PUT your money where your mouth is! That might as well be the motto for the Pegasus World Cup, which reaches its third edition on Saturday at Gulfstream Park with a clash between the best dirt horses in North America shown live on Sky Sports Racing.
Yet whether or not you are in love with the cash-backed principles behind the $16 million concept, what is inarguable is that a moribund month in the global Flat calendar has been vivified, brought to shiny new life via an entry procedure requiring connections to stump up a mammoth entry fee for the right to chase the richest prize in US racing.
So what if the Pegasus feels more like a glittering end to the old season than a trumpet salute ringing in the new? A date in January means there is still time for stud duties, and the money at stake makes it worthwhile postponing other duties anyway for a little while.
Let’s be frank: if not for the creation of the Pegasus, top horses like California Chrome and Gun Runner – or this year’s protagonists Accelerate and City Of Light – would have been sent to the breeding shed as soon as they crossed under the wire at the Breeders’ Cup.
Race replay: Accelerate wins the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Race replay: City Of Light lands the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.
Fans of horse racing around the world can rejoice at being handed an extra chance to marvel at some of the sport’s superstars. Just ask legendary trainer D Wayne Lukas, who is saddling last year’s Preakness Stakes runner-up Bravazo for the multi-million-dollar shootout.
“I think it is a significant development in the big picture of racing,” says the winner of 14 Triple Crown races. “One of things we’ve struggled with in thoroughbred racing is keeping superstars on the track. I think this is a step in the right direction. Any time you start the season with a $9m race, it better be on your radar.”
On that basis alone, the Pegasus can be regarded as a success in its short life. Even the event’s biggest supporters, though, would struggle to suggest it is an unqualified success, which is why there have been a raft of changes for this weekend’s third edition at Gulfstream Park, 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.
So, how did we get here? Two years ago, amid much fanfare and bluster, came the inaugural Pegasus World Cup – immediately the world’s richest race a purse of $12m, superseding the Dubai World Cup (an affront that may well have cost them any semblance of obvious interest from Godolphin).
The race was the brainchild of North American-based racecourse magnate Frank Stronach, who came up with a novel idea of a race in which each of a dozen initial 'stakeholders' were required to pay $1m to purchase a position in the starting gate. The entrant would then have the right to race, lease, contract or share a starter, or sell their place in the gate, and would have the first right of refusal for subsequent races.
Pegasus entrants were also promised an equal share in the net income from the Pegasus (i.e. profit from betting handle, sponsorship and media-rights revenues). Estimates for the worth of such ‘extras' varied markedly, anywhere between $100,000 and $300,000; they were fanciful but nobody knew that at the time, and just one week after the innovative entry procedure was officially unveiled, the Stronach Group announced that all 12 slots had been purchased.
The sense of hubris was unmissable to anyone who attended the first running, where they were greeted by a colossal bronze statue of a gigantic winged horse killing a dragon overlooking the car parks at Gulfstream. Reaching a height equivalent to an 11-storey building and said to be the second largest statue in America after the Statue of Liberty, ‘Pegasus and Dragon’ reportedly cost $30m to construct. Weighing in at 473 tonnes, it still sits in its own park, which is rarely open to the public.
On the racetrack, the hugely anticipated rematch between Breeders’ Cup Classic one-two Arrogate and California Chrome was a one-sided affair as the latter produced one of the worst displays of his life – but in sporting terms the new race was largely legitimised in one fell swoop when the imperious Arrogate powered home by five lengths. “It took $12m to get me off the couch,” grinned trainer Bob Baffert.
Race replay: Arrogate takes the inaugural Pegasus World Cup in 2017.
First place was actually worth $7m; on the lower branches of the Pegasus money tree, however, there were some pretty loud grumblings from those left distinctly out of pocket by the slanted purse structure. Media rights proved a false promise, and those involved with the also-rans were left $800,000 down on their investment.
Even rich people rarely like chucking away that sort of sum so the prize-money structure was tweaked for 2018. Not only was the second running worth a total of $16m, but there was at least $650,000 on offer for those horses who finished from sixth to 12th place, a position filled by the Jamie Osborne-trained Toast Of New York under Frankie Dettori.
Put simply, you could not lose more than $350,000, which was slightly more attractive. That said, it still cost $1m to enter and you were also quite unlikely to win the top prize unless you happened to own the best dirt horse in America.
Gun Runner, the Horse of the Year, duly snared the $9m with his fifth Grade 1 in a row with a powerful victory; second-placed West Coast won just $1.6m.
Race replay: Gun Runner bows out with a bang in the 2018 Pegasus.
On the plus side, a sense of social occasion has quickly developed around the Pegasus, and the idea of an upmarket party at the track for the Miami glitterati is likely to prevail again this time with a day-long festival of fashion, food and entertainment scheduled featuring performances from Snoop Dogg and Mark Ronson.
Moreover, those behind the concept have not been sitting idly on their hands. The Pegasus continues to evolve: Saturday’s highlight is no longer worth $16m itself, the prize fund now having been split between two races, with a $7m turf race added to the mix.
As a result, the dirt race is no longer the most lucrative on the planet – Dubai’s back on top – but the entry fee has also been slashed in half to $500,000, with first prize now $4m. (I can’t bring myself to type the word ‘only’ in front of that $4m, though these things are relative, I suppose!) More significantly, finish fifth you’ll break even; the worst-case scenario is losing $300,000.
Guess what? The new formula appears to have worked better, with another double-figure field, but crucially one that seems more competitive than the previous two editions. The best dirt horses in America are present and correct headed by Accelerate and Gunnevera, the Breeders’ Cup Classic principals, plus impressive Dirt Mile victor City Of Light, who handed Accelerate his sole defeat of 2018 over the nine-furlong Pegasus trip at Oaklawn Park before Accelerate turned the tables at Santa Anita.
Race replay: City Of Light defeated Accelerate in the Oaklawn Handicap in April 2018.
While there isn’t much international equine interest, the unbeaten Mexican Triple Crown winner Kukulkan adds colour. Frankie Dettori rides, but the Beyer speed figure for the horse’s recent Clasico del Caribe (Caribbean Classic) at Gulfstream suggests he might be lapped, though he did win by the length of the stretch.
Race replay: Kukulkan wins Clasico del Caribe at Gulfstream Park.
If the new Pegasus Turf Invitational was designed to attract more overseas runners, then they’ll be hoping to improve on this year’s efforts, despite one horse each from Japan (Aerolithe) and Ireland (Magic Wand) both of whom receive a 7lb weight concession for not using Lasix under welcome race conditions. Then again, though neither one can be regarded as from the top flight of their respective nations, it is early days and US-based horses Yoshida and Catapult clearly figure among the higher-profile grass performers among the domestic contingent.
And while a US fast-ground turf race in January may always be a hard sell, the $7m prize fund might focus a few European minds in the not-too-distant future.
What is more, further changes are afoot, with possibly a fillies’ race on the agenda, according to Tim Ritvo, the Stronach Group’s chief operating officer. “This is an evolving thing,” Ritvo told Thoroughbred Racing Commentary. “It’s only three years old, not 100 years like the Triple Crown, or 35 like the Breeders’ Cup.
“We feel really good about this series, and what it will look like 25 years from now will probably be totally different than what we are looking at today. Eventually we’ll get to the right formula.”
In the meantime, even if the Pegasus can be regarded as a work in progress, that won’t stop Gulfstream hosting a compelling card at the weekend. Don’t miss it.