Watch the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Saturday 25th January.
NOW Lasix-free with no entry fees but worth significantly less money: four years in and it is all change at the Pegasus World Cup.
Not for the first time, either, at an event that certainly cannot be accused of standing still since its inception at Gulfstream Park in 2017, graced with a lap of honour from the amazing Arrogate, shook up the racing world. In America, first and foremost, though the tremors have certainly been felt elsewhere.
Then again, have a look at Saturday’s card and you might be forgiven for wondering what the problem is. The Pegasus remains a potentially thrilling race featuring a double-figure field of top-class dirt performers headed by Omaha Beach as he beats to turn the tables on Breeders’ Cup conqueror Spun To Run.
If the noises emanating from usually reticent Richard Mandella after the favourite’s final workout on Sunday are anything to go by, we might be about to witness something special. “The boy said he felt like a Cadillac,” said Omaha Beach’s Hall of Fame trainer. “Actually, like a Porsche!”
With Ballydoyle globetrotter Magic Wand returning for the million-dollar turf race in a bid to go one better than year’s runner-up effort on a card featuring no fewer than nine Stakes races – shown live on Sky Sports Racing – then everything looks hunky dory.
Yet serious things are afoot in Florida, where Gulfstream is located behind the high-rise hotels and condominiums on the Atlantic coast at Hallandale Beach, about 17 miles north of Miami's downtown district and halfway between the city and Fort Lauderdale.
At the risk of demeaning a famous quotation originally coined in a rather more significant historical context, this may not be the end. It may not even be the beginning of the end. It is, though, very clearly at least the end of the beginning.
To recap, Gulfstream’s owners, the Stronach Group, are describing this year’s contest as heralding “a new era in the sport of Thoroughbred racing in North America” by banning raceday medication for both the Pegasus World Cup and its sister race on turf. In the past, horses running without Lasix were given a significant 7lb weight concession; few took up the opportunity.
Beefed-up veterinary protocols and inspections will be enacted, and two per cent of the purse structure will be awarded to racehorse aftercare programmes – both push-button topics in the current equine welfare-driven climate of US racing.
However, as welcome as such initiatives may appear, there is another development for this year’s Pegasus so explosive that it was little short of bombshell when the Stronach Group made the news public in December.
A massive $12 million has been slashed from the Pegasus prize fund, and the novel entry structure that meant owners stumping up $1m a piece to run in the inaugural event in 2017 has been totally abandoned.
Saturday’s Pegasus races are now free entry, by-invitation-only. From one extreme to the other, it might be suggested.
Moreover, the main event is now worth $3m, down from $9m only 12 months ago, while the Pegasus Turf carries a $1m purse (down from $7m). Quite a cut for an event launched with plenty of fanfare as the world’s richest race at $12m when Arrogate won in 2017, or $16m Gun Runner scored 12 months later. Far from being the richest race in the world, the Pegasus World Cup is no longer the richest race in North America, a title that is back with the Breeders’ Cup Classic at $6m.
All of which feels like a tacit admission of failure, and frankly it is hard to argue otherwise given criticisms over the exorbitant entry structure that has always looked a flawed concept. It is all very well asking rich owners to stump up $1m to run their horses to chase an inflated purse, but a number of them got rinsed in the initial running, when only those finishing worse than fourth in a 12-runner field lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, despite promises of a slice of media-rights revenue.
Such a huge purse and startling entry structure garnered headlines around the world, but it could not sustain. Sure, if you owned one of the favourites, it was a gamble worth taking; not so much if your horse was a longshot. Even rich people don’t like throwing money down the drain.
Maybe they could have tried running it as a US-style limited handicap, like the Donn, the race it replaced; that might have given everyone more of a shake without levelling the playing field entirely.
Ironically, the Pegasus pay-to-play structure was copied with greater success in Australia via the Everest, which has produced a competitive field on an annual basis. It was a bit cheaper to enter the Sydney sprint, and the race always looked more open. Every running of the Pegasus has been dominated by one or two standouts.
On the other hand, in one significant respect, the Pegasus has been a rip-roaring success. Horses like California Chrome, Gun Runner and City Of Light stayed in training into the new year for one last hurrah; Omaha Beach is doing the same in 2020. In effect, the US season has been extended by another month. This is a wholly positive development.
Still, the advent of the new Saudi Cup as the world’s richest race at $20m to be run five weeks after the Pegasus cannot have been welcomed in Florida, though the concept of a ‘winter triple crown’ also featuring the Dubai World Cup had been mooted as the shape of the global racing calendar continues to evolve at a pace.
As such, it can be argued that the Stronach Group are making a virtue out of necessity by taking the lead on matters such as Lasix and aftercare. “That’s the direction the industry is heading,” suggested multiple Champion Trainer Todd Pletcher, speaking to the Daily Racing Form. “In that regard, it will be interesting to see how it plays out, how it will affect entries, since it’s something we’re going to be seeing more and more of.”
Elsewhere, though, the news has been met with less than enthusiasm. Not for some people, it seems, any high fives at the absence of raceday medication or the provision for thoroughbred aftercare, nor even the free entry fees. It’s all about the money, innit?
Just listen to owner Gary West, the owner of Maximum Security, whose immediate response was to re-route his massively talented colt to Saudi Arabia.
Prior to news of the total $12m cut in the overall Pegasus prize fund, West had said he had little interest in shipping Maximum Security overseas. Suddenly, however, it appears the concept of travel had its virtues. About 20 million of them as far as the new Saudi Cup is concerned.
"Cutting the purse to $3m is an absolute game-changer,” said West, speaking to the Blood-Horse. “I wasn't thinking about the Saudi Cup, but why should I run for $3m when I can run for $20m four weeks later? That's a substantial change, and we don't know what we're going to do.”
So now West has another grudge to add to his sense of perceived injustice over the Kentucky Derby. He should be careful: he is in danger of becoming a well-balanced individual. One with a chip on both shoulders. Perhaps the owner should count himself lucky – if the New Jersey stewards had looked at things a different way, Maximum Security might have lost the Haskell as well.
But who knows? It may even be more sustainable within the new format, and it is hard to argue with medication and welfare moves that could offer an industry standard in the US. Only time will tell.
HOW THE PEGASUS HAS DEVELOPED
Total prize-money – $12m
First prize – $7m
Entry fee – $1m
2018 Gun Runner
Total prize-money – $16m
First prize – $7m
Entry fee – $1m
2019 City Of LightTotal prize-money – $9m (plus new $7m Turf)
First prize – $4m ($2.65m for turf)
Entry fee – $500,000
Total prize-money – $3m (plus $1m Turf)
First prize – $1.8m (approx)
Entry fee – nil