The world’s richest horse race is just days away. The field for the inaugural Pegasus World Cup is set, at least on paper. The draw is complete and added a little extra drama and intrigue to a race that already had several story lines, not the least of which is the rematch of the one-two finishers in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic — Arrogate and California Chrome.
Both horses need no introduction. In addition to the rematch, California Chrome is fresh off winning his second Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year, while Arrogate was crowned Longines Best Horse in the World in 2016.
It will be good sport to settle this battle of the two big names and big award winners on the racetrack. The timing and introduction of the Pegasus made that possible and, without this race, we would likely not be seeing these two go at it again — for that alone, the Pegasus is good for the game.
The draw of the race provided a little extra drama. Arrogate drew the rail. Bob Baffert has a habit of drawing the rail in big races and has, on more than one occasion, stated he’d prefer not to be there. This is not the Kentucky Derby however, and a mile and an eighth at Gulfstream is a very different race than a mile and a quarter at Churchill Downs. I do not think the rail will hurt Arrogate in this race at all. Of course, there is always a chance of getting bottled up, but a bad trip can happen from any post, and there is nobody better at avoiding trouble than jockey Mike Smith.
When the last remaining post turned out to be the 12, after Shaman Ghost drew the seven-hole, everyone realized there was also just one horse left to fill it — California Chrome. I would have to say California Chrome took the worst of the draw here. The outside posts going two turns on the dirt at Gulfstream — the new Gulfstream anyway — are not where you want to be, at least statistically speaking.
The new Gulfstream opened in 2006. Since then, posts 9-14 have won a total of 10 races. That’s a combined 4.5-percent win rate. One — and only one — of those winners came out of post 12 and that was Big Brown in the 2008 Florida Derby (GI).
Not many who lined up out there were in the same league as California Chrome, so by no means is he eliminated by the draw, but it surely doesn’t help.
The eight-hole is not all that much better. It has an eight-percent win rate. By comparison, the rail stands at 16 percent. Not bad.
Now, in any one given race, all those stats can fly out the window in a flash, but they do merit consideration. They are simply too lopsided to ignore.
California Chrome’s trainer, Art Sherman, and jockey, Victor Espinoza, are both openly announcing their race strategy for the world to hear. Why, I do not know. It seems to me that it would be better to leave everyone guessing, especially the other riders, as to what you plan on doing.
Naturally, things can change depending on how the race unfolds, but I see no benefit in announcing your plans. Both Sherman and Espinoza have publicly commented they are going out for the lead; they think they can get it, they think they have the best horse and, with the Pegasus being his last race, they plan on leaving nothing in the tank.
While I often favor a horse running the field off its hooves, especially a great horse like California Chrome, I don’t know if that is the best strategy for this race. What I do know is that is nobody’s business but the connections and I wouldn’t be sharing it. I would sooner catch everyone, or at least some, off guard.
It is hard to argue, on paper, that the race does not come down to these two. The contender/pretender list looks as lopsided as the post positions.
Both horses will need their A-game to win. And I think the question of who wins if both bring their A-game has already been answered. Arrogate ran California Chrome down on the square and did it when Chrome had every advantage in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Chrome was more experienced, had things his own way and got the jump on Arrogate. In short, California Chrome had no excuse for losing to Arrogate in November.
Espinoza looking around for Arrogate during the race didn’t help and Smith (aboard Arrogate) clearly weaved in and out, assuring Espinoza would not know where he was in some brilliant race riding, but none of that cost Chrome the win. He got run down, fair and square. Will the mile and an eighth make a difference? We’ll see, but I would think any advantage it gave California Chrome was negated by the draw.
For Chrome to win, Espinoza must ride flawlessly, must use his horse to come out running and get position, must have some luck and not be floated wide by another horse. Basically, he needs to be the Chrome we know that’s full of run and just cruising in a class of his own.
For Arrogate to win, he has got to suffer no setback from any weather-related missed or altered training. I think we can trust Baffert with that. Smith can do whatever he wants. He can go, sit, or even drop back. If he chooses to sit or drop back, he just must avoid being boxed in, which I am sure plenty of riders would like to do given the chance. Smith might just decide to use more of the natural speed Arrogate possesses to keep that spot on the rail. He’ll have more options than Espinoza — and he knows how to use them.
Okay, let’s separate the contenders from the pretenders and see if this is truly a two-horse race or not:
1-Arrogate (jockey Mike Smith): Obvious contender and most likely winner, despite being second choice on the morning line. Obvious Contender.
2-Prayer for Relief (Florent Geroux): He’s run some numbers way back when that border on being competitive here, but that was a long time ago. Pretender.
3-Neolithic (John Velasquez): Leaving out Pletcher and Johnny Velasquez at Gulfstream can never be considered a wise decision. They win at a high percentage and, at times, big prices. Neolithic is improving, likes the track and has the right connections. Toss at your own risk, but I suspect he may sacrifice himself to help the other Pletcher entry Keen Ice. Contender nonetheless.
4-Noble Bird (Julien Leparoux): Only wins alone on the lead, and sometimes does not get out. Even loose here, he looks like he’d get reeled in. Pretender despite the adage “speed is always dangerous.”
5-War Story (Antonio Gallardo): In his best form ever and goes for the dangerous Navarro now, but does not breach the contender line, he’s just not good enough. Pretender.
6-War Envoy (Luis Saez): Pretender, not sure why he is here.
7-Shaman Ghost (Jose Ortiz): Dangerous contender, improved with Lasix, handled Frosted, only has a few starts for Jimmy Jerkens and is still on the improve. He’s a “house horse” (owned by Stronach Stables), gets an on-fire rider, and who else to slay the giants but the son of the “Giant Killer,” H. Allen Jerkens? I asked trainer Jimmy Jerkens about this angle. He, being the consummate professional horseman he is, said he is trying not to think about that and is focusing on getting his horse to the race in the best possible shape. He feels that is on target. He knows how tough this will be but admitted, should it happen, “it would be hard not to think about it.” Contender.
8-Semper Fortis (Tyler Gaffalione): Honest sort of horse, but overmatched for a win here, can sneak into the exotics, though. Pretender to win.
9-Keen Ice (Javier Castellano): Proved he can pull off a big upset by taking down American Pharoah in the Travers following a suicidal pace battle initiated by Frosted. If Neolithic does the same, few will be shocked to see Castellano and Pletcher in the winner’s circle. Contender, but needs help.
10-Breaking Lucky (Luis Contreras): Would need more than just to break lucky to take this. Pretender.
11-Eragon (Edgar Prado): Will likely wish he stayed in Argentina. Pretender.
12-California Chrome (Victor Espinoza): The morning line favorite despite losing to Arrogate in their one prior meeting and the wide draw. He’s had a stellar career. He’ll show up and give his all, leave nothing in the tank and go out a winner. He’s a major Contender, but not without some noteworthy obstacles.
The also-eligible list is also an interesting new way of doing things. The horses on the also-eligible list do not get to go based solely on scratches; they are alternates for slot investors. Stanford can go if Arrogate scratches. Sea Raven can go if Breaking Lucky scratches. Madefromlucky can go if California Chrome scratches.
I think we will see an exciting race. If the big two hook up again and battle down the stretch it will not be a surprise, but I think over a new track, we’ll see some early and even aggressive moves. There is big money on the line and I think that will be a factor in how the riders ride.
It will be interesting to see if Neolithic is in there to win or help set it up for Keen Ice. Keen Ice will need a lot of help. It’s tough to come from out of it going a mile and an eighth at Gulfstream Park and, remember, with all that help he had in The Travers, he had a mile and a quarter to work with. This is a different game.
The talk is the race will move to Santa Anita next year sans the Pegasus statue and a turf race will be added or the Pegasus will be moved to the grass. The thinking is this will add more international interest and make it truly a world racing event.
You have to respect the Stronach Group for trying to promote and improve the game. You may not agree with everything they do, or how they do it, but they are trying to be innovative and grow and promote the interest and excitement in our game.
The Pegasus is already helping.