By Ed McNamara
Whenever megabucks are on the line, count on America’s best trainer to show up loaded. Nobody is better in major races than five-time Kentucky Derby winner Bob Baffert, who also excels with horses who aren’t 3-year-olds.
When the Pegasus World Cup fell apart last month with the scratches of morning-line favorite Omaha Beach and second choice Spun to Run, it was there for the taking. Predictably, Baffert capitalized with 4-year-old Mucho Gusto. In his first race since being purchased by Prince Faisal bin Khaled, Mucho Gusto blew the Pegasus open at the top of the stretch and drew away by 4½ lengths at Gulfstream. It was a quick $1.8 million return on investment for the Saudi prince.
The Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia is hosting the Saudi Cup on Saturday, Feb. 29, at King Abdulaziz Racecourse. The $20 million purse is a record, with $10 million going to the winner. Baffert has shipped two serious contenders – McKinzie along with Mucho Gusto – to Riyadh. As he said last month, “If you put up $20 million, you’ll get good horses in your starting gate.” Even if they have to travel halfway around the world.
The Saudi Cup field is much stronger and deeper than the diluted Pegasus, which ended up with only two Grade 1 winners. It still had a Grade I designation but looked more like the first $3 million Grade 3 of all time. Mucho Gusto had never won a Grade 1 and he’d never run that well. He’ll need to match or even improve upon his career-best effort to beat likely favorite Maximum Security.
Baffert’s horses rarely bounce, so maybe Mucho Gusto will hold his form and perform an encore. It’s a scenario that would shock nobody: members of racing’s 1 percent, Baffert and Prince Faisal bin Khaled, combine for an unprecedented $10 million score.
Trainer: Bob Baffert
Jockey: Irad Ortiz Jr.
Owner: Prince Faisal bin Khaled
Career record: 11-6-2-2
Career earnings: $2,441,800
Pedigree: Mucho Macho Man-Itsagiantcauseway, by Giant’s Causeway
Running style: Stalker
“Mucho Gusto crushed the Pegasus with a career-best performance. He looks like the biggest threat to Maximum Security.” – Ed McNamara
“Mucho Gusto is perhaps Baffert’s better chance to win another world’s richest race based on his powerful-looking Pegasus win last month. Lost to Maximum Security at this distance in the Haskell, but seems markedly improved based on Pegasus and looms the horse to beat. Baffert goes 1-2 in the Saudi Cup.” – Noel Michaels.
Notes: “We went to the Pegasus trying to get part of it and we got all of it … Mucho Gusto came out of the race great. We’re tightening the screws now.” – Bob Baffert … In 11 career races, Mucho Gusto has a record of 6-2-2 and earnings of $2,441,800 … His only off-the-board finish came in the Oklahoma Derby (fourth) in his last race before winning the Pegasus … His stakes wins include four Grade 3s, a second in the G1 Haskell and a third in the G1 Travers … In his most recent workout on Feb. 16, he covered 6 furlongs in 1:11.80 at Santa Anita.