starts are the most for a non-gelded Derby winner since Strike the Gold and more than the last two Derby winners combined.

Sure, it’s fashionable to bash Dumb Ass Partners (the original majority owners of California Chrome) — Steve Coburn and Perry Martin did little to endear themselves to racing fans — or the “Chromies,” California Chrome’s legion of sometimes hysterical fans, but anybody who thinks the Pegasus World Cup would have garnered the attention it did minus Art Sherman’s stable star is drinking out of the same flask that I assume is passed around prior to DAP team interviews.

California Chrome didn’t compete on Saturday. Whether it was fluid in a knee, as was suggested by his connections, or simply because he didn’t feel like running, that was not the real California Chrome we saw this weekend. One race — good or bad — does not define a career, especially one as lengthy and noteworthy as Chrome’s.

If it did, we might be tempted to view Alydar as a stiff — after all, he finished a well-beaten sixth in the 1979 Metropolitan Handicap (at 2-5, no less). His archrival Affirmed was 19 lengths back in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup (albeit his saddle slipped) and was winless in four starts from Sept. 16, 1978 until Feb. 4, 1979. Heck, even the ageless wonder John Henry lost twice to Interco to begin his nine-year-old campaign… yet, he went on to claim his second Horse of the Year award in what turned out to be his final year of racing (1984).

As a racing fan, I am grateful that California Chrome competed as long as he did. Yes, I know part of that was due to his less-than-stellar pedigree, but keeping its stars in the game has been a major issue for thoroughbred racing for a long time.

So, thank you California Chrome. Thank you for helping to make the inaugural Pegasus World Cup the success that it was; thank you for the Triple Crown thrills, the Breeders’ Cup nail-biters and this year’s memorable trip to Dubai. Your mantle has been passed to one of the most talented horses I have ever seen in Arrogate.

I can only hope he will stay on the racetrack long enough to do justice to your legacy.