By Ed McNamara
Like many front-runners, Knicks Go is an all-or-nothing proposition. As a 2-year-old, he wired the Breeders‘ Futurity by 5 1/2 lengths at odds of 70-1 and ran second at 40-1 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Then the potential star turned into a nobody, losing his next nine races. Out of desperation, owner Korea Racing Authority replaced Ben Colebrook with Brad Cox, which has worked out well.
After going 2-for-14 for Colebrook, Knicks Go became a world-beater. The 6-year-old gray streak is 8-for-10 under Cox, one of America’s elite trainers, and will be voted Horse of the Year and top older male at the Eclipse Awards ceremony on Feb. 10. He’s the 6-5 morning-line favorite for Saturday’s $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park, and the defending champion probably will be 3-5 by post time.
He’s 4-for-5 at 1 1/8 miles, the Pegasus distance, and 8-for-8 around two turns since joining Cox late in 2019. This will be his last race before he heads off to stud, and Cox expects a grand finale.
“He certainly seems like he hasn’t regressed one step from the Breeders’ Cup Classic,” he said. “We’re in good shape.”
A possible issue for jockey Joel Rosario will be having to break from the rail, which Knicks Go hasn’t done in his last 11 races. A slow start could alter the race scenario. His only real rival is 7-5 second choice Life Is Good, who drew post 4. From there, Irad Ortiz, Jr. can play the break and decide whether he wants to try to outrun Knicks Go, which could be suicidal, or stalk, which also might backfire.
“We’ve got to get away cleanly,” trainer Todd Pletcher said, “but our horse has always been a good gate horse, and if he does, we should be in good shape.”
The 4-year-old son of hot sire Into Mischief never has gone 1 1/8 miles, but he cruised by eight lengths last winter in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe Stakes, and he’s 2-for-2 going two turns. The extra 110 yards shouldn’t be an issue, unless the fractions get crazy, and they could.
Life Is Good is a major talent, only a neck shy of being 6-for-6 lifetime. Blame Mike Smith’s overconfident ride in the Grade 1 Allen Jerkens at Saratoga. That error cost Smith the mount, and Life Is Good is 2-for-2 by a total of 11 1/4 lengths for Ortiz. He’s also a need-to-lead type, having been in front throughout his five wins. Two superstars with the same style — now that’s exciting.
“We’re not really going to deviate from what we’ve done in the past,” Cox said. “Life Is Good is a very fast, brilliant horse. We’re not going to let him have his own way, and I think he’s probably not going to let us have our own way.
“We’re going to be very aggressive. We’re just going to come out of there running and see what happens.”
There’s always the chance that the favorites will cook each other and set it up for a longshot closer. On paper, Sir Winston (12-1) appears to be the most likely candidate, although he hasn’t done much since his upset in the 2019 Belmont Stakes. But realistically, it’s all about the top two.
Before I saw his rather puny 7-5 odds, I was strongly considering a win bet on Life Is Good. I was hoping for at least 5-2. But my gut feeling is that Knicks Go can withstand a hot pace better, and his late-pace figures are superior to the challenger’s. As long as Knicks Go breaks well, I think he’ll go out on top.
The Grade 1 Pegasus tops a seven-stakes extravaganza, and here are my takes on the undercard.
Always Shopping (4) is 4-for-6 at Gulfstream, likes marathons and won this race last year. However, she’s lost six of seven since then, and I’m leery about taking her at a short price. Beautiful Lover (6) finished ahead of Always Shopping at 1 1/2 miles in November but was three lengths behind her when an even third last time. I think Beautiful Lover can move up in her second race off a short layoff. Use both in multiple-race wagers.
Abaan (10) led throughout a stakes at 2 miles and can do it again. Temple (1) likes Gulfstream (4-for-12) and was second in this stamina test last year. Glynn County (9) has run well against better and is solid at the distance.
Just One Time (8) is quick early and gets bonus points for her first-time connections, Cox and Rosario. Defending champ Pacific Gale (6) will be fully cranked for her career-ending race. She’ll be coming on late. The 5-year-old Four Graces (5) looked like a star in the making at 3 but is in an 0-for-4 slide.
$500,000 Pegasus World Cup Filly and Mare Turf, 1 1/16 miles, 4 and up fillies and mares
Deserving favorite Regal Glory (4) can lead or stalk, finishes well and gets class relief. Nicest (7) performed respectably against standouts across the Atlantic last year. She turns back in distance for the sharp Michael McCarthy and is eligible to improve in the third start off a layoff. Sweet Melania (1) is a must for trifecta plays but shapes up as an underlay in the win pool.
Regal Glory 2. Nicest 3. Sweet Melania
Strong closer Fearless (1) is 4-for-5 at Gulfstream and should get solid fractions to set him up. He’ll need his A-game to catch Speaker’s Corner (8), a Godolphin-Bill Mott production who could win and is must-use on all tickets. Dennis’ Moment (7) was a 2-year-old phenom before losing six of his next seven. Ran well in his last two, and the distance suits him.
$1,000,000 Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational (G1), 1 1/8 miles, 4-year-olds and up
The surging Never Surprised (12) has enough speed to clear from the far outside into the turn and never look back in a very contentious Pegasus Turf. Positives: Blowout wins in his last two races, two close seconds against multiple-stakes winner Public Sector. Negatives: It’s his first time facing older, 0-for-3 in graded stakes.
I’m not sure whether defending champ Colonel Liam (6) is what he used to be. The 3-1 morning-line favorite could win again or struggle in his first run since June. I’m going to oppose him in favor of stablemate Never Surprised, and I may regret it.
March to the Arch (4), a live longshot (20-1), is 2-for-5 at Gulfstream and 3-for-6 at 9 furlongs. California shipper Hit the Road (5), a mile specialist, zipped his final furlong in 23 seconds in his last three. Will going 1 1/8 miles for the first time blunt his late kick?
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.