By Ed McNamara
It was a great idea: an eight-figure stakes at sunny Gulfstream Park in late January, when not much was happening in racing. It was an instant hit.
The inaugural Pegasus World Cup Invitational in 2017 was riveting, featuring two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome against Arrogate, winner of the Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Arrogate’s late surge nailed Chrome in the Classic, but the rematch was a mismatch. Arrogate coasted by 4 3/4 lengths while the Chromies’ hero backpedaled to ninth, beaten 29 1/2 lengths. That was California Chrome’s only loss in eight starts in 2016, but the Pegasus proved Arrogate was America’s best horse.
Gun Runner, the 2017 Horse of the Year, dominated the 2018 Pegasus by 2 1/2 lengths in a fitting career finale. The next year, City of Light won a ho-hum renewal in the slop, and last year’s Pegasus also was uninspiring. Mucho Gusto, with only a Grade 3 win on his resume, cruised by 4 1/2 lengths over a field diluted by the scratches of favorites Omaha Beach and Spun to Run.
Saturday’s fifth running drew a solid but unspectacular group, led by two-time Grade 1 winners Knicks Go and Code of Honor. After that there’s no star quality, and for a $3 million race, we deserve better. Too bad Authentic and Tiz the Law (both retired), Maxfield (illness) and Charlatan (pointed for the $20 million Saudi Cup) couldn’t make it. If even two of those four were running Saturday, that would have been exciting, but so it goes.
The most likely scenario: Knicks Go goes wire to wire, as he did while setting a Keeneland record of 1:33 4/5 in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. It’s his first try at 9 furlongs, so he’s no lock, although going against a peaking Brad Cox horse is dangerous.
Unless Knicks Go (post 4, 5-2 favorite) and Joel Rosario have problems getting out of the gate, the lead should be there for the taking. No one else has the early-pace figs to go with him. Forget that Knicks Go has never run 1 1/8 miles, because he won by 10 lengths at 1 1/16 miles this past fall at Keeneland, so the extra 110 yards should be no problem if he gets his projected, loose-on-the-lead trip.
He’s been working brilliantly at the Fair Grounds, and don’t worry that he’s never run at Gulfstream. Unlike quirky Churchill Downs or deep Belmont Park, Gulfstream isn’t the type of surface that often poses problems for first-timers there. If you can get 5-2 on him, jump on it, but you won’t. I think he could go as low as 8-5, which still might turn out to be a short-priced overlay.
Code of Honor (9-2 second favorite) is a money burner who’s hard to trust. Post 10 is no bargain for a closer who keeps finding ways to get into trouble. It would be no shock if he got bottled up again and got loose too late. Tax (5-1) likes 1 1/8 miles (two wins, two seconds in seven tries) and is a must-use for exotics, as is deep closer Jesus’ Team.
$1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational, 4-year-olds and up, 1 3/16 miles
Here’s an intriguing betting race with many ways to go. There will be plenty of spraying around in a field with lots of evenly matched contenders.
Colonel Liam (post 5, 7-2 favorite) is the best closer and 2-for-3 on grass. He’s proven he can handle 1 3/16 miles, even though he ran fourth in his only start at the distance. Despite a bad start, he was only three-quarters of a length behind Chad Brown’s outstanding Domestic Spending in a $500,000 Saratoga stakes. (Domestic Spending won his next start, the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby.) If Irad Ortiz, Jr. can work out a trip, as he usually does, Colonel Liam will score in his graded-stakes debut.
He’s one of three trained by Todd Pletcher, who could have the race surrounded. Largent (post 6, 9-2 second choice) is 6-for-9 on grass, including 4-for-5 at Gulfstream, and easily could win. The third Pletcher is Social Paranoia (8-1). Post 12 looks like the main hurdle for a horse who is best at shorter distances but has won at 1 5/16 miles and been second at 1 3/16.
The longshot I like best is 15-1 Pixelate (post 10), who in his last two starts closed in 23 1/5 seconds at a mile (he won) and in 11 2/5 seconds at 1 1/8 (fourth by a length). I’ll bet Colonel Liam and him to win and box them in exactas.
- Colonel Liam 2. Pixelate 3. Largent
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.